Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris



Lawson's intention when he went to Mangamaunu was to settle and work. His first visit to New Zealand, too, had begun with benevolence and the intention to settle. 'Scenery climate and people all different from Australia', he had writ-page 108ten in 1893. "The people are much nicer over here'.92 At Tuamarina near Blenheim he had written in 1894:

Oh! had you tracked where Kendall trod
I think you would be kneelin'
Three times a week an thankin God
That you are of New Zealan'!
For this I'll say, to make it short
An' keep my tongue from clacken
The people are a kinder sort
Your singin for, Tom Bracken.93*

'You stand a grand chance to lead the nations', he told the readers of Fair Play. And in a poem in Truth, before he left for Wellington in 1893, he wrote of himself:

Say you 'He's gone to Maoriland, and isn't coming back.'…94

But with such extravagance of sentiment, it is not surprising that that visit lasted only eight or nine months.

When he landed in Wellington in April 1897, he told the N.Z. Mail he intended to stay in New Zealand 'for several years', the Evening Post that he contemplated 'an extended stay', and the Press of Christchurch, reprinting a Wellington cable based on the Post interview, said that he intended 'taking up residence in New Zealand, which, he says, he prefers to all the other colonies'. Tom Mills wrote: 'If Harry can get a billet here he will settle in Maoriland. I sincerely hope we may secure him.'95

There is no doubt that he spent much of his time writing while he was at Mangamaunu. He planned to write a series of sketches from his Mangamaunu experience. At the beginning of his mid-year break he gave two accounts of the plan, to Hugh MacCallum and to Angus and Robertson, and at about the same time to Tom Mills.

I have material for all possible Maori Child character—and outside for adults. I'd be crowded and do worse in a

* This is the last stanza of a poem contrasting New Zealand's treatment of its poets with Australia's, and expresses Lawson's reaction to the appointment on 1 May 1894 of Thomas Bracken to what Tom Mills called 'a State sinecure' as Reader and Record Clerk to the House of Representatives. Two other stanzas from the whole poem are quoted by Tom Mills in the Worker (Brisbane), 5 March 1898, p. 5.

page 109large school…. But you must read all about it in my book….

The book will be mostly NZ Character sketches, personal reflections—some old debts paid to one or two unfair critics, literary and otherwise, and scenery—with the Native School as a peg to hang on. The chapters [and] characters seem to fall into place of their own accord, and I feel happier over it, and more enthusiastic, than I ever did in my life before. Have written well into the new book but will have to write all the holidays and spare time to keep up with the chapters. Two Australian scenes called the Cinematograph, with the darkening snowey peaks of the Kaikouras for a ground, and "Out on the Wastes of the NeverNever" and "Clancy" for accompaniments, have dropped into the book, and read like a summary of all I have written or may write about Australia.96

… am well on with a connected Book called the "Native School"—descriptive, reminiscent, and personal matter-in an altogether new style, for me. I have quiet, oppotunity, all the characters, and the school as a peg to hang my fragmentary ideas incidents and emotions on; and if the book gives as much pleasure in reading as it does to me in writing, I think I'll succeed. The chapters seem to fall into place and fill without an effort….

… all my ideas & NZ copy is working into the "Native School" (title private).97

It was possibly from Lawson himself or from Tom Mills that Walter Woods, editor of the Hobart Clipper, heard:

The little New Zealand schoolhouse now keeps the wolf away and gives him time to write his first connected book, which should be finished by the end of the year.

Tom Mills's two accounts are the less reliable for their glibness:

He was full of enthusiasm when he took up that task [i.e., the position at Mangamaunu] and wrote me afterwards from the school that there was "lots of copy" in it. He was full of the idea of putting the Maoris of Maungamanu into a book.98

