The Duel on the Creek… and other tales of Victorian New Zealand
Ray Hargreaves and Peter Holland (eds)
University of Otago Press, $24.95
In the hastily constructed miners huts, over the elegant drawing room tea‑cups, around the boiling billy, in the kitchen or the office, the nineteenth century English‑speaking settlers engaged in that very human activity, yarning and gossiping. Tales were told that established identity, created mythologies, claimed the new place as home. What did they yarn about? Judging by the selection in Ray Hargreaves’ and Peter Holland’s anthology The Duel on the Creek, one of the main themes was getting the better over someone, pulling the wool over their eyes, a prank that made someone look foolish, a swindle that removed the gold from their purse, or larrikins thumbing their nose at authority. Two detectives are roughed up by their intended captive and his mates. Con‑men outdo one another. Stolen gold is not where it is supposed to be hidden. Such tales were antipodean Huck Finn escapades ‑ the genre though not the style. In a precarious environment, cunning is a key to survival.
Of course the anthologists will have chosen stories which reflect their predilections. Both geographers, they admit an interest in the impact of the settlers upon the environment (and vice versa). They also admit that they “excluded those tales wherein the chief character dies in the last scene, typically after performing some brave act, or where the deep‑dyed villain repents before going with an easy heart to his maker”. Judging by the number of times those two themes emerged in the nineteenth‑century New Zealand verse I researched for my historical anthology, that would be a large percentage.
The title piece, and the earliest published in the anthology, “The Duel On the Creek”, is very representative. On a dull Christmas Eve two men fight a duel. One pretends to be mortally wounded. In the midst of his hilarity he is told that the apparently successful duellist has hung himself in remorse. But all’s well that ends well. “Well, well, Joe, you and 1 have both been made fools of; but let’s have a drink and say nothing more about it.” Matesmanship and booze, the stuff of many of our legends.
In “The Silver Lining Claim”, two miners, Adam Jellicoe and Barney Ryan salt their duffer mine. Taken in, a Celestial (a Chinese) buys it to the glee of the township. But the laughter quickly stops when the Celestial’s purchase turns out to have a rich silver lode. Quickly the townspeople form a company to buy back the mine. Once they take occupation ‑ the Chinaman hastily departed ‑ they find the silver too had been planted. A good winter’s tale often has a trick within a trick ‑ the surprise ending. A good talester explodes that ending. This story attributed to W W Stephens is typical, though he signals the ending rather heavy-handedly along the way.
Another mining yarn, this time by James Philp, illustrates the same theme ‑ also the overblown style: “the columnar kauri trees, festooned with rata vine, the sweet odour of the flowering tauwhara and the resinous scent of the miro berries, the bell‑like note of the parson bird and the hoarse ‘gaw‑gaw’ of the monster parrot mingled with the musical plashing of a hundred waterfalls, suggesting rather a haunt of Diana rather than the man‑burgled entrance to a treasure‑trove of Pluto”. Listing exotica is a common characteristic of colonial writing. It represents the excitement of the new environment, plus an attempt to convey the alien new land to the folks at home.
In Philp’s yarn, published 1899, the mine company plans to use carrier pigeons to make a killing on the stock market. A rival group, led by “Centipede” Wakefield, learn the plan, switch to its own pigeons and, having driven the price down with false information, buy cheap ‑ which means the rewards of the new reef go to them and not to the original swindlers. “The Hon George Tattam is now a member of the Upper House and when Sir Archibald Wakefield received his KCMG he instructed his secretary to get him one of them there coats of arms fixed up and to make ’em shove a pigeon on one side and a centipede on the other.” During the mid-1980s, almost 100 years later, the same tricks continued to be played on our sharemarket. Present writers complained about it over dinner parties but wrote very little about it.
Although they delighted in the trickery, the nineteenth-century writers tend to the moralistic. Not all, however. In F Rollet’s “A Trick in Gum”, two disgruntled diggers swindle an Austrian (a Dalmatian) by sinking the boat they are sharing in a mangrove swamp, only to retrieve it at low tide to steal his gum. The unspoken assumption, of course, is that the Austrian as a foreigner is therefore fair game. More representative is Louisa Alice Baker’s “The New Barmaid”. A young wife is tired of her husband having “a great liking for the company of barmaids”. She gets a job as one. Hector, hearing of the new “stunner”, hurried off to the Cosmopolitan. “One long look into the big grey eyes of his wife and pale as death he strode forward, sweeping the fellow who held his wife’s hand away like a baby.” When he gets her home, he remonstrates. She repeats back to him his own words about how harmless flirting with a barmaid is. The story ends in reconciliation. “‘I wanted to show you that you loved me more than the most fascinating barmaid on earth, and in your heart of hearts prized modesty and purity as every man must who loves a true wife’… ‘I have learned my lesson,’ said Hector humbly.”
