Moving historiographical boundaries, Paul Moon

Man of Secrets: The Private Life of Donald McLean
Matthew Wright
Penguin, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143572213

At the Margin of Empire: John Webster and Hokianga, 1841–1900
Jennifer Ashton
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869408251

Those of us interested in reading about the past are increasingly confronted with history as abstraction or abstruse argument. Dense theoretical postulations tend to trump reasoned accounts of events, and entangled academic prose can displace engaging narrative. Here, though, are two biographies which in quite different ways are both antidotes to the creeping sterility of some history-writing, and which provide important perspectives on New Zealand’s maturation as a nation-state during the 19th century.

Ray Fargher’s 2007 biography of Donald McLean gave us a scholarly, detailed, and well-written account of the career of this official and politician. McLean was a reasonably significant figure on the country’s 19th-century historical landscape but, even with Fargher’s often painstaking analysis, his personality appeared at times more in hazy silhouette than sharp relief – unlike the precision with which he portrayed McLean’s public life.

Is there any room, though, for another full biography – within a decade of the first – on someone who never ruled the country, led an army, or achieved some great triumph on behalf of the nation? Matthew Wright’s Man of Secrets demonstrates resoundingly that there is. Wright’s work is an effort to bring the personality of McLean into clearer focus and, in the course of doing this, reveal how the character and temperament of this outwardly dour Scot influenced his career and, in turn, was moulded by the challenges he confronted throughout his life.

The risk in such an undertaking, though, is that the biography becomes littered with pieces of cod-psychology and speculative leaps, with little in the way of evidence to support them. But Wright is far too experienced a historian to succumb to these temptations. Instead, he has drawn on a careful selection of sources to construct something of the personality and motives of his subject, resulting in a study that complements rather than competes with Fargher’s work.

The archival papers on McLean – at around 100,000 pages – represent an inventory of source material that is both forbidding in its scale, yet enticing in the possibilities for deep exploration that it offers. The image of McLean gleaned from the most widely-used portrait photograph is of someone looking uncomfortable in his own body, and with a slight scowl that masks deep insecurities. And it is the notion of insecurity that appears like a leitmotif throughout Wright’s book.

The early chapters reveal how McLean’s Presbyterian upbringing shaped him into someone who was in the world, but trying his hardest to be not of the world – a task that was made so much more difficult when he found himself in the company of former convicts, and the “darker side” of English society, as Wright describes it, in Sydney. It was in New Zealand, however, that McLean was to leave his greatest imprint. The main milestones of his career are well documented, but one of the great accomplishments of Man of Secrets is the way in which public life is explained through private motives. McLean’s appointment as a Land Purchase Commissioner in 1850 is an example. It was the sort of career progression that would be followed, in a conventional biography, by how McLean performed in this role. Wright, however, locates McLean’s very private response to the appointment, and provides a particularly poignant and almost shocking revelation of the thoughts churning in McLean’s mind when he accepted the position.

Of course, McLean’s career is at the forefront of Man of Secrets, and Wright deals frankly with its many turbulent episodes and their consequences (a few of which we are still living with). Importantly, while personal insights help explain some of McLean’s decisions and actions, they are never offered up as an excuse for his transgressions. Wright rightly qualifies his evaluations, though, by pointing out that Mclean’s views – which he describes as “racist, sexist, even misogynistic” – were unremarkable for the time. He thus avoids judging this 19th-century character by the standards of the 21st century.

Few New Zealand historians are as prolific as Wright, and fewer still have his command of events and developments in the country during the 19th century. Throughout Man of Secrets, this knowledge is evident, supporting episodes with a context that clarifies situations and events without ever overwhelming the reader with seemingly superfluous detail. The book appeals as much as an intriguing account of a troubled individual struggling his way through life, and repeatedly at the brink of being toppled by self-perceived failures, as a conventional biography chronicling the life of an important but not quite momentous character in colonial New Zealand. Certainly, Wright has expanded substantially our understanding of McLean, exemplifying how – in Heraclitus’s words – “character is destiny”.

Jennifer Ashton’s At the Margin of Empire about the 19th-century colonist John Webster is an entirely different sort of biography. It is an attempt to understand aspects of the history of New Zealand’s colonial period as refracted through the life of one settler. Typically, settlers, colonists, or whatever other designation they are given, are lumped into one homogenous group in analyses of this period. It is a convenient way to fit them in as a single piece of the colonial mosaic. In this work, however, Ashton reduces large tectonic forces like colonialism to the microcosm of an individual, and predominately one region: Hokianga.

Webster, like McLean, was a Scot, but any presumed national similarities are barely evident. Webster was largely untroubled by any signs of a tortured personality and, instead of a career working for and then in government, he succeeded in the private sector as a merchant in an area of the country that shifted from economic core to periphery over his lifetime. Both works do, however, emphasise the importance of individuals (as opposed to policies, ideologies or great events) in giving form to our colonial history.

The shifts in Hokianga’s fortunes over the 19th century are an important corollary to Webster’s life, but Ashton carefully avoids allowing them to act as a prescriptive element in her narrative. The ebbs and flows of the local economy are more of a backdrop to the exposition of Webster’s life, which she depicts as a series of encounters, including personal ones, from several Northland Māori, such as Tāmati Wāka Nene (Hōne Heke’s uncle) whom he fought with against Heke, to what are still (hopefully) household names, such as John Logan Campbell, Frederick Maning, Governor George Grey and Premier Richard Seddon. Through the detailed vignettes of these meetings, Ashton builds up an impression of the evolution of the colony, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, and also illustrates how the binary perception of Māori and European exists only as a very general construct. Webster was fluent in te reo Māori, for example, and despite his strengthening financial position, his political influence in Hokianga, right up to the close of the 19th century, remained very limited in what was still a Māori-dominated region. The exceptions to the stock-standard narrative of British ascendancy in colonial New Zealand, which Webster embodies, do not just prove the rule, their exceptionality to the stereotype of a linear advance of colonial domination over Māori was the rule, and this is one of the key arguments of this book – one that is of critical importance in coming to grips with the actual rather than presumed nature of this period in our history.

In At The Margin of Empire, Ashton also advances the historiography of New Zealand’s colonial era, which supersedes the “meeting of equals” that was the predominant theme of histories from the 1960s to the 1980s, and the subsequent approach in the 1990s and 2000s, in which a small cohort of mainly Māori writers tended to pursue a more antagonistic and even condescending line on European colonists. While Ashton ably demonstrates that the pursuit of self-interest by settlers was never a politically neutral activity, and that they were undoubtedly (even if unwittingly) agents of Empire, she presents settlers as “neither villains nor heroes, but participants in a dynamic process of interaction”, and demonstrates the sometimes overlooked significance of individuals and everyday events to the economic, social, and political evolution of the country.

Ashton’s elegantly written and thoroughly researched account of Webster is a memorable one but, possibly even more significantly, she has made a convincing plea for us to reassess existing representations of our colonial history, and has moved the historiographical boundaries in a direction where other historians are bound to follow.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

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