Life in detail, Lydia Wevers

Letters from the Bay of Islands: The Story of Marianne Williams
ed Caroline Fitzgerald
Penguin, $39.95,
ISBN 0143019295

It is always the detail of the past that brings it most sharply to mind. William Colenso’s observation in the 1880s that before Europeans arrived Maori had very few means to produce the colour blue but that by the 1830s everyone at Paihia was wearing blue clothing throws that small settlement with its raupo huts into sudden focus. Similarly Caroline Fitzgerald’s publication of her great-great-grandmother’s letters is full of arresting detail allowing you to imagine how they lived, ate, travelled, sewed, cooked and longed for the company of their kin.

Marianne Williams’ letters have not been published before. Conserved by family in England to whom they were sent, they were retrieved by Marianne’s granddaughter, Hilda Williams, during WWI and brought back to New Zealand. Hilda wanted to publish them to vindicate Henry Williams from the accusations of landgrabbing which led to his dismissal from the mission at Paihia in 1850; 80-odd years later, Caroline Fitzgerald has done it for her. In her editor’s note Fitzgerald expresses the belief that the “story of British involvement with New Zealand before the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840” should be revisited in the light of these letters, and that “differences of opinion” between the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the New Zealand Company have caused “some distortion” to the early history. Exactly what this means is not elaborated. Beyond the fact that they document Henry’s and Marianne’s difficult and disturbing experiences negotiating with Maori tribal interests and practices, the letters don’t provide a view of the transactions for which Henry Williams was censured. Further, though they deliver a much more richly textured picture of early life in the Bay of Islands, I don’t think they substantively alter what we already know about the relations between the CMS and the New Zealand Company – or indeed between the missionaries and Maori. Rather the letters provide a complex, partial, often touching, material picture of how it was in 1823 when the little family of five stepped off the Brampton from Sydney onto a New Zealand beach.

The book is subtitled “The Story of Marianne Williams”, and though Marianne is the central voice and principal author of the letters contained in this collection, the many gaps in her story are patched, to some extent, with excerpts from letters by others. These include Henry Williams, his brother William and sister-in-law Jane, Samuel Marsden, F E Maning and the journals of Charles Darwin and Richard Davis. The different texts are differentiated by font and point size, so the pages literally present a patchwork effect. This has both benefits and irritations. Sometimes the story is vividly expanded, as when, on the journey out, Marianne makes a passing reference to the bad water and swarming cockroaches, but Henry adds a pungent paragraph on cockroach behaviour, noting that:

they sometimes visit us in vast numbers …. This is termed a wedding, and is a most extraordinary evolution that with one consent at the same instant of time thousands of these creatures should leave their habitations and go abroad not from one place, but from all sides of the vessel.


What is irritating, however, is when a very well known text, like Darwin’s journal or Maning’s The War in the North, is imported into the stream of Williams’ family letters in order to construct a narrative, but of what? The collection makes no formal attempt to be a history of the Williams family or of early settlement or the tribal wars and their impact on the mission or indeed a biography of Marianne and Henry, though a biographical context is given in the introduction and afterword. There are no footnotes explaining who everyone is, and no systematic explanation of what is happening, though intermittent explanations appear in italics (presumably written by the editor), about, for example, events in Kororareka in 1830. People stream in and out of the letters (all the early names of mission settlement – the Clarkes, Fairburns, Turners, Kemps,Yate, Wade, Colenso, Davis etc) in the unexplained way of personal communication, and this is their charm. But the collection as a whole both aspires to be more than a collection of letters and manages to do much less than an edited collection of letters can do, and in my view should. It is hard to imagine how a reader not pretty familiar with early New Zealand history is going to make sense of what’s going on, but it is also a shame that a great opportunity has been missed. For these letters are a treasure trove of information, and Fitzgerald is not wrong to claim their importance as documentary history. It is what has been done to make them into an historical narrative that is inadequate.

