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


page xiii


To one who had lightly accepted the legend of Henry Lawson as an exponent of human brotherhood, having affinities with Burns, it was a shock to read 'A Daughter of Maoriland'. Not that other contemporary writing about Maoris (mostly by New Zealanders) was free of the assumption that Lawson makesthat a people of different culture and history are to be judged in terms of the values of the people who have dispossessed them, but that one had expected better of Henry Lawson.

The story is of an altruistic new teacher at a Maori school who takes pity on a lonely and apparently ill-treated pupil and finds that his kindness has been systematically exploited by the pupil and her relatives. He gives up his altruism and at last is respected.

Not only does the sequence of events convey hostility; so does the language: the girl is called a 'savage', she is likened to a cow, a pig, and a dog; she brings 'a native smell' into the teacher's house; she is 'fat, and lazy, and dirty'. Twice the adjective 'Maori' has connotations of contempt:

[She] had not touched a dish-cloth or broom. She had slept, as she always did, like a pig, all night; while her sister lay in agony; in the morning she ate everything there was to eat in the house (which, it seemed, was the Maori way of showing sympathy in sickness and trouble), after which she brooded by the fire till the children, running out of school, announced the teacher's lunch hour.1

She went, per off-hand Maori arrangement, as 'housekeeper' in a hut of a labourer at a neighbouring sawmill.2

The moral of the story is that it is useless to extend mateship to a people who don't recognise the code; the brotherhood of man is a closed shop, no Maoris need apply. The story is, to page xivthis extent, a demonstration of failure, not only in Lawson but also in the philosophy he propagated.

The teacher who was a writer was forced by recognition of malign reality to abandon his plan to use the girl as the subject of a 'romance'. The story represents a movement, not only in the teacher's but in Lawson's mind, from 'romance' to 'realism', an artistic crisis described in his poem 'The Writer's Dream'.

The story is so uncompassionate and partisan that one leaves it with the dissatisfied impression that other interpretations of the events are possible but have been ignored or excluded by the author. Some years ago I decided to find out what I could about what went wrong, to see the events from the point of view of the Maori community, and to explain why a man of such broad sympathies should have failed in his relations with Maoris.

The story is clearly based on Lawson's experience teaching for a few months in 1897 at Mangamaunu on the Kaikoura coast. Lawson mentioned the girl in a letter to Hugh MacCallum, and his wife says that the actual model for the pupil was a girl called Mary. From Education Department records it is possible to identify her as Mary (or Mere) Jacob. In the light of these records and other inquiry into the history of the people of Mangamaunu, I propose to examine the misunderstanding that followed the contact between Lawson, with the Australian tradition he represented, and the Ngai-tahu of Mangamaunu with their experience of Pakehas, of the Education Department and the teachers who preceded Lawson; to give an account of as much as I have been able to discover about Lawson's experience at Mangamaunu, and to consider the effect of the experience on Lawson's subsequent writing. The inquiry is both biographical and critical and it has involved entering fields more familiar to the historian and ethnohistorian than to the literary commentator. In order to understand the complexities behind this contact of cultures (and behind the writing that came out of this experience) it has been necessary to consider such questions as Lawson's attitudes to coloured people, racial attitudes in Australian unionism in Lawson's time, the Australian bushman's code of honour, and the idiosyncrasies of Lawson's personality; the history of the Kaikoura Maoris, New Zealand Native School page xvpolicy, and the impact made by the teachers before Lawson and against whom he was measured.

It may be asked whether one story-and not a good one at that-justifies so long a study. There is perhaps some justification in the fact that not every critic thinks so poorly of the story as I do: it has been included by two prominent Australian editors (Colin Roderick and Cecil Mann) in personal selections of Lawson's stories. The study is interesting in itself but it has wider reference, in particular in the light it throws on Lawson's life and in the resolution of some of the complexities and contradictions in his other writing. And in these times of international readjustment of older racial attitudes, including a re-examination of Australian immigration policy, there is point in examining the failure of an intelligent and sensitive Australian writer, once he moved outside his own colour and culture, to practise what he preached.