Despite the idealism, life in the young settlement was tough and dangerous. Tough, in that it was hard labour and the mortgage man lurked just around the corner. Dangerous, in that nature was never subdued. Historian Rollo Arnold has well described New Zealand burning in the 1880s. B Murdoch’s yarn “Won Through Fire” illustrates this era and the experience. Hearing of the news of the bushfires, a city clerk returns in the nick of time to save his country sweetheart from the conflagration. There are yarns about floods and rising tides, but no tales of sea voyaging ‑ these are frontier yarns, not arrival stories. There are also human fears. A young serving woman left alone in a country parsonage hears an intruder. She feigns death, successfully, to avoid him. Later, they meet and fall in love. (There is a lot of falling in love in these yarns ‑ marriage bells, or the prospect thereof, provide a satisfying conclusion to a story.)
Despite the bravado of the raconteurs, the lush bush descriptions, and the attempts to assimilate it by peopling it with Greek mythological figures, one senses in these tales the fear and the loneliness. “The whistle sounds, you put your head in again and the train steams slowly out while the passengers wonder what good the train has done by stopping and the station-hand rides off, leaving the wayside station to solitude once again.” “A more dreary and desolate tract of country than that on which the gum camp was situated it would be hard to find.” ‘Everything about it was horribly new, the macrocarpa trees had barely taken root; the house and sheds stood out with unpicturesque distinctiveness and in the future flower garden was a tough crop of silver tussock.”
There is one suffragette story, by William Satchell, but women in these tales tend to be portrayed as either young beauties or old viragos. If European, the beauties have a tendency to faint (at the right time, one just after winning the race on her hero’s horse) but not all, like the one quick-wittedly pretending to be a corpse. “Half‑wild” non‑European women are often naked and athletic, “cleverly she breasted the rollers”. Maori men are usually presented as the noble savage ‑ strong and wise in their knowledge of the environment and the supernatural. The land wars feature only in one story and that as background to a ghost tale. It would be wrong to generalise too much from a selection of tales, but in them Maori are portrayed as commendable human beings.
So far I have responded to these fascinating stories by seeing them in their historical context. Part of our narrative, they reveal much about the origins of today’s culture. Their clichés and slang were closer to the language of my 1940s childhood than the present global mass media world I inhabit. For that matter, so too, probably, was their morality.
But they are fascinating in another sense. There are 23 stories. Two were published in the 1870s, four in the 1880s and the remainder, except for one lone exhibit from 1900, in the 1890s. In my nineteenth‑century New Zealand English verse search the same pattern emerged. I suspect we underestimate how much of a flowering of the literary arts there was in the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s. This flowering is illustrated by the wide variety of press sources for these stories: Otago Witness (4), Bulletin (4), Zealandia (1), Press (2), Auckland Weekly News (1), Southern Mercury (1), New Zealand Herald (1), New Zealand Farmer (1), Cornhill Magazine (2) and Cosmos (1). Obviously the short story writer had a market in those times. Only two of the tales were from published volumes, “The Two Detectives” by William Davidson in Stories of New Zealand Life, and the anonymous “The Experiences of Uncle Paul Fry”, collected in Dominican Star, vol 2. Depression ending, refrigeration offering export hopes, the reforming Liberals in power, the first phase of settlement completed, the stories reflect a time of expansion and hope.
Despite the flowery prose, I enjoyed these tales from a teenage colony. Some of the plots are very good. Almost all display a refreshing innocence and naivety in style and narrative. The humour tends to the slapstick, but is often underpinned by social comment, whether articulated or not. However, the writers in this selection are rarely judgemental, that besetting sin of so much Victorian writing. There is no cynicism and little negativity. Angst had not yet been invented and gloom had been left behind in. the Old Country. The line leads on to Denis Glover and Barry Crump. They are yarns our pakeha ancestors wrote and read and Hargreaves and Holland are to be congratulated for having rescued them. It’s like finding old equipment in the barn loft, it tells of bygone effort and success. Amidst all the technology of the present world it points to an apparently simpler age. The television game shows of “The Joke’s On You” variety suggest that we continue to laugh at the gullibility of the human species; it reflects our own superiority.
Harvey McQueen is a Wellington writer and anthologist.