Henry wrote me that he was inspired to write the book of his life. He would immortalise the South Island Maori in this magnum opus. It was to be a book that would make more than the billy boil. He wrote me later in great glee that he had completed the first chapter of his book on the Maori.99

page 110

Only two of the pieces mentioned can be identified. The 'old debts paid to … unfair critics' are, in fact, one poem, 'The Uncultured Rhymer to his Cultured Critics', and his sketch 'The Australian Cinematograph' is accompanied by passages from Barcroft Boake's poem 'Where the Dead Men Lie' and a stanza from Banjo Paterson's 'Clancy of the Overflow'. Lawson had been impressed with Boake's poems when Angus and Robertson sent him a copy of his collection Where the Dead Men Lie, just published in Sydney.1 The only story identifiable as what Mills called 'the first chapter of his book on the Maori' is 'A Daughter of Maoriland' itself. The main outlines of Lawson's conception of the book, however, are clear enough: it was to be a miscellany of verse and prose, some of it Australian in setting, the author's point of vantage being from the school at Mangamaunu, and the unifying factor of the poems, the character sketches and the reminiscences and personal reflections being Lawson himself or his literary persona. His enthusiasm suggests that he might have developed in a new direction, that Mangamaunu was at first a stimulus to his writing.

It must have been a letter from Lawson that was the source of the Bulletin's personal item that 'the school has made copy … probably a bookful of copy, so quaint and queer are Maori children'.2

He had clearly written more of this book than the poem and sketch and story so far identified. After his return to Wellington, the Evening Post reported an interview, probably written by Tom Mills. It is probably the source of brief, less informative notes in the Bulletin of 20 November, the Tasmanian Democrat (Launceston) of 19 November, and the Clipper (Hobart) of 4 December. The Post account reads:

We understand that Mangamaunu yielded much 'copy' for both the poetic and prose expression of Mr. Lawson's pen, and some of the best work of his life has been written at the pah, some of which will appear in the Bulletin, the Antipodean, and other Sydney Christmas publications. During his stay in New Zealand Mr. Lawson has also had good offers from such British publications as Blackwood's and Chambers's. Mr. Lawson's first sustained prose effort, a book on Maori and colonial impressions, also found its way upon paper while he was at the Maori schoolhouse. Altogether, page 111Maoriland will yield a rich harvest to one of Australia's most popular authors, and consequently New Zealand will reap a good advertisement. Mr. Lawson may stay in New Zealand to complete his unfinished MS. By to-day's mail he received word from Mr. A. P. Watt (who is Rudyard Kipling's literary agent) that Messrs. Methuen & Co., the English publishers, are anxious to secure the complete (English and colonial) rights to Mr. Lawson's next new book. Mr. Watt writes offering his services.3

The previous evening the Post had reported that Lawson's 'sketch' 'A Daughter of Maoriland' had been accepted by the Antipodean.4 In October he had told Tom Mills he was 'getting orders from leading Eng and Scottish magazines.'5

But Mills's account of the rest of the work is unreliable. Several poems written in Mangamaunu (including 'Written Afterwards', 'The Writer's Dream' and 'Ports of the Open Sea') appeared in the Bulletin in the first six months of 1898; all prose pieces published in the Bulletin between December 1897 and October 1898 are set in Australia. In June Lawson had been crowded by 'Australian Xmas orders' and was 'doing no short work save verse'.6 The Antipodean was a Christmas publication published in Melbourne and London. Brooks's Australian Christmas Annual published 'The Australian Cinematograph' in its first issue in 1898. I cannot say whether anything appeared in 'other Sydney Christmas publications' or whether Mills pluralised them for good measure. There is nothing by Lawson in Blackwood's Magazine or Chambers's Journal between mid-1897 and the end of 1899. Blackwood did publish both The Country I Come From and Joe Wilson and his Mates in 1901; Methuen published Children of the Bush in 1902. But none of these three volumes contains anything that might be construed as being part of a 'sustained prose effort, a book on Maori and colonial impressions.' There is reason to suspect Bertha's assertion that Joe Wilson and his Mates was written at Mangamaunu.

But the book or a considerable part of it existed. Lawson was uncertain of how best to publish it. From the Post office he wrote to Hugh MacCallum on 15 November:

I am not prepared, at present date, to make definate arrangements for the publication of a new book. I am undecided as to whether I will run the Maori book or series page 112through an Australian or English journal or magazine before publishing in book form.7

After Lawson's departure from Wellington for Sydney on 12 March 1898, the N.Z. Mail reported: 'We understand Mr. Lawson intends to publish his experiences in New Zealand in book form.'8

Nearly two years later they were still unpublished, but available. A letter, written not in Lawson's hand but signed by him was dated 24 June 1899:

If present business is satisfactorily concluded, he has no objection to letting Mr Robertson read the prose work he has on hand. Long stories "The Little Schoolmistress", "The Lash of Specimen Flat", "New Zealand & Maori Sketches", and the "Golden Nineties"….9

The letter goes on to name three sketches of experiences in Western Australia ('Life in the Government Camps', 'Sketches of Tothersiders', 'Boy Husband and Girl Wife'), and of the voyage to Perth.

