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A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand

Fifteen: Printing in colonial New Zealand: An insular history?

page 235

Fifteen: Printing in colonial New Zealand: An insular history?

A few weeks before the 1995 Auckland conference on the history of the book, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the Straits Times , which started publication in Singapore in July 1845. Though threatened by rivals at different times since then, the newspaper has served Singapore well, and is now in a position in which no rival seems likely to supplant it — provided it and the government of Singapore remain on reasonable terms.

That they are on reasonable terms in the 1990s was clear from the celebrations. The occasion was marked by the publication of an excellent history1 commissioned from a mainstream historian, of which a specially bound edition was presented to all the guests at a very elaborate dinner which Singapore Press Holdings gave for 1400 or so diplomats and captains of industry, with the Prime Minister as guest of honour who gave the address. But there was also singing, dancing, music, fireworks, video-clips, and multimedia entertainment of the kind which is today seen as appropriate to mark an important rite of passage for a successful commercial venture in the media industries. For there is no doubt that like the New Zealand Herald, or other New Zealand newspapers which have a respectably long record of publication, this newspaper is now more than a newspaper, more than part of the regional print culture alone. The Straits Times today is one of the media, its parent company obtaining and repackaging information, and page 236 providing on-line services of a kind which nobody could have foreseen at the paper's centennial.

We are still as far away from 'the death of the book' as we have ever been. So how is the history of printing to be regarded? We might say, following the boast sometimes seen in old type specimens 'With twenty-six soldiers of lead ... I will conquer the world'; or, if inclined to classical quotation, go to a phrase used in the earliest days of printing: Typographica, ars omnium artium conservatrix — which if scarcely less boastful can more readily be justified.

Because thought about the function of typography and what printing history ought to be was powerfully affected in New Zealand by the writings of Stanley Morison or Oliver Simon in the Fleuron , and by the publicity so skilfully prepared for the Monotype Corporation by Beatrice Warde, these boasts might be more immediately accepted in New Zealand. But these descriptions of printing tend to be regarded as good and true when looked at from the perspective of those already enthralled by printing history. Even the leaders of Singaporean industry and opinion who were at the Straits Times dinner, would have accepted that such self-congratulatory boasts were reasonable — for that occasion. Politeness would have precluded too many smiles of disbelief.

In any other circumstances, the credibility gap would be too great. Every occupational group, politicians and prostitutes, medics and media moguls, authors and academics, has its own egocentric approach to life and society. 'With twenty-six soldiers of lead' is a fine and memorable phrase, but it is no more to be taken as the way people (other than those in the book trade) will regard the history of printing and of the book, than the boast of the blacksmith that 'By hammer and hand / All work doth stand'. I doubt whether many of us would actually concede that to be a complete statement of the truth.

The first point I wish to make, then, is that if the history of the book in New Zealand is to be regarded as part of mainstream history of the country (and not just a harmless but low-value hobby occupation like, say, some of the genealogical research so frequently seen), it has precisely the value, the weight, that will be given to it by educated New Zealanders as a whole. No more than that. If the average New Zealander attaches no importance at all to the typographic manifestations of the history of this country, page 237 and even those with tertiary education can be inclined to dismiss histories of printing as misdirected effort, then it is necessary to think rather carefully about the kinds of historical writing, and the kinds of research, which are needed for New Zealand.

As an enthusiast for the subject, I would personally much prefer to see detailed specialist studies which will augment my own knowledge with fine detail, though I will readily admit that there is force to the argument that good generalised historical accounts can be prepared only when the detail is known and understood, in the way the French school of printing history has shown so well. (The volumes in the Elibank Press series 'Sources for the History of Print Culture in New Zealand' provide exactly the sort of thing needed.)2 Nonetheless, specialist histories which can be appreciated only by other specialists, however excellent in their way, are not what ought to be the main thrust of the New Zealand historians' efforts; rather, for university departments and individuals to recognise that writing popular history is necessary and respectable, and to devote more time to writing that popular history.

