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Letters and Art in New Zealand

1 — Before the Colonists

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Before the Colonists

To claim for themselves an ancient pedigree is a vanity common alike to new families and to new countries. So it is that the modern New Zealander, seeking his spiritual and cultural origins, looks back beyond the year 1840 to that uncertain but distant time when these islands were first settled by Polynesian voyagers. In a country still raw from pioneering it reassures him to think that there stretch behind him, not a meagre hundred years, but centuries during which a gifted people composed poems and speeches, recited their ancient traditions and genealogies, invented their folk-tales, and expressed themselves in varied forms of art. From contemplating this first and longest age of New Zealand art and letters he derives the feeling—perhaps the illusion—that he belongs to a country with an age-long tradition. His imagination kindles as he reflects that here in the slow course of years evolved a language and a culture which have not yet wholly given way before the advance of an alien civilisation.

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And even the history of that alien civilisation in New Zealand is of a respectable antiquity. For nearly two centuries before the official date of its birth New Zealand existed as a fragment, though a remote fragment, of the European world; and, what is important here, the records in books and pictures of those two centuries form, with the remains of Maori civilisation, a portion of the New Zealander's heritage.

From Tasman's ungarnished narrative, it is still possible to recapture something of the feelings of the first Europeans who saw what he described as 'part of the great Staten Landt', adding with Dutch caution, 'though this is not certain'. A bare phrase here and there—'a fine good land', 'high steep cliffs, resembling steeples or sails'—reveals tempered admiration. But the strongest and most permanent emotion roused by that brief visit is shown in the repeated references to the 'outrageous and detestable crime', which may have preserved New Zealand's primitive isolation for more than a century. As if New Zealand were to be dogged by that unfortunate deed, the first view of the country and the people to be published in Europe was the beautifully engraved version of the incident in Valentyn's compilation (1726) with a companion piece showing giant-like Maoris strutting defiantly on the cliffs of the Three Kings islands.

So for a time New Zealand was known to a few European scholars and geographers as a part of the great southern continent, inhabited by people of large page 3stature and murderous habits. Then came Cook to present a more accurate but not less interesting picture to the eighteenth-century world. The many descriptions of New Zealand in the literature that grew up round Cook's three voyages are of interest not only in themselves but because in writing of the country and its 'Indian' inhabitants the eighteenth century described itself. It is typical of that social age that one of the immediate results of the first voyage was a 'Scheme', devised by Alexander Dalrymple and Benjamin Franklin, 'to convey the Conveniences of Life, Domestic Animals, Corn, Iron, etc., to New Zealand' (1771). Motives of profit doubtless had something to do with inspiring that quaint enterprise, but equally powerful was a genuine desire to improve the lot of those unfortunates who lacked the amenities of civilised life. For rather similar reasons the praise of New Zealand scenery in the narratives is nearly always qualified by the reflection that civilisation is lacking. Parkinson, for example, in his Journal (1773), after commenting on the 'romantic' appearance of the land, with 'mountains piled on mountains to an amazing height' adds, 'but they seem to be uninhabited.' George Forster (1777) writes critically: 'No meadows and lawns are to be met with' and remarks elsewhere: 'We looked upon the country at that time, as one of the most beautiful which nature unassisted by art could produce.'

The continual recurrence of the word 'romantic' page 4in these narratives reminds us, however, that the age of reason was now in its decline. The lineaments of the noble savage are already discernible in Parkinson's 'Tatued head' which illustrates the Account (1773) of Hawkesworth, while the same artist's 'View of an arched rock', described as 'very romantic', is a reminder of the contemporary English craze for ruins. In the work of later artists and in some of the unofficial narratives of the third voyage romanticism is seen in fuller flood. William Hodges and James Webber, artists of the second and third voyages, saw the Pacific islanders (though not so noticeably the Maoris) as gods and heroes reincarnated, children of Rousseau's primeval paradise. Men of feeling of a different kind were Rickman, the author of a surreptitious Journal (1781), and his American plagiarist, Ledyard. Rickman devotes much space to the recital of a love affair between a young sailor and a Maori girl, wistfully closing his narrative with: 'Love like this is only to be found in the regions of romance.' Ledyard's experience of the Maoris led him to observe that 'They are susceptible of the tender passions, and their women of communicating as well as receiving the most ardent love.'

