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 stated his literary method: 'I sought out my characters and studied them; I wrote of nothing that I had not myself seen or experienced. I wrote and re-wrote painfully, and believed that every line was true and for the right'.22

In a letter, whose addressee one infers was George Robertson, he said: 'My life is "written between the lines" of every book of mine that you have published'.23 It would be fair to say he was an 'autobiographical' writer in that his writing, more especially his prose, is drawn, with only slight imaginative transformation, from his experience. Bertha's account and Lawson's letter to MacCallum show a close correspondence between the actuality of their experience with Mary Jacob and the events of 'A Daughter of Maoriland'. Charles Oscar Palmer said that 'the cares of Mr Torrens [sic]' were 'practically [Lawson's] own'.24 Certain details can be cheeked against actuality. The teacher is unnamed but the Maoris call him 'Mr Lorrens' as Sarah Barnett and the chairman of the school committee called Lawson. The chairman said, 'You can look at it two ways, Mrs Lorrens', and Pene Tahui said to Lawson, 'There is always two ways of looking at it Mr Lawrence'. Sarah pasted a portrait of a czar on the wall as Mary Jacob did.25 In one detail that can be checked, where there has been transformation, the imagination has worked in terms of melodrama. This is the incident of 'August' standing menacingly sharpening a knife on the wires of a fence. There is no evidence in the court hearing that Ratima had done this, but Lawson had heard gossip-either from Maoris, or, more likely, local Pakeha settlers-that he had sharpened his knife on a grindstone in his wife's presence. If Lawson believed that this transforma-page 127tion was 'true and for the right', it is determined by an assumption that characteristics are inherited 'in the blood'. 'Her father had murdered her mother under particularly brutal circumstances, and the daughter took after her father'.26 The only checkable variation from actuality is the extension in time: Sarah stayed with them for three months and the teacher taught at the school for three years afterwards.

But one has to judge the story on its own terms and take it as a situation involving not the Lawsons and Mary Jacob but an unnamed teacher and his wife and Sarah Moses and her relatives. Omitting the teller's interpretation the events of the story are these:

A teacher who is a writer hoped to write a 'romance' based on one of his pupils, a big ungainly girl who looked twenty, whose father had killed her mother when she was a child. She had since lived with her sister and then with an aunt by marriage who, according to local gossip, had ill-treated her. She had a history of running away to the bush and brooding when she was punished. She cut out a picture of a Czar whose father had been murdered and said she loved him. This was one of the reasons why the teacher found her an interesting character-study. She began to hang around the teacher's wife in the holidays and said she felt 'so awfully lonely'. When school reopened the teacher's wife sometimes took her home and gave her tea and cake.

One Sunday she arrived in nothing but a ragged dress to say that her aunt had put her out and she was going to her grandmother's at Whale Bay. The teacher and his wife considered taking her into their home, but first the teacher went to the kainga to see August's aunt. He did not, believe her when she denied turning August out. He explained in 'words simplified for Maori comprehension' that if August did not wish to return home he would let her stay with him until her uncle, who was away, came back, and then the teacher and the uncle could talk the matter over. The aunt and relations said they understood, and, with two of August's sisters and other relatives, the aunt accompanied the teacher back to his house. August, seeing her aunt, hid in the flax; but came out and talked at length to her, each turning her back on the other as they talked. August refused to return home, and it was agreed that she should stay with the teacher.

August, became brighter and seemed very changed. It con-page 128firmed, the teacher's wife's theory that all she needed was kind treatment. The chairman of the school committee was sceptical. August was grateful and worked well and the house became very cheerful with her. She ate a great deal; but since she had come her relatives had ceased borrowing from the teacher.

One day she went on horse to town for groceries and did not return till the next day. She explained that she had met relatives who had pressed her to stay, though she had not wanted to. When the teacher's store of food and candles began to diminish, August could offer no explanation but to blame passing swagmen. She would take hours over messages. She had a sick sister living alone and unattended. The teacher's wife sent her one night to look after her sister and told her to return early in the morning and report on her condition. August didn't get back till lunch-time. The teacher lost his temper and told her he wasn't to be taken for a fool. He went to the sister's whare and concluded that August had done nothing for her sister but had eaten everything in the house and rested till lunch-time.

August improved and the teacher continued with his 'romance'. Then his wife became ill. The groceries began to disappear more quickly than before, the house became dirty and August got fat and lazy and dirty. One day she said she was going for the milk. ('The teacher gave her permission'.) When she had not returned by lunch-time-and half the pupils were absent from school-the teacher went to the kainga to look for her, and found her sitting in the middle of a circle of relations, talking. He concluded that she was entertaining them with exaggerated stories about his domestic life, and that that was how she had occupied her previous long absences. For a year later he heard amazing slanders that she had circulated. She had turned the most senior woman in the kainga against him and this woman had kept the children away from school.

