Revelling in the actuality of the past, Ralph Johnson

The House of Strife
Maurice Shadbolt,
Hodder and Stoughton, $39.95


Life is no uniform uninterrupted march or flow. It is a thing of histories, each with its own plot, its inception and movement towards its close.

– John Dewey, 1934, in G Dening, ‘The Theatricality of History Making and the Paradoxes of Acting’, Cultural Anthropology, February, 1993


A story which starts with a flagstaff crashing to the ground has everywhere to go

Shadbolt, p76


“Hone Heke’s rebellion” or the “northern war” (depending on your loyalty and vintage) possesses all the trappings of the quintessential narrative and, more than any other, has attracted armies of historical scribblers. So why has Shadbolt, a renowned and gifted story-teller, chosen to reverse chronology through his trilogy on the New Zealand wars and deal with the earliest battle, the subject of so many histories, last?

The House of Strife provides several histories (or at least stories) of the events. Several sharp military engagements, involving three separate “tribes” (Shadbolt’s words), were fought in the inland Bay of Islands between March 1845 and February 1846. Two of the three forces involved were Maori, both predominantly Nga Puhi, each with different “loyalties” to the British Crown. Hone (John) Heke Pokai (the legendary “flagstaff-feller”), together with Te Ruki Kawiti (the Duke), led a rebel confederation of subtribes asserting their rangatira tanga (chieftainship) and in disputing what they perceived as sole British sovereignty over their land.

This issue of sovereignty, enmeshed in the differing texts of the Treaty of Waitangi, was manifested foremost by the symbolism of the Union Jack alone commanding the heights from the flagstaff above Kororareka (Shadbolt’s Blackguard Beach). Against Heke stood a large group of Maori, mostly from Hokianga, headed by Tamati Waka (Thomas, not Timothy, Walker) Nene and Mohi Tawhai, who allied themselves with the Governor. As with the guerrilla campaigns of Titokowaru and Te Kooti, the subjects of Monday’s Warriors (1990) and Season of the Jew (1986), many of the crucial battles were fought between Maori, without Europeans. It was here that mana, whakapapa and traditional grievances and alliances were decided. Although battles of this sort at Te Ahuahu and Waikare were mentioned by Shadbolt, more could perhaps have been made of them.

The most illuminating and revolutionary of previous histories on the subject is James Belich’s The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (1986). Shadbolt, like Belich and James Cowan (1922) before him, has sought to include John Heke’s story, together with later battles of the 1860s and early 1870s, under the title “New Zealand wars”. But do the location, timing and circumstances of the northern war fit into such an ensemble? In terms of a British campaign history it does, but from a perspective such as Nga Puhi’s, it appears discrete. For all that, Shadbolt’s trilogy is suitably unified.

A common thread suggested by Shadbolt for the three works is “the strangest war that was ever carried on”. Ample situations and caricatures support this theme. Season of the Jew, Monday’s Warriors and now House of Strife all relate elements of the unexpected in these cultural encounters. In particular, Shadbolt’s treatment of prophecy and omen (both Maori and Pakeha) is fascinating.

One amusing yet loaded situation occurred at the battle of Mawhe (though Shadbolt leaves it nameless). Maori loyalist warriors, upon discovering that each soldier carried a stretcher (kauhoa) for fellow casualties, interpreted this European provision as a Maori omen calling for “death and destruction” upon the soldiers and refused to join the fracas. This incident was reported at length by F E Maning in Heke’s War in the North and has been used well by Shadbolt.

For those of a more romantic bent there is Shadbolt’s masterful scene echoing Coleridge, featuring Major Cyprian Bridge (a key historical figure) standing on the foredeck of the Integrity, a convict ship in the south seas, potting albatrosses and casting rueful remarks about the nature of honour and humanitarianism ‑ a scene which reminds us of Shadbolt’s sharp wit and stiletto irony. “…It don’t pay to ask questions. Not about where yarns come from or who spins them.”

The House of Strife is presented through the memoirs of a south seas adventure novelist. The narrator, well advanced in dotage, with the eyeglass of hindsight and many a ruby glass of sherry, retells the story of John Heke through the experiences of his youthful self.

Do Shadbolt’s deliberate efforts to undermine this account deprive us of any historical reliability? I think Shadbolt intends the reader to think about the flawed nature of any so-called “authentic” manuscript. He also wishes to draw the emphasis away from the shadows of history, to focus on the fact that what is presented is a story.

But whose story is it? After all, whose story are we qualified to tell, if not our own? Ferdinand Wildblood, the storyteller, announces early that it is “true that other hands have been at work before me… I am not here, you understand, to be edifying … my modest ambition is to see my own [story] in fetching shape” (p155). The structure of the narrative appears to confirm this. Most chapters are prefaced by the thought and speech of the narrator.

On the other hand, John Heke is pre-eminent: “The first time I saw John Heke he was no disappointment … he rose shadowy out of New Zealand forest on a misty midwinter morning” (p1). It is the character of Heke which constantly clears the mist of memory and the shadows of history to “let truth make a showing”. The themes of visibility/ invisibility, as well as silence and audibility, appear centred round the character of Heke: “He is noise.” Wildblood attaches himself to Heke to record his story. Heke has been continually portrayed as the archetypal rebel who, in the British view, incited the entire conflict.

Yet Shadbolt manipulates Heke’s story in new directions. Te Ruki Kawiti, the Ngati Hine chief and key ally of Heke, is portrayed as having a story at least equal to that of Heke’s. Following Belich’s treatise, Shadbolt has also looked to explain the successful Maori military strategy and technique as more a result of Kawiti’s experience and action than Heke’s. Shadbolt seems convinced that the imbalance was greater and sets about sketching Heke as younger and less experienced than was likely. However, this is not to alter the fact that in Shadbolt’s eyes “John Heke, without putting pen to paper, made off with the Duke’s tale”.

