The good, the bad and the ugly, John O’Leary

Scoundrels and Eccentrics of the Pacific
John Dunmore
Upstart Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988516219

William Deans: The Passionate Pioneer
Louise Deans
Wily Publications, $35.00,
ISBN: 9781927167342

Just as Australia’s Outback has its “characters” (according to popular legend, at least), so that other vast open space near us in New Zealand, the Pacific, has or had its eccentrics – people who, for a variety of reasons, found their own settled societies too small, too tight, or too law-abiding, and who preferred the watery immensity of the planet’s largest ocean, dotted with its constellations of islands, as the stage set for their lives.

These lives could be, indeed often were, disreputable, as John Dunmore’s compendium Scoundrels and Eccentrics of the Pacific illustrates. There was Captain “Bully” Hayes, trader, blackbirder, and theatre impresario, who specialised in running up debts and then sailing away from his creditors (he also specialised in marriage, it seems, leading to the writing of a farce, performed in Sydney, titled “Captain Hayes, the Husband of Many Wives”). There was James Proctor, who survived the American Civil War to set himself up on an estate in Fiji, where he lived like a Southern plantation owner, before turning blackbirder (he enticed Islanders into his clutches by displaying his artificial leg). And there was the Marist priest Father Emmanuel Rougier, who combined Catholic fervour (he made bonfires of Methodist bibles in Fiji) with canny commercialism (he prospered greatly as a trader, even buying Christmas Island from where he issued local bank notes and postage stamps).

Such examples might suggest that Dunmore’s scoundrels and eccentrics were all white European or American males, but, in fact, several of his book’s characters were women, and one was Asian. We learn of Mary Bryant, who in 1791 escaped from Botany Bay and managed to sail all the way to Kupang in Timor. Unluckily for her and her band of fellow escapees, they had arrived only a few months before Captain Edwards, RN, who had been sailing the ocean looking for the Bounty mutineers. Soon, Mary was back in prison in London, expecting to receive a sentence of hard labour. But her luck turned, with James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson, taking up her cause, the result being a pardon and a pension of ten pounds a year. Not all scoundrels, it seems, come to bad ends.

Of rather higher social status was Queen Emma (Emma Coe), a well-born Samoan with an American father, who traded in and around Papua New Guinea with her “husband” Thomas Farrell. Clearly a woman of talent, she led a stylish life in Rabaul, being described on one occasion as sporting “a tiara adorned with diamonds resting upon her flowing dark hair [and] wearing a long dress of white satin with a train carried by a dozen small island boys dressed in a variety of baroque costumes.” 

Long before Barton and Coe sailed the Pacific, however, came Xu Fu, a courtier of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, who was dispatched to find the herb of eternal life for his master. He made several state-sponsored voyages eastward, possibly reaching Japan; but he never brought back the magical herb, and after his master’s death he found it politic to disappear, returning maybe to a colony he had quietly founded. Was Xu Fu a conman, playing on the first emperor’s vanity and insecurity to feather his own island nest? No-one will ever know, but his tale adds an intriguing Asian element to the Euro-American narratives in Dunmore’s book, and reminds us that other cultures, not just Western ones, have explored the world’s greatest ocean.

Mention of “other cultures” brings us to what is perhaps the greatest weakness of this work – the fact that the indigenous peoples of the Pacific are barely mentioned, appearing only in passing as stereotypical pathetic victims or murderous savages. Were there no indigenous scoundrels and eccentrics? Did no-one in Fiji or Hawai‘i dream big and bad? But to ask such a question is to break a butterfly upon a wheel, for Dunmore’s book is not a work of scholarship, being rather a cheerful romp through the more disreputable side of Pacific history – good for a curious teenager, maybe, but not the serious adult reader. A number of prints and early photographs illustrate the text, and a select bibliography points the way to further reading.