Finding August there with her relatives and half the school-children the teacher lost his temper and the children went back to school. August and her aunt came with apologies and the gift of a shell-fish. The aunt and sisters said they did not want anything" to do with August, but the teacher would not have her back in his house and she went back to her aunt's. The narrator explains that 'the whole business' had been a cunning plot by August's relations to get supplies from the teacher. When August was back home, her relations tried to renew their borrowing, but the teacher page 129refused them. Then August sent his wife a 'blackguardly' letter and her sick sister said the teacher's wife deserved it. The teacher went to the kainga again: an hour later August came down with a written apology in very bad English.

The teacher hearing noises in the night suspected it was August trying to scare him; he had previously believed Maoris too frightened to venture out after dark. One day August came to the school fence and scowling at the teacher's wife sharpened a table-knife on the wires. The teacher threatened to call a policeman-to 'take the whole gang into town'. August, and (presumably) her aunt who the teacher claimed was 'sneaking in the flax' behind, went back to the kainga.

The teacher could not continue with his romance. He heard from the younger pupils that August had threatened to cut his wife's throat. When the aunt sent down a shilling for some soap, he kept the shilling instead of sending it back as he had formerly been accustomed to doing. The borrowing ceased.

August went to live briefly with a mill-worker from the town. One day 'her brother or someone' rode to the school-house with a friend, drunk and blustering. The teacher came out with his gun and threatened to shoot them and they rode off. Just then he saw a hawk and impulsively shot at it. When he turned there was only a cloud of dust where the two men had been.

The teacher stayed at the school for three years; he gave up his ideas of universal brotherhood, and after that the Maoris respected him.

What is remarkable, even from this synopsis, is the sudden change from narration to interpretation at the point where the teacher finds August sitting in the circle of listeners. All previous events are seen in one of those 'flashes of clarity' or moments of recognition common in moods of extreme bitterness or jealousy or paranoia, where every event contributes to a malign pattern and all contradictions are resolved into a simple harmony of interpretation. Yet there are a number of contradictions in the story.

There is at this point a change in the story's point of view. Though the third person is used throughout the story, the narrator had until this point adopted a standpoint sympathetic to the teacher but still at some distance from him; now he identifies himself with the teacher's point of view and acts as page 130his advocate. The story reaches forward in time to explain other slanders, originating in August, that the teacher continued to hear for a year afterwards (and in relation to the checkable actuality from which Lawson wrote the story, this is an exaggeration). The teacher, in his moment of recognition, not only knows what August is saying but realises that she is responsible for the senior woman's hostility towards him.

The story itself will not support the narrator's conclusion that every preceding event had contributed to a malign scheme: 'The whole business had been a plot by her nearest relations'. August's aunt had denied putting August out and had spent some time, apparently, in persuading her to come home and had agreed, only after a long discussion with the teacher, to her staying with him. The chairman of the school committee had not accepted the teacher's wife's theory that August needed better treatment. The narrator himself is aware of a contradiction and tries to resolve it with a sneer when he says:

They treated her, 'twas said, with a brutality which must have been greatly exaggerated by pa-gossip, seeing that unkindness of this description is, according to all the best authorities, altogether foreign to Maori nature.

If the rumour of the aunt's cruel treatment was not exaggerated, August's actions could be interpreted in a more complex and sympathetic way; if they were exaggerated then the Maori reputation for kindness did not deserve to be dismissed so easily. The teacher's conclusions about what August had done while she stayed with her sister are equally hasty and could hardly have been established by questioning a sick woman whose knowledge of English was limited. He believed the 'blackguardly' letter but he did not believe the apology. It is held against the apology that it is badly composed, but the insulting letter must have been just as ill-composed. We do not know what language August is speaking to the circle of relatives, but since her aunt's and her own English was imperfect, it is likely that she would have been more fluent in Maori, which the teacher did not understand. Yet he recognises immediately that 'she was entertaining them with one of a series of idealistic sketches of the teacher's domestic life, in which she showed a very vivid imagination, and exhibited an unaccount-page 131ablesavage sort of pessimism'-hardly possible for her in English, and hardly possible for the teacher to perceive in Maori or without listening for some time if it was in English.

There are other contradictions. August's change from gratitude to ingratitude is not explained. She grows fat when she becomes an unsympathetic character; she has 'about as much animation, mentally or physically, as a cow', yet she was 'wonderfully quick in picking up English ways and housework'. In the case of the noises in the night the narrator is aware of a contradiction. Though he hadn't thought of it at the time, it was 'plain' later that it was August trying to frighten them. He had thought Maoris too cowardly to go out in the dark. But the preconception of a 'savage' seeking revenge is too attractive and the contradiction is resolved in the unsatisfactory explanation: 'But savage superstition must give way to savage hate'.

