More pork and potatoes, anyone? John O’Leary

Poenamo Revisited
John Logan Campbell (essay and notes by R C J Stone)
Godwit, $60.00,
ISBN 9781869797980

Most New Zealanders – even those living south of the Bombay Hills – have heard of John Logan Campbell, the Father of Auckland, who (among other achievements) bestowed magnificent Cornwall Park on the city. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of his death, and to celebrate the centenary Godwit has republished his most famous work, Poenamo, a light-hearted account of pioneering life in the Hauraki region. A handsome brick of a book encased in its own sturdy box cover, Poenamo Revisited is not the edited, abbreviated version of Campbell’s classic put out by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1952. Rather, it’s a facsimile of the edition published in 1898 by the Auckland printers Wilson and Horton which featured a number of chapters about Campbell’s early life in Scotland – truncated in the 1952 edition ‒ and more than a dozen illustrations.

Accompanying the text is a detailed introductory essay by noted Campbell scholar Professor Russell Stone, along with annotations, a glossary of Maori words, the Campbell family tree, biographical notes, pictures, maps and more. There’s even a “what-happened-after” chapter telling the reader about Campbell’s later life (which was by no means uneventful). All in all, Poenamo Revisited is the “Complete John Logan Campbell” in one volume.

Poenamo’s story of the founding and growth of early Auckland will inevitably appeal most to Aucklanders, but even those living further south will enjoy Campbell’s account of his early life in and around the Waitemata in the middle years of the 19th century. The style is relaxed, intimate; this was a memoir written, originally, for Campbell’s children, and right to the end of the book the reader has the feeling that he or she is overhearing a private tale (which only adds, of course, to the charm).

A major theme is the gap between the supposed romance of being a brave pioneer and the often dreary reality of early colonial life (more pork and potatoes, anyone?). A classic instance of the gap occurs in “Book Second”, when Campbell and his companions make camp by a bay as night falls. Campbell waxes lyrical about the beauty of the scene in good Romantic style:

The little white sandy beach, the boat, the surface of the water lighted up near at hand, and then fading imperceptibly away and lost in the murkiness in the rough waters beyond, all formed a scene wild yet picturesque of its kind, and could it have been flashed by some magic mirror before the eyes of the relations and friends of those who formed the foreground, they would have gazed upon it with intense interest … .


In fact, as he states almost at once, no one noticed the scenery; they were hungry, and far more interested in what was being cooked on the campfire.

With its mix of lively episodes and leisurely digressions Campbell’s book somewhat resembles that other early classic, Frederick Maning’s Old New Zealand (1863); there’s also a debt to Murray and Baedeker travel literature (Campbell, it turns out, was a great traveller). While Stone finds characteristics that set Poenamo apart from other early accounts, there’s also much that places it squarely in the late 19th-century antipodean tradition of lightweight commemorative history that focused on the struggles and triumphs of early settlers. Too often this writing was smug and self-congratulatory: a case of self-justifying narratives that skated over some of the inconvenient truths about colonisation. Campbell saved his work from this danger by his modest assessment of the morality of the colonising process (“some virtue did prevail” is the most he allows) and by his wry, self-deprecating humour. This frequently manifests itself in a tendency to make puns and jokes, often about eating people. It’s a period feature which the modern reader puts up with rather than enjoys.

Campbell’s puns and jokes about cannibalism are made in the context of his interaction with Maori, and his description of the tangata whenua of the Hauraki region will interest any reader aware of issues of race and representation. While not a “Pakeha Maori” like Maning, Campbell did live with a local iwi (Ngati Tamatera) for quite a few months, and he later traded with other Maori groups from his home base of Motukorea (Brown’s Island). His observations of a still largely traditional way of life are fascinating; a stand-out is his account of a Maori tangi in “Book Third”, with its detailed description of muskets fired off in salute, the hanging of the deceased’s possessions – now intensely tapu – on a small fence near the wrapped body, and the wails of “old withered hags” as they slashed themselves with sharp-edged shells. Campbell is curious but not judgmental; even customs that are hard for the European mind to understand, such as the ritual plunder (muru) of a neighbour when misfortune struck, make sense, he shows, once certain beliefs and attitudes are accepted.

Generally, Campbell is affectionate but not sentimental with regard to Maori, whom he judged practical and hard-headed, and more than a match, in his opinion, for the Sydney land-sharks who swarmed round northern New Zealand before 1840. For the shallow racism of “Waitemata cockneys”, with their disparaging talk of “the nigger element”, he had no time; one of the purposes of his book, indeed, was to restore something of the respect Maori had enjoyed at this early period, when they were still overwhelmingly the dominant race. That said, Campbell was a man of his time, and he assumed, like most of his peers, that Maori were a dying people, unable to compete with Europeans in the Darwinian struggle for survival. For Campbell, this was a source of genuine regret; it is one of the few sad themes in an otherwise cheerful work.

Poenamo Revisited is an enjoyable tome (and “tome” is the right word for such a solid production). One or two things grate: the claim on the orange book wrapper that Poenamo is “New Zealand’s very first adventure story” is tendentious, for example – surely that honour should go to Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s Adventure in New Zealand, published decades before? But such cavils are minor. If you don’t already own Campbell’s book (or maybe even if you do) make a wide space in your bookshelf for this publication, which will I imagine still look good in another century’s time.


John O’Leary’s Savage Songs and Wild Romances, Settler Poetry and the Indigene, 1830-1880 appeared in 2011 from Rodopi.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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