Monday, August 13, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“CONVICTS – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past” by Matthew Wright (Penguin, $NZ39:99)
Vigorously throwing aside and ignoring completely unhistorical trash, I always divide history books into two sorts:
(A.) Academic history books – detailed, closely researched, aware of the complexities of the subject under review and relying more on primary sources than on secondary sources.
(B.) Pop history books – they can be reasonably researched, but they are more determined to tell a good yarn than to really illuminate a topic, and they tend to rely far more on secondary sources than primary ones. In other words, the bulk of their research is not original.
There are, of course, academic historians who can write in a lively style without making heavy weather of their formidable research. And there are pop historians whose stodgy style defeats their attempts to spin a yarn. The two categories are not to be confused with the issue of readability.
Matthew Wright’s Convicts definitely comes into the category of pop history, as an examination of its bibliography confirms. On the whole it spins a good series of yarns and is easy reading. But when it tries to indulge in broad sociological comments it falls over its feet.
As the subtitle, New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, should warn us, there’s an element of publishers’ hype in the presentation. A few generations ago, there might have been some naïve New Zealanders who imagined that all early Pakeha arrivals in New Zealand were the salt of the Earth, and that early Pakeha New Zealand had nothing in common with the criminal colonies of Australia. Those were the days, I guess, when Wakefield was still being honoured as a colonising genius.
But those days are long gone, and in the past forty-odd years, many historians have covered the louche side of early nineteenth century New Zealand. There is, frankly, nothing “hidden” about it, and most of the stories that Wright tells have appeared in print many times. I must add, too, that Wright’s book had the misfortune to appear too soon to make use of Vincent O’Malley’s excellent The Meeting Place (Auckland University Press), which gives a very detailed and scholarly account of all early contacts between Maori and Pakeha, including criminal Pakeha.
Having said all this, though, we still have in Convicts the yarns – of escaped convicts from the Australian colonies who made it to New Zealand; of whalers and sealers who sometimes acted like criminals; of “outlaws” whose actions didn’t merit the romantic mythology that was sometimes built around them. Matthew Wright is undoubtedly correct in his introduction when he notes that not all crimes in early New Zealand were committed by convicts. Many of his stories are about people who committed inhumanities without ever being brought to justice.
The dramatic story of the ship Venus, taken over and sailed by convicts into New Zealand waters, is recounted in the first chapter. In the second, we are reminded that:
“Convicts did not just arrive in New Zealand as unwelcome stowaways. Many of the sealers who reached early nineteenth century New Zealand were, themselves, former convicts. And the behaviour patterns of those who arrived even with unblemished record was often as poor as that expected of the convicts, a rough, blokish world of hard drinking, hard gambling, hard knocks, hard language and discipline enforced with ropes’ ends.” (Pg.42)
Wright soon shifts his focus, however, to “bolters” (convicts escaped from the Australian colonies) with the story of the ship Wellington, taken over by convicts and re-taken after a pitched battle in New Zealand waters with two whaling ships, the captains of which had to be persuaded to help enforce the law. There follows a chapter on cannibalism and Jacky Marmon, the opportunistic cannibal Pakeha.
A pause for breath is Chapter Four, where it is explained that many “convicts” in New Zealand from the 1820s on were people who had served their time in Australia, gained their certificate of freedom and were now striving to live respectably. But we then plunge into the tales of whalers, and the extent to which their stories overlapped with those of convicts.
Wright has a chapter called “The Should-Have-Beens” about those villains who should have been convicts if the law had caught up with them, but who were never prosecuted. He has three chief exhibits. There is Captain Stewart of the brig Elizabeth, who captured a Ngai Tahu chief for Te Rauparaha to torture; and who later transported Te Rauparaha down to the South Island to carry out slaughter of Ngai Tahu. There is Robert Lambert, using armed force to coerce innocent and unarmed Maori. And there is Captain Harewood, transporting Ngati Mutunga to the Chathams where they proceeded to wipe out the Moriori.
Another pause for breath comes in a chapter on how Pakeha settlers, after the Treaty of Waitangi, vigorously resisted any attempts to have New Zealand made a dumping ground for British criminals or delinquents. Therefore there was an outcry when a draft of English juvenile delinquents, the “Parkhurst boys”, were sent here.
The narrative part of the book fades out on the oft-told tale of the American army deserter Kimble Bent and his relationship with Titokowaru in the late nineteenth century. The presence of Kimble Bent in this book stretches Wright’s chronological focus a bit, but Bent is presented as “the last of the outlaws” and the last New Zealand link with an earlier convict past.
Much of this is very enjoyable as a series of anecdotes and yarns, and in this respect Convicts amply fulfils the role of entertaining popular history.
Where it goes wrong is where Wright attempts to provide some context on English nineteenth century attitudes to criminality and the incidence of crime. Here, regrettably, he indulges in many windy generalizations, drawing on at least some polemics (such as the writing of John Ralston Saul) which he mistakes for history. Some of his attempts at respectable sociology come close to being padding.
I also note an odd tendency to ascribe values to the early nineteenth century, and then to assume that they were unique to that age.
Take the following three examples:
“Convicts who eventually gained their certificate of Freedom – the ticket that told others they had expiated their sins of the soul and had become fit to join honest society – were still on the wrong side of the world. In any case, neither paperwork nor the privations they had gone through as convicts served, in the popular mind, to erase fundamental character. Criminals were apparently born that way, and they could never change, however much they were flogged, however much ardent churchgoers prayed for their redemption.” (Pg.18)
“But period prejudices – that people chose to steal as a career option; that the poor were lazy; and that misfortune was a goal – amplified fear.” (Pg.32)
“Period belief in the indelible nature of criminal tendencies extended the sense that most convicts had of being punished for existing.” (Pg.103)
In all three cases, Wright is implicitly contrasting the condemnatory early nineteenth-century attitude towards the “criminal classes” with our modern and enlightened awareness of the social determinants of crime; and of prisons as places for rehabilitation rather than punishment.
The trouble is, our age cannot so easily rebuke the past. The early nineteenth century also contained Christians (and in Britain especially Evangelicals) with a strong belief in life-changing conversion experiences, and hence with a strong belief that criminals were capable of changing their ways for the better. Conversely, in our own age there is a rising tide of reaction against humane criminology; a barking chorus that says criminals are to be punished, will never change, and there’s nothing that can be done about it except to lock ‘em up.
When I read Wright’s version of nineteenth century attitudes, I at once thought of the popular columnist who shrieks about “ferals”, and the number of modish people who now deny free will and see us all as being morally determined and hence incapable of moral change. This is only a whisker away from the view that “criminals were apparently born that way, and they could never change.”
The landscape of nineteenth century thought doesn’t deserve Wright’s simplifications . His sociologising is a hoot. But this is still a very entertaining book of stories.