In saying this, I am preaching what I have not practised. Although some of my work on fine printing has been an attempt at the general overview, much of my time has been spent in exploring dusty byways of book trade history which nobody else thought of much use.3 These ranged from the unpublished (and, I have to confess, unpublishable) 17th-century manuscript history of printing which I edited for my master's degree, to accounts of commendatory verses by printers in the little island of Grenada, or of the tribulations of newspaper printing in the Swedish West Indies: yes, there was a colony forming the Swedish West Indies; not many people know that, as the saying goes — and how many care, even in Sweden? These were fragments picked up here or there in record offices and libraries, fragments which seemed to me when put together to reveal a pattern. But at best such things are only footnotes to the history of printing, and the general reader does not read footnotes.

This is not to deny the importance of picking up fragments and looking to see whether they can be fitted in to a larger jigsaw. When the late Rollo Silver told the infant American Printing History Association that the works they published should contain 'all the footnotes fit to print',4 I applauded, just as the late Graham Bagnall would have applauded, since the sloppy amateurism and page 238 lack of referencing in much printing history of the past was something to avoid. Equally, we need to avoid the pedantry of over-referencing and other pseudo-scholasticism which is a regrettable feature of some modern 'academic' writing. Good history should be readable. Articles of the kinds which appear in such journals as Printing history, Publishing history, the Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, or the Turnbull Library record, are important, of course. These journals are the vehicles which convey some of the raw materials from which histories of the book are to be written. We will be mistaken, however, if we take the detailed studies in these journals as what is needed. They are only the raw materials. If New Zealand produces only specialist work written by specialists, intended only to be read by other specialists, we shall fail. Sometimes mainstream historians seem to have forgotten that their function is to interpret the past for lay readers of the present. Admittedly, not many of us can be Beagleholes or Boorstins, but it's no bad thing to keep in mind that our highest objective should be writing history accessible and interesting to the lay reader.

The second point I wish to emphasise — and I write as a former sojourner in New Zealand, fond of the country and its peoples — is that the history of the book in New Zealand is not a history of authorship, publishing and printing and bookselling, and of those who practised the crafts in these islands since 1840. Of course these topics are part of the history of the book in New Zealand, but they are a much more minor part than most New Zealanders seem to recognise. To be insular, to concentrate only on what happened in the land of the long white cloud, will be an unhelpful and ultimately untruthful course to follow. Recent work by Bill Bell (of the History of the Book in Scotland) on the print culture as part of the Scottish emigrant experience,5 for example, is part of Scottish history, but is also part of the history of New Zealand and Canada and the West Indies, and it will be a distinct weakness if New Zealand print historians don't recognise that it is core to their own study.

About 25 years ago, I was present at an international library conference being held in Jamaica, whose theme was 'the challenge of change'. At one of the sessions the speaker, a very bright and able librarian from one of the Commonwealth Caribbean countries, was addressing the difficulties faced by one large research library whose stock of 17th, 18th and 19th century 'West page 239 Indiana', including many unique examples of local printing as well as substantial manuscript material, was visibly deteriorating because of the harsh climatic conditions. He advanced the argument that their problems in conservation and preservation were mostly of minor importance, and that the library needed to do nothing to preserve the collection.6 The books in question, he said, were the books of the plantocracy, of the planters, merchants and traders from Europe and North America who had made fortunes in the islands when they were jewels in the crown of the European colonising powers. They were not the newspapers, books and intellectual baggage of the negro slaves whose labour provided that prosperity, and so (he argued) the books had no relevance at all for the modern West Indians who were descendants of those slaves. If they had importance, it was as part of the history of the European colonisers; if the books were worth conserving, let them do it.

His proposition was not accepted. Hard-pressed though they were then (and are even more today) West Indian librarians accepted that it was their responsibility to preserve such material from the time before 'Massa day done' for the historian's use. They accepted that these books were and are part of the intellectual history of those islands, just as books printed in or imported into the North American colonies, or the craftsmen and people who created and traded in them are part of the intellectual history of the United States. Books and magazines and newspapers imported from Britain (or elsewhere) into India, or Australia, or New Zealand, are similarly part of the intellectual history of those countries, in the same way that today one would have to pay regard to the influence of Hollywood on the minds and thoughts of young people across the globe.