One of the striking features about the letters is the large gaps that exist in what was clearly a constant correspondence. Fitzgerald makes the point in her introduction that the actual documents are now almost impossible to read and one of the reasons is that they were written as palimpsests, with script both across and up and down the page, common practise in the 19th century owing to shortage and expense of paper. Henry notes that “all the paper put up for me was two quires” (about 50 pages), which does seem extremely meagre for a man whose profession required writing sermons and reports, and whose circumstances meant he was likely to use paper for personal reasons – leaving aside the needs of his wife. It is rather more remarkable in the circumstances that so many letters did survive and are readable at all. There are a number of references to letters lost or discovered rotting (as Henry notes in 1826) in Mr Campbell’s store in Sydney. Another lot, found by Mr Yate lying “under some heavy packages” in Campbell’s store in 1830, had written upon them “Too late for the Anne.

When letters do arrive the excitement is intense: “Jane and I have to talk about them, then the letters have to be exchanged and read soberly.” The loneliness and privations of early settlers are vividly apparent but stoically borne in Marianne’s and Jane’s letters, which make fairly light of childbirth, the intensely hard and unremitting work, scarce and infrequent supply of monotonous food, but do not smooth away the alarms and excursions of dealing with a different people and culture.

Much of the content of the letters as you would expect is focused on interactions with Maori. The culture shocks of these encounters resonate through Marianne’s descriptions, from more or less standard ideas about savages and their differences to dramatic accounts of hostilities, misunderstandings, threats and conflicts. When the Williams arrived at the Bay of Islands in August 1823, tribal politics were relatively peaceful, and the appearance of another missionary family was received mainly with interest. By January 1824, things livened up considerably when Tohitapu, a “most troublesome chief”, injured himself leaping over the paling fence enclosing the mission and demanded utu. Two days of siege followed. Tohi was joined by many others who looked to Marianne (conventionally but inevitably) like “hideous figures”, savages stripped for fighting, “stamping with a measured pace and horrid gestures”. Marianne sent Tohi a basin of tea which she watched him drink in the (forlorn) hope that it would prove a cooling draught.

What these letters do show, like many other descriptions of early encounter in New Zealand, is how quickly the terms of encounter were set. The faultline for cultural difference was pre-eminently utu, a custom which Europeans across the board found incomprehensible and alienating, and many of the Williams’ most frightening experiences resulted from utu. But there is also a running account of how the mission settlement witnessed intertribal warfare. This was no doubt a result of the volatilities of a hierarchical, chief-led society in constant competition for resources, but it was also affected by the pressures of an incoming people, whose boats, crews, settlers and culture changed the dynamics in unpredictable ways. The letters are not naive about this. Leaving aside the cultural predisposition to represent Maori as both savage and junior (there are frequent references to good behaviour), Marianne Williams is clearly aware that she is engaging with a complex social world. She notes on 13 September 1824 that “while these savage creatures are prowling about to seize anything they can secretly grasp, we [are] able to sleep in security on the ground floor, with no window shutters, and no other fastenings than a wooden button.” She reports conversations with Maori (and charmingly between her children) about such things as where spirits go after death, and though she doesn’t have a flexible view on this important question, Maori emerge from her letters in many dimensions and personalities. They are seen occupied with living their lives, resisting and adapting, in what Mary Louise Pratt calls the “contact zone”.

Material history is always more immediately enchanting than its grander discourse cousins – imperialism, expansionism, and all the other -isms. In these letters, while the big events swirl around – Henry bravely stands between warring tribes or gets lost on a boating trip – domestic life, just as bravely, continues to make the best of it. There are celebrations when the children are born safely or the bread rises, when the boat is launched or the raupo hut is floored with boards in time to go to sleep. Letters from the Bay of Islands  could have been a better book with more explanatory and contextual apparatus, but the documents themselves speak from and for a rich and present world.


Lydia Wevers is director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in History, Letters, Non-fiction, Review
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