“The retrospective glance”, Bronwyn Dalley

Journey to a Hanging: The Events that Set New Zealand Race Relations Back by a Century
Peter Wells
Vintage, $45.00
ISBN 9781775533900

As a child, I owned a Websters Illustrated Dictionary. My brother had bought it in mail-order instalments over many months – the thing was enormous – and then assembled it, clumsily. My little hands struggled to handle the book, and I had to prop it on a pillow in front of me, stretching my arms to turn the pages, carefully from the top, as I had been taught. The physical challenge of using this dictionary never stopped me turning repeatedly to an image of Andrea Mantegna’s painting of the martyrdom (by many arrows) of Saint Sebastian. Without fail, I would experience the awful, secretive pleasure of gazing on the horrific. Walking through the Louvre many years later, I decided not to visit the original painting; no more of that grisly dizziness for me. It wasn’t my version of the painting, anyway – that hangs in a Viennese museum and the Louvre’s is one of Mantegna’s later renditions – but the theme and central image were enough alike. You already know, of course, that I stopped to look; how could I not?

This same “thrill by gazing” forms a motif in Peter Wells’s Journey to a Hanging, an eloquent and evocative unravelling and weaving together of the lives and deaths of Carl Sylvius Völkner and Kereopa Te Rau. As a nation, we have not been able to not look at the joint tale of these two men, or perhaps more correctly, the after-death of Völkner in all its hideous, other-worldly fascination. The process of looking has particular currency in this episode from 19th-century New Zealand, for it is a story where eyes matter. Witness, spy, photograph, visit, testament – these troubled and contested words all recur in this tale that swirls with perspective. “The retrospective glance,” Wells notes, “has a curious way of overlooking some things, glancing past others and selecting what it wishes to polish up for presentation.” He is referring to the smoothing of events in a missionary memoir detailing a meeting with Völkner in the 1850s, but he could just as well be describing the interpretive process of writing history. The retrospective glance was central in relating the events surrounding Völkner and Te Rau at the time, and in every subsequent version, this latest included.

“This is the story of a photograph,” Wells states at the outset of this book. The photograph is of Te Rau, taken in Napier Prison, a month before his execution for his part in the death of Völkner seven years previously, in 1865. The face is not that of the frenzied eye-eating cannibal, so beloved of the 19th-century atrocity narrative; “it is hard to think of a sadder image in the whole of nineteenth-century New Zealand,” Wells argues, and it would take a heart of stone to disagree.

The journey that led to the taking of the photograph is at the core of this book. Wells is not interested in the justice (or the tawdry stunting of it) of Te Rau’s punishment, or in the political machinations that preceded his trial, although those manoeuvres certainly form a part of his analysis. Rather, Wells takes a contrapuntal method, a voyage around the subject, as he follows the stories of lives and deaths to see where they lead.

And there are many stories to tell. Völkner’s, as crafted by himself or others, forms the first part of the book: his insistent efforts to prove himself and be accepted, his awkwardness, his liminal status as a German in the structured world of the English missionary. “Tone deaf” is how Wells characterises Völkner: someone for whom nuance, veiled suggestion, social and cultural undertone had little meaning. This was a man “who could not intercept what lay in between glances, in sudden depths of silence.”

The second part picks up Te Rau’s story, with comparatively little background context; Te Rau comes to us as a prisoner, a man defined by actions at the time of Völkner’s death. Te Rau’s story is very much “a journey to a hanging”, perhaps appropriate given the awful inevitability of what would happen as soon as he was captured. Wells’s relating of the trial and its aftermath uses quotations extensively, one account coming after another in rapid succession. It is not a device I normally favour, but here it imparts an almost palpable sense of pace and breathless anticipation among officials. The petulant sectarian squabbles for his soul that intruded on Te Rau’s final days, as well as the individuals behind these, are told at length; our sense of the man behind these events rests on his own contingent tellings, differing depending on his audience. Wells wisely leaves the reader to decide which stories to accept.

For too long, his argument shows, the reputations of Völkner and Te Rau have been hostage to politics and political interest, be they of settlers, 19th-century government officials or religious groups. How else can the complete reversal of reputations be explained? Völkner, once a martyr, now “in the shabbiest clothing of all”, a spy; Te Rau, once the pinnacle of savagery, now a wronged man on a “long journey back to respectability”. The process continues, this time in the hands of postcolonial scholars and modern iwi. His book, Wells concludes, is really about the “ruins in the reputation of two men”. But, in contemporary New Zealand – and here Wells is brave enough to say this, perhaps because he is outside the professional historical establishment – there is only room for one to “emerge into sunlight understood”; Völkner will continue for some time yet to wander “headless and not at home”.

This work will not suit everyone. There are points where Wells’s own retrospective glance makes leaps. The title of the book suggests a certain foreshadowing of events. “This whole story is one of convergence,” Wells declares at one point. Go looking for instances when the fortunes of Völkner and Te Rau seem to come together and you are bound to find them, but knowing how events turn out demands care in constructing a story.

Some readers will want a fuller context, an elaboration or awareness of the wider research on many aspects touched on: atrocity narratives, the age of apology, the judicial and government process. At times, Wells needs more evidence to support his claims, some of which veer into supposition – Völkner playing Cupid to Eliza Jones and James Stack, for example; his castigation of other scholars for not providing evidence for their arguments is a little rich in the circumstances. There are many fine images, several of which capture the moodiness of the contemporary sites, but too many are tiny and the captions of the historical images insufficient in detail.

Wells writes beautifully. Pink post-it notes weigh down my copy of the book, each marking a graceful piece of prose. Here is one at random: writing to William Williams after Williams’s episcopal elevation in 1859: “Carl Sylvius hereafter was to run the words ‘My Lordship’ and ‘His Lordship’ over his tongue with ungent pleasure.” With those few words we are suddenly sitting alongside Völkner, smooth, smarmy, sycophantic. Savour the reading of this book. It is an exquisitely crafted work, carefully put together, refreshingly bold in its argument and analysis, thoughtful, and incredibly sad.


Bronwyn Dalley is a Wellington historian.

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