Letters and Art in New Zealand
3 — Seminal Years
'Would that they had come a century or two earlier' to prepare the way in the mid-nineteenth century for a New Zealand Hawthorne and his drama of Calvinist frustration, set, it would be fitting, in the stern hinterland of Otago; for a Melville to interpret mystically that sordid, picturesque, ennobling, barbarous quarter-century of history in the Bay of Islands; for an Emerson to weave his philosophy in the cloisters of Canterbury, or a Thoreau to muse and write—again it would be fitting—on the lake-side at Tutira.… The dreams dissolve, and we are left with—what? Nothing remotely comparable with the flowering of New England, it is true, but with an assortment of books, a large collection of sketches, and a vast miscellany of prose and verse that are not discreditable to our ancestors—given the circumstances.
The circumstances—how large and how limiting a part they had in New Zealand's first two decades as a British colony! Here, in six small settlements, were page 26gathered together a few thousand people drawn from every quarter of the British Isles and set down, often with scant preparation, in surroundings whose very grandeur held the promise of isolation, physical danger, and hard toil. There were forests to clear, homes to build, farms to break in, exploration and surveying to be undertaken; a native people to be understood and conciliated; constitutions, regulations, laws—all the machinery of men in society—to be fashioned and applied. Then there were painful adjustments to be made by people, some of them deluded seekers after the New Jerusalem, who were forced into a new and utterly uncongenial way of life. Can we wonder that there was no great proliferation of art in these 'seminal years'? The real question is how so much, relatively, came to be produced.
Nor must the liberal rôle of the New Zealand Company be forgotten. The Company, so often reviled by the immigrants and their posterity, was after all instrumental in forming settlements; this much was salvaged from the wreck of the Wakefield scheme, that immigrants were encouraged to gather in groups rather than disperse themselves and so risk the barbarising effects of isolation. It was the Company too that brought here most of the writers and artists, either as settlers or as employees, and provided the materials and indirectly the leisure for the practice of their art. In spite of its errors and sins, for more than a decade and particularly in its early prosperous years, the Company acted as a generous patron of the arts, organising expeditions into the interior, encouraging its servants to record what they saw, publishing the results in handsome books and lavish folios.page 28
For these reasons it is appropriate that a book published under the Company's auspices and written by a son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield should give the fullest and most illuminating account of the first years of settlement. Edward Jerningham Wakefield saw the foundation of New Zealand from the turning of the first sod. While still a boy of nineteen and attracted, as he says, by the prospects of 'novelty and adventure' in the new colony, he had joined the Tory expedition which left England in 1839. He had intended to wait only for the landing of the first settlers, after which he was to embark on one of the returning emigrant ships, but he explains: 'So interesting did it become to watch the first steps of the infant colony, and so exciting to march among the ranks of its hardy founders, that I was tempted to postpone my return for four years after their arrival.' The experiences of these four years he set down in Adventure in New Zealand (1845).
The book does not belie its title; here is the troubled surface of New Zealand life in the transition period between No Man's Land and colony described in all its romantic variety. As secretary to his uncle, Colonel William Wakefield, and later as an explorer and negotiator in his own right, Jerningham had unique opportunities for seeing at first hand the events of that exciting and occasionally unfortunate chapter of our history. He met the Cook Strait whalers, with their rigid professional code, their picturesque dress, and page 29their equally picturesque argot—'grunters' for pigs, 'spuds' for potatoes, 'spreaders' for blankets, 'squeakers' for children; he saw flax-dressers at work and carefully described their elaborate technique; he met missionaries of various persuasions and degrees of piety—one whose manners were 'conciliatory, and essentially those of a gentleman and man of the world', a second bluntly labelled 'land-shark', a third, the saintly Octavius Hadfield, characterised by the profane whalers of Kapiti as 'a missionary, but a gentleman every inch of him'; he saw and described Maoris of every sort and condition from Te Puni, 'a gentleman in every sense of the word' (Wakefield's highest and ever-recurring epithet of praise) to the noisily arrogant Rangihaeata and 'Bloody Jack', clad in 'an old dragoon helmet, and black tail-coat without trousers'.
