Lest We Forget: An Introduction to Robert Noble Adams’ The Counterfeit Seal: A Tale of Otago’s First Settlers
The Counterfeit Seal: A Tale of Otago’s First Settlers seeks to accurately portray how the lives of the early Otago settlers might have been, while elements of romance and deceit are simultaneously interwoven through the narrative as the reader is carried along with relationship of the story’s protagonist. The novel was written and published by Robert Noble Adams in Dunedin, 1897, for Otago’s Jubilee, and was praised in the Otago Witness1 for its “homely diction” which conveyed “with tenderness, albeit without flourish” the struggles of his forefathers.
A Versatile Individual
In some respects Adams was perfectly placed to write such a story, his own growth and maturation having been mirrored by that of the settlement. His parents, John James Adams and Elizabeth (née Noble), arrived at Port Chalmers, Otago, from Scotland (thought John was an Irish national) with two of Adams’ siblings and other Free Church emigrants in August/September of 1848 aboard the Blundell2 – one of four colonist ships to arrive at the settlement that year. It can only be speculated whether Adams’ mother was pregnant when the family first set foot in New Zealand, but his birth in 1849 suggests it is certainly possible; passenger conditions varied depending on whether an individual travelled in steerage or cabin, yet the prospect of a long, overcrowded voyage across the ocean with poor food and hygiene3 would have been daunting to even the most stoic of mothers. Regardless of their social status before their departure from Scotland, fortune smiled upon the Adams family in their new home – nineteenth-century Highland emigration often aimed to recruit those deemed to have “special skills”4, and as a tailor, John Adams certainly fit the bill. Demand for hand-made clothing was high until the early twentieth-century – when factory manufactured clothing became a viable option5 – and just four years after their arrival the family could afford to offer for sale two central Dunedin houses6, later taking up farming as a source of livelihood.
It is difficult to determine what sort of education Adams and his siblings would have received. Although one-eighth of all proceeds from the sale of land at the Otago settlement was to be put towards “religious and educational purposes”7, the colony experienced an unfortunate run in schoolmasters; disease, fatal accidents and employment opportunities at other settlements meant at least five separate individuals acted in the role from 1848 to 1856 , which would have undoubtedly affected the schooling provided for pupils. Regardless, Adams and his siblings evidently received sufficient education to be able to pursue their interests; for example, his brothers, John Archibald Duncan Adams and Alexander Samuel Adams, both trained as solicitors, and went on to found the legal firm Adams Bros8. Adams, however, found his calling in the world of publishing.
Prompted by the discovery of gold in the Tuapeka district in 1961 – and serving as an expansion for its predecessor, the Otago Witness – the Otago Daily Times became New Zealand’s first daily newspaper that same year9. Adams’ employment with the papers began after they entered public ownership under the Otago Daily Times and Witness Company, when he commenced work as a runner for the Otago Daily Times in 186510. Following the trajectory of Adams’ career with the paper in close detail is nigh impossible, his dedication was such that in 1880 he first appeared listed as publisher for the Otago Daily Times and Witness Company11 – a position he would hold over a thirty-year period until his retirement in 1908 . Over this time Adams made other contributions to the more technical aspects of the publishing process, patenting an improved paper-trimming machine in 1896 which was put to use by the Company12; a simple online search produces the complete application for the patent, which is still in effect today. It must, then, have seemed a natural choice for Adams to have The Counterfeit Seal published through the same company he had been engaged with since the age of 16.
"Adams’ Patent Newspaper Trimmer." Otago Daily Times [Dunedin] 27 May. 1896, 10502th ed.: 2. PapersPast. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.