Every subsequent action except August's acting as housekeeper for a sawmill worker is interpreted as a further stage in a plan of revenge that the narrator has failed to demonstrate. August sharpening a table-knife, being the daughter of a murderer, must have murderous intentions. A visit from her brother, without any indication of what he said, is met with threats and gunfire. The narrator does not see the need to explain why August's sister thought the teacher's wife deserved the insulting letter-an oddity since the wife had been kind to her; he does not explain why the teacher, when she returned late from her sick sister, should lose his temper and say that he wasn't to be taken for a fool, or why the senior woman in the kainga had been persuaded, by a girl generally thought of by the community as strange and moody, to align herself against the teacher and keep the children from school, or why August apologised. Was it because the teacher made threats; did the community confer and decide that since August had obviously offended him she should do something to mollify him? These gaps in explanation suggest that some events in the actual sequence on which Lawson based the story have been omitted.

It is clear that the teacher and his wife looked on August as an unpaid servant:

It was a settled thing that they should take her back to the city with them, and have a faithful and grateful retainer all their lives, and a sort of Aunt Chloe for their children when they had any.

page 132

Aunt Chloe is Uncle Tom's wife in Uncle Tom's Cabin, faithful to her master in adversity, devoted to her master's children, clean, hard-working and a good cook. Harriet Beecher Stowe describes her:

Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under her well-starched checked turban, bearing on it, however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighbourhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.27

She is the type-figure of the gratitude a European idealist might expect from an African in return for benevolence: she was also a slave. The arrangement by which August was to live with the teacher was to work in return for bed and board-a truck contract that Lawson would not have countenanced between white Australians or even for the indentured labourers of Queensland. August even has to ask permission to leave the house, and the trouble begins when she stays away longer than expected. It would be expecting too much of the narrator to see her actions in terms of a system of values and priorities different from his own; but August's explanation that, though she herself wanted to come home, she could not resist her relatives' pressure to stay, is quite plausible in a culture with a wide kinship system and one that laid stress on the obligations of members of the extended family to one another. She might have been simply sharpening a table knife and her aunt (if she was indeed there) might have had some reasonable purpose in the flax.

The teacher and the narrator extend August's untrustworthiness to all Maoris-even if the subtitle 'A Sketch of Poor-Class Maoris' seems to exempt the author from such generalisation. The teacher will not accept the explanation that 'August was mad': in fact he makes surprisingly little allowance for the shock of losing both parents so young-as if that, too, were part of the conspiracy against him. The prominent aspect of that tragedy in his view is that she inherits the blood of a murderer. The most senior woman of the kainga he sees now as 'like the rest… very ignorant and ungrateful'. He had expected gratitude not only from the girl he fed but from the whole community.

page 133

An extended digression throws further light on Lawson's philosophy about coloured people. After the teacher has told August that he is not to be taken for a fool, he 'thought of the trouble they had with Ayacanora in Westward Ho, and was comforted and tackled his romance again'.

Ayacanora is an interesting version of the noble savage, her conception modified by Charles Kingsley's devout imperialism and Victorian English Protestant Christianity. When Amyas Leigh and his men meet her in Central America she is the mysterious and haughty ruler of a tribe of Indians who worship her as a goddess because of her white skin; but she is contemptuous towards her subjects and treats them with capricious cruelty. Meeting the Englishmen she deserts her tribe and, against dissuasion from Amyas, earns her right to join them. It is at this point that she becomes 'most troublesome'. The 'warrior-prophetess of the Omaguas' becomes 'nothing but a naughty child'-inquisitive, impulsive, hiding and hoarding trumperies. Amyas, who himself has stolen a Spanish galleon and its cargo, is shocked to find she is stealing small articles. She drinks wine, threatens to drown herself; she is penitent, and promises not to offend again, but lapses. She tries to tempt Amyas to kill a man of his that she dislikes. By a song she sings, they recognise her as the lost English girl they have been looking for, John Oxenham's daughter. The moment she realises that she is truly English she is transformed: 'She regained all her former stateliness, and with it a self-restraint, a temperance, a softness which she had never shown before'.28 She now sings only English songs, and psalms. Back in England she and Amyas marry.

The absurdities of this plot are obvious. It is plain that Kingsley is having it both ways: Ayacanora is white-skinned and she is dark-skinned; she is daughter of the Incas and daughter of John Oxenham. Kingsley apparently intends by her story some allegory of culture-contact and assimilation. Her natural or 'primitive' stateliness is lost when she is exposed to a superior culture, but she regains it, modified by inborn English restraints, when she feels completely identified with that culture. At a point of the story where the reader thinks her to be Indian, where Ayacanora joins the English crew of the captured galleon, Kingsley writes:

page 134

And so Ayacanora took up her abode in Lucy's cabin, as a regularly accredited member of the crew.