Wakefield had a novelist's eye for detail, shown when he speaks of the 'bare feet of the Scottish lassies', newly arrived at Port Nicholson, or when he describes the ridiculous ceremony of hoisting the flag over the 'snoring grog-shops' on the beach at Thorndon, while 'two or three people in their night-caps' peeped from their doors and windows. He had too a Victorian novelist's habit of grouping his characters into blacks and whites, villains and heroes, the villains usually being the opponents of the Company, the heroes its friends. And when dilating, sometimes at tedious length, on the squabbles between Government and page 30Company, he had a novelist's disregard for fact. But we do not to-day need to go to Wakefield for facts; these have since been recorded by more mature and more objective historians. We can read him for the odd glimpses he provides of the manners and morals of our grandfathers, for his record of fashions in dress and speech long since vanished, for his descriptions of a people and a country still retaining some of their primitive innocence, and for the narrative of journeys and adventures set down with all the youthful gusto which he brought to these experiences.
Gusto is the last word that would be used in describing the Travels in New Zealand (1843) of Ernst Dieffenbach, who came with Wakefield as the naturalist and surgeon of the expedition; and indeed similar experiences can rarely have been described by two people of such opposite temperaments and points of view. Wakefield is all animation and colour and youthful prejudice; his book moves with the swiftness of those eager expeditions through the colony. Dieffenbach is sober, rather heavy-handed in narrative, judicial in his views and statements, and possessed of that stability and depth of character which Jerningham so entirely lacked. The difference is well seen in their descriptions of the Cook Strait whalers. Wakefield is the man of sensibility, jotting down his impressions as they crowd upon him—the appearance of the cottages, the laughter of the whalers' half-caste children, the dignified mien of Dicky Barrett's wife, page 31the men at work, calling to his mind Retzsch's grim illustrations to a ballad of Schiller, and less poetical, the 'intolerable' stench of the carcasses on the beach. Dieffenbach also mentions the stench, but passes it off with 'this was disregarded, so great was the interest I felt in the whole process.' He describes the process, adds comments on the morals and racial characteristics of the community, then craves permission to give a short account of 'that interesting and valuable animal—the whale', which he does in exact scientific terms. The one passage is the work of a reporter of genius, the other of a man who was primarily a scientist.
But Dieffenbach was a scientist at a time before science was split into a number of narrow specialisms, and besides recording the exciting natural wonders seen during his travels, he wrote at length and with great understanding of the Maoris, with whom he almost invariably established the most friendly relations. Not being embroiled, like Wakefield, in dubious commercial transactions, he could meet them on common ground and in one passage he deprecates the 'arrogant and ridiculous prejudices which are too frequently characteristic of a European traveller.' He himself was remarkably free from prejudice. Of a tribe met near Tongariro he says: 'they … appeared to be in a very primitive state, which, however, was not, in my opinion, at all to their disadvantage.' Again, in discussing the extermination of native races before the 'civilised' European, he remarks: 'the lion that tears page 32the deer into pieces is not therefore made of nobler material.' And elsewhere he is quite explicit: 'I am of opinion that man, in his desires, passions, and intellectual faculties, is the same, whatever be the colour of his skin… To the reader to-day the fragment of Dieffenbach's biography we owe to Hocken has a heightened interest—'Involved in some political movement, he fled [from Germany] to England.…'
Without aligning himself with any of the factions of the time, missionary, Company, or Government—he was in fact highly critical of each—Dieffenbach sympathised as a theorist but even more as a man with a native people whose extinction then seemed almost inevitable. He found no comfort in a complacent doctrine of the survival of the fittest, and in an exceedingly wise chapter, 'How to Legislate for the Natives of New Zealand?', he anticipated conclusions we have reached only after bitter and costly experience. Equally percipient in his own field of the natural sciences, he seems to have been unique in foreseeing the results of bringing alien plants and animals into the colony: 'What a chain of alterations … takes place from the introduction of a single animal into a country where it was before unknown!' Such wisdom is rare among colonists, who, if they do not, as Dieffenbach too sweepingly says, devote themselves 'solely to the acquisition of money', are, from necessity and ignorance as much as from greed, page 33careless of nature's interests and of remote posterity's. It was a misfortune for New Zealand that Dieffenbach did not himself remain as a colonist; after two years he returned to Europe, and his warnings and advice, locked away in two formidable volumes, went unheeded.