Far from The Counterfeit Seal being his first foray into the literary world, Adams had already published The Origins and History of Good Templary: With an Exposition of its Principles and Objects in 187613; the book was warmly welcomed by the Lifeboat Lodge International Order of Good Templars, which purchased two dozen copies with the hope that the work would “have a long and successful career of usefulness14”. Adams was also a prolific contributor to both the Otago Witness and the Otago Daily Times – his series “Epochs in Irish History” first appeared in September of 1890, and continued to be printed in the Otago Witness until September of 1892, at which time eighty-four different installments had been published15. This focus on British history and identity proved to be a prominent theme in much of Adams’ writing, as did a tendency to glorify the Motherland; his article “Who Are the Saxons?” (1878)16, for example, sought to explore the Germanic origins of the British Empire, which Adams thought of as “the most respected and trusted nation amongst the nations.” Although the Empire “constituted an important aspect of the maintenance of Scots consciousness” (Brooking and Coleman, 20), Adams’ belief in the righteousness of his British ancestors was such that he came to subscribe to the belief known as British Israelism, or Anglo-Israelism.
President of Dunedin’s British-Israel Association17, Adams shared the strong belief of other Anglo-Israelites that the British people were the direct lineal descendants of Israel’s “ten lost tribes”18. He wrote numerous pamphlets on the concept, such as "Beulah, Or, The land of Israel Regenerated: A Pamphlet for the Times in 1885"19, and "Nebuchadnezzar's Dream; or, Britain, the Universal and Last Empire"20. However, contrary to the positive reception experienced by The Counterfeit Seal and his explorations into the origins of the temperance movement, Adams’ expositions on British Israelism appear to have attracted rather pointed criticism. One unimpressed reader’s review of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream referred to the pamphlet as an addition to “the vast number of literary monuments of wasted time and misapplied energy”21. Let it not be said that such denigrations were taken lying down – indeed, Adams was vocal and sharp in his responses to those who questioned his dogmas; he suggested that one of his critics must have read Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream “through the eyes of a monster”22 in order not to have found himself in accordance with Adams’ views. The passionate rhetoric evidenced in the publisher’s informative tracts was not limited to the literary medium, with Adams often entering into public engagements in order to further the causes he deemed worthy; his speech on the unification of the British Empire to the Moray place Congregational Church in 188523 is just one such example.
"Review: Nebuchadnezzar's Dream; Or, Britain The Universal and Last Empire." North Otago Times 1 Aug. 1881, 2840th ed.: 2. PapersPast. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
One can only presume how Adams’ more radical views would have been received within the Otago Baptist community – of which Adams was part – especially given that his brother, Alex, served as president of the Baptist Union during the late twentieth-century (Tucker, 22)24. But however strong his sentiments in relation to the Anglo-Israelite cause were, Adams’ devotion to New Zealand’s Temperance and Prohibition Movements was arguably at least as ardent – possibly due to the close alliance between the Baptist Union and New Zealand Alliance (Tucker, 22), which was dedicated to the abolition of the liquor traffic25. Adams was incredibly active in advancing the Temperance and Prohibition Movements throughout the Otago region; in 1871 he founded the Southland branch of the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Temperance Organisation, which was concerned with educating the public about the injury they believed was caused by alcohol consumption, and encouraging individuals to sign pledges of total abstinence from the drink . Adams was also a dedicated member of the Independent Order of Good Templars (I. O. G. T) ; the participation of his brothers Alex and John in the I. O. G. T somewhat complicates determining Adams’ own position within the group, but it is possible that he may have been Adams to achieve the status of Dunedin Grand Chief Templar, referred to in an article by the Omaru Mail26. It is known for certain, however, that in 1896 Adams was elected chairman of the Temperance Political Committee, a venerable position27.
But once again, Adams’ intense dedication to a controversial cause drew responses that were not always encouraging, despite the Temperance Movement having enjoyed widespread support and victories during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries28. One disgruntled individual wrote to the New Zealand Herald complaining that prohibition activists were introducing sentiments of “spite and hate into society which will do more harm than all the evils of the drink traffic”29, and specifically called for the boycott of the Otago Daily Times in the hopes that Adams – who he identified as one of the individuals “seeking to take [the] lives” of those involved in the liquor trade – would go out of business as a publisher. Heated attacks on his person evidently did not stunt Adams’ commitment to the temperance and prohibition causes however, as he was employed as secretary for the New Zealand Temperance Times in 1876.
