Writing us up, Tom Brooking

Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, 1809-1900
Lydia Wevers
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 186940271S

New Zealand’s extreme isolation has always made it 
attractive to travellers. As the most remote destination on the globe it has always held a certain exotic allure. In addition, its spectacular and diverse scenery, especially the thermal wonders of the central North Island and the majesty of the Southern Alps, added spice. The timing of New Zealand’s rediscovery by Europe played its part in attracting both travellers and travel writers because both thermal areas and mountains, once rejected as dangerous and unpleasant places, had become very fashionable by 1800.

In an age of rapidly increasing literacy and much improved shipping, travellers generated a vast number of words about this late addition to the tourist circuit. Unsurprisingly this genre has been seized upon by both postcolonial theorists and so-called “new imperial” historians as a key window on the ways in which the West viewed the rest of the world and set about absorbing newly discovered lands and peoples into vast empires. Yet, until now, scholars interested in New Zealand history have largely ignored this valuable source of information on attitudes and perspectives held by the coloniser.
Lydia Wevers has responded to this serious lack by writing a scholarly, thoughtful and serious book analysing this large body of material held in our excellent libraries. Her new book is a most useful companion volume to her earlier Travelling to New Zealand: An Oxford Companion (2000), which annotated more than 700 separate sources. Wevers discusses and unpacks this rich material in eight closely argued chapters as she moves systematically through the topic in both chronological and thematic fashion.

The first chapter, intriguingly entitled “Captain Ceroni’s Watch”, discusses very early reactions to “savage” New Zealand. The notorious Boyd incident of 1809, when a northern branch of Nga Puhi “massacred” and ate English sailors for breaching tapu, attracted much infamy. One explanation proffered for this incident was that Captain Ceroni brought trouble on both Maori and visitors by dropping his watch into the Whangaroa harbour. This explanation attributed to local Maori participants, gained greater credence as time went by, especially amongst Sydney-based journalists and the writers of pamphlets in London, Calcutta, and Edinburgh.

Interestingly, the retaliation of these sailors (who then destroyed a Maori village whose residents had nothing to do with the incident) received scant attention. Over time the story came to be presented in an increasingly melodramatic and mythological manner so that Wevers concludes that the telling of the Boyd incident ended up somewhere between “fairy tale and good business practice”. In the process the constant retelling of the incident put New Zealand on the map and subjected the country to conquest by the written word. Equally importantly, the story helped attract the attention of those other great purveyors of the word –missionaries.

Wevers moves next to the energetic missionary printer and botanist William Colenso. She argues convincingly that his botanical reports constituted a very important contribution to colonisation. Following the lead of Edward Said and other postcolonial theorists, Weavers suggests that gathering knowledge about new countries made the business of colonisation much easier. Furthermore, reports on the botany of New Zealand to scientists in London linked New Zealand more firmly into the networks of empire. Colenso also provided detailed reports on the customs of Maori which helped Colonial Office administrators calculate how they might rule persons of such obvious military capacity. She concludes that Colenso thereby acted as an agent for much larger forces which would transform both the New Zealand environment and its indigenous people.

Her account becomes more systematically thematic thereafter. The tales of sons of wealthy “swells”, such as Augustus Earle and Edward Markham, engaged in a 19th-century form of OE, are described and analysed to show how New Zealand became understood as an exciting place for gung ho young adventurers. Wevers’ analysis then shifts attention to travellers representing such key interest groups as the Church, the military, and the New Zealand Company. Each group of writers deliberately exaggerated the problems and resources of both new land and its people for their own purposes. Missionary writers portrayed Maori as so debased and fallen as to require immediate rescue; military men praised their warlike nature to enhance their own deeds in combating the native warriors; and New Zealand Company associates puffed up New Zealand’s potential in the manner of modern real estate agents to attract immigrants and investment.

A discussion of famous writers, whether politicians such as Charles Dilke, historians such as James Anthony Froude, or novelists like Anthony Trollope, follows. This group played a key role in shaping Britons’ view of their new colony. Their opinionated but generally enthusiastic and detailed portrayal is contrasted in chapter six with that of travellers who happened to write up their journeys around the empire. This group included several women such as Alice Frere, Miss Muller, and Mrs Howard Vincent, whose published diaries reveal much about the expectations of women of their class. Generally these people came from the well-heeled upper classes and articulated a particular view of the world in an increasingly formulaic manner. Many of their accounts soon found their way into such popular periodicals as the London Illustrated News.

Consequently, these stories, accompanied by highly stylised illustrations, soon came to shape both Britons’ views of New Zealand and, given the heavy sales of such magazines in the colony, New Zealanders’ views of themselves.

Finally, Wevers discusses the increasing com-mercialisation of tourism carried out by companies like Thomas Cook. This trend produced many more guide books, increasingly heavily illustrated with glamorous photographs on what to see, where to stay, and how to travel around the far flung colony. Soon the New Zealand Government countered with its own guide books which engaged in a hard sell of a most beautiful and remarkable colony. Wevers concludes by suggesting that despite the best efforts of the new Department of Tourism founded in 1909, the wonders of New Zealand had become somewhat exhausted by over-selling and over-writing – as well as by the opening up of more exotic locales – especially once the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 removed the centrepiece of the Pink and White Terraces.
Negative stereotypes of indolent Maori also began to rankle with would-be tourists, many of whom seemed to prefer to read about these increasingly exhausted wonders from the comfort of their homes in London and the Home Counties rather than undertaking a tiring journey to see them for themselves. In sum, this large literature imprinted particular images in the minds of metropolitan readers and made New Zealand into a quintessential part of their 
imperial world, exotic enough to be exciting, but familiar enough to belong to them.

Wevers’ scholarly approach makes for an interesting if at times challenging read. The excellently chosen illustrations break up the text nicely and add much to the reader’s enjoyment. On balance, Wevers has made a major contribution to our historical literature, and the book is impressive in the way in which it makes sense of such a vast quantity of slippery and difficult material. Her pioneering work constitutes an excellent start to a whole new area of study which will hopefully spark much follow-up and reconsideration in history as well as English departments.

This follow-up could involve the search for a more nuanced reading than that provided by Said and other postcolonial theorists. A more fine-grained and less prescriptive reading should enable us to delineate more clearly what was distinctive about the New Zealand variant of the genre and how it differs from writing about, say, Australia and Canada. Further analysis of the way in which gender shaped the travellers’ gaze will deepen our understanding of what dynamics helped to differentiate traveller responses to this new land. Recent postgraduate research on settler responses to the Otago landscape suggests that class and education played a more critical role than gender, but this finding needs to be tested for the colony as a whole. There is also the matter of ethnicity. Did Scottish and Irish visitors write about their visits in the same way as English or American visitors? I suspect that they did not, given my knowledge of the Irish land radical Michael Davitt’s somewhat idiosyncratic account of his 1895 visit. Some Catholics may have also responded rather like the turbulent Italian priest Dom Felico Vaggioli. Protestants were also far from a monolithic group. How, for example, did the travel writings of Methodist missionaries differ from those of Anglican missionaries or Presbyterian divines?

Then there is the matter of reception and audience. Who read this material and how did the representations analysed so expertly here influence their thinking about New Zealand? Wevers’ stimulating book is certain to provoke many more such questions and prompt much more research in the field, a sure sign of a very successful academic book.

Tom Brooking teaches in the Department of History at the University of Otago.


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