Cook himself was a son of the eighteenth century, untouched by the softer influences of the new age, unless by its humanitarian sentiment. He remarks dryly on the 'tender passion': 'During our stay in the Sound I observed that this second visit made to the page 5country, had not mended the morals of the natives of either sex.' He was above all things a man of science and it is well to remember that the expeditions were primarily scientific in their aims. The official accounts, except Hawkesworth's, show few signs of literary artifice, but these quarto volumes with their finely engraved plates contain a profusion of ethnological and other scientific material; they stand as a monument to the enlightenment of both Cook and his age.

Close in the wake of the English navigators came the French, who were to contribute munificently to the records, pictorial and written, of early New Zealand. It was a misfortune that the first French work published on the country should be concerned with an affray even bloodier and apparently more treacherous than the murder of Tasman's men in the previous century. The Nouveau Voyage à la Mer du Sud (1783) recounts the slaughter of Marion and his crew—on a voyage charitably promoted to take back to Tahiti a native whom Bougainville had brought to Europe as a human curiosity. To read this book is to realise how bitter was the debate between the followers of Rousseau and the supporters of the old order in France. This was a test case. Here was primitive man living in perfect surroundings, untouched by civilisation. Was he as virtuous as philosophers said? At first it appeared so. The French voyagers seemed to have discovered the most kindly and humane, the most hospitable people on earth. Had page 6they left soon after their arrival, reflects the author, Crozet, philosophers given to the praise of primitive man would have been overjoyed to see their bookish theorisings confirmed by first-hand accounts. As the massacre proved, primitive man was treacherous, bloodthirsty, cruel. After relating the details of that mysterious incident, Crozet cannot resist gloating over the discomfiture of the philosophes who, knowing nothing of primitive people, idealised them at the expense of those whom they were pleased to call 'artificial' merely 'because education has improved their minds!'

Thus early New Zealand formed a debating ground for that conflict of ideas which, a few years later, was to culminate in the French Revolution. In certain portions of the book too, especially where the hand of its editor, the Abbé Rochon, is noticeable, there is a clear expression of the revolutionary principles of equality and fraternity, contrasting with the reactionary sentiments expressed by Crozet. On the statement that they took possession of the 'island of New Zealand' in the name of the King, he comments: 'We forget that the land where these savages live belongs to them quite as much as our own land to us.' Elsewhere he reckons up the benefits conferred by the voyages, 'so much glorified by Europeans', concluding that the few useful animals, the few seeds left by travellers were but poor compensation for the crimes, always avenged by fresh crimes, for the evil done to page 7the natives, and for the contagion so widely spread amongst them.

Happily this gloomy, indeed tragic, opening chapter did not set the tone for the record of later French explorations. The visits of d'Entrecasteaux (1793) and Duperrey (1824), though too brief to be of much consequence, at least showed the Maoris to be a kindlier, more dignified people than appeared from Crozet. Through the eyes of Piron, artist of the d'Entrecasteaux expedition, for example, they are seen as heroic beings straight from the canvas of David, while the artists who accompanied Duperrey brought the Maoris down from Olympus to give them the bearing and features of their own nation—strikingly evident in 'Etinou', the portrait of a Maori woman endowed with all the chic of the fashionable Parisienne. 'Etinou' is, incidentally, only one in the gallery of Gallicised Maoris, for the French navigators, even more than the English, were apt to view primitive peoples through a haze of theory or of national preconceptions.

Duperrey's visit has a further importance, for it first brought to New Zealand Dumont d'Urville, whose two major expeditions were comparable in their scope with Cook's. (The published accounts of the voyages surpass Cook's in their range and in the sumptuousness of their production.) Dumont d'Urville was that rarest of men, the perfect blend of the scholar and the man of action with a liberal page 8allowance of poetry—good poetry—in his composition. Not the least of his recommendations was his admiration for New Zealand and his interest in its past; indeed he must have been the first European to conceive such a thing as a New Zealand tradition. In the Voyage de la Corvette l'Astrolabe (1830-5) he describes the joyful expectation with which the expedition saw before them the wild coast and towering mountains of New Zealand. Here (to paraphrase him slightly), each man felt, as he proudly followed in the path of Tasman, of Cook, of Marion, was a theatre worthy of his researches. And d'Urville's imagination reached back far beyond historic, or even human times; in an eloquent passage he describes his feelings as he walked through the New Zealand forest at midday, when even the sound of birds was stilled: 'Passing through these mournful solitudes, one might think oneself transported to that age when Nature, having brought forth the beings of the vegetable kingdom, still awaited the decrees of the eternal power to bring to life the animal kind.' A page later, in typical nineteenth-century manner, he is peering into a future when flourishing cities will stand on coasts now deserted or peopled only by isolated pas; when ships of every size will plough through now-silent waters; when the academicians of New Zealand will question, or at least laboriously discuss, the narratives of the earliest navigators.