The recent fashion in the writing of book histories has been to concentrate on individual countries — the book in America, in Australia, in Britain, and more recently in Canada. To adopt the same approach for New Zealand will be tempting. What happened in reading, printing and publishing in New Zealand in the 19th century was of course in some ways different from anywhere else in the world; and the temptation for the writer of book history here will be to strive for novelty, by emphasising the distinctively New Zealand features.

Nevertheless, what happened here was only one manifestation of what was happening all over the world in the places to which page 240 people from Britain (or other British territories, or from the United States) went as missionaries, settlers, traders, entrepreneurs or artisans. Such people went to the British colonies certainly, just as many emigrated to the United States; but they went also to Argentina, China, Madagascar, Thailand, Venezuela and all sorts of places one hardly thinks of as having British connections at all. And the development of book history in these places was affected by the intellectual baggage those emigrants brought with them. When looking, for instance, at a book published in the 1890s by Kelly & Walsh, it's often difficult to appreciate the conditions under which it was printed in Shanghai, so closely is it modelled on the books from London publishers.

This shows where there are two serious problems with the current approach to the history of the book. By concentrating on nations as they exist today, we are forced to play down or even leave out the international connections and international trade. Concentrating on individual nations and their differences, we discourage the study of commonalities. One can see this easily enough by looking at histories of the book which have been published in the past: because the history of the book in Britain is so extensive it has been tempting (and so much easier) for researchers to think only about the British Isles and not of the 'Greater Britain' which was supplied from London.

Even in Britain, much writing on the book has been the writing of metropolitan history, and the history of the book in provincial England and in Wales was neglected far too long.7 In the United States, separate studies of printing in each colony, each state, are commoner but it is perhaps natural that the historians have looked inward at the continental United States and hardly at all at whether what was happening was peculiar or unusual or on the other hand quite typical of what was happening as printing spread to other parts of the globe. Although the history of printing in the West Indies is part of the larger history of printing in Greater Britain and in the American colonies, more than often today it is regarded as though it belongs to neither.

Just as Americans dwell on their own patch, there is a natural tendency for New Zealanders to dwell on what was novel or different about the history of printing in these islands. Nowhere else in the world was there a Māori community, and the human interest in the story of the early mission presses is very great. But it needs to be recognised printing in Māori for and by the Māori page 241 people achieved very much less than was hoped by the missionaries and the Māori with whom they worked. In the history of the book in New Zealand, the work of the mission presses and the challenges and achievements of printing in Māori are worth including in general accounts because of their intrinsic interest, but they are not an important part of that history at all. The mission presses were a blind alley; almost as much an irrelevance to the mainstream history of the book in New Zealand as, say, printing in Cherokee has turned out to be for the history of the book in the United States.

Of course it is interesting to study why the mission presses failed so badly. To do this effectively cannot be achieved by looking at them as a specifically New Zealand phenomenon, through strained comparisons with other printing and publishing ventures in New Zealand. It demands comparison with the successes and failures of missionary printing in other societies. There were plenty of such ventures at the time in other Polynesian cultures and elsewhere in the Pacific, so to look sideways at book trade history in Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji is desirable anyway, irrespective of the common mission press background. Less obvious, but potentially much more fruitful and illuminating for the mindsets of Yate, Colenso, the Catholic mission printers and their backers in Britain and France, would be studies of mission printing in Madagascar or some of the Chinese missions, since these are more likely to reveal what they thought they were about.

What printers, booksellers, bookbinders and others actually did to make a living, once they were in New Zealand is obviously of interest. Having myself roamed from one Commonwealth country to another rather as many an unsuccessful printer or newspaperman did in the 19th century, I am perhaps particularly alert to peripatetic printers, and inclined to think that this was a very common thing. Movement among members of the book trade ('going on the tramp') was certainly common enough a century ago within the United States or the British Isles. We don't know yet how common it was within the British Empire; but what we do know is that for a great part of the 19th century and beyond, practically every compositor or pressman or journalist or bookseller who worked in New Zealand came from outside. He8 came bringing his already-formed ideas of what the compositor, pressman or journalist should do, however much his subsequent experience of New Zealand life might modify those page 242 ideas. The inward-looking insular approach to history will never reveal how these ideas were formed and nourished, but it is a matter worth attention.