A writer of brilliant ability, Wakefield; a man of science of the first rank, Dieffenbach; adding further lustre to the Tory's personnel, the New Zealand Company appointed as draughtsman to the expedition a young artist of rare distinction, Charles Heaphy, who was to extend to New Zealand some of the waning glory of the English landscape school. Draughtsman is a modest term, and we may suppose that nothing more was expected from Heaphy than would be from the official photographer of a modern expedition. He was a conscientious and energetic employee, and from his water-colours in various New Zealand collections (notably the Alexander Turnbull and Hocken libraries) it is possible to trace each successive stage of the Company's operations from the arrival at Cook Strait and the northern expedition to the exploratory journeys in the South Island. The sketches meet official requirements admirably, indicating topographical details, the nature of vegetation and scenery, the appearance of the natives and their manner of life—everything in fact that an active and intelligent board of directors at the other side of the world might wish to have recorded. But some—most, page 34indeed—do more than this; they portray experiences of an elusive kind, rarely to be expressed in words—words in fact being the wrong medium, unless they are used by a sensitive poet, and poets, as distinct from versifiers, were few in early New Zealand. Throughout the range of Heaphy's work you are aware of a man wrestling with the strange contours and colours of a new environment and, moreover, attempting to define the peculiar quality of each part of New Zealand, as he visited it in turn. The magnificent sweep of Cloudy Bay, where sea, hills, and bush unite in one curving harmony; then, in the subtropical north, the oily calm of a tidal river overshadowed by dense kauris; and, again in the south, the warm, open Waimea plain, contrasting with the gloom of the upper Buller region which no sunshine can quite dispel—all this was within Heaphy's compass. Sometimes the work fails, more often than not because his vision is blurred by the softer greens and blues of the English landscape or because he cannot forget the subdued palette of his student days. When he does get away from the conventions of his time, ignoring the requirements of directors and treating a New Zealand subject freely in his own way, the result is a small masterpiece. Such is the beautifully decorative 'Kakariki, from Ship Cove and Teawaiti' (1839) and such 'Mt. Egmont from the southward', which remains one of the few satisfyingpage break page 35
paintings of that inspiration—and snare—for New Zealand artists.
Although he was the best, Heaphy was only one of numerous artists in early colonial New Zealand. There was Charles Meryon, who, while stationed at Akaroa in the Rhin during the early forties, made pencil sketches which he later used as the basis of etchings. There were surveyors—Brees, Mein Smith, Kettle, Barnicoat—who were draughtsmen by occupation and often artists by instinct. There were settlers or officials, like Fox, Domett, Edward Shortland, and John Saxton, who illustrated their diaries and reports by water-colours and drawings. Among the educated settlers, at least, it was the exceptional man who did not sketch, and paintings, usually water-colours, survive in large numbers from those pre-camera days. Alive to the value of such work in making New Zealand known and attracting fresh emigrants, in 1845 the Company arranged for the publication of a selection as Illustrations to 'Adventure in New Zealand'. This magnificent folio, now a collectors' prize, contains a delightful series of glimpses into the life of the Company settlements. Here is Port Nicholson in 1842—in the foreground a group of Maoris and settlers, the latter in Victorian topper and frock-coat; a few frail buildings at the water's edge; beyond them the immense harbour and stretching to the horizon rugged hills and mountains still covered in bush. Another page unfolds a lively panorama of Nelson, page 36where settlers busy themselves with axe and saw and theodolite, while women wash the family linen and children eat, picnic fashion, off cabin-trunks. A page or two farther on we find a scene of hunting on the 'Plain of the Ruamahanga', romantically conceived and no doubt meant to appeal to the adventure-loving youth of England. Here too is the infant settlement of New Plymouth with its gabled cottages set down incongruously in the face of sublime nature and here the significant little caption, 'Native Pa now Removed'. To complete the series there are the exquisitely coloured lithographs of New Zealand flora—the titoki, the tawa, the tutu, the rata, and finally the New Zealand flax, here inspiring delicate art but more often in those days commercial ambitions, sadly ill-founded.
It was only rarely that Swainson turned his pencil to Maori subjects, though he left one impressive sketch of native decay in the 'Outside of the Old page 38Wakainae Pah' (1842). Fortunately for the completeness of New Zealand pioneer art, in the same year as Swainson a Scottish settler arrived at Wellington, bringing in his luggage two partly filled sketch-books and other materials of his profession—for he had been a teacher of drawing in Glasgow and thus, unlike most pioneer artists, had some claim to professional status. His name was James Alexander Gilfillan and he was to devote himself as carefully to delineating the native people of New Zealand as Swainson did to its native covering.