Nene is another whose story revolves around and is impinged on by Heke. As leader of those Maori who decided their best interests lay in defending the position of the British Crown and particularly the Treaty of Waitangi, Nene is a crucial figure. His guiding and teaching the British troops to adapt in the face of Maori strategies and notions of warfare were of great help to the British.

Despite this, Shadbolt’s blanket assertion that “there was no Maori more possessed of rank and respect in the north” is highly contentious. So, too, is the comment: “Nothing would enrage Nene more than Heke promising to usurp his prestige in these [Bay of Island] parts”.

Nene was actually a Ngati Hao chief of the upper Hokianga, not the inland Bay of Islands, which was Heke’s domain among others. Therefore, it was Heke rather than Nene who was likely to have felt he was being invaded. Such was the case with the battle between Heke and Nene at Te Ahuahu. Still, it is not my intention to argue over the shadows of history as much as it is to point out Shadbolt’s clever piece of shadow-puppetry in presenting a collection of stories inside a “history” of Heke’s war.

The House of Strife, therefore, appears more about the process of writing histories than either of its two predecessors. From an historian’s perspective, historical fiction is troublesome. While historians labour under the strictures of historical source material, which restricts what they are able to read or hear, authors of historical fiction are able to give free reign to their historical imagination, to the extent that characters and events can be altered or even erased, if purpose suits. What are the claims to historical accuracy?

The northern war affords much less freedom to manoeuvre than Titokowaru’s resistance or Te Kooti’s campaign because of the wealth of published and unpublished sources. There is less “vacuum”, to use W H Oliver’s phrase, for the historical imagination to operate. All the major European-Maori engagements are included, though one of the four flagstaff axings is absent. The deliberate choice of an ending which has been discredited historically serves Shadbolt’s purposes well. It highlights, however, the difficult territory of historical fiction.

“I know what inky historians will [say]. In setting this down … it is not my intention to sacrifice good drinking time merely to corroborate the lacklustre fancies of others” (p41). Cause and effect hold little interest for Wildblood. Indeed, it is noted wryly that “authors are an unreliable breed”. Though historical novels may appear awkward in terms of status and reliability when compared with conventional histories, they provide much imaginative insight and historical ethos. A good example is Shadbolt’s cleverly reworked description of Colonel Despard’s crusade to find renegade Americans whom, in Despard’s view, were responsible for the Maori military achievement at Ohaeawai; echoes of Kimble Bent and the “treason-loving Yankees”.

It is also important to ask who owns history. Can stories simply be used for present benefit? Shadbolt broaches the question but cannot avoid it himself. The narrator heavily plagiarises the manuscript of a south seas adventurer with dramatic consequences. Neither is “plagiarism” unique to literate societies, as Heke shows by appropriating the Duke’s story.

Yet, whether writing history or historical fiction, there is a responsibility to the living descendants of characters, as well as a duty to the dead. “Storytellers are precious … they keep treasure safe” (p55). From a European historian’s perspective Shadbolt manages this relatively well. His research and understanding are typically thorough and incisive. However, descendants of the notable Nga Puhi chief Pene Taui might be disturbed to read Shadbolt’s fusing of historical actors and agency, which gives Kawiti the sole credit for the construction and defence of Ohaeawai Pa. The unnecessary avoidance of Maori words inside the text is also disappointing. Virtually all European observers employed Maori terms such as mana, pa or the Maori place names to describe culturally unfamiliar concepts.

Shadbolt is persuasive. This is the acid test for historical fiction; there are some compelling passages of “thick description”, as, for example, in his informed treatment of flagstaffs and flags. Whether Heke saw grievance in the pole or the colours is the subject of much debate among historians and anthropologists and Shadbolt deals with it deftly. Flags were used by Maori and pakeha with different meanings throughout the conflict, not simply at the outset: Shadbolt handles this recurring motif well.

Wildblood’s inability to translate Maori allegory is in a similar style to Maning’s in Old New Zealand, which raises the question of what Maning might have made of Shadbolt’s account. The two histories breathe a similar understanding of many events. It is apparent Shadbolt has turned frequently to Maning’s History of the War in the North of New Zealand against the Chief Heke. Maning’s unique account, regarded by some as more fiction than history and therefore potentially dangerous to historians, serves Shadbolt’s purposes beautifully. There might be much agreement between Wildblood and Maning as translator for his “old Ngapuhi chief”.

Could more have been made of cultural counterfeiters? Maori adopt things European. Heke, we hear, sleeps with the adventure yarns penned by the narrator under his pillow. Angela, Wildblood’s Maori wife, makes her way admirably in aristocratic circles in Europe. Where are the Europeans who aspire to acquire things Maori? The narrator seems to resist such influences, despite inhabiting the “interior” of New Zealand with a Maori wife, being allied to Hone Heke and working as a Maori translator. Surely this interrelationship represents more than the narrator’s intended English audience. Similarly, Shadbolt notifies us of Governor FitzRoy’s decision to place a bounty of £100 on Heke but not of Heke’s similar offer of reward for FitzRoy.

Shadbolt is dealing with weighty issues related to the making of “history” and the relationship of history and fiction. But to question whether Shadbolt has been authentic is to miss the vital strength of his novel: accessible and persuasive theatre in a rebellious trilogy. Let readers revel in the actuality of the past.


Ralph Johnson is an assistant lecturer in history at Auckland University.


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