Giving this attention is not at all easy. In the days I was preoccupied by the West Indian book trade, I became interested in William Aikman, whom I knew as a bookbinder and subsequently newspaper proprietor and master-printer in Kingston, Jamaica, just after the war of American Independence. Knowing that originally he came from Bo'ness in East Lothian told me something more about him, but in the end it was his time spent as a bookseller and binder in Maryland which enabled me to form a truer picture of his expertise at his trade, and to recognise him as a pioneer of much more importance in Jamaica than was immediately obvious. But to work on Aikman while I was based in Jamaica, required me to be sufficiently engaged by the research to go to the United States and use the sources available in a number of the eastern cities there, and if I lacked cash, connections or competence to do that, I needed to find an American collaborator to do it for me.

Today, the ease of e-mail contact facilitates collaboration over large distances, but there can still be difficulties in 'foreign' research, as a New Zealand example shows. Michael Hamblyn has recently provided us with an excellent study of John Stone and the directories he published in Dunedin a century ago.9 He did a very good job based on the file of Stone's business letters (preserved in a private collection) and with information from the directories he published. It is clear from Hamblyn's article that, before he ever came to New Zealand, Stone had already gathered some experience as a niche-publisher of directories and timetables in the London suburbs; and it is altogether understandable that (being based in Dunedin himself) Hamblyn just reported these things at second-hand, using an 1898 obituary of Stone as the authority.

Hamblyn has fulfilled one of the historian's tasks admirably: he has interested the reader. I now want to know more about Stone. But it's now necessary (if the interest is to be satisfied) for somebody to look closely at Stone and his career in Kent and at that of one of his business associates, that very interesting character Crosby Lockwood, whose name crops up over and over again when one is looking at certain aspects of the book trade.

Whether Stone was typical or unusual is worth knowing. One can probably assume that in the long run his business in Kent was page 243 a failure, or so far from being a success that he thought a fresh start in New Zealand was a good idea. Whether people who move from Britain to the Antipodes (or those who make the reverse journey, like a Jack Lindsay, a Count Potocki or an Eric Partridge) have more, or less, to them than those who stay put, is worth asking. An insular history of the book provides no clues. In the example given, of course I am not suggesting answers could or should have been attempted by Michael Hamblyn. He would have needed a collaborator in Kent to explore the resources of local history collections there. We frequently need friends in other places, people who will follow up particular questions to show the other side of the coin. Alan Loney, for instance (himself a good example of the way the New Zealander can establish strong links with people overseas), has speculated very interestingly about the sources of information on the new typography that operated on Denis Glover and others in the 1930s.10 There is quite a lot of data abroad that provides some answers — one, which I found by chance in Los Angeles, is given as an Appendix — but who will scan these records to try to determine whom they contacted, and with what results?

The historian of the book who is based in New Zealand needs friends abroad who will assist with such enquiries, but it is not a one-way matter. In Singapore (to return for a moment to Mary Turnbull's history of the Straits Times) personnel from New Zealand played a significant role in press history 40 or 50 years ago; important from the Singaporean perspective, but also of New Zealand interest since their work in Asia was (one would guess) often incidental to careers which later took these people back to New Zealand. Similarly, in my own work on the history of the Golden Cockerel Press (that quintessentially English private press run by Irishmen), quite apart from the indirect influences which worked on it through the artist John Buckland Wright, there were several instances of direct New Zealand influences which came as a surprise to me. No doubt I noticed these because of my own sojourn in New Zealand, and my years spent in Wellington certainly provided me with friends and professional colleagues to whom I can turn for assistance. Getting the information was not a real problem.

But who is likely to explore English or American or other repositories with an eye to interesting New Zealand connections? Unless a method is developed for linking together the teams preparing formal histories of the book in the different English- page 244 speaking countries, it won't happen and we shall all be the poorer in studying the history of the book. The Internet, e-mail and things like the SHARP discussion group now make invisible colleges much simpler than they once were.