The sketch-books are of particular interest, for they include examples of Gilfillan's earlier work, when as a young naval officer in the East he sketched a pagoda or a busy scene on a Chinese river, or when, on his return to Scotland, he picked out a castle or a pleasant rural scene, with the intention probably of working them up later on in oils or water-colours. These are accomplished sketches, showing signs of careful draughtsmanship and an eye for the picturesque, but little more. After the arrival in New Zealand, however, the work takes on a new character, gains fresh vitality. Here is an artist for whom new vistas have opened. Impressions are many, time is short (there is no place in the colony for professional artists, and he has taken up a section in the Whanganui district), so in sketch after sketch he strives to give form to this fascinating new life and these fascinating new people. The features of the natives elude him, page 39and in dozens of sketches he trains himself to see them as Maoris, not merely as darker-skinned Europeans. Probably for the first time in his life he sees unashamed nakedness, and he roughs out a series of nudes, remarkable even in pencil for their sensuous beauty. But above all he is fascinated by the Maori in his social life—as he gossips contentedly in the pa, smoking a pipe, fondling a baby or—as likely as not—a pet pig, or as he sets off in his canoe on a river excursion, or as he indulges in that exciting sport, bargaining his melons and pigs away for the cloth and the tobacco of the pakeha. These sketch-books—now among the chief treasures of the Hocken Library—express as it can be seen nowhere else the care-free security of Maori existence in the few halcyon years when the pakeha was blessed by warring tribes as a bringer of peace and bodily comforts. With growing suspicion of European intentions there was to be a change of heart, of which, ironically and tragically, the Gilfillans were early victims, and most of the sketches were elaborated only after the artist, bereft of wife and four of his children, had sought in Australia refuge from the savagery of New Zealand. But the impression of a kindly, sociable, and at times dignified, people was not effaced, and on at least two occasions during his remaining years as an artist in Australia Gilfillan drew on the material of the sketch-books, once for the 'Interior of a Native Village or Pa in New Zealand', page 40known to us now only from lithographic reproductions, and again for the 'Native Council of War' (1853) which hangs in the gallery of the Hocken Library. With a sense of the drama in homely detail that points forward to Frith and qualities both as artist and as humorist that recall Breughel, Gilfillan has packed into the 'Interior' a volume of social history. There, we feel as we look at the lithograph, is the Maori of the forties, still retaining in most of their essentials his ancient way of life and his pagan outlook, while drawing on the new civilisation, very much at random, for baubles and conveniences. The elaborately carved houses, the stockade, the elders in their flowing mats, the flax-plaiters, the native dogs—these exist as they did centuries before; and into this ancient framework, with little incongruity, have been introduced the iron pot, the tomahawk, rakish oddments of European dress, pipes, melons, a draughts-board, and, as much in evidence as pet and as article of food, the 'Captain Cooker'. It is a picture of astonishing vitality and astonishing harmony, set down by one who had learned to accept the Maori and the Maori way of life in all their apparent contradictions of old and new, beauty and squalor, barbarity and refinement. 'The Council of War' is a more academic piece, still in spite of the ravages of almost ninety years highly impressive. The figures of the natives and their canoes are here dwarfed by their background of trees and sky whose treatment suggests thatpage break
J. A. Gilfillan: Traders Bartering (c. 1846)
J. A. Gilfillan: Interior of a Native Village (c. 1850)
Gilfillan had studied the early-nineteenth-century masters. He had, T. W. Downes informs us, met Raeburn, who 'helped him largely in his art work.' Whatever the influences may have been, the sketchbooks show plainly enough that he was a trained and sophisticated painter, highly skilled in composition. His 'Traders bartering with the Up-River Natives', with its careful grouping of the figures and its ingenious use of trade-cloth to bind the picture together, would have made a decorative oil painting, while the cleverly designed 'Natives setting out on an expedition' has the necessary elements for a fine mural.
The incompleteness of Gilfillan's work combined with the clear evidence of his talent provokes conjecture. What would have been the ultimate form of these compositions so finely adumbrated in the sketch-books? How would that talent have found expression had it been granted even a few more years to acclimatise itself? The questions are futile. Very different is the case of another artist of the forties, George French Angas, Gilfillan's only possible rival as a painter of the Maoris in early colonial New Zealand. An unattached young man of fortune, Angas had all the opportunities denied to Gilfillan; he relates casually that 'one evening I took it in my head to visit New Zealand', and having the leisure and the means to travel through the North Island he succeeded in amassing innumerable drawings which were in due course transformed into coloured lithographs and page 42magnificently published in 1847, under royal and aristocratic patronage, as The New Zealanders.
