A rowdy lot, Julia Millen

Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past
Matthew Wright
Penguin, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143567646

We New Zealanders have always been complacent, even smug, about our nation’s origins. Unlike our nearest, much bigger, neighbour, New Zealand was never a penal colony, having been considered and rejected by British authorities as unsuitable. Whereas Australia was a vast and apparently “empty” land, whose native peoples were scattered, nomadic and apparently “invisible”, New Zealand’s original inhabitants exhibited a well-developed culture with established settlements, cultivation and a clear demarcation of property and ownership.

Furthermore, the Maori had shown aggressive methods for protecting their property. They would not tolerate a convict migrant invasion without putting up a fight, which was likely to be long and bloody and might even involve cannibalism.

Despite our not carrying the stain of penal origins, Matthew Wright, having examined the demographics of our non-Maori population in the pre-Treaty era, has concluded that in some ways early Pakeha inhabitants could be as disreputable as those of Australia. In so doing, he and other writers have shown our early European history to be a lot more interesting and exciting. In New Zealand, “many one-time convicts and petty criminals escaped capture, continuing their rowdy lives by moving into a shrinking wilderness as settlements expanded behind them.”

Wright has previously explored the pre-Treaty era during the so-called “musket wars”, and uses material from this earlier research, as well as additional sources, for Convicts. He has also drawn heavily on Robert Hughes’s landmark history of convict transportation to Australia, The Fatal Shore.

Until academic historians began looking at hard evidence, popular belief about convict life came from such works as Marcus Clarke’s melodramatic and romantic For the Term of His Natural Life (1874). While Clarke researched and then fictionalised his subject, Hughes made an exhaustive examination of convict transportation and, without minimising the suffering and hardship, dispelled much of the myth. Wright in this latest work has tried to do the same for New Zealand’s early Pakeha.

During the period of convict transportation from Britain to Australia, a total of 150,000 men, women and children were sent to the colony. Of these, a considerable number of adventurous and shady characters – Wright uses the term “folks” – by various means made their way across the Tasman. By the late 1820s, about 2,000 Pakeha, mostly men, lived or subsisted in and around the shores of Aotearoa.

By combing convict records, shipping archives, official reports, commissions of inquiry and newspapers to glean information, Wright has constructed several categories of arrivals: escaped convicts or “bolters” and stowaways; convicts who had served their term and gained a certificate of freedom; Australian-born offspring of convicts or “currency lads”; army and ship deserters. As well, there were a handful of missionaries and regular visitors like ship captains and their crews who made periodic calls as part of their trading circuits. Having identified these types, in his breezy, occasionally glib and emotive prose, Wright provides background information, comment and colourful description.

Trade with Maori involved, on the one part, ironware like axes, tools and other implements, as well as blankets, gunpowder, muskets, tobacco, gin and rum. In return, the Maori supplied firewood, heavy timber, flax, pigs, turnips and potatoes.

New Zealand was in essence a frontier society and for the Pakeha it was a lawless land, a free-market paradise for the unscrupulous: a place where there was vast profit to be made, provided ill-fortune did not intervene. Many who worked in the sealing and whaling industries were former convicts, and some stayed on, opted to “go native” with local Maori, and may also have exploited them.

While the early Pakeha considered themselves “civilised”, held to the mores and codes of Western society and looked askance at Maori customs – especially cannibalism, about which Wright expounds at some length – they were for the most part illiterate, restless and undisciplined. Even ship captains, generally considered as respectable and reliable, in their dealings with Maori could, according to Wright, include among their number the greatest villains to arrive on these shores.

Newcomers in general failed to recognise that the Maori had complex and strict codes of belief, lore and custom which, although very different from those of westerners, nevertheless were upheld and enforced. They and any invaders of whatever race or creed flouted these laws at their peril.

Comparatively little is known about the lives of these early visitors, who were in any case very often transients, and few records of the actual words of the Pakeha have been preserved. For the most part these people had neither the means nor the opportunity to describe their own lives, or preferred to forget about it. Even if they wished to recount their stories, having done so, where would such material have been preserved?

Most of the lives recounted in Convicts have already been aired and can hardly be called “hidden”, but Wright has tried to provide a range of examples, with a different context and interpretation. He emphasises that although many convicts served their sentence and were “freed”, they were still, according to westerners’ way of thinking, “on the wrong side of the world”. There was no escape – either emotionally or physically – from the past.

Wright revisits the history of well-known early settler John Guard, a freed convict, who by 1823 had made enough money working as a sealer to buy a part-share in a schooner. He began trans-Tasman trading and later set up a whaling station at Port Underwood, married the daughter of convicts, prospered, and was seen as an ex-convict who made good.

Also included in the book is the episode of 1842 in which New Zealand was the reluctant recipient of the Parkhurst boys. Much to the dismay of “respectable” early settlers, these former inmates of a reformatory aged between 12 and 18 years were officially sent to provide a labour force in the colony. They were in the main urban “brats”, totally lacking in suitable skills for a pioneer society.

One published account Wright could have looked at is Taina by G M Henderson (1948). It concerns the life of Benjamin Savage who jumped ship in Suva, stowed away on an English whaler and sailed to the Bay of Islands in the early 1830s. There, he and a co-conspirator deserted, and built a boat for trading with the Maori. Ben Savage became well acquainted with Maori customs and beliefs, and his son, by a Rangitira of the Urewera, later recorded the story.

Wright has chosen not to describe the West Coast gold fields in the 1860s, where numerous “persons of ill-repute” washed up, as being outside the pre-Treaty era. Instead, he retells at length the story of Kimble Bent, which was recently broadcast in serial form by Radio New Zealand. A former deserter, engaged as a soldier in the 57th Regiment of Foot, he fought in the Taranaki wars of the 1860s. Bent then became caught up in one of Titokowaru’s campaigns, and in this context Wright briefly discusses and challenges some of Jamie Belich’s assertions. Kimble Bent, according to Wright, was “very much the last of the old – the final act, in effect, in a saga of convicts in New Zealand that had begun at the turn of the nineteenth century”.

Written in an engaging, anecdotal prose style, Convicts depicts some interesting angles and views on our pre-Treaty rogues and ne’ er-do-wells.


Julia Millen is a biographer and social historian, and author of Colonial Tears and Sweat: The Working Class in 19th-century New Zealand.


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