Kōrero: Non-fiction

Whārangi 2. Frontier reports

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero


As Pākehā came ashore, they reported on a frontier between worlds. Sketchy narratives survive that were written or dictated by semi-literate Pākehā-Māori (the 19th-century term for Europeans who chose to live among Māori as part of the tribe), such as Barnet Burns and John Rutherford. However, they were vastly out-penned by the missionaries.

The writings of these pious observers routinely supply rose-tinted reports of evangelical success, ‘shocking’ accounts of heathen ‘savagery’, and snippy reports on each other’s conduct. However, missionaries could read ‘between worlds’ perceptively too. The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden, edited by J. R. Elder in 1932, offers a rich trove of insights into the personality of a complex observer as well as the people and places observed. Meanwhile, some have found William Yate’s An account of New Zealand (1835) of special interest at least partly because he was soon to be dismissed from his post under a cloud of allegations of homosexual conduct.

Emigration organisers

The New Zealand Company brought talented scribes with ambitious plans for settlement. Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s Adventure in New Zealand (1845) exceeds its brief as public relations for the company and information for prospective migrants. Wakefield has a gift for Romantic scene-painting and incisive character sketches; his pages reveal a sociable man with a great fund of curiosity, who, like an inquisitive tourist, becomes dismissive the moment he ceases to be charmed.

In Travels in New Zealand (1843) Wakefield’s scientific colleague on the Tory, Ernst Dieffenbach, looks beyond flora and fauna to comment with dismay on the fate of Māori in a colony governed by an ‘imported race of shop-keepers … who pride themselves on their own ignorance regarding everything that belongs to the original inhabitants’.1

Funny and serious

Describing the manuscript of Old New Zealand to Donald McLean in a letter of 25 October 1862, F. E. Maning wrote: ‘it is ironical, satirical semipolitical with lots of fun, and many serious and striking scenes from old native life and habits, and in a word shews indirectly without ostencibly pretending to do so what sort of a creature this Maori is who we have to deal with’.2


Among the earliest of the colony’s actual ‘shopkeepers’ were the traders Joel Polack and John Logan Campbell. Both gave colourful accounts of their dealings with Māori, Polack in New Zealand: being a narrative of travels and adventures (1838) and Manners and customs of the New Zealanders (1840), and Campbell as the elderly memoirist of Poenamo (1881). As with most commentators in this period, they constructed a view of Māori as an able, likeable people, strong of limb and martially inclined, but subject to the inconvenient restrictions of tapu and having a deserved reputation for cannibalism.

Three writers are notably more insightful. Artist Augustus Earle’s compelling Narrative of a nine months’ residence in New Zealand (1832) recounts his visit to the Bay of Islands, at the tail end of the musket wars, at a time of inter-hapū tension. Earle has a painter’s eye for how everything looks. Although the full significance of what he sees may escape him, the reader of E. H. McCormick’s carefully annotated edition becomes aware of a drama unfolding in the background, leading towards a tragic denouement with the death of Earle’s friend, Te Whareumu.

F. E. Maning’s first book also memorialises a death. His History of the war in the north of New Zealand against the chief Heke (1862) is told in the semi-comical voice of a Hokianga chief who fought as a proud ally of the British, but whose sympathies resemble those of Māori who fought against the Crown. Maning uses unreliable narration to convey a multi-faceted history. The chief’s narration reflects the perspective and priorities of Maning’s own whānau – the death of Maning’s brother-in-law Hauraki takes centre stage – but the author is also warning his fellow settlers not to make the mistake of assuming his relatives were a primitive people grateful for British rule.

These complexities are taken further in Maning’s tour de force, Old New Zealand (1863). Set in the 1830s, this semi-autobiographical collection of yarns and digressions by an ostensibly naïve Pākehā–Māori is written to an agenda, but the literary performance is so vivid and dramatic, that Maning’s storytelling outflanks his polemical intentions.

Edward Shortland is lucid rather than literary, but his Traditions and superstitions of the New Zealanders (1854) is impressive as the work of someone who looks beyond the intellectual horizons of his times with an intuitive understanding of the difference culture makes.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Ernest Dieffenbach, Travels in New Zealand. Vol. 2. London: Murray, 1843, p. 175. Back
  2. Quoted in F. E. Maning, Old New Zealand and other writings. London: Leicester University Press, 2001, pp. 213–214. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Alex Calder, 'Non-fiction - Frontier reports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/non-fiction/page-2 (accessed 25 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Alex Calder, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014