In Savage Life and Scenes (1847) Angas describes the origin of his visit. A friend had shown him some beautifully ornamented weapons bought from the Maoris, and the young artist, entranced by their exquisite workmanship, went to bed that evening to dream of 'native "pahs" and stately tattooed chiefs.' The pas and the stately chiefs, he discovered on his arrival in New Zealand, were indeed fast becoming the substance of dreams, and, moved by the melancholy picture of decay, he resolved 'to preserve memorials of the skill and ingenuity of a race of savages, who themselves ere long may pass away, and become, like their houses, matters of history.…' It was thus very much in the spirit of the antiquarian that he went about the country, carefully recording tombs, storehouses, 'colossal tiki', ornaments, implements, canoes, modes of salutation, ceremonies, dances, and a multitude of the still-surviving 'stately chiefs' with their wives, children, and slaves. In search of mementos, human and material, he made long journeys into remote parts of the island, meeting always with the utmost friendliness from the natives. 'My mission amongst them,' he explains, 'was one of peace. I did not covet their land; and my coming from Europe for the purpose of representing their chiefs and their country was considered by them as a compliment.' The work, so conscientiously done, has earned page 43the gratitude of all students of the Maori, and it is perhaps unfair to complain because it does not do more—because his Maoris are wax-works, grotesquely-ugly or hopelessly sentimentalised, mere lay figures for the display of woven mats, and not the living people of Gilfillan. The fact is that, scrupulous draughtsman as he was, Angas at his best was an artist of only moderate ability; on every other page of Savage Life and Scenes there is a glimpse of Maori life in all its human complexity, but that is a conception which rarely breaks through into the stiff, carefully composed portraits of The New Zealanders. What warmth and life there are come from a fount of sentiment, unmistakably Victorian. Those cherubic infants, those languishing maidens spring from the same source as the verses which Angas composed on an incident of one of his journeys:
'Beside the dark Waikato's stream,
That mother watched her dying child;
Brooding, as one in fitful dream,
With mingled hopes and fancies wild.'
The era of the noble savage is now virtually ended (though as late as 1852 he appears in Commander R. A. Oliver's Sketches in New Zealand), and Angas has a place in history as the first sentimentaliser of the Maori on a grand scale.
At the same time, or a little later, as the result of more intimate knowledge of the people among officials and missionaries, it was becoming possible to page 44form a more balanced appreciation of their culture. In 1854 Edward Shortland published the first edition of his misnamed Traditions and Superstitions of the New Zealanders, a work that continued the scientific study of the Maoris begun by the navigators, as it anticipated the methods and many of the conclusions of modern anthropology. This book and his less interesting Southern Districts (1851) are evidence of a highly cultivated mind which ranged easily and soberly over the whole field of Maori life, analysing, recording, describing, but rarely condemning in the lofty manner of so many nineteenth-century writers. As far as possible, he attempted to meet the natives on their own ground and to place the details he recorded in their living context. 'I particularly instructed my informant,' he writes, 'to tell his tale as if he were relating it to his own people, and to use the same words that he would use if he were relating similar tales to them when assembled in a sacred house.' As intelligent as he was sympathetic, his keenly analytical mind probed the confusion on which so much prejudice is based. 'The term savage … is very indefinite in actual signification,' he remarks and goes on to point out that there is 'as great a distinction between the highest and lowest states of savage condition, as between the highest and lowest states of civilization.' Shortland's contemporary, the missionary Richard Taylor, was rather more prone to condemn, and further to indulge in theorisings which would attri-page 45bute to the Maoris an origin in the lost tribes of Israel. But moralisings and fanciful speculations apart, his Te Ika a Maui (1855) revealed an interest in mythology-rare among missionaries (native traditions, Shortland noted, were usually dismissed by them as emanating from 'the great enemy of mankind') as well as a genuine understanding of many native institutions. For example, his definition of tapu as 'a religious observance, established for political purposes' could scarcely be bettered, and he showed a truer appreciation of its function than did Shortland.