Far more respectable than the scoundrels and eccentrics mentioned above was William Deans, a Scot who emigrated to New Zealand in 1839, arriving as one of the very first settlers in Port Nicholson. Later, he moved to the South Island, taking a lease on land that would subsequently become Christchurch. Later again, his brother John established the Homebush farm, whose homestead was destroyed by the earthquake of 2010.

To tell William’s story, Louise Deans has used a first-person narrative based on her own archival research and William’s letters, which are stored in the Canterbury Museum. William’s is a voice from beyond the grave – indeed, the book opens with an eerie prelude in which his ghost contemplates his bones as they lie at the bottom of Cook Strait (William drowned in a shipwreck while en route from Christchurch to Sydney). Such a Gothic flourish soon gives way, however, to a more cheerful account of William’s childhood, in which he tells the reader of his rough-and-tumble childhood in the Ayrshire hills. The writing is easy, flowing, though every now and then a modernism (“this was seriously bad news”) grates, suggesting as it does a contemporary, rather than a 19th-century, sensibility.

Exactly why William decided to take the risk of emigrating to the other side of the world is not made clear, but off he goes, travelling down to London to take ship for New Zealand. Deans well describes the sense of nervous excitement that gripped William and his fellow emigrants as they waited for the Aurora to depart:

We did not belong anywhere any more. We were the flotsam and jetsam of life, severed from our communities and families, floating on the ocean till such time as we, God willing, could create another home. We were people in transit, nomads, gypsies. All that we owned in the world was with us. We had cut ourselves off from our past and our future was unknown. We existed only in the present. It was all we had, there was nothing else. We clung to each other and to our belongings. Each article assumed a special significance, a proof of existence, a precious symbol of a past life, a life raft to the future. It was a conditional existence where, if we stayed in the present, we were safe. 

Deans, through the voice of William, vividly chronicles the trials and tribulations of the long voyage that follows, and the mixed joys awaiting the emigrants when they stepped ashore at Petone, where conditions were not as Wakefield’s New Zealand Company had promised. William’s disappointment with the Company’s way of doing things deepened into frustration and anger, and before long he took himself off on an exploring expedition, walking to Taranaki and back to scope out the land. It was an astonishing feat but – alas – Deans’ writing here is rather pedestrian, being based (I assume) on William’s own rather matter-of-fact letters or diaries.

The pedestrian note continues as William tells us of his return to Port Nicholson and his subsequent move south to the Port Cooper (Canterbury) plains, where he thought he could find better land, in larger quantities, for farming. While there are some interesting facts about the founding of the Canterbury settlement I did not know (for example, that it was first intended for the Wairarapa), there is too much boring detail about things like butter and potatoes, which William sold to the new settlers. 

In particular, there is towards the end of the book, page after page about William’s feud with John Godley, the New Zealand Company’s representative in Canterbury, which centred on the compensation which William and his brother John sought after losing their original 400 acres, which they had leased from Ngāi Tahu. Such compensation was enormously important for the brothers, no doubt; but it doesn’t make for riveting reading, and the details could have been vastly abbreviated. I wanted to know what it felt like to be a settler in a new land at the edge of the world; but Deans’ narrative, focused as it is on questions of legal rights and acreage, rarely conveys this.

William’s account of his life ends with his ill-fated voyage to Sydney to buy sheep. Prosaic and pragmatic as ever, William laments his drowning as he “still had too much to do and death was inconvenient.” This does not seem the farewell comment of a “passionate” man about to enter eternity, and, indeed, the book’s subtitle is something of a misnomer in this respect, since William’s only passions appear to have been for land and money; of matters of the heart, or intellect, or anything much beyond the practical here-and-now, there is little sign. The truth is that William seems to have been a worthy individual but not, perhaps, a hugely interesting one. It’s a problem that Deans has not been able to solve in her reconstruction of his life.

John O’Leary is a writer and researcher. He recently published a biography of the polemical 19th-century historian George Rusden and is currently working on an account of Sir George Grey’s intellectual life.

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