Dumont d'Urville brought to the study of New

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Piron Savege of New Zealand (1793)

Savege of New Zealand (1793)

Lejeune And Chazal Etinou (1824)

Lejeune And Chazal
Etinou (1824)

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Zealand not only his powers as an imaginative writer and his European 'sense of the past' but also gifts as an historian and man of science. Under his editorship was published a collection of the 'Chronicles of New Zealand'—a comprehensive source-book—compiled, as he explains, for the benefit of 'those who choose to study the human race in the childhood of civilisation.' His own attitude towards those 'children', as might be expected, was tolerant and sympathetic, and in the account of his last expedition, the Voyage au Pole Sud (1842-54), he notes with sorrow that the native virtues he had admired on his earlier visits were lost; in the neighbourhood of the whaling-stations at least a nation of independent warriors had been reduced to a motley tribe of mendicants, clothed in rags. The last of the navigators thus bore witness to changes, some good, many evil, for which he and his predecessors had involuntarily opened the way. With the break-up of the ancient Maori way of life Dumont d'Urville saw the close of one phase in our history and, in May 1840, as he sailed from the Bay of Islands, he left behind him a New Zealand now part of the British Empire and finally committed to a new experiment in civilisation.

The seventy years or so that separate Cook's first visit from the final expedition of d'Urville saw the gradual infiltration of Europeans following on the page 10navigators. In the narratives of later voyages there is frequent mention of these forerunners of settlement—whalers, traders, missionaries, and others less reputable—but they possess a small literature of their own which bridges the gap between discovery and active colonisation.

There is a uniformity in the contents of these successive Narratives and Journals such as one finds in the mid-Victorian literature of Darkest Africa, or in the South Seas travel-books of more recent times. Most authors supplied a liberal portion of sensation; it might be an authentic description of a cannibal feast, or a verbatim account, drawn from the chief actors, of the Boyd massacre, or a blood-curdling narrative of murder. A description of tattooing, the process and the result, is generally given, and invariably a picture of the quaint ceremonies of greeting and farewell. Houses, habits and morals, implements, canoes, dress—all are recorded with varying degrees of accuracy, while the more venturesome authors enter into the speculative regions of religion and mythology. A resume of New Zealand history is often supplied and a vocabulary of the Language of the New Zealanders rendered with all the eccentricity of writers capable of such barbarities of transliteration as 'Narpooes' and 'E. O. Ke-Angha'. Finally comes a survey of the potential wealth of the country and opinions, always favourable, about its suitability for European colonisation.

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In their approach to this common material the authors showed great differences, as might be expected from the widely differing motives that drew men to this wild and distant country. The modest and sketchy Account (1807) of John Savage and Captain Cruise's Journal (1823) were both results of timber-gathering expeditions from New South Wales, and neither is very far removed from the day-to-day journal of conscientious officialdom. Savage, agreeably surprised on his arrival that a race of known cannibals betrayed 'no symptom of savage ferocity', decided on closer acquaintance that these 'Indians' were 'of a very superior order, both in point of personal appearance and intellectual endowments'—a conclusion supported by his closer study of 'Moyhanger', a native taken by him to England to be exhibited in Courts and drawing-rooms as a natural curiosity. In the years that elapsed between Savage and Cruise the Maoris had become only too familiar as a source of labour for visiting ships and as partners in a more degrading commerce. Cruise's Journal has at least the merit of literalness; there is a chapter on the relations between Europeans and Maoris compressed into an entry like this: 'The biscuit had been a part of their ration for many months, but in consequence of the incalculable quantity of vermin contained in it, had become perfectly useless, except as an article of barter with the natives.…'

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More interesting and sympathetic is the Narrative (1817) of J. L. Nicholas who accompanied Samuel Marsden on his first visit to New Zealand in 1814. When reading Nicholas we are again transported to a world of eighteenth-century ideas and modes of expression. With leisurely magniloquence he unfolds the story of that memorable visit, interspersing his narrative with moral reflections and philosophisings like those which adorn the pages of Hawkesworth and Forster. In spite of his own religious orthodoxy, in spite of the Boyd massacre and atrocities enacted before his eyes, Nicholas was still inclined to wonder whether the 'wayward philosopher of Geneva' might not, after all, be right in his opinion that 'the best and kindest affections of the human heart are found only in the man who has neither been born amidst the luxuries, nor educated in the refinements of civilized society.' But that momentary feeling was brushed aside, and Nicholas left New Zealand convinced that the genius of these 'children of genuine sensibility' would be brought out only when they were introduced to the pursuits of 'culture and civilization'.