Here was the coherent record of a people imaginative, not incurious about the nature of things, and above all endowed with a profound feeling for their own past. It should have gained for them interest and respect, but on his own showing its significance was lost even on Grey himself. In a preface to the collection he elaborately explains that he gathered the traditions to aid him in his official dealings with the Maoris and from the 'same sense of duty' published them for the benefit of others 'whose duty it may be hereafter to deal with the natives.…' The mingling of the sublime, the miraculous, and the mundane was evidently not to his taste, and, with the exception of the Hinemoa legend, he dismissed the collection as 'puerile'. He did, however, go so far as to admit that 'the native races who believed in these traditions or superstitions are in no way deficient in intellect…
Scholarship has had many unconscious benefactors, and we need not reproach Grey for his prejudices since they do not seem to have led to any serious distortion of his material. As far as one with no firsthand knowledge of the Maori language can judge, page 48his translations are reasonably close to the originals; the language is fairly simple, the construction and idiom are Maori rather than European (for this Grey offers a half apology), while for two of his collections—the Traditions and the Proverbial and Popular Sayings of the Ancestors of the New Zealand Race (1857)—he anticipated the wishes of future scholars by publishing both originals and translations; the third, the Poems, Traditions, and Chaunts of the Maories (1853), he published only in Maori, wisely perhaps, since the qualities of Maori poetry are such as to defy translation: the splendid hyperboles tend to emerge in English as mere bombast; the imagery, which came naturally to the Maori mind, is uncomfortably reminiscent of a later school of New Zealand poetry; and an elaborate apparatus of foot-notes and verbal explanations is not much help in understanding, mentally and emotionally, the many local and mythological references. Even in the time of Shortland and Grey the subtler kinds of native poetry were little more than relics for the archaeologist.
The history of the Maori people had now been placed on record, and as the colony's first two crowded decades drew to their close, New Zealand was to rise to the dignity of a full-length history in two volumes based on sources that included 'ninety volumes, two hundred pamphlets, and nearly a hundredweight of parliamentary papers'. The hero of this feat of documentary digestion was a military page 49surgeon, Arthur S. Thomson, who spent eleven years in New Zealand attached to the 58th Regiment and on his return to England published The Story of New Zealand: Past and Present—Savage and Civilized (1859). Equipped as he was with the urbanity and learning of a Dumont d'Urville, the scientific thoroughness of a Shortland, the liveliness of a Wakefield, and unparalleled industry, no man could have been better qualified than Thomson to survey the accumulation of writings on New Zealand and to weave the scattered strands into a connected whole. The Story is comprehensive, progressing by logical stages from a description of the natural environment and the history and customs of the natives to a full account of European discovery and settlement. Based though it is on a multitude of sources, it is no formless compilation; every section bears upon it the impress of an independent mind—even the chapter on natural history, which is enlivened by references to the 'sentimental settlers' who 'designate New Zealand the Britain of the southern hemisphere' and by sensitive descriptions of the native forest that are the nearest prose equivalents to the work of Heaphy and Swainson. In the history of the post-Waitangi years, besides steering a way through the complex events of politics, native affairs, and government, he found space to record fascinating trifles of social history. Each settlement, he notes, acquired its distinguishing epithet: 'thus there was an Auckland cove, a Wellington page 50swell, a Nelson snob, a Taranaki exquisite, an Otago cockney, and a Canterbury pilgrim.' Acutely aware of marked colonial tendencies, he observed: 'children reared in the colony possessed little grace and no refinement', and in a more familiar passage: 'Ditchers are more esteemed than poets, and those sciences alone are thought worth attention which confer immediate benefit.' But critical as he was of the present, Thomson did not deny himself the Pisgah sight which was already established as a convention of New Zealand writing; in the ultimate union of the two New Zealand peoples he saw the realisation of Gibbon's 'once visionary hope', that 'the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere' would 'spring from among the cannibal races of New Zealand.'
Thus New Zealand's first historian, invoking the names of European literature and addressing an audience beyond the confines of 'England's remotest colony'—the phrase is his. And indeed the direction as well as the manner of the invocation were habitual with the writers of those years. Those who wrote books did so not for the benefit of their fellow-colonists, but for a public at 'Home'—whether officials of the Colonial Office, or common readers, in search of information spiced with adventure, or scholars, or the vague but important class of 'intending emigrants'. But besides these books published in page 51England for an English audience, there was a literature (more accurately a mass of printed matter) which, if not indigenous, was produced for consumption in the colony itself There were the newspapers, ground forth in the colony's earliest days—in its pre-natal days, in fact, and on one occasion with the aid of a mangle—the newspapers, with their violent political quarrels and their rich invective. Then, demanding more serious admiration, there were the brief-lived quarterlies and magazines, founded in home-sick emulation of the Edinburgh and Blackwood's to debate solemnly the issues of the day. Last, there was colonial verse, finding a home in advertising sheets, in meagre pamphlets, even on occasions in official gazettes. This begrimed exotic, imprinted nevertheless with thoughts and feelings seen nowhere else, is worth a more than casual glance.