But a most troublesome member; for now began in her that perilous crisis which seems to endanger the bodies and souls of all savages and savage tribes, when they first mingle with the white man; that crisis which, a few years afterwards, began to hasten the extermination of the North American tribes;…

For the mind of the savage, crushed by the sight of the white man's superior skill, and wealth, and wisdom, loses at first its self-respect; while his body, pampered with easilyobtained luxuries, instead of having to win the necessaries of life by heavy toil, loses its self-helpfulness; and with the self-respect and self-help vanish all the savage virtues, few and flimsy as they are, and the downward road toward begging and stealing, sottishness and idleness, is easy, if not sure.29

In Ayacanora's case this was only a temporary phase. There are some points of resemblance between Ayacanora and August: Ayacanora following the Englishmen against their wishes is 'silent and moody'; there is her pilfering and her unpredictable behaviour on the ship; she 'picked up' English 'with marvellous rapidity' just as August was 'wonderfully quick in picking up English ways and housework'.30 The point of interest is that August's teacher by remembering Ayacanora was comforted and returned to his 'romance'. Since there was no possibility of August turning out to be a long-lost English girl, his comfort must have lain in the hope that these difficulties were only an intermediate stage to her assimilation into English culture. The assumption is an imperialist one: that August was one of a native people under tutelage, that he had accepted the 'white man's burden'. We are told at the end that the teacher gave up his 'universal brotherhood' notions, but we hadn't been aware that he had any.

Since Lawson at no point in the story detaches himself from the viewpoint of the narrator, the distinction is a fine one, and the conclusions may be taken as the author's. They are demonstrated in the last sequence of events-which have no parallel in the actual situation of the Lawsons-in which it is clear that August and the others 'respected him, and rather liked him than otherwise; but she hated his wife, who had been kind to her, as only a savage can hate'. It is the tenet of colonialism: page 135don't be soft with the natives, they lose respect if you're kind to them, the one thing they understand is firmness.

It was a tenet of European culture at this time that kindness to an individual should be acknowledged by unmistakable gratitude, the conspicuousness of which should vary in direct ratio to the difference in status between the two parties, or, in a case like this one, in inverse ratio to the proportion of European ancestry in the recipient. It was a tenet of the Australian bushman's code that a mate's generosity or loyalty should never be exploited; the bushman was always watchful that he wasn't being taken for a fool or thought soft, and he didn't forgive if he was. The narrator in Lawson's story was incapable of interpreting the events in any other terms than these.

Lawson's attitude is inconsistent. He disapproves of conduct in August that he connives at in the Steelman stories. He had already connived in his dubious assumption that the Maoris were stealing sheep. But in these cases the bereft were publicans and station-owners, and in Lawson's Australian mores, this alone would exonerate those who stole from them. Lawson would not of course have classed his teacher as wealthy, but he certainly had more than Sarah or her aunt did.

Returning to the actual situation from which Lawson wrote the story, and using only Bertha's account as evidence of what happened, it is possible that Mary, perhaps for personal reasons determined by the loss of her parents and her isolation in the community, gave the groceries and candles to her relations in order to impress them or earn their esteem or repay them for keeping her. If her relations knew where they came from, it is not unlikely that Mary told them that the Lawsons had given the groceries to her. But if she did not, they thought he could afford the loss because Bertha had told them that her husband was wealthy. In the Maori view hospitality is a reciprocal process. The Lawsons had at the beginning been dependent on Maori food and still relied to some extent on Maori food-sources. They had reciprocated in terms of their own culture, with kindness to individuals, attention to the sick and conscientious teaching of the children. In urban or bourgeois European mores (as distinct from the bushman's code) such services are not usually measured, but material goods for which money has been paid are not usually given without a page 136consciousness of measurable debt or obligation. There is an assumed desideratum of an eventual balance of debt and repayment. In the Maori system of values, neither such obligation nor goods are measured, nor is any mental balance-sheet kept, since tomorrow the donor might be recipient. If the Lawsons had been in need again it is likely that the Maoris would have supplied them as far as they were able. It is a sad thing that Lawson, who so highly valued mutual generosity, should not have recognised this. It is odd that in the last resort; it was not by the bushman's code but by urban bourgeois values that Lawson judged the community.

Yet the actual experience affected Lawson with more bitterness than even the imposture on 'Mr Lorrens' would seem to justify. It is likely that Lawson personified his own feelings in the obscurely wronged survivor of a treble partnership of mates in 'The Old Mile Tree', written at Mangamaunu in September 1897:

… dark and lonely,
A wronged and broken* man,
He crouched and sobbed as only
The strong heart broken can.
Old mile-tree I remember
When all green leaves seemed dead,31