The New Zealand Wars Trilogy – Maurice Shadbolt (Auckland, 2005)
Ever heard of Maurice Shadbolt? Me neither, until I was given this hefty tome as a Christmas present. It was a singularly appropriate gift as I spent Christmas this year in New Zealand, which is part of the reason that this blog has been a bit quiet lately. Aside from having a great surname, Shadbolt also possessed lots of New Zealand literary awards and accolades including but not limited to a star on the “Waitekere Walkway of Fame”.
The New Zealand Wars trilogy, as the title suggests, is a trio of novels concerning the scrappy series of conflicts between Maori and European settlers in the early years of New Zealand’s colonial history between the 1840s-1870s. These novels are called: House of Strife (1993), Monday’s Warriors (1990), and The Season of the Jew (1986). The books are presented in chronological order (by plot, not by publication date). They aren’t really connected by anything except their setting (one character appears in relatively minor roles in two of the novels) but they share similar tropes and characters, which will be discussed later.
Because it’s not a book about the chemical industry, trains, or Southern Africa, I don’t actually know the history of the New Zealand Wars that well. Rest assured that I own several books on NZ history (and bought a new one whilst out there) and will correct any ignorance when I read and review them. This means that, for once, I will try and keep it tight and focus on the book itself in greater detail.
The House of Strife is a ripping colonial yarn with farcical elements, written in the first person as a memoir of the protagonist. Said protagonist is a young English writer with the improbable name of Ferdinand Wildblood who first edits and then writes enormously popular penny dreadfuls about the Pacific under the rather more realistic pen-name of Henry Youngman. Threatened by the person whose manuscript he plagiarised to gain fame Wildblood/Youngman (who, annoyingly, constantly refers to himself in these dual terms) decides to hot-foot it to New Zealand, whereupon he finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the British, the Maori, and white colonists of New Zealand.
Specifically the book deals with the conflict between the British and John Heke (Hone Heke), a Maori chief who delighted in cutting down British flag poles in ‘Blackguard Bay’ (formerly a wretched hive of scum and villainy made placid by creeping colonisation) as a way of demonstrating his refusal to bow to British power. Heke’s proclivity for felling flags is the perfect background to the comic farce of Wildblood’s antipodean adventure – the episode began with the British re-erecting the Union Jack on progressively sturdier poles, including metal cladding at one point, to deter would be flag-fellers.
The second novel, perhaps the best of the bunch, concerns Titokowaru’s War. The protagonist, once again a white male outsider figure, is the American Kimball Bent, who defects from the British Army and finds himself alongside the eponymous Titokowaru – presented as a nymphomaniac military genius who repeatedly outwits the punitive colonial forces sent against him. Unlike Wildblood of House of Strife who flits between British and Maori camps, Kimball Bent – wanted for desertion – spends most of his time with the Maori.
From a historian’s perspective the story was a great example of colonial expansion and its fallout. There is a great section in which Titokowaru painstakingly attempts to deter colonial surveying parties from crossing a river to seize land for would-be colonial farmers. If that doesn’t get your heart racing, fair enough, but it’s small details like this that flesh a story out, especially if it’s historical fiction. Well-written historical fiction involves solid research of the sort that seems to underpin Shadbolt’s work. This book in particular is based on the work of prominent New Zealand historian James Belich, who actually popularised the term “New Zealand wars” and sought to rehabilitate Titokowaru in the historical record. I actually met James Belich on a plane during my holiday and said hello, he had examined me for my Confirmation of Status (a sort of internal sanity check on late-stage doctoral candidates) and for a scholarship panel in 2015, but he looked incredibly confused and didn’t remember me at all – just so you know that I’m not bragging about it.
The third and final book, apparently one of Shadbolt’s most famous, is about Te Kooti. Te Kooti was a formerly “loyal” Maori who was accused of spying and deported to an offshore island a la Australia’s current immigration policy (Australia-bashing being an essential part of Kiwi culture). Escaping captivity, Kooti claimed conversion to Judaism and went on to perpetrate numerous massacres (as per the book’s narrative, this is something I would prefer to read up on) and repeatedly frustrate the colonial forces trying to capture him.
The protagonist here is world-weary and increasingly misanthropic soldier/painter George Fairweather, a Briton who meets Kooti prior to his incarceration and conversion and then tries to seek him out in Poverty Bay only to find he has disappeared. When they meet again it is in less propitious circumstances. Fairweather finds himself in the forefront of numerous attempts to bring Kooti to heel and disgusted by what he sees as avaricious and incompetent colonials.
As mentioned above, all three novels share similar themes, tropes and devices. All are portrayed primarily through the eyes of white men, usually outsiders in the wars. Their outsider status means that they reflected critically on all participants, so thankfully these novels are not simply a case of savage/bad natives against good/civilising colonists or vice versa. I have since learnt that these protagonists might all be considered examples of “The Man Alone”, this is a Kiwi literary trope which Janet Wilson describes as: ‘a crucial means by which the cultural nationalists challenge New Zealand society and what they perceive as its philistine, materialistic values, in particular the myth of a pastoral paradise.’¹
What is so refreshing about all three is that they implicitly or explicitly convey the messiness of the colonial encounter; in Shadbolt’s books the colonial ‘frontiers’ are invariably permeable. Sometimes this is portrayed clumsily, such as through the interracial relationships that all three protagonists enjoy with Maori women (the novels suffer from a lack of well-rounded female characters), and other times more subtly. ‘The Maori’ are disaggregated into different interest groups with different agendas – in all three books named (and this is important for white-authored fiction in a settler society) Maori characters fight with the British against rebel Maori (often much more effectively than their British counterparts). Likewise conflicts of interest between colonists and ‘imperial’ troops (British troops brought in from outside) permeate the novels.
Conflicts between the imperial ‘centre’ and the colonial ‘periphery’? So far, so settler colonial an historian of the topic might say. This is certainly reinforced by Shadbolt’s descriptions of blundering Britons labouring through the New Zealand bush only to he soundly thrashed by the very ‘savages’ they sought to subdue. However, Shadbolt often has little positive to say about the fledgling colony of New Zealand either, see this description of the capital Wellington, from Season of the Jew:
Wellington had grown no more pleasing a colonial capital in the eighteen months since Fairweather passed through. It was still an unconvincing overture to civilization sketched under the summits of the island’s stormy southern tip. Saloons filled the breezy waterfront, where moored vessels bucked on the tides. Inelegant government buildings had multiplied, and official residences crankily rococo in character climbed bleak hillsides; here and there a Union Jack was tugged by the wind. The half-drained streets stank of refuse and horses and were untidy with touts, pimps and whores. [p.943]
Wellington was much more pleasant when I visited!
Similarly, Shadbolt’s colonists are often weak, ill disciplined,uninspired, and hungry for land. This is in stark contrast to the archetypal settler colonial view of colonists as strong, masculine, ‘better’ Britons in every way – instead Shadbolt’s colonists are considerably more human.
In conclusion, then, I really enjoyed these books. They were all well-paced and well-written, and even without any specialist knowledge I could see a more realistic portrayal of colonialism than that in many examples of historical fiction. It whetted my appetite for some actual historical reading and introduced me to a famous Kiwi writer, all an essential part of my cultural assimilation for eventual migration. Even if you are not familiar with all the colonial history background they are just three good stories. I give them four daggers ††††
- J. Wilson, ‘The ‘New Chum’: Writings of the English Diaspora in New Zealand, 1860-1914′, in L. Fraser & A. McCarthy (eds.) Far From ‘Home’: The English in New Zealand (Dunedin, 2012), pp. 181-182.