The Golden Nineties ran serially in the Australian Star from 30 September to 25 November 1899; it included sketches of the voyage to Western Australia and perhaps part of the 'Sketches of Tothersiders'. I have not been able to trace any of the other pieces, either in print or in manuscript.

But by early 1900 there is no mention of the book, in an account of his publishing plans in a letter to Bland Holt. On the Track and Over the Sliprails were due out 'presently' and one of them contained 'some new stories, which I intended for a third prose vol, in order to strengthen the one coming out, but I'm glad I did it.'10 Over the Sliprails contains 'A Daughter of Maoriland', and the 'third' prose volume planned is probably Joe Wilson's Mates, or Children of the Bush, published respectively in 1901 and 1902. The stories of both collections are exclusively Australian in setting.

The collection tentatively titled 'The Native School' and another time 'New Zealand and Maori Sketches' was never published, nor is there any group of published stories that might collectively have composed such a volume. The reason would seem to lie in some hesitancy on the author's part or some loss of confidence in them.

Tom Mills's explanations are unsatisfactory:

page 113

He actually started on the task, but knowing his own habits so well, he wrote the chapters in such a way that he was able to sell each separately as a sketch, to raise the money to keep the family pot boiling. Some of the sketches were published, but the book was never completed.11

… he had completed the first chapter of his book on the Maoris. But alas, he could not keep that chapter in hand and add other chapters to it. Sustained effort had always been against Henry's nature. He rounded that chapter off into an article and sent it as such to the "Bulletin". Later he sent another article. That was all the contribution he made to the big work he dreamed about.12

Not only is there looseness in this equation of 'chapter', 'article', and 'sketch', but neither 'A Daughter of Maoriland' nor 'The Australian Cinematograph' were published in the Bulletin, or any other chapters or sketches or articles that might have made up the collection.

An indirect approach to the problem is all that the evidence allows. There are three occasions where Lawson concerns himself with the situation of a young schoolmistress teaching in an isolated and small-minded community. One can relate this to his stories of the hardships of bush wives (like 'The Drover's Wife', 'Water them Geraniums', or 'No Place for a Woman'); one can relate it too to his hatred of meanness, pettiness, 'localism' that he expresses in his 'Fragment of an Autobiography' and 'The Little World Left Behind'. But there are features that connect these three pieces with Mangamaunu experience, and in two of them the reference is covert. He said of Mangamaunu: 'after a while I noticed all the different charactiristics to be found in a white Bush school-or, in a modified way, in any primitive town or city school'.13

Denton Prout has seen in the tense isolation of Joe Wilson and Mary in 'Water them Geraniums' and 'A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek' a reflection of the domestic life of the Lawsons at Mangamaunu.14 Mary is usually taken to be based on Bertha, and shared certain physical features with her: 'I used sometimes to call her "Little Duchy" and "Pigeon Toes"; 'she had big dark hazel eyes'.15 The same physical features are found in the woman teacher at a bush school in 'barren western lands' in the poem 'Pigeon Toes'. There are elements of the poem that belong to Lawson's own situation at Manga-page 114maunu, as much as to Bertha's or to that of any teacher in the Australian bush:

I hated paltriness and deemed
A breach of faith a crime;
I listen now to scandal's voice
In sewing-lesson time.
There is a thought that haunts me so,
And gathers strength each day-
Shall I as narrow-minded grow,
As mean of soul as they?

The feuds that rise from paltry spite
Or from no cause at all;
The brooding, dark, suspicious minds-
I suffer for it all.
They do not dream the 'Teacher' knows,
What brutal thoughts are said;
The children call me 'Pigeon Toes',
'Green Eyes' and 'Carrot Head'.16

The 'brooding, dark suspicious minds' connect the pupils with Sarah Moses in 'A Daughter of Maoriland', and 'scandal's voice' with the stories she told about the teacher's home life. One stanza of this poem connects it with 'The Writer's Dream' which can be more definitely related to Lawson's experience in Mangamaunu:

I had ideals when I came here,
A noble purpose had,
But all that they can understand
Is 'axe to grind' or 'mad'.
I brood at times till comes a fear
That sets my brain awhirl-
I fight a strong man's battle here,
And I am but a girl.17

The poem 'If I Could Paint' (sent to Angus and Robertson in 1899 and withdrawn a few days later) contains a number of word-scenes; one of them is of a sensitive woman teacher in the soul-destroying scrub, teaching 'half-savage children'.18 In its prose version, he adds of the 'half-savage children' that 'the youngest might be as tall as herself'.19

In his note from the Coast hospital in 1921 Lawson pays tribute to country teachers, but with women teachers mainly page 115in mind when he says they have to put up with 'the most appalling loneliness, in the most uncouth places, where the heads of the Department do not send a male teacher'.* Such teachers, he says, have 'to suffer temperamentally many years of the worst kind of mental-and heart-torture, and keep their pens still and their tongues silent about it.' The last statement is mystifying. It clearly implies a teacher who is, like Lawson, a writer; the teacher need hardly have kept silent in her (or his) personal letters. If in this note Lawson did have Mangamaunu in mind, it suggests that, while he was in Wellington (and seeking further government employment)-and after he had sent off 'A Daughter of Maoriland'-he had been advised against using his teaching experience as material for publication. Native School teachers were government servants, subject to Civil Service regulations, which forbade the disclosure of any information acquired in the course of duty and specifically forbade communication with the press. The worst penalty was dismissal, and Lawson had left Native teaching, but he was looking then for other government work. The inference is a tenuous one, but if it is correct, it might explain why, after his initial enthusiasm for New Zealand, he could describe it (in the same private letter to MacCallum in which he mentions seeking work with the government) as 'this intensely cautious country'; why in 1921 he could look back bitterly to his 'exile in Toadyland-New Zealand'.21

The statement has been made that there are several stories set in the Maori school, but the only one published is 'A Daughter of Maoriland'.22 And the only other published prose piece that can be recognised as belonging to the 'Native School' group is 'The Australian Cinematograph'. The fate of the others lies probably in Lawson's London bonfire.

I had a box full of old printed matter and copy, finished and fragmentary, which I'd humped about the world for years, and which I thought much of and cherished, principally because it had been so persistently rejected by The Bulletin and every other paper I submitted it to. It got mixed up so often and I wasted so much time sorting it out and looking up parts of it to use in new stories (under the impression that I wrote better long ago) and trying to put

* The Bulletin words it dare not send, but the Mitchell Library contains a correction in Lawson's hand to do not.20

page 116it together for a book; and it worried me so much for fear I'd lose a page of it; that at last I made a heap of it in the back yard of my last lodgings in City Road and set fire to it.23

I burnt my scrap books and old M.S. in London (in the yard of the house where Macawber & David Copperfield lived, by the way-) to get rid of the worry of them; …24

That Lawson cherished the work he destroyed is consistent with its including the 'Native School' sketches; there is a difficulty in the fact that his reason for non-publication-rejection by editors-is different from the one inferred from his note from the Coast hospital-a warning against publishing personal knowledge gained as a government servant; but the possibility is not ruled out that both are right; that he might have ignored the warning, since he was no longer in New Zealand, and submitted the work, had it rejected, and in his later years, been content to blame the warning. Since some of the contents of the box had been 'printed' and some were fragmentary, they had not all been rejected, or all submitted. The possibility is still open that the box contained the 'Native School' sketches, in manuscript and unsubmitted.

Of one of the stories, never published and perhaps never written, that might have been included in the 'Native School' there is a hint in a letter to Angus and Robertson written in May 1899. He proposed to bring Steelman to an end: 'He dies to save a Maori woman and a half-caste child from the treacherous little snow fed Maori river. I know the river, and the incidents would be practically facts.'25 This story, called 'Steelman Goodnight', of which I have not found a manuscript, got as far as being 'thought out in England … and drafted'.26 The river is clearly the Hapuku; the child I imagine is the 'dearest little half-caste lady of two or three summers' in 'A Daughter of Maoriland' who can be identified as Mrs Walsh. Mrs Walsh, though she remembered a drowning in the Hapuku, could not recall any incident where a mother and baby were rescued from drowning, or Lawson himself being involved in any rescue. It is interesting to note that five years after this plan Lawson saved a woman from drowning in Sydney Harbour.27