North and south, Paul Moon

Te Wiremu – Henry Williams: Early Years in the North
Caroline Fitzgerald (ed)
Huia, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869694395

 

John Larkins Cheese Richardson: “The Gentlest, Bravest and Most Just of Men”
Olive Trotter
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877578014

 

For those inclined to trivia (and some historians occasionally fall into this category), Henry Williams is – as far as I can tell – the only historical New Zealand figure whose writings have appeared in collections spanning three centuries, published respectively by Hugh Carleton (1874-7), Lawrence Rogers (1961) and, now, Caroline Fitzgerald (2011). This lasting interest in Williams is most likely attributable to his role in translating the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and to a lesser degree in his taking over the management of the Anglican mission in New Zealand from the mid-1820s, after years of stifling governance by Marsden. His life before becoming a missionary – especially the nine years he spent in the Royal Navy – was probably just as interesting, though much less well documented.

Carleton’s two-volume work, The Life of Henry Williams, Archdeacon of Waimate, ostensibly set out to be a biography of his father-in-law, but ended up as an annotated and sometimes idiosyncratic collection of the missionary’s letters and journals. Rogers’s book – The Early Journals of Henry Williams – covered the period 1826-1840, and was a much more academically rigorous piece of editing, with attention paid exclusively to Williams’s journals, supplemented by extensive explanatory footnotes. So given this considerable published output of Williams’s correspondence and diaries (numbering around 1200 pages of text), could there be justification for another collection of Four-eyes’ writings? (Karuwha – Four-eyes – was the nickname given to Williams by Maori in Northland).

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because Fitzgerald sometimes combines journal entries with exchanges of correspondence between Williams and some of his colleagues and family, and occasionally intersperses these with her own text in order to offer context to a particular discussion or circumstance. This is where her book is at its best. She sets scenes unobtrusively, and then lets the words of Williams and his contemporaries tell the story. One of the difficulties in this approach, however, is the lack of letters to complement the journal entries, with the former sometimes appearing like mere appendages to the latter. The decision to include three poems Williams wrote was an insightful one, though. Williams was no Milton, but these early attempts at conveying sentiment through verse expose a side of the missionary to the reader that is not revealed to anywhere near the same extent in his day-to-day jottings.

Huia also deserves credit for its close attention to the layout of Fitzgerald’s book, which makes the material much easier to read than many other published collections of documents. Also, the illustrations are well-selected and beautifully reproduced. For anyone wanting an introduction to the early period of Henry Williams’s career in New Zealand, and an impression of Northland during this time, this book is ideally suited.

On the debit side, too much of the material in Fitzgerald is identical to that in Rogers. At a rough calculation, more than half of the content is identical to the portions of Williams’s journal in Rogers’s volume. This is understandable if not reasonable in so far as Fitzgerald is using the journals as part of a broader project, incorporating correspondence, to flesh out something of Williams’s character through his writings. However, the preponderance of so much that is already published in another work does not give Fitzgerald much scope to present anything substantially new to readers. There are also odd irregularities that niggle. As one example, on 3 January 1832 there is an entry with a slight but unexplained abridgement. Fitzgerald excludes the phrase “Slept but little. Morng. Cloudy, appearance of wind from N.W.” (which is in the Rogers), before transcribing word-for-word the remainder of the entry. The reason for this omission is unclear, especially as in most other entries in Fitzgerald, Williams’s similarly brief details about the weather are left in the text. Either a certain category of material is systematically excluded, or some explanation is provided to the reader for why this particular segment was not included. And whatever the reason, an ellipsis indicating an omission would be helpful. These concerns aside, Te Wiremu – Henry Williams: Early Years in the North is a useful book for anyone keen on an insight into the tribulations (and too few triumphs) of missionary life in the 1820s and 1830s.

It was a younger and less circumspect Atareta Poananga who once suggested that during the 19th-century, New Zealand was peopled by “flotsam and jetsam” from Britain. We certainly received our fair share of rogues, but what of the “good guys”? Olive Trotter’s biography of Sir John Richardson is a refreshing antidote to any assertion that New Zealand was somehow a colonial dumping ground for the Mother Country’s surplus population.

Richardson, whom Trotter fairly describes as “educated, articulate and dignified”, was one of many settlers who came to New Zealand in the mid-19th century with the intention to bring about improvement to the nation. The belief in British rule as a force for good was in Richardson’s bloodstream, and was evident in so much of his political career. He pursued “settlement as a passion”, for example, and Trotter has thankfully accepted this type of benign imperial ambition in her subject with no evident desire to conform to the current fad for condemning individuals of this period who were so inclined. She may not have come to praise Richardson, but Trotter certainly betrays no desire to bury him either, especially for the values he displayed which were broadly considered acceptable at the time. No doubt some future academic might wish to sit in judgment on Richardson, but Trotter’s contextualising of her subject in the time in which he lived is all that is necessary to reconstruct the essence of the man.

Richardson’s role in the formative years of the Otago Provincial Council, succeeded by his election to the House of Representatives and then appointment to the Legislative Council, is followed closely by Trotter, but never pedantically so. She has a deft touch when it comes to balancing her material. Each political setting in which Richardson arrived is usually explained in a very concise manner – detailed enough to convey its essence, but never so overbearing that the subject is submerged under a mass of political analysis. And throughout the book, the reader is left in no doubt that Richardson is the sole focus of the work. Every person or circumstance he encountered is portrayed by Trotter as though from Richardson’s personal perspective, rather than the bird’s-eye-view approach that some biographers favour. Such a technique has its limitations, especially if the reader desires to know more about these other characters that appear along the way, but for an understanding of the personality and motives of the subject, it is particularly effective.

This work is far more, though, than just a string of events in Richardson’s life, laid out in chronological order. At important junctures, Trotter draws the reader’s attention to some of his several personal dilemmas, such as on the issue of land sales in Otago, the growing ambivalence he felt towards the role of Britain in New Zealand’s political and religious life, and his largely illogical fear that foreign powers might have an interest in seizing New Zealand. Trotter notes, for example, how Richardson’s stiffly Anglican upbringing sometimes chafed against the predominance of Presbyterians in Otago, although never to the point where any serious conflict resulted. Similarly, his championing of the right of women to attend the University of Otago (of which he was a founding member and Chancellor) saw him come into conflict with those academics who believed women’s efforts were best invested elsewhere.

There are times when some broader context would have been useful in making some of Richardson’s actions and decisions more explicable. His belief in the unending progress and improvement of the Empire clearly has its roots deep in the works of Thomas Babington Macaulay (both men had personal ties with India), yet Macaulay gets no mention. However, the occasional paucity of this sort of social and cultural background is more than compensated for by Trotter’s elegant prose, and her ability to prune away excess material and deliver to the reader a succinct rendition of Richardson’s life and career. The result is a compact yet highly engaging and coherent account of a hitherto little-known 19th-century New Zealander.

 

Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology and is currently writing a book about New Zealand in the 1820s.

 

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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