Except for his occasional dallyings with Rousseauist heresies, Nicholas was in every respect a fitting chronicler of Samuel Marsden, and until the missionary's scattered writings and manuscripts were collected by Dr J. R. Elder more than a century later, the Narrative was the most accessible account of Marsden's first journey. Marsden too was rooted in the page 13eighteenth century and, while he expressed himself in more homely fashion than Nicholas, his writings, like his religious views, bear the unmistakable imprint of the age of good sense. When he writes of the Maoris: 'Their temporal situation must be improved by agriculture and the simple arts in order to lay a permanent foundation for the introduction of Christianity', we are reminded of Benjamin Franklin and the 'Scheme for conveying the Conveniences of Life to New Zealand'.

The evangelist of early New Zealand was clearly a man of sound common sense and business acumen; the 580 pages of his Letters and Journals (1932) make it equally clear that he was a writer of more than ordinary distinction. There is no conscious striving for literary effect—such artifices would have been scorned by Marsden as instruments of the Prince of Darkness—but the earnest, simple narrative, relieved here and there by a metaphor of scriptural beauty and aptness, is as dramatic and effective as the most skilfully contrived work of literary art. Every stage of the drama is here—the early resolution to free the Maoris from their 'cruel spiritual bondage'; the obstacles and delays so numerous and persistent that they would have deterred a less resolute man; the ultimate establishment of the mission despite the fact that no clergyman would venture to a country where 'he could anticipate nothing less than to be killed and eaten by the natives'; the heart-breaking lapses of the page 14missionaries themselves; then, at length, in salvaged souls and cultivated fields, certain evidence that the enterprise had not been in vain. If there is such a thing as a prose epic, New Zealand literature possesses one in The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden.

It is a comment on the contradictions and antagonisms in the small European community of pre-colonial New Zealand that the man who stands next to Marsden in the hierarchy of writers (though far below him) presents the least favourable view of the missionaries. In his Narrative of a Nine Months' Residence (1832) Augustus Earle never misses a chance of castigating 'these pious men', as he terms them, whether for their grudging charity and lack of hospitality, or their self-righteousness, or, worst of crimes, for their obscuring the 'finest human forms' under clumsy European clothing. For Earle was an artist and viewed the Maoris rather as subjects for sketch and painting than as souls to be retrieved from the dominion of Satan. He describes the beauty of their naked forms, the picturesque disposition of their forces as they landed from their war-canoes or greeted a visiting party, and their respect for the fine arts, shown in the honour paid to the expert tattooer, 'Aranghie'—the 'Sir Thomas Lawrence of the New Zealanders'. Earle, like French artists before him, saw the Maoris as beings of an earlier heroic age—a conception that is beautifully conveyed in his painting, 'The Wounded Chief Honghi and His Family', now page 15in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. 'To me,' he wrote of the scene, 'it almost seemed to realize some of the passages of Homer.' Yet he was no romantic, and having no theoretical axe to grind, he saw not only the heroic side of the people, but also the brutality, the license, and the insecurity of that stage intermediate between the truly primitive and the civilised. Earle was a tolerant, kindly man, blessed with imagination and a sense of fun—qualities that went into the writing of the least pretentious and most delightful book on early New Zealand.

It is easy to imagine the guffaw with which Joel Samuel Polack would have greeted the suggestion that Hongi in any way resembled the heroes of the Odyssey. With all the assurance of 'the man who knows', Polack would have dismissed Earle as a mere tourist, a mayfly, while he, J. S. Polack, with six years' experience behind him—then would have followed a flood of lively reminiscences, filled with hair-raising anecdotes, execrable puns, and malapropisms. He is a picturesque and astonishingly versatile figure, this early New Zealand storekeeper-trader-artist-author, with all the blustering self-confidence that was, he implies, needed for the hazardous pursuit of commerce in the thirties. His two-volume New Zealand: Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures (1838) is a cyclopedia of New Zealand up to that date, culled from the most varied sources, written and oral. It recounts the history of New Zealand, beginning with the European page 16discovery of the Pacific; it describes Polack's own personal experiences among the Maoris; it minutely defines and explains the habits of that people—'the most determined sarcophagi in existence'; it relates the grievances of early European traders; finally it implores, cajoles, and commands Great Britain to colonise these islands. Great Britain was to respond, but with considerable reluctance, and after spending some years abroad Polack returned to New Zealand in the early forties doubtless confirmed in the opinion that largely by his efforts New Zealand had been made safe for settlement—and trade.