Given the various political and social causes Adams involved himself with, it seems almost surprising that he found the time to marry and raise a family in the midst of it. That there are no records of Adams’ marriage having taken place is not unusual. Although birth, marriage and death records were compulsory from 1847 and standardized from approximately 1856 due to government involvement, this does not guarantee that those kept were either accurate or complete30. This also makes it difficult to ascertain the name of Adams’ wife, primarily due to the practice of coverture in marriage – women were to use their husband’s name for all legal purposes31, a linguistic practice which resulted in the publisher’s spouse being referred to as “Mrs. R. N. Adams” in all public media. It is known that the couple had three children, two girls and a boy. Their son, also named Robert Noble Adams, was born in 1875, and received a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree from the New Zealand University in 190132. Although he was appointed house surgeon at Auckland Hospital almost immediately after having received his qualifications, the younger Adams briefly followed his father’s footsteps into the literary world, writing Let's Go Home: The Journal Of A Jubilee Journey in 1936. Understandably, there had been some initial difficulty in determining which Robert Noble Adams wrote The Counterfeit Seal – thankfully, the epigraph at the front of the novel’s dedication to parents who were “members of that brave pioneer band” provided clear signs that the older Adams was the author. Comparatively little is known about couple’s two daughters, who were born on the 14th of October, 188033, and the 3rd of October, 188534, respectively. But at the time of Adams’ death in 1914, it was reported by the Evening Post that the publisher left in his wake a widow, a son, and only one daughter. Early European settlements were often incredibly unclean due to a lack of clean water and an efficient sewage system, and diseases such as typhoid – to which infants and young children were especially susceptible – were prevalent in fast-growing towns, like Dunedin, and could prove fatal if untreated35. Adams’ own death must have been a shock to his family, when he passed away from pneumonia following serious surgery on August 20th36; a newspaper article from the Marlborough Express shows that just seven months earlier Adams had been an active member of the Presbyterian church, receiving a transfer from the Presbyterian Home mission station of Awatere-Flaxbourne to continue his work at the Waikato outfields37.
A Historical Romance
This is hardly the only encounter with an historical figure to occur in the narrative; Eric’s father’s interaction with the Rev. Burns and Captain William Cargill prompts his decision to bring the entire Thomson family along to New Zealand in search of a better life. As historical agents rather than historical instruments of progress (Henderson, 30), Eric and his family are representations of their social milieu – they are portrayed with the intention that the reader view them as indicative of how the average Scottish individual would have come to learn of the Otago settlement, and subsequently fared in the new environment. The industriousness with which Eric and the men of his family work to establish a reasonable dwelling speaks to the prevalent stereotype of Scottish settlers being characterized by “grim determination” (Brooking and Coleman, 49), while Eric’s appointment as Captain Cargill’s secretary after proving himself a competent and well-liked individual at the settlement was likely intended by Adams’ to demonstrate the realization of the Rev. Burns’ promotion of New Zealand as a place where one could earn “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” (Brooking and Coleman, 60,).
“was forming a band of emigrants to go and take possession of a most fertile country, and advised any able-bodied young man who wanted to improve his position in life, and was not afraid of hard work, to join his band and become one of the founders of a new nation” (10).
Eric’s dismissal of the interest in him displayed by an attractive, socially elevated female migrant, and Kirsty’s rejection of David Moir’s advances (despite her uncertainty as to Eric’s affections) also reaffirm the strength of the pair’s bond, suggesting to the reader that a reunion must occur at some point in the narrative. Eric’s proclamation of his love for Kirsty is particularly emotive: “I declare before Heaven, Kirsty, you are the central gem of all the setting, and it’s either you and all the rest, or nothing at all” (45). And while Eric is never under actual threat of an incident which might prevent his reuniting with Kirsty, the young woman believes this to be so when word is received that an unidentified ship was wrecked on its way to New Zealand.
