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The Counterfeit Seal: A Tale of Otago's First Settlers.

A Historical Romance

A Historical Romance

When The Counterfeit Seal was written, the literary preferences of New Zealand’s reading population were primarily geared towards the genres favoured by Victorian audiences in England and the rest of the colonial world – namely, romance (including sensational novels and historical romances, though mostly metropolitan romances) and adventure (Wevers, 197)38. Scottish writers and fiction about Scotland were also particularly popular at the time (Wevers, 191), a trend no doubt at least partially thanks to Scots comprising approximately 24% of nineteenth-century New Zealand’s population (Brooking and Coleman, 25). Classified as a historical romance novel by The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, Adams’ novel largely adheres to the conventions of its genre (Lawrence, 137)39. Sir Walter Scott is often thought of as having conceived the structure of the traditional romance novel; an historical event – or events – is seen from the point of view of a fictional character – or characters – whose life is in turn shaped by the forces of a history he cannot materially affect (Henderson, 52-53)40. It is clear that Eric Thomson and his family fulfil this role in The Counterfeit Seal; approaching the end of his apprenticeship with Edinburgh cobbler Archie Rabb in 1847, Eric’s interest in emigrating from Scotland is aroused after encountering the Reverend Thomas Burns, who tells Eric and Archie all about “a place called New Zealand” and who:

“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).

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,).
In A Natural History of the Romance Novel41, Pamela Regis sets out eight steps she cites as being crucial to the plot of a romance novel; of these eight, the relationship between Kirsty Knox and Eric (though primarily established within the first few chapters of The Counterfeit Seal) can be seen to adhere to the features Regis refers to as society defined (evident in the earlier discussion regarding the novel’s historical aims), the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, and the point of ritual death, respectively. The barrier in the narrative manifests itself first in Kirsty’s father’s opposition to her accompanying the Thomson clan on their emigration to New Zealand, fuelled by fears of Kirsty enduring “unavoidable hardships inseparable from the conditions of those who first arrive in a new country” (51). The interference of David Moir – a young lawyer with romantic inclinations towards Kirsty – in the young couple’s relationship constitutes another barrier in the novel, as David carries out machinations designed to make Kirsty doubt Eric’s fidelity while he strives to establish his own place in Otago’s society so that the young woman might join him. The attraction between the two is reiterated throughout the story, with instances which indicate to the reader why this couple must marry; we are told how on the day of the family’s departure

“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)

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.

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 [3]. 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.

In a time when Māori oscillated between being rendered as the “colonial sublime,” or dismissed as “cannibals or monkeys” (Stafford and Williams, 86), Adams’ portrayal of Māori characters appears to resist such conventions. The reader is told of how the “strong and tall Korako” carried a settler woman from boat to land “as respectfully as any gentleman could have done” (184), and Adams even describes instances in which the Māori people are found to be superior to their European guests: “The Maoris were like fish in the water, swimming graceful with an unconcerned grace that made the efforts of the pakeha ’paddlers’ seem grotesque in the extreme” (188). However, in an essay by Julia Pernkopf46 it is pointed out that Adams often depicts the settlers having a civilizing effect on the Māori, substituting European traditions in place of the indigenous population’s customs and culture (106). The Scottish emigrants’ first encounter with Otago’s Māori inhabitants demonstrates this perhaps most clearly, with the Māori chief Taiaroa’s introduction to the Rev. Burns:

“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).

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.
Interestingly, this pattern of appreciation for New Zealand’s native population being interspersed with implicit criticisms or suggestions that European intervention can improve the current state of things is also seen in Adams’ descriptions of the natural environment. When Eric and his companions are sufficiently rested after having made land at Otago, they venture into the bush to begin the construction of their colonial dwellings:

“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)

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

“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)

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.