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Revenge: A Love Tale of the Mount Eden Tribe

John White: A Biographical Sketch By A. H. REED

page xiBlack and white fascimile page image

John White: A Biographical Sketch By A. H. REED

Born in England, 3rd January, 1826,
Died at Auckland, New Zealand, 13th January, 1891.

In 1834 one Francis White, purposing to engage in the business of shipping kauri spars from New Zealand to England, broke up his home at Cockfield, Durham, and adventurously set forth to join his brother William, who had for several years been resident in the new land. With his wife and children he safely reached Sydney in a barque felicitously named the Fortune.

At that time there was no regular communication with New Zealand, but the departure of the schooner Friendship, bound for the Norfolk Island convict station with stores, thence to the Bay of Islands, provided an opportunity for a continuance of their journey. False to her name, the little vessel ran upon the rocks at Norfolk Island, and became a total loss, the passengers barely escaping with their lives. Their difficulties were now increased, for it became necessary to await some means of returning to Port Jackson, and it was not until the following year that they were able once more to embark for the Bay of Islands, where they arrived on 3rd October, 1835.

They were still by no means at their journey's end. To-day the run from Kerikeri or Paihia to Hokianga is at most a matter of a few hours. Right up to the close of the nineteenth century, however, and even later, Northland was known as "the roadless page xiiBlack and white fascimile page image north" In 1835 such a description would have been strictly accurate William White was at this time in charge of the Wesleyan mission station at Mangungu on the Hokianga, and thither his brother had to transport himself and his family, with their belongings. A journal of their experiences on this journey would make interesting reading, but Francis White's adventures in New Zealand seem to have been unchronicled. At any rate, the somewhat formidable undertaking was successfully accomplished.

For a few years, during perhaps the most impressionable period of his life, the boy John dwelt in the midst of a large Maori population, and no doubt at this time he laid the foundations of his erudition in native lore.

Towards the close of the thirties Francis White had to travel to England on business, and took with him John and a younger brother, Joseph. On his return to New Zealand he appears to have left the boys behind at a boarding school. They could not have remained there any length of time, however, as in October, 1840, they were back again in New Zealand. Once more it was a case of taking any opportunity of reaching their destination, and this time their landfall was Port Nicholson, then in the first year of its existence as a settlement' Eventually— it may have been weeks, or even months—they found their way back to the old home at Hokianga, and never again did John White leave the shores of his adopted country.

As the boy increased in wisdom and stature, so too did his interest in the native race increase. He early won the friendship of a tohunga of the neighbouring tribe. From him he derived and stored up much first-hand knowledge of Maori folklore; he became familiar with the traditional stories of the origin of the race, their discovery of the new land, the migrations, the colonisation of the land, the division of the country amongst the tribes. He acquired a mastery of their tongue, and in after years appeared to be able to speak, and write, and think, with equal facility in both languages. His mind became richly stored with Persons places and events; and by the good offices of his priestly friend he was initiated into the mysteries of the sacerdotal speech and ceremonies, and delved deeply into the mythology of this page xiiiBlack and white fascimile page image remarkable people. Wherever he went among them his enquiring mind sought for more and ever more information, and many were the traditions and proverbs garnered from the older men of the tribes, and committed to writing for later use. He could give as well as take, however, and doubtless his popularity was derived in part from willingness to relate in their own speech many a famous story, ancient and modern, garnered from the old world's treasury.

Such studies, so wholeheartedly undertaken, were not devoid of grave dangers to mind and morals. Others had discovered this to their cost, more than one of his predecessors having fallen by the way. White appears to have come through the ordeal unscathed, and to this the training and atmosphere of a godly home doubtless largely contributed.

In 1844, when racial strife was being stirred up by Hone Heke—White being then about eighteen years of age—most of the settlers in the Hokianga district sought shelter in Auckland. The White family—perhaps not without some apprehension as to their own safety—watched the refugees take their departure in the Government brig Victoria. They, however, tenaciously held their ground and remained in their home throughout these troublous years. It was not until 1851 that they left Hokianga and took up their residence in Auckland, where Francis White died in 1877, his wife having predeceased him in 1868.

On arrival in Auckland—then the colony's capital "city"— John found useful scope for his linguistic attainments, being engaged by the Government as interpreter, and serving successively Sir George Grey, Governor Gore Browne, and Lieutenant-Governor Wynyard. Under the latter he took an important part in the negotiations concerning the acquisition of the Coromandel goldfield, and subsequently was appointed Goldfields Commissioner under Major Heaphy. This appointment was followed by that of Native Lands Purchaser under Surveyor-General Ligar. His knowledge, not only of the language but of the workings of the mind of the Maori people, was one of the greatest service in promoting the sale and lease of lands which were to become valuable assets to the colony. A good example is afforded in the Waitakerei district, now a popular scenic and holiday resort in page xivBlack and white fascimile page image the vicinity of the city of Auckland.