For, in spite of Thomson's epigram—'Ditchers are more esteemed than poets'—the art of versification was by no means neglected in early colonial New Zealand. On the contrary the antipodean soil was to prove as congenial to the Victorian habit of poeticising as to those imported weeds which alarmed the settlers by their monstrous growth. Many of the newspapers made a regular and prominent feature of their 'Poets' Corner', while some even employed or patronised an official versifier, who turned out topical verses on suitable occasions, and in the intervals supplied the pioneer demand for sentiment on such themes as 'The page 52Sister's Grave', 'The Missionary Infant's Tomb', 'He Never Smiled Again', 'The Rose in the Burial Ground', 'To Clarinda', 'Bonnie May', and so forth.
The more official kinds of verse were generally concerned with social activities—anniversary celebrations, funerals, ceremonies at the opening of public buildings, and the less solemn gatherings that went under the generic name of 'social'. In the Nelson settlement a public hall was opened, and to mark this point in the community's history a 'Poetical Address' was composed and recited by the poet himself at the ceremony:
'Our hall is up. Its outside walls are plain—
But plain men built them.'
At a social a poet-entertainer would often sing his original verses, and, like the popular comedian of a past age, call on the audience to join in the chorus. Hocken remarks of the acknowledged laureate of the Otago settlement: 'Barr was a general favourite.… At a gathering he was pretty sure to come down and sing one or two of his new compositions for the good of the company.' A rather similar figure, though itinerant in his habits, was C. J. Martin, whose verses were collected under the title of Martin's Locals. These 'locals', as their name suggests, were rough verses improvised for a special occasion, exploiting the resources of colonial slang, and introducing more or less recondite allusions to local celebrities and events. At their best they show a facility in rhyming and a page 53zest in the manipulation of words that are evidence of some intellectual alertness. But they were written for the moment and essentially for a local audience; for us they have lost their point; the pioneer idiom ('top-sawyer', 'fleece', 'new-chum') has been long superseded; they are survivals from an age rougher but more vigorous than our own.
The talent of the improvisator lay in his ability to detect and express some passing phase of life in the settlement or to mimic a prominent settler and exaggerate his idiosyncrasies. Equally effective for this purpose was the art of caricature which also flourished in the lively social atmosphere of the early settlements. Examples of this work may be found in a dozen or so colonial versions of Punch, but the earliest and best caricatures are those by James Brown of Otago, now in the Hocken Library. These sketches present a fascinating picture of life in the Scottish settlement. The arrival of the first settlers, the farcical progress of an election, jokes and scandals of early Dunedin, portraits, lively but irreverent, of local nabobs—all these have been placed on record by one who for a tiny settlement held a place that is now occupied in a far wider and more troubled sphere by Brown's fellow-townsman, David Low.
The key to many early caricatures, as well as to the 'locals', is now lost, but even so it is possible to realise how effective an outlet they were for the colonists' feelings about their lives and themselves. Like the page 54celebrators of anniversaries and public occasions, versifiers and caricaturists were fostering and expressing what may be called the 'sense of community'—a feeling of cohesion among individuals, a consciousness of similar origins and ambitions.
In the work of William Golder, a Scottish settler in the Hutt valley, this function becomes explicit. One of his rambling prefaces expresses the hope that his verses may 'endear our adopted country the more to the bosom of the bona fide settler; as such in days of yore, has often induced a people to take a firmer hold of their country … in making them the more connected as a people'. A poetaster of large ambitions and unequalled verbosity, for twenty years Golder issued to the 'settlers and gentry' of Port Nicholson a series of verse collections and narrative poems, epic in their scope and proportions, that ranged from The New Zealand Minstrelsy in 1851 (a tribute to the early settlers of our Colony') to The Philosophy of Love in 1871. Of his various pamphlets, with their faint type, their elaborately worded title-pages, and amateurish format, only one, The Pigeons' Parliament (1854), has to-day any but a derisory interest. Intended as a satire in the traditional manner, The Pigeons' Parliament gives a pungent record of colonial life as it appeared to one of 'the industrious poor' (to use Golder's own phrase) with that itch for self-improvement not uncommon in his class and his time. We note the rough and often shrewdly drawn portraits of prominent colonists, page 55while the details of some obscure incident dramatically spring to life, as in these exhilarating lines describing a threat of native invasion:
'And sweating sawyers leave the saw,
And shoulder arms to enforce the law;
Hoping the job might never cease,—
"Long live the wars! a fig for peace!"
