Tickling history, Jane Stafford

The New Zealand Wars Trilogy: The House of Strife, Monday’s Warriors, Season of the Jew 
Maurice Shadbolt
David Ling, $99.99,
ISBN 0908990995

On August 8 this year, a ceremony was held at Parliament to unveil a plaque to Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, who was killed at Chunuk Bair 90 years previously. The Prime Minister described Malone’s “extraordinary deeds”, and his great-grandson was quoted in The Dominion Post as saying that Malone “had gone to war not only out of patriotism, but a strong sense of destiny. Chunuk Bair was part of this country’s journey to nationhood. ‘Those who returned and those who died are remembered as New Zealanders.’” Yet Chunuk Bair and its decolonising role has only recently become an important story to New Zealanders.

When Maurice Gee described his protagonist in the 1975 short story “A Glorious Morning, Comrade” as seeing a cape “standing up like Chunuk Bair” (“He had no wish to be reminded of that. That had been a very great piece of nonsense”), the reference was obscure to most readers. That Chunuk Bair has become our myth of origin, the place where we defied not just the Turks but, much more importantly, the British, is due in great part to the work of the other Maurice, Maurice Shadbolt, whose 1982 play Once on Chunuk Bair was the first clear articulation of this position. Its appearance fitted neatly into the progressive loosening of the apron strings which began with Britain’s entry into the then European Common Market, progressed through the first stages of cultural nationalism that grew out of the Labour Government of 1970s, was sharpened by the moral ferment of the 1981 rugby tour, and prepared us for the heady days of the 1984 Lange-Douglas duet.

The play’s success – in performance, as a published text, and as a school and university set book – was in part due to a collective desire for just such a national myth, irrespective of the actual history, which suggests that in fact we went on being colonial, subservient and deferential to Home for quite some time after 1915. Proud of our growing sense of independence, we backdated it and gave it a heroic birth.

I am not a military historian and have no intention of belittling the courage of William Malone, but it seems to me that the claims we came of age on the slopes of Gallipoli, shrugging off colonial deference and standing up as true Kiwis, are a means of dignifying present-day independence by inventing a history configured by and responding to the demands of the present. And there is nothing wrong with that – all societies invent themselves, and their past is one of the sources of that invention. Once on Chunuk Bair was about Shadbolt’s vision of New Zealand at the start of the 1980s rather than in 1915 – a society which was egalitarian, courageous in a straightforward sort of way, efficient, suspicious of rhetoric, effortlessly bicultural and implicitly masculinist.

At the same time as he wrote his play of national coming of age, Shadbolt began work on the New Zealand Wars trilogy: Season of the Jew was published in 1986, Monday’s Warriors in 1990 and The House of Strife in 1993. The novels answer the same needs as Once on Chunuk Bair: the notion that a society needs a history, a story of itself, as the building blocks of bicultural New Zealand were set up. During the mid-80s and early 90s the Waitangi Tribunal’s authority was extended to hear cases dating back to 1840, Maori became an official language, and at the same time the economic policies of both Labour and National ripped the heart out of many small rural, often Maori, communities hitherto thought of as the place where the essence of New Zealand resided.

The complexities of the present and the uncertainties of the future needed a past as reassurance: Shadbolt’s work is overtly indebted to the work of such figures as James Belich and Christopher Pugsley. The 1980s was also the time at which Maori began to question the casual use of their stories and the place of their history in the national master narrative – it is the period when Michael King turned from chronicling Maori and instead focused on the Pakeha and the literary. It was an interesting time to write a historical narrative of the wars of the previous century.

Although described as a trilogy, the three books in The New Zealand Wars Trilogy cover separate periods: Season of the Jew, the campaigns of Te Kooti in Poverty Bay in the 1870s; Monday’s Warriors, Titokowaru’s rebellion of the 1860s; and The House of Strife, Hone Heke’s confrontation with the colonial government of the 1840s. So in each, Shadbolt is interested in the conflicts and accommodations of the colonial relationship with Maori. Each world is presented as fractured and fractious: the colonist’s between the military, missionaries, traders, settlers, administrators and hangers-on and passers-by; the Maori world between the various iwi, and their positions in respect of the Pakeha presence and the modern world it represents. That heterogeneity is nicely demonstrated at the start of Season of the Jew: a messenger reports the requests from a besieged Maori commander:

He requests a fair fight. In furtherance of which he desires a more ample supply of British gunpowder. Shot they have in plenty. Powder is running low. Food and further water, he says, might also be appreciated if the siege is prolonged …. He wishes to remind us that thus far in the campaign he has kept our commanders supplied with meat, potatoes and milch goats in accord with the scriptural injunction to give thine enemy meat if he hungers, drink if he thirsts. He feels some reciprocal gesture might now be timely.

 

At the centre of each novel, Shadbolt placed a Pakeha protagonist, who is on the edge of colonial society, an often jaded or delinquent observer, able to some extent to cross between cultures – as artist, lover, spy, scout, or deserter. In The House of Strife, Ferdinand Wildblood is the hack author of South Seas romances who is precipitately forced to visit the actual locations of his literary fashionings. In Monday’s Warriors Shadbolt uses the historical figure of Kimball Bent, American conscript to and energetic deserter from the British army. Season of the Jew is seen through the eyes of George Fairweather, weary ex-soldier and half-hearted painter of colonial scenes.

These narrators set the tone for all three books – detached, ironic, sceptical, yet capable of occasional strength of feeling. They are appropriate points of reference for the trilogy’s narratives of confusion and compromise, of best intentions played out against the pomposities of empire, of a universal scramble of both Maori and Pakeha for its prizes.