In 1854, when twenty-eight years of age, White married Mary Bagnall, of Parnell. The union was a happy one, and there were born to them three sons and four daughters.

When native troubles broke out in the south White betook himself to the seat of war at Taranaki, and there acted as field interpreter to Generals Pratt and Cameron. This appointment was not without its perils to such non-combatants, and in at least one battle, that of Puketakauere, he was under fire. He seems to have attracted the favourable notice of Sir George Grey, for in 1862 the Governor appointed him a Resident Magistrate and stationed him at Wanganui. The colony was then passing through stirring and anxious times; the fire was in the fern, and when the spreading flames of war reached the up-river tribes of the Wanganui, White's knowledge and counsel were invaluable in checking the purposes of the rebel Hauhaus. In 1865 came the decisive victory of the "friendlies" on Motua Island, whereby Wanganui was saved from the jeopardy of attack.

After the Maori War, about 1867, White returned to Auckland, under engagement to the Provincial Government in its native affairs department. In 1874 we find him at Napier, editing a Maori newspaper—Te Wananga—and using his best endeavours by its aid to benefit the native race.

Five years later, under contract to the New Zealand Government, he set to work on his magnum opus, The Ancient History of the Maori; His Mythology and Traditions. This task was his principal occupation during the remaining years of his life, and was, in fact, never completed. Unfortunately, after several volumes were published, the Government, during a panic-stricken policy of retrenchment, called a halt in production, and such was the state of affairs at the time of the author's death.

Early in 1891 White, who had been for some time residing in Wellington, returned to Auckland, where he arrived on Sunday 11th January. That evening he attended a service in the Grafton Road Wesleyan Church, where the sermon, rather strangely, was preached from the text, "They desire a better country. The following day he visited friends in the city, and m the evening "the gentle, simple, child-like old man," as he was page xvBlack and white fascimile page image described by one who had long known him intimately, enjoyed a romping game with his grandchildren, afterwards remaining up until a late hour conversing with a group of old friends who had been invited to meet hint Retiring to rest soon after midnight he prepared for sleep after his long day happily spent. Bidding his wife "good-night," he was heard to give two heavy sighs. Mrs. White, alarmed, attempted to raise his head on the pillow, but he was beyond earthly aid, having already gone to seek that "better country." His body was interred in the old Symonds Street cemetery, which lies on the steep slope of the tree-fern-clad gully, adjoining the busy traffic of a great city, and spanned by a noble bridge. Here had been laid to rest Governor Hobson and many another of the stalwart pioneers. The second interment—in the days when the cemetery was still in secluded primeval loveliness—had been that of his own sister, Eliza. It is worth recording that, by his known desire, no mourning was worn.

John White's death took place at about the time when the annual gathering of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science was assembled in Christchurch. For this he had been asked to write a paper on Maori Folklore, but his presence being required at Whakatane to attend a Native Land Court, he had sent this paper to Christchurch, where it was to be read by Professor Hutton.

Rev. W. J. Watkin, an honoured Wesleyan minister, a son of James Watkin, the pioneer missionary at Waikouaiti, and White's friend of almost life-long standing, in a tribute paid at the time of his death, described him as "a man of large heart, generous sympathies, kind and considerate to all. His hospitality was shared by many. Mrs. White and he were ever ready to show kindness."

There having been a little confusion in published records of members of the White family, as concerns personality and chronology, a little elucidation may be desirable. It has already been made clear that John White was the nephew of William White, who was one of the earliest pioneers of the Wesleyan mission station at Whangaroa, where he shared the perils of those early days. After the sack of Wesleydale, and the page xviBlack and white fascimile page image temporary abandonment of the station, he joined the reconstructed mission at Mangungu, and was for several years at its head. He rendered notable service to the mission, but had not perhaps the moral stamina to withstand the peculiar temptations such men were subjected to. His subsequent doings rest somewhat under a cloud, and he was dismissed, ostensibly for engaging in trade. In 1839 he published in Sydney a pamphlet, Important Information Relative to New Zealand.