So long's no skirmish happens here
But fing'ring pay and keeping cheer.'
But an extract, since it draws attention to the obvious imperfections of the separate parts, does less than justice to this rough ballad. It is, indeed, in the real sense a popular ballad with all the qualities of its kind—vigour, broad humour, crudeness of versification and expression, topical and local appeal, and, by virtue of its spontaneity, a total effect that obscures the glaring defects of its parts. (And Golder carried on the ballad-monger's tradition by canvassing personally for subscribers, hawking his books about for sale, and in the case of a later book, printing it himself.) This doggerel epic has, above all, a vitality that one expects and so rarely finds in the literature of a 'new country' (outworn and misleading phrase), a vitality that is expressed in occasional rhythms, in the ideas original to the point of absurdity, in the lively words and images that Golder's fancy throws upon the page.
To contrast with the formless exuberance of Golder's work, there are the neat verses of John Barr of Craigielea, collected in his Poems and Songs, page 56 Descriptive and Satirical which was published in Edinburgh in 1861 with the help of a group of patrons. Barr too was a Scot, but more wisely than the bard of Port Nicholson he seldom ventured beyond the limits prescribed by his own vernacular and its verse tradition. This was his main source of strength, and it was an advantage that the Otago settlement in its earlier years sufficiently resembled a Scottish community for a genuine continuation of the vernacular tradition to be possible; it was small, comparatively shut off from the rest of New Zealand, and dominated by Scottish settlers whose patriotic and religious fervour had, through exile, become the more intense. Here was a microcosm of Scottish society clinging tenaciously to old customs and speech which were, nevertheless, changing under the pressure of New Zealand conditions. The contrast between the traditional ways on one hand and the abhorrent colonial tendencies on the other gave ample scope for the social satirist, and it was as such that Barr, like the caricaturist Brown, excelled.
A recurrent object of his criticism is the colonial preoccupation with money and material things to the detriment of the soul and the mind. And true to a common vernacular convention, the embodiment of a particular vice is very often a woman. The close of a piece of invective aimed at an avaricious shrew illustrates this as well as a frequent device of his verse, the page 57expansion of an English expression by a more vivid and concrete phrase in dialect:
'There are some folks get wealth, and it brings them a curse,
For they worship a God that's wrapped up in a purse:
You're a perfect skinflint, and a puir scant-the-bowl;
O woman! be wise, and think mair of your soul.'
Often he makes his effect by means of simple irony, as when a Scottish Polonia advises her son on the choice of a wife:
'Get ane can drub through dub and mire,
Wi' muckle buits and tackets;
And Jock, my man, when ye have weans,
Ne'er fash wi' education;
But pack them off to herd the kye,
Or to some shepherd's station.'
His language was well adapted to describe pioneer activities and had power to assimilate the common terms of the settler's vocabulary. Lines like the following have an almost muscular quality, a suggestion of tension and effort that admirably represents the movements described:
'For either I'm mawin', or thrashin', or sawin',
Or grubbin' the hills wi' the ferns covered fairly.
Grub away, tug away, toil till you're weary,
Haul oot the toot roots and everything near ye.'
It was clearly enough a modest talent which saw the light in Otago's first years. Yet it may not be altogether fanciful to see in Barr's small success the page 58potentialities of some more considerable achievement. If the isolation of Otago had been preserved, if Barr had been not the first and last but the father of a line of vernacular poets, would a local culture have taken root in the south? The question is unanswerable, for Barr's small book might well have arrived in Otago with a shipload of prospectors attracted by the discovery of gold. Overnight the narrow, intense life of the small Scottish community was transformed, the possibility of independent growth denied. Barr founded no tradition, and when his medium was used by later poets, at its best it could be only a literary importation, mellifluous, quaint, but sterile, as in Jessie Mackay:
'The hand is to the plough an the e'e is to the trail;
The river-boatie dances wi her heid to the gale'.
Nor were the other settlements exempt from similar change. Whether from gold discoveries, or Maori wars, or some other concomitant of 'progress', during the next two decades any signs of regional or local development were decisively checked. New Englands were not founded in the mid-nineteenth century, and by the end of the next period Otago was to have produced not successors to the rustic John Barr but the ominous figure of Julius Vogel.