“Several times [Kirsty and Eric] resolved to part, and when the words of loving farewell were partly spoken they faded into silence, and their arms held them closer than before as if to separate were the most difficult of all operations” (66-67)
It undoubtedly worked in the religiously-minded Adams’ favour that “notwithstanding the religious orientation of Romantic writers, they were certainly biblically well read, and their texts were frequently interwoven with scriptural allusion” (931)42. Such allusions are repeatedly seen throughout The Counterfeit Seal, though occasionally so subtly and in such an apparently offhand manner that only those familiar with the history of the Presbytery – and with a comprehensive knowledge of the bible – would notice or understand them. The introduction of the Thomson family’s Edinburgh minister, for instance, as he blesses them before their departure for New Zealand does not initially appear to have any religious significance beyond a devout Presbyterian family seeking the approval of their spiritual guide. And yet the source of the reverend’s name, G. Wishart, comes from the very beginnings of the Protestant movement, with the real George Wishart (1513 – 1546) having been an early martyr of the Scottish Reformation43. Even Kirsty’s surname, Knox, is rife with religious connotations – John Knox (1514 – 1572) was the foremost leader of Scotland’s Reformation, and developed the democratic form of government adopted by the Church of Scotland44. One can only imagine Adams chuckling to himself as he wrote of the Knox family patriarch being employed in the creation of the Free Church Lay Association’s constitution.
But for all the ways in which Adams relates a story typical of the historical romance genre, there are instances in which The Counterfeit Seal denies its own categorization. The adventure or travel aspect so common to romances of the period (Saunders, 408)45 is somewhat absent from the novel, with Adams completely omitting any description of the long sea journey required for the Thomsons to reach their new home. Arguably, this may be because Adams recognized the difficulty in romanticizing the voyage from Scotland to New Zealand – travel conditions were often unpleasant, characterized by vermin infestations, poor food, and worse hygiene . Similarly, while Eric participates in a fast-paced and exciting pig hunt following his arrival in Otago, this adventure are not characterized by the melodramatic or fantastical conventions often employed in romance narratives (Lawrence, 122-123). Instead, it is shown as a “favourite pastime for young men” (254), much the same way cricket or football would have been viewed in Adams’ time. We might think of this as Adams tending towards naïve realism in his writing, which “usually involve some degree of fictionalisation, usually in the form of a romance plot to hold together the bits of observation and experience” (Lawrence, 122). Understood thus, The Counterfeit Seal uses its romance plot to present slightly fictionalised accounts of the pioneer experience, and of the land and its indigenous people as first encountered.
Even as he acknowledges the importance of performing a hongi at first meeting in Māori culture, Adams simultaneously projects the image of New Zealand’s indigenous population as being uncivilized in comparison to their Scottish guests. That the proliferation of European mores is represented as being at the acquiesce of Taiaroa is symptomatic of the naïve realism previously mentioned – Adams makes romanticized assumptions about the reception of European settlers by Māori that are in observance with his aim not only to present Otago’s early settlement faithfully, but positively as well. It may even be that Adams was trying to retrospectively given credence to a nineteenth-century expectation that the Māori would be “willing - even delighted - to work for the white-skinned newcomers.” (Millen,)47. Certainly, when Eric is encouraging newly arrived immigrants to allow Māori individuals to carry them ashore, he reassures them that “[the Māori] don’t mind wetting their legs to serve their pakeha friends, and, indeed, look on it as an honour to be permitted to perform such a service” (296). Not incidentally, discussions of racial difference during the 1890s came to be dominated by calls for Māori to be assimilated into the European race, a trend reflected in the literary and ethnographic writings of the period (Stafford and Williams, 129). It is not out of the realm of possibility to suggest that The Counterfeit Seal may have been one minor contribution to the body of literature making such calls.
“He was introduced by Dick Driver, the Pilot, to Mr Burns, to whom he gave a most cordial greeting, and after the European fashion shook hands, but felt much inclined to present his beautifully marked nose that the reverend gentleman and he might confirm their friendship after the manner most significant to the Native mind, but as his new acquaintance seemed to make no advance in that direction, the old chief, a little disappointed, accepted the new manner of greeting as one of the improvements of the coming civilization” (118).
