A magic lantern show, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

Hellhole of the Pacific
Richard Wolfe
Penguin, $35.00,
ISBN 0143019872

Kororareka in the Bay of Islands in some ways resembles Akaroa on Banks Peninsula. The two tiny townships were settings for power plays by various groups for a few brief years immediately before and after the British annexation of New Zealand. Later they lapsed out of the limelight. Quiet little seaports with almost no economic hinterland, they amounted to not much more than a few rows of white wooden cottages, with the odd jetty.

A growing colonial middle class in the late 19th century began to look at the two towns as quaint. Well-to-do tourists, coming by steamboat or by horse-drawn coach, promenaded in hats and Norfolk jackets along the beaches, and reflected sentimentally about the wild old days. Journalists, novelists and poets of the early 20th century began to talk up Akaroa, portraying it as a romantic nook of France. Kororareka, renamed Russell, was scribbled about as the place where Hone Heke axed the flagstaff, and – mistakenly – as having been the first capital of New Zealand. Ursula Bethell was one of the few who turned this nostalgia into real art, in her 1930s poem about Akaroa, “The Long Harbour”. Nobody wrote well about Kororareka.

As nationalism grew in the 20th century, Kororareka, and more generally the Bay of Islands, came to be seen as one of the rather unlikely axises around which the clumsy bakelite wheel of national history might try to turn. G B Lancaster chose it as one of the main settings for her ambitious and warmly overwritten 1938 novel Promenade, a game attempt to portray the “birth of a nation”, with a cast of thousands.

Nowadays, of course, Akaroa and the Bay of Islands both thrive as tourist traps for the affluent of Christchurch and Auckland, together with tourists from abroad who are successfully suckered by hype about “that distinctly French je-ne-sais-quoi” or “this historic bay … the birthplace of New Zealand as a bi-cultural nation”. A fascination with the two towns is widespread among those serious about history – and maybe more so among those who aren’t so much historians as antiquarians keen on shonky anecdotes and dubious yarns about what they fancy to have been more colourful days.

Chronicles about Kororareka have been published in the past by keen amateur historians. Marie King worked for half a century poking around in old documents and getting two light works into print. Ruth M Ross, a careful scholar, published several monographs. The town has lacked a good big history. Hellhole of the Pacific offers us something about Kororareka comparable at last with French Akaroa, published in 1990 by Peter Tremewan.

Richard Wolfe is a gifted author. Kids know him for storybooks illustrated by his wife, Pamela Wolfe. Adult readers know his illustrated books about trademarks, clothes, baches and other aspects of everyday life in colonial and early 20th century New Zealand. Clearly he loves digging around for old stuff. Clearly, also, he loves Kiwiana.

Wolfe is not a trained historian, however. His academic background is in fine arts. He worked for years as a museum display artist and curator. Hellhole of the Pacific is disappointing for anybody who wants more than a strobe show of facts and gossip and digression. We start bizarrely with an account of the evolution of the whale during the Eocene. Wolfe then jumps a breathtaking 85 million years and lands on board the deck of Endeavour, with James Cook. Cook sails into the Bay of Islands. The history of Kororareka begins! Maori prehistory is barely glanced at until we come across two cursory paragraphs in the 14th – and last – chapter.

The strobe dances about for almost 200 pages, picking out this and that stray fact about the whaling industry, the alcohol industry, the sex industry, house building, fighting, the preaching of Christianity – and so on. The structure is broadly chronological. The late 18th century is followed by the 1800s, which are followed by the 1810s, and then the 1820s – without design, without analysis. Almost all sources are raw and primary, quoted or paraphrased in clumsy chunks. The strobe alights at last on G B Lancaster scrawling for all she’s worth about “exploding oil-barrels, running in glowing rivers to the sea”.

Actually the word strobe is not apt because it implies that the author flicks a laser-like light across the past – and does it quickly – when really the book feels more like a late colonial magic lantern show, leaden and slow, fitted with gas lamps. Wolfe’s preferred reading, according to the New Zealand Book Council website, includes Robert Hughes, Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick and Michael King. Guralnick is a writer on 20th century American popular music, known for a biography of Elvis. Marcus is a music essayist, a leading writer about Bob Dylan. All four are middle-aged white men. Hellhole of the Pacific seems very much a book by and for middle-aged white men keen on golden oldies. We get page after page of slightly elephantine ripping yarns.

Wolfe’s prose style has been tainted by his sources. The tone is often coy. Fucking, for example, is one of the main topics of the book. Who fucked? Did they fuck a lot? Was money paid for the fucks? Yet while these are central questions for Wolfe, the word fuck never once turns up on the page. We get instead such gawkily prim, and at the same time slightly sleazy, euphemisms as “fornication”, “lasciviousness”, “debauchery”.

A man of many talents working in several genres doesn’t necessarily make a polymath. Hellhole of the Pacific is cheerful antiquarianism, repetitive and muddled. The book has only one sustained question: was the town really a “hellhole”? The question is silly. Nor is it of moment to anyone interested in wider history. Anyone, on the other hand, who wants to find between one set of covers a whole lot of jumbled stuff about Kororareka will be able to pick happily through the pages.


Stevan Eldred-Grigg is a novelist and historian living in Wellington.


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