new zealand electronic poetry centre

 

Murray Edmond


essays
[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, footnotes]

    

THEN IT WAS NOW AGAIN:
NEW ZEALAND POETRIES AND COLONIAL HISTORIES


continued

 

William and Elizabeth Trevarton aged, respectively, 32 and 30, of Truro, Cornwall, with Thomas (12), Elizabeth (7) and Mary (5) sailed on The Bolton, from Gravesend at 10.30 am on 19th November 1839, as 'emigrant labourers who have received a free passage' and arrived at Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington/Pooneke/Port Nicholson - four names for this place!) at 2pm on 21st April 1840, under transport of the New Zealand Company of William Wakefield. And now, now. Is this history, now it has been found in National Archives, transcribed and written down here, in this format? Or literature? Or could it be a poem?

From Truro, in Cornwall,
as, in the words of the log,
"emigrant labourers,"
to Gravesend, and departure,
in what November weather,
William, and Elizabeth,
Thomas, and Mary, and
again Elizabeth, as people
give names to people, so
people give names to history,
the names of history.

Does this rearrangement of the language, this shift, suggest that one discourse holds a primacy over the other, which is, in some sense, secondary, because it draws resources from the first? Which do we believe more? - or feel we know more from? – or feel we feel more? - for receiving it in one form, rather than the other.

Jacques Rancière's The Names of History meditates on 'the question of the poetic form according to which history can be written'. (14) Rancière asks what an historian is to do with the 'mass of paper' filled with 'blind and blinding speech' of 'a living person who speaks too much, who speaks incorrectly, out of place and outside the truth', and answers this with three possibilities: 'she can refrain from speaking of a scientifically insignificant mass of paper', or 'she can speak of it in order to explain why it does not have to be taken into account', or 'she can remake the narrative according to what this writing says'. (15)

William and Elizabeth Trevarton were my great-great-grandparents (my daughter is Harriet Trevarthen). They came, for no recorded 'reason', no one knows what the voyage or the arrival meant to them (although, almost immediately, they left Wellington and moved to Auckland). It is not difficult to fit them into a wider picture of people seeking something better, something more, something new, part, in fact of a huge mass of colonising nineteenth century emigrants from Europe: 'Westward exploration, Westward expansion, Westward exploitation, and Westward imagination', the complex knot which Lyn Hejinian invokes as her heritage in her article 'The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem.' (16)

Yet many of these colonists travelled neither as visionaries nor as exploiters; which is to say, many, in fact, had to be persuaded to come. The West, that promised Land of Cockayne, was not always sought in a spontaneous gesture of despair and wild hope. The new place had to be constructed in the mind before it could be sought, even for immigrants such as the Trevarthen family, who left England before the signing, in February 1840, of the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of partnership between Maori and Pakeha, when there were perhaps fewer than 2,000 Pakeha in Aotearoa. In Making Peoples James Belich argues that the reasons for Pakeha migration into New Zealand began 'as bait for migrants' and turned into 'powerful myths and prophecies'. In other words, much as television functions today, the adverts drove the programming; it was, as Belich writes, 'a history written in advance'. (17)

Early immigration into New Zealand was organised by private immigration entrepreneurs, notably the father and sons Wakefield and their New Zealand Company, whose tempting offers worked their commercial magic on the Trevarton (Trevarthen) family:

As we worked up to the anchorage, the noble expanse of water, surrounded by a country of the most picturesque character, formed a scene of indescribable beauty . . . we wondered that a place which seemed so much to invite settlement, had not before been colonised. (18)

This evocation of 'tranquil' nature was written by Charles Heaphy, 20 year old artist employee of the New Zealand Company, in his Narrative of a Residence in Various Parts of New Zealand (published in London in 1842), as if this accurately represented what he had seen when he sailed into Wellington Harbour in the spring of 1839. Despite Heaphy's marketing prose, many of 'the working classes [who] settled at Wellington for a time', such as the Trevarthens, left soon after for other places.

Heaphy worked his way round all the chosen company sites (while discrediting non-Company settlements) in the pamphlet he wrote for the Wakefields. Where-ever he went, he found a level playing field and boundless opportunity, using a rhetoric which merges seamlessly with the belief system of laissez-faire capitalism so familiar to New Zealanders since the advent of the radical right Labour Government in 1984:

Of the Taranake country . . . little need here be said, as it is by all parties allowed to be the most fertile in New Zealand. The level land extends around the base of Mount Egmont, as far as the eye can observe, and is composed of an exceedingly rich volcanic mould over granite and conglomerate. In the centre of this plain, or slightly undulating surface, the mountain, rising with beautiful regularity of form to a height of nearly 8,000 feet, is an object of extreme grandeur and sublimity. (19)

Encyclopedic scientism mixed with glimpses of the sublime are still the stuff of selling. The search for literal level land was then as relentless as the search now for a metaphorical flat field. Heaphy's concession that the land was, in places, 'slightly undulating' translated, in fact, as heavily bushed hilly country broken by numerous steep gullies.

There are extraordinary continuities between early colonial times and the present economics of the New Right. The 'New Right' or the 'Economic Rationalism,' or the 'New Political Economy,' or whatever name it is finally given, in the name of history, which has dominated New Zealand's politics and language since it was installed by a Labour Government who swept to power with a massive landslide electoral victory in 1984, marketed and sold a vision of New Zealand as a Singapore of the South Pacific. All that was necessary was to create a 'level playing field' where market forces could be free of interference to pursue their inevitable balance: 'Things will happen in well-organised efforts without direction, control, plans,' as Lawrence Summers, sometime chief economist at the World Bank, presently Deputy Secretary of the United States Treasury, put it. (20) As Friedrich von Hayek, the economist whose theories gave this version of reality its modern kick-start, maintained, there is a 'natural' rate of interest. In Heaphy's world the obstacles to allowing this natural balance from coming into being were the Governor, Captain Hobson ('censured in every part of the country'(21)) and the missionaries ('rapaciousness' (p. 5.)), whereas the 'natives' are consistently portrayed as the natural allies of the settlers and the Company, since the benefits and superiority of Western civilisation are so glaringly self-evident that all natives 'appreciate the introduction of European civilisation . . . they are contented with the quantity of land reserved for them', and '[S]uch, indeed is their disposition to mix with the European population, that it is to be expected the two races will eventually be entirely amalgamated.' (pp. 4 – 5.) This utopian advertising copy, which proposes sameness subsuming difference, albeit on an unstated assimilationist model, is a vision of a level playing field of race and culture.

When Maui, the pan-Polynesian demi-god, out fishing with his brothers, used his grandmother's jawbone as a fish hook and fished up the North Island of New Zealand (Te Ika a Maui, the fish of Maui), he found he had pulled a smooth, flat, untroubled land from the sea: 'It's a paradise! So perfectly formed!' one of his brothers commented. (22) But the paradise did not last long:

Maui left the fish in charge of his brothers while he returned to Hawaiki to get priests to divide the fish with the correct ritual. However, his impatient brothers cut up the fish without priestly assistance. The fish writhed and squirmed with the result that inequalities were produced that became mountains and valleys when rigor mortis set in. The Maori say that the North Island would have been perfectly level had his brothers waited for Maui's return. (23)

Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa concludes his account of this well-known story by commenting: 'It is fortunate that they did not.'

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Last updated 11 July, 2001