A three-act life, Jenny Robin Jones

White Chief: The Colourful Life and Times of Judge F E Maning of the Hokianga
John Nicholson
Penguin, $39.95,
ISBN 0143020226

In Omapere Museum in the Hokianga, the area F E Maning called home for most of his life, a woman and her friend were looking at a photograph of Maning on the wall. “Maning?” I heard one say, “He went native, didn’t he?” The friend nodded. Nothing more was said. It was easy to imagine a different couple in front of the photograph: “Judge Maning? Anti-Maori fanatic, wasn’t he?” And had the speaker been Alex Calder, editor of the 2001 edition of Old New Zealand, I’d likely have heard, “Maning? Wrote the first work of lasting literary value published in New Zealand, didn’t he!”

Was Maning a rabid racist, a Pakeha-Maori who lost his way – or a writer with something of lasting value to say? John Nicholson explores this territory in White Chief. An indirect descendant of Maning, Nicholson was brought up in Te Kuiti and as a child often mused on his family’s portrait of the “pink-faced, blue-eyed, dome-foreheaded vizier with an extravagant moustache and wavy red hair”. Years later, as a writer of over 20 non-fiction books, he decided to pull together the material on Maning, tell his colourful story and attempt to unravel the man’s complex personality.

One senses Nicholson’s unease with the task. As descendant, he no doubt wanted to admire his famous ancestor and was frequently thwarted; as writer, he is gratified with the drama of his material; as amateur psychologist, he is as puzzled as many before him.

Maning’s life fell into three main phases: Pakeha-Maori, writer and judge. He landed in New Zealand in 1833 and, after his celebrated first encounter with the Nga Puhi tribe, was adopted by chief Moetara as his Pakeha-Maori, a position he held for many years as he struggled to make a living by trade. Fascinated by the exoticism of Maori ways, he quickly learnt their language and built up a formidable knowledge of Maoritanga. Ever ready to join a fight and eager to escape the rules of the society he had left, Maning took to Maori ways with enthusiasm, though part of him remained the ironic observer. A chief’s son, Hauraki, became his best friend and Maning subsequently fell in love with his sister, Moengaroa, who moved in with him and bore him four children. At her premature death, Maning mourned deeply. He was never in a long-term relationship again.

In 1862 Maning burst upon the New Zealand and English scene as a writer. Appalled by inaccurate media statistics regarding the northern war in the 1840s, he had decided to write a first-hand account and spent 10 years refining his manuscript. His friend John Logan Campbell had declined to take it to England with him, anticipating rejection, but by the 1860s, when further strife loomed between the races, The History of the War in the North was welcome.

Adopting a Maori persona, Maning offered insights into how Maori apprehended the ways of the foreigners in their midst. The book, like Old New Zealand: A Tale of the Good Old Times, which quickly followed, abounds with irrepressible humour and creativity. A comment by its Pakeha-Maori narrator offers a key to Maning’s later contradictions: “I get so confused, I feel just as if I was two different persons at the same time. Sometimes I find myself thinking on the Maori side, and then just afterwards wondering if ‘we’ can lick the Maori.” In another of those contradictions, Maning took against the book. He burned many copies and destroyed at least two additional manuscripts.

In his third phase Maning sought to establish an advisory role with influential Pakeha, using as credentials his experience of Maori and his acclaimed books. As a judge of the Land Court he had, for many years, the ear of Native Secretary Donald McLean.

Nicholson’s organisation of his material obscures these crucial phases. There is no one chapter of Maning as writer nor as judge, and right to the end Nicholson seems to regard him as a Pakeha-Maori. If Maning was, as Nicholson asserts, “first and foremost a writer”, we want to know what it meant to Maning to be a writer, but there is almost no attempt to tell us. And why is the cover title/subtitle emblazoned with ways of looking at Maning (White Chief, Pakeha-Maori, Judge) that make no mention of the man as writer? It is misleading and does Maning disservice.

In other ways Nicholson organises his material logically and imaginatively. Each chapter begins in the present tense with a vivid re-enactment of a period in Maning’s life. The Hokianga harbour and environs emerge as the characters they are, and the book achieves pace and momentum. Nicholson is particularly good on fleshing out the details of Maning’s life among the Nga Puhi.

He is less good at probing in depth. In considering the “obsessional excess” with which Maori stocked their larders, he asks if this was “some 19th century Maori brand of 21st century status anxiety”. Was it all about mana? he asks, as if questions of mana automatically involve anxiety, as if a 21st century concept can be applied without rigorous examination to 19th century custom. Nicholson says Maning discovered “a courteous, artistic [people] obsessed with food”, then asks, “If that was not his first impression then what was it about these people that charmed him so comprehensively?” Answer comes there none: the question is rhetorical.

Attempts to be chatty also limit the depth of Nicholson’s enquiry. Expressions such as “the … stuff-up theory”, “an upperclass twit”, “oratory with attitude”, and “he sexed up his story” puncture the vivid picture of Maning’s times that Nicholson has worked hard to create. “Maning would take a leaf from their book,” says Nicholson, to which I wanted to rejoin, “But they had no books!”

By the 1870s Maning had morphed from the romantic young man who set up life among an exotic race of people he respected and admired into one hardened against them. He advocated conquest as the only way to bring them to “civilisation” and on one occasion advised Donald McLean to “transform [the Hauhau] into game, and issue licences free of charge, open for all seasons, and guarantee a high price per head”. Several earlier historians abandoned their project when Maning’s vituperative racism became too loud to ignore. Is this sufficient reason for giving up? Certainly, it’s hard to have one’s admiration of Maning so forcibly muted, but there is much about him that is wonderful. Besides, he does not have to stand alone. Our history is sufficiently complex to offer multiple figures to represent Pakeha in their New Zealand beginnings.

Interesting sociological questions could have been asked about the racism: was its intensification in Maning in step with others of his Pakeha-Maori ilk? Or was it peculiar to Maning, and if so, why? Nicholson focuses rather on Maning as an individual. He suggests that Maning may have been bipolar. If so, he was also capable of fine self-knowledge:

Now I confess to liking flattery; it is like summer rain falling on a parched soil; but it nauseates me; it is an insult to my understanding, to my taste, to be dosed and drenched with it. Let it be administered artistically in homeopathically minute proportion or measure, so that a man may almost deceive himself into believing that no flattery was intended.


Worth reading on.


Jenny Robin Jones’s Writers in Residence: A Journey with Pioneer New Zealand Writers was published in 2004.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category