Adams sees New Zealand as a country of untapped potential before the arrival of his forefathers, and thus (whether intentionally or not) discounts Māori settlement of the land – there is a strong suggestion in the passage that the Scottish settlers are not dispossessing the native people of their home, but are instead taking charge of a neglected and untouched landscape. This presentation of an untamed New Zealand wilderness is hardly unique, as Stafford and Williams tell us
“Before them lay the teeming face of nature, producing nothing but a growth of useless and noxious plants, from a soil rich in possibilities for the full satisfaction of human wants. But only to be brought into service by resolute and persevering labour… The very rankness of the most useless plants, and the coarseness of the grass, were unmistakable signs of a certain reward for honest work” (140)
It may be tempting to judge either Adams or The Counterfeit Seal poorly on the basis of this racial bias, but it must be understood that both the author and the novel are in effect products of their time. Idealized interpretations Māori mentality, land ownership, and the role European settlement in New Zealand history are certainly portrayed as givens, but to take this as an indication of the actual reality of the time would certainly be misinformed.
“The portrayal of dilapidated Māori land is a common settler trope of self-justification… At a time of increased settlement and competition for land, this stance is employed to justify further land alienation… Either Māori are not here… or they are here but must forfeit their land due to poor stewardship, yielding it up to the superior farming skills of the settler” (244)
Fact in Fiction
In 1810 Australian newspaper The Gazette printed a letter from Alexander Berry – Supercargo of the City of Edinburgh – reporting that all on board the vessel Boyd (save a boy, two women and a child) had been massacred and eaten by Māori in New Zealand (Wevers, 12)48. The circumstances surrounding this event are murky, with multiple accounts having been given, and blame laid on both the Boyd’s captain and the Māori chief Te Pahi (who allegedly led the attack) for causing the incident. Whatever the case was, the oft-referenced story of the ill-fated Boyd – in conjunction with similar stories of Māori cannibalism and their treatment of Europeans – led to the association of New Zealand with murder and cannibalism becoming relatively commonplace (Wevers, 24). That the Thomson family would be warned off emigration to Otago by their friends for fear of the New Zealand natives would very probably have been the reaction many New Zealand-bound European settlers encountered from their loved ones. Similarly, Eric agreeing to leave Kirsty behind in Scotland so that he might build a ready-made home for her arrival in Scotland is reflective of an actual trend in Scottish settler society at the time; as the colonizing movement continued, more young, ostensibly single men emigrated to the country, only to be followed one or two years later by the ‘young single women’ to whom they were betrothed (Brooking and Coleman, 113).
“I have read in a recent copy of the Scotsman of some terrible doings by New Zealand natives. Their treachery is there described as of the lowest and most cunning nature. While they pretend to be friends of the missionaries and of whalers who have gone to live among them, they do so merely from policy, and when it suits themselves they fall on them in cold blood in the most ferocious manner, and massacre men, women, and children, and then eat their bodies after roasting them in a great oven dug out of the earth” (73)
It perhaps speaks to Adams’ desire to “[point] out… something of the real life-character of our Early Days” (298) that what we might consider the more tangible elements of The Counterfeit Seal are startlingly accurate. The narrative informs us that the Philip Laing (one of the first settler ships to Otago) set sail from Greenock, Scotland, on the 27th of November, 1848, and later announces to the reader that “it was on Saturday morning, the 15th April, 1848, that Captain Elles brought his ship round Poatiri headland” (106). Further, it is narrated that upon the of the Philip Laing in Otago, all the recently arrived settlers gather aboard the John Wickliffe and in their first united act “[mingled] their voices in the return of praise and thanks giving to Him who had so signally watched over them” (123). The Cyclopedia of New Zealand49 confirms Adams timeline – the Philip Laing is, in fact, recorded as having left Scotland, and then arrived in New Zealand on the dates provided by Adams. In a novel written by such a religiously minded author it might be tempting to consider the communal prayer meeting an embodiment of wishful thinking, however Ernest Merrington50, in his work on the Rev. Thomas Burns, also writes that “when the Philip Laing arrived about three weeks after the John Wickliffe, however, the opportunity was taken to mark the event with suitable thanksgiving to Almighty God” (171).
Whether The Counterfeit Seal succeeded in leaving its reader “pleasantly entertained and instructed”51 – as promised by the Otago Witness – is certainly a matter of opinion. But it is hoped that we, the reader, may engage with the work of Robert Noble Adams in appreciation for the message he sought to convey, and respect for the generations he desired to honour.
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