Because of this essential and structural confusion, none of the books falls into the black and white binaries of postcolonial piety; Shadbolt recognises and describes the effects of settlement and the loss of land: “You are tactful in a Maori way,” Matiu tells Fairweather. “Land is easily understood,” he replies. But Maori society is depicted as vigorous and adaptive, not least in the portrayal of Te Kooti’s conversion to Judaism. Neither does Shadbolt fall into the trap of the romanticised orientalism imported to the antipodes by 19th century writers and, alarmingly, still occasionally used by contemporary writers, both Maori and Pakeha.

He is aware of the links between aestheticisation and colonisation: in The House of Strife, Maori describe Gustavus von Tempsky, alias Major Many Birds, as having “a pretty trade in warriors dead and dying. If he can’t string us from a tree, he can hang us on colonist walls”. In Shadbolt’s trilogy, Maori are dignified, courageous, comic, earthy, and at times very frightening. In Season of the Jew, the lieutenants of colonist ally Ropata are described as “a miscellaneous crew in kilts of patched tartan and trousers slashed short. Uniformity was more evident in their features; Ropata appeared to enforce brutal scars and wintry eyes.”

If Shadbolt’s Maori are spiritual in any way that relates to pre-contact culture, he doesn’t go there. He gives them versions of the same urges that drive Pakehas – ambition, the desire for power – and where it is suggested that other forces may be at work, he allows his reader to stay as ignorant of them as his bemused protagonists are. Watching a haka preliminary to an attack, Jonah the Maori Christian convert tells Fairweather:

“This … is how it was in the old seasons of war. The dance is not about overcoming the enemy, for he is contemptible. Not about [the mountain] Ngatapa either; for that is a morsel. It is about men mastering all earth and sky. You do not like it?”

“Am I meant to?” Fairweather said.

 

The packaging of these three novels as a trilogy obscures the differences between them. Season of the Jew, the earliest work, is the least self-conscious, working in the tradition of G A Henty’s Maori and Settler (1891) or William Satchell’s The Greenstone Door (1914), the last gasp of imperial adventure stories, full of daring deeds and close descriptions of military engagements. The opening has two languid officers of the British army watch and then wearily participate in an attack on a fort: “‘A droll war,’ Fairweather said. ‘They all are,’ Duke said. ‘Never dream of Agincourt or Waterloo.’ Perhaps Duke had once. His hair was grey and his smile was bitter.” And then Duke goes manfully off to die on the ramparts, commenting only, “‘I should have preferred a scene more auspicious. In a cause less indifferent.’ ”

The House of Strife, the last to be written, is far more knowing, as its hero is himself the author of bogus imperial romances, and finds the difference between his purple prose and the reality as disconcerting as the fact that the Maori he encounters are all great fans of his writing:

The truth is that [he] had lost his nerve as a storyteller. The legitimate Bay of Islands, as distinct from the lusty bastard sired by his London fancies, appeared to have left him in shock; his prose was listless, his palette muddied by the excess of the authentic.

 

The resonant complexities of the interplay between life and artifice are at their sharpest as he is forced to recite The Monarch of Maoriland, Murder Most Maori and The Tattooed Trojans to an appreciative but not uncritical audience of Hone Heke and his companions.

Monday’s Warriors is the most technically innovative, and, perhaps because of this, the least successful novelistically, less Boys’ Own adventure and more in the manner of F E Manning’s rambling, disordered Old New Zealand. Much of the text is direct speech, and the narrator Kimball Bent has none of the erudition of Shadbolt’s other two protagonists and is often depicted speaking a Maori he is not fluent in. In consequence, the style is cramped and elliptical, at times sounding like a not entirely successful poetic sequence by Kendrick Smithyman:

Big muttered obscenely.
“What’s wrong?” Kimball asked.
“Toa.” Big was bitter. “Bad is beginning already.”
“So what now?” Kimball asked.
“The time of lies,” Big said.
“Whose?”
“Yours,” Big shrugged. “Mine.”
“Toa’s?”
“Best of all.”
Big ordered the weapons loaded. Many marksmen had two. There was a flexing of limbs, a faint rattle of metal.

 

The New Zealand Wars Trilogy is not a triumphalist narrative. The only character in all three books who is described as a New Zealander is the baby born to the settlers at Matawhero who is killed by Te Kooti. The nobility of Hone Heke and Titokowaru is contrasted with their eventual degradation. Much of the narrative is taken up with descriptions of a kind of warfare that is close, personal and bloody. If Shadbolt’s heroes have a common position, it is a distrust of heroism, and a scepticism about the uses of power.

In contrast with the diagrammatic clarity of Once on Chunuk Bair, The New Zealand Wars Trilogy provides no clear outlines as to what it means to be a New Zealander, and are better for it. These are not moral exempla, but stories which point to the ability for any power structure to be cruel and corrupt, and any individual to show unaccustomed acts of kindness. There are worse forms of national myth.

In The House of Strife, the Pakeha protagonist has a conversation with Hone – or John, as the story has him – Heke. “Storytellers are precious among men,” he is told. “They keep our treasures safe … What are we, if not our stories … Have you found yours?” he asks Ferdinand, who has spent most of the novel inventing various self-serving personae for himself. “Perhaps in those of others,” Ferdinand, the writer, the Pakeha settler, concedes cautiously. “A man must have his own,” Heke tells him. “Otherwise he walks the world in a shadow.”

A nation must have its stories, own its history not just in the orthodox, scholarly way, but in fiction and fancy. Maurice Shadbolt knew this 20 years ago, and the publishers are to be commended for making these works available once more. In Season of the Jew, George Fairweather, riding into the Ureweras expresses the hope that “If history could not be tamed, it could be tickled.” Shadbolt has done just this.

 

Jane Stafford teaches English in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria  University. She is the co-editor of Katherine Mansfield’s Men (2004).

 

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