Necromancy and piety, John O’Leary

A Blighted Fame: George S Evans 1802-1868, A Life
Helen Riddiford
Victoria University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780864738967

For Gallant Service Rendered: The Life & Times of Samuel Austin
Barbara Mabbett
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877577710


Biography is a strange genre, despite our familiarity with it. There’s something uncanny about it, in that it’s a kind of necromancy – a raising of the dead, so to speak. It can also be an act of piety, a way of honouring those who have passed on – an assertion, in the face of oblivion, that an individual’s life had meaning and significance. Piety of this kind lies behind the two books reviewed here, which describe the lives of two colonial New Zealanders who have slipped into the historical twilight.

In the case of George Evans, the reason for the biography is partly familial (the author married into the Riddiford clan, one of whose maternal ancestors, the widow Harriet, became Evans’s wife). But it’s also historical, for, as Helen Riddiford points out, Evans was an important figure in the early days of European colonisation in Wellington. He was in many ways the “father” of the infant city; it was he, in fact, who was instrumental in moving the main settlement from flood-prone Petone to Thorndon, and it was he who fought for the settlers’ rights in the face of a hostile government based far to the north, which viewed the New Zealand Company and its works with considerable suspicion. Yet he has been more or less forgotten, though his name survives in the form of Evans Bay.

Wellington owes Evans a substantial debt, it is clear, and Riddiford’s book is an attempt to honour it. Fortunately, Evans makes the task easy, for he was a talented, interesting person who (in typical 19th-century fashion) enjoyed a number of careers as a barrister, editor and politician, not merely in Wellington but in London and Melbourne, too. I say “enjoy”, but – and the book’s title suggests this – Evans never quite fulfilled his early promise and died in some respects a disappointed man. In part, this was due to his close association with the New Zealand Company and its architect, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whom many distrusted and whose reputation for sharp practice stained those who associated with him. In part, though, Evans’s blighted fame was due to his own character, for he could be temperamental and prone to lapses in judgement. These faults are especially evident in his political career in Australia, which Riddiford considers at length in the second half of her book. The great error he made there, she judges, was his failure to support the extension of the vote in Victoria, despite his earlier endorsement of universal suffrage.

Evans was known for his thorough scholarship and ornate, ponderous oratorical style, and Riddiford’s book shares something of this weightiness, running to some 500 pages complete with appendices, endnotes, bibliography and (at the beginning of every chapter) chunks of verse from poets such as Virgil and Shakespeare. It’s an exhaustive account of Evans’s life, and is in some respects exhausting: as I read the book, I did wonder whether I needed to know quite so much detail about the ins and outs of Evans’s dealings with the government up north, or the ups and downs of his political career in Australia. Sometimes, as they say, less is more, and I feel Riddiford could have abbreviated some of her material in the interests of readability.

That said, there are some splendid passages, such as the one detailing the nightmare six-month voyage to New Zealand that Evans and his fellow New Zealand Company colonists made on the Adelaide. The captain and his passengers squabbled so much that the former was scheduled to fight no fewer than four duels by the time the ship reached Cape Town (including one with Evans himself). Fortunately, Evans did not in the end fight the captain; if he had, and been killed, the future of Wellington might have turned out very differently.

Family piety, too, lies behind For Gallant Service Rendered, Barbara Mabbett’s account of the life of her great-great-uncle Samuel Austin (the title refers to the citation on a medal he won). Born in a linen-weaving town in Ulster at a time when human weavers were being replaced by mechanical looms, Austin escaped boredom and poverty by joining the British army. Pretty soon he was in New Zealand, where he took part in fighting against Māori in and around Wellington. Discharged honourably from his regiment, he subsequently settled in Whanganui, where he and his wife Lavinia raised a family.

There he would have remained, working as a labourer and cultivating his garden, had not his military background made him an asset in the warfare that broke out in Taranaki in the 1860s. Austin was drafted into the Whanganui militia, pursuing Hauhau up hill and down dale as far as the Bay of Plenty. He saw plenty of killing and destruction en route; he even managed to acquire the sacramental communion cup from which Kereopa had drunk the blood of the murdered missionary Karl Völkner, which the Māori rebel had abandoned as he and his men fled the approach of Austin and his men. (On his return to Whanganui, it should be said, Austin handed the cup over to the Reverend Richard Taylor, for he was nothing if not honest – a “stirling settler” in fact.) Austin probably wanted a breather after his military exertions (which involved a lot of arduous bush-scouring), but he was soon back in service, first in Taranaki in the war against Tītokowaru, and then in the protracted, frustrating hunt for Te Kooti, which took Austin and his men all over the rugged interior of the central North Island. The last part of Austin’s life was more peaceful, as he laboured in his garden and supported the local Orange Lodge (once an Ulster Protestant, always an Ulster Protestant).

As this swift sketch of Austin’s life shows, he led an interesting existence. The problem is that he himself had limited education and the comments he left – largely diary notes – were very simple. Occasionally there are flashes of humour (he described one Private Thomas Handley as being “as much use as a Goat, in fact not so much”), but there is little evidence of a broader perspective on the momentous project of colonisation and invasion in which he played a part. This was not Austin’s fault of course, but it renders Mabbett’s book somewhat pedestrian. It’s a problem with biographies of family members: they are fascinating for descendants of the ancestor in question, but are less so for other readers for whom a genuinely interesting subject personality is important. That said, Mabbett’s book is well written, with a good flowing narrative and plenty of helpful drawings and photographs.

John O’Leary’s biography of the controversial 19th-century historian and indigenous rights activist George Rusden will be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing later this year.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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