As stated above, it is important for large countries to help preserve the records of smaller ones. My personal experience of this came in the context of the West Indies and the triangular trade, but there are implications for New Zealand, a de facto colonial or neo-colonial power as far as many of its neighbours are concerned. New Zealanders have often played a crucial role in the history of the book in the South Pacific nations, and who is to collect the material and write that history if it is not done in New Zealand? For the 1995 Auckland conference I prepared a little keepsake on aspects of printing in Western Samoa;11 inconsequential though that keepsake might be, it provided an example of what can be done if the historian in New Zealand looks beyond the country's shores. There is a chapter in the important Book & Print in New Zealand12 (published since the 1995 Auckland conference) which includes a useful seventeen pages on printing in the languages of the Pacific Islands; but the opening sentence of the section in which they appear ('The languages used in New Zealand were all brought here from overseas') reveals the approach all too clearly. A history of the book in New Zealand, I maintain, should not be an insular history, but treated as part of the continent, the Main.

page 245

Appendix: A letter from Denis Glover

[Found by chance while I was looking among the uncatalogued Eric Gill manuscripts in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles. According to the Clark Library's records, this was formerly laid into the copy of Fantastica which Glover sent to Gill, and which is also now in the Gill collection at the Clark.]

129 Victoria Street
Christchurch C.1
New Zealand
April 6 1938

Dear Mr Gill

I should have thanked you before this for the book you sent me, Three Type Faces. It interested me greatly. Joanna is new to me. I haven't quite made myself accustomed to the 'feel' of it yet. Certainly when looking it over I gained the impression that it was medieval rather than modern, as you claimed. But I wouldn't like to say anything further without actually handling it.

If there is any catalogue of works from your press, please let me have one. It is not always possible to keep as closely in touch with English work as we would like.

I recently sent you two books from our Press — Fantastica & Dominion. If you can spare a line to let us know what you think of them I'd be very pleased. No doubt there are plenty of drawings in that style in England, but Bensemann is certainly the first New Zealander to try illustration on this scale. He is twenty-five — there should be great improvement yet. As for Dominion — it's only linotyped, & I know you won't like the big headings. But we haven't the range of type to make our choice as often as we'd like. The poem should interest you, however, quite apart from the typography.

Again, thanking you for Three Type Faces.

Yours sincerely
Denis J. M. Glover

1 C. M. Turnbull, Dateline Singapore: 150 years of the 'Straits Times' (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 1995).

2 Rachel Salmond's Government printing in New Zealand, 1840-1843 (Wellington: Elibank Press, 1995) did much to correct errors in the pioneering book by G. M. Meiklejohn, Early conflicts of press and government (Auckland: Wilson & Horton, 1953) which was flawed by the author's insular approach and lack of familiarity with press controls outside New Zealand. The second volume in the Elibank series, Lishi Kwasitsu, Printing and the book trade in early Nelson (1996) is New Zealand history for sure, but by no means insular, being enriched by the author's own background and by his familiarity with book trade history in earlier British colonial settlements in the West Indies.

3 There are plenty of examples in my collection Printing and the book trade in the West Indies (London: Pindar Press, 1987).

4 Rollo G. Silver, Writing the history of American printing (New York: American Printing History Association, 1977).

5 Bill Bell's paper 'Books across borders: the national press in an international context' was presented at the foundation conference of the History of the Book in Canada/Histoire de l'imprimé au Canada held in Ottawa, May 1997.

6 The paper is included in Libraries and the challenge of change: Papers of the international library conference held in Kingston, Jamaica 24—29 April 1972, ed. by K. E. I. Ingram and Albertina A. Jefferson (London: Mansell, 1975).

7 The work of Peter Isaac and his associates in die study of the book trade in the north east, and John Feather's The provincial book trade in eighteenth century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) were beacons lighting the way to better understanding of the importance (and largely independent history) of the book trade in provincial centres.

8 The gender is deliberate — but what about the female compositors from New Zealand who were a cause of concern to print union officials in the Australian colonies in the 1890s? Where and how they were trained would be good to know.

9 Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, 19 (1995), 15-29.

11 Denis Stoneham, in conversation with Roderick Cave, Apia nights: Memories of printing in Samoa (Singapore: privately published, 1995), 13pp. [Copies were distributed to delegates at the conference.]