There is no reason to suppose that John White ever came under the spell of his uncle, and there was never cause for the slightest doubt as to his genuine piety and rectitude. During his residence at Hokianga the family lived not far from the mission station, where he came under the influence of the earlier missionaries, such fine men as Bumby, Turner, Hobbs, Whiteley, Wallis, Woon, of all of whom he spoke in terms of the highest respect. For fifty years he was well known in New Zealand, where he had earned the unqualified regard of his fellow-churchmen, and was respected by those who had any relations with him, either professional or social. A letter to his wife, written in 1860, while on a lengthy journey in the service of the Government in the days of the native conflict in Taranaki, reveals the simple, godly heart of the man.

In such somewhat scanty published records as are available there appears to be a certain degree of obscurity as to the date of John White's birth. The accepted year of his arrival in New Zealand may be taken as 1835, but currency has mistakenly been given to a statement that he was then six years of age. Hocken, who has probably been followed by other writers, makes this assertion in his Bibliography of New Zealand Literature, where it is also stated that White died at Auckland in 1891, aged seventy.

These figures are, of course, contradictory—his age would have been not seventy, but sixty-two. According to his own entry in a private journal which he kept as a young man, he was born on 3rd January, 1826, It seems reasonable to accept this as the correct date. As he died on 13th January, 1891, he had just completed his sixty-fifth year.

White has been charged with being unscholarly, that in fact both his spelling and grammar were defective. While this is page xviiBlack and white fascimile page image doubtless fair criticism, the judgment may have been based partly upon his earlier work. It is probable that the editor of Revenge may make some reference to the MS. of this book. It may here be suggested, however, that some of its defects, it is reasonable to suppose, might have been remedied had the author revised his draft for the press. It can be said, too, that the letter written to his wife, previously referred to, and written in his thirties, is quite as well constructed as the average hastily-written letter of a man of moderate education. Moreover, in taking stock of his literary attainments, his lack of educational opportunities must be taken into consideration. He arrived in New Zealand as a nine-year-old boy five years before the signing of the Treaty, when, it is scarcely necessary to point out, facilities for book learning were meagre. It is probable that he was more familiar with the speech and caligraphy of the Maori than of his own tongue; it has in fact been remarked that he thought in both languages at the same time, and in writing could change from one to the other according to which enabled him to express himself better at the time. He must of necessity have been largely a self-taught man; and the wonder is, not that his spelling and grammar were defective, but that he should have succeeded in attaining some measure of success in the use of the pen.

John White's published works, according to Hocken, include the following:

Maori Superstitions. A Lecture delivered to the Auckland Y.M.C.A. on 20th June, 1856—he would then be about thirty years of age. An amended and enlarged edition, incorporating the substance of another lecture, was reprinted as a Parliamentary Paper in 1861, and later in Gudgeon's History and Traditions of the Maoris, 1885. It deals in a comprehensive way with the customs and traditions of the Maoris.

Te Rou: or the Maori at Home. In the manner of an earlier period of book production the title is encumbered with a lengthy appendage: A Tale, exhibiting the social life, manners, habits and customs of the Maori Race in New Zealand prior to the introduction of civilisation amongst them. The author is described as "Native Interpreter, Auckland; formerly Resident Magistrate at Whanganui, and Native Land Purchase page xviiiBlack and white fascimile page image Commissioner." This book, of over 350 pages and a map of the Hokianga River, was published by Sampson Low, London, 1874. It contains much information relating to Maori life in peace and war. It has been criticised as depicting too exclusively the savage side of Maori life, to the neglect of its more noble aspects. In the present work, however, another side of the picture will be found, and it must be remembered that the author intended his three novels to convey the complete cycle of Maori life and custom, rather than any one volume of the series.

The Ancient History of the Maori, His Mythology and Traditions. This monumental work harvested the fruits of half a century of diligent quest. It was sponsored by the Government, the first volume being published in 1887. Succeeding volumes appeared at intervals—Volume VI in 1890. In the following year there was issued, posthumously, a volume of illustrations, comprising 123 plates.

All of these published works of White are now out of print, and for some Of them high prices are asked. The complete set of The Ancient History is a rarity, a large proportion of Volume V having been destroyed by a fire in the Government printing Office in October, 1890.

Besides his printed books White left several unpublished works in manuscript. One of these is a Maori dictionary, for which the diligent compiler gathered many thousands of words, though opinions differ as to its merit.

Two other manuscripts remain to be mentioned, both novels.

Hani: or the New Zealand, Revenge, a book similar in design to Te Rou, and

Revenge: A Maori Love Story, some notes relating to which will be found in the editor's Preface.

For valued assistance in the preparation of this biographical sketch my thanks are due to the Misses Ada and Elva White— John White's daughters—who have placed useful and important material at my disposal. I also wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to Mr. Johannes Andersen for use made of information contained in his The Lure of New Zealand Book Collecting .