POLACK, Joel Samuel
Author, artist, trader, and cosmopolitan.
A new biography of Polack, Joel Samuel appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Joel Samuel Polack was born in London on 28 March 1807 of well-to-do Jewish parents and was educated privately in England and on the Continent. When barely out of his teens he left home to embark on a life of globetrotting which brought him to New Zealand in 1831. During his roving existence he had been many things before he set up a general store at Kororareka seven years before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. He had been an artist in Europe, a gold miner in California, a commissariat and ordnance officer in South Africa, and a ship's chandler in Australia. Then in 1831 he sailed from Sydney for New Zealand and spent two unsatisfactory years at Hokianga before going into business at Kororareka, at that time an unruly and turbulent settlement where Maori-Pakeha relations were frequently dangerously strained. At this time he began to be interested in the purchase of land, not as a jobber of the kind that was to be found everywhere, but as an investor. He bought about 1,100 acres in all, and became somewhat unpopular by paying as much as £6 10s. an acre for some of it. There were those who regarded him as a land shark, but the injustice of such allegations was later demonstrated when a considerable portion of his land claims was recognised by the Court of Claims set up to investigate land deals.
Polack did well at Kororareka, mainly because of his uncanny knack of coping amicably with Maoris in all their moods. He laughed at their peccadilloes and their violence in the same friendly fashion, a policy in which he was greatly assisted by a quickly acquired fluency in the Maori tongue. His trading venture, however, came to a sudden end in 1838 when his premises, part of which had been used against his wishes for the storage of military and naval explosives, were blown skyhigh. For years he fought a losing battle for compensation of £1,000 for his loss, but despite a favourable recommendation from Earl Grey, the Government decided in 1841 that it would take no action.
At this stage he returned to England for a visit. While in London, as a member of the Colonial Society, he gave evidence in 1838 before a Select Committee of the House of Lords, stating a case for the colonisation of New Zealand. He had gained a more than superficial knowledge of the machinery of Empire before going to New Zealand and his views were well received. During his absence from this country he published two books, New Zealand; Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures in the Country between 1831 and 1837, which appeared in 1838, and Manners and Customs of New Zealanders, in 1840. He profited considerably by both books. Polack returned to New Zealand after the proclamation of British sovereignty, and settled in Auckland where he remained until he went to California in 1849. He died in San Francisco on 17 April 1882.
Notwithstanding an extremely florid style and a tendency towards pedantry and prolixity, both books represent valuable documentaries of the strange precolonisation history of New Zealand. In both of them Polack exhibits himself as an informed and sympathetic observer both of Maori and of Pakeha, and they give an insight into the personality of one who must have cut an oddly compelling figure among the rude whalers and semi-cannibal inhabitants of Kororareka and Hokianga in the 1830s. Because he had a fairly intimate knowledge of the native races of two or three continents, Polack was well equipped to make the most of his relations with the Maoris. He wrote about them with liveliness and humour, and his second book on manners and customs gained much from his exact and intelligent drawings with which it was profusely illustrated. In New Zealand's earliest history he comprises a notable and unusual figure, to be remembered for the informativeness of his observations and for the remarkable tact and understanding he displayed in his dealings with a race which was slowly adjusting itself with difficulty to the steady expansion of European influence. Polack is also remembered for his duels (1837 and 1842) with a Kororareka innkeeper, Ben Turner.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- British Resident's Letters (MSS), National Archives
- Dominion, 12 Nov 1938.