Monday, July 21, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“JOURNEY TO A HANGING” by Peter Wells (Vintage / Random House, $NZ44:99)

            I am sometimes so taken with a book that when I come to review it I feel the urge to rush to judgement before I do an analysis of it. This is the case with Peter Wells’ latest book Journey to a Hanging. I was so absorbed in it that I found it very hard to put it down, and galloped through its substantial text (about 400 closely-printed pages, before endnotes) in a couple of days. It is a vivid, insightful narrative and analysis of a set of tragedies in 19th century New Zealand. It is the product of close research and makes extensive use of the diaries, letters and testimonies of the people involved. It presents a credible set of arguments. And it is very, very readable.
Journey to a Hanging once again involves the printer, polymath, erstwhile Anglican missionary and gadfly William Colenso, of whom Peter Wells wrote his idiosyncratic biography The Hungry Heart two years ago. [Look up on the index at right my review of The Hungry Heart – as well as my reviews of two other books concerning Colenso by other people: Give Your Thoughts Life and William Colenso – His Life and Journeys]. As in The Hungry Heart, Wells sometimes places himself at the centre of the narrative. Among the many, mainly historical, photographs and illustrations that pepper the book’s glossy pages, there are the shots that Wells took while visiting sites where the historical events happened. He speaks of his “contrapuntal method of working.” (p.8) He notes that “my modus as a writer is to go to places, and pitch the historical past against the vagaries of the present” (p.9)
Again as in The Hungry Heart, Wells does not hesitate to speculate on people’s motives and to dramatize what he believes their intentions to have been. This time, however, he is more sparing in his speculations and is more restrained in his facetious asides. For these reasons among many others, I think Journey to a Hanging is a much stronger book than The Hungry Heart.
Despite his presence, William Colenso is not the focus of Journey to a Hanging. By rights, the book should be called Journey to Two Hangings, as that is what it is really about.
The first is the hanging and then the mutilation of the body of the Rev Carl Sylvius Volkner on 2 March 1865. Volkner, a German clergymen working for the Anglican Church Missionary Society, was murdered near his Hiona Church in Opotiki by Maori who were influenced by the Pai Marire (“Hauhau”) religion.
The second hanging is the execution (or perhaps judicial murder) of Kereopa Te Rau nearly seven years later, after his trial in Napier in late 1871. Kereopa was clearly only one of the people involved in Volkner’s death, and his role was indeed murky, but he had been pursued for years as the chief murderer and had taken refuge in Tuhoe country. The Tuhoe, tired of being harassed by government soldiers in search of him, handed him over to the Pakeha authorities and Kereopa’s trial and death followed. The cover blurb refers to these as “the events that set back New Zealand race relations by a century”, a phrase which is sourced to the historian Edmund Bohan on p.131.
Peter Wells is aware that this story has been told many times before, but through the lenses of different ages’ preconceptions and assumptions. Volkner was once seen as a martyr by Pakeha Christians (years after his death, his church was renamed St Stephen the Martyr). His murder, including the decapitation of his corpse and the eating of his eyes, was no more than an outbreak of cannibalistic barbarism. But then along came the Maori renaissance in the 1970s, and suddenly Volkner was recast as a government spy and his murder was the just retribution of Maori people then at war with colonisers and land-grabbers. As Wells writes:
the longer I worked on this story, the more I became aware that, even in the present, the interpretation of the ‘facts’ had an inherent instability. If Volkner had been regarded in the nineteenth century as a martyr, by 2014 he was dumped into the bin of political correctness: he was simply a spy and his death was, by implication, completely valid. He no longer had any narrative use. Kereopa Te Rau, in the same ever-balancing, ever-tilting narrative scales, was now viewed as unjustly hanged for a murder he did not commit. He was the leader of a rational political order whose anti-colonial drive was expressed through traditional Maori tikanga.” (p.12)
However, continues Wells, “The situation is complicated, much more so than the simple opposing points of view (Maori innocent and wounded, Pakeha evil and corrupt) that the contemporary interpretation allows.” (p.14)
Clearly one motivation for writing this book was Wells’ dissatisfaction with currently acceptable views of the events, which do not allow for nuance and which refuse to take seriously the worldviews of people in a past age. He quotes with approval Adam Gopnik when he said that “Historical criticism, which is ostensibly about trying to understand things as they were seen then, too often spends its time hectoring the dead about not having seen things as we do now.” (p.94)
In a chapter tellingly called “Rinsing Away the Blood”, Wells credits Paul Clark’s 1975 book Hauhau: The Pai Marire Search for Maori Identity for the view that
Rev Volkner’s death was a rational political act carried out with, so to speak, all due diligence in terms of Maori tikanga. Clark conceptualised the killing as ‘an execution’ by way of further meshing it in postcolonial political correctness. His analysis did have the value of removing the stain of barbarity and irrationality from the death, but he may have over-emphasised the spy charge and under-emphasised Te Rau’s role in the killing. What his account also left out – understandably, as it was the very force he was trying to provide a corrective against – was what Bishop Williams called the ‘phrensy’. Clark, a dispassionate academic, downplayed it entirely. Yet witness after witness used a single adjective to define the tenor of the events of the first and second of March 1865 – and this word was ‘mad’.” (p.149)
In effect, Wells is saying here that the revisionist view of the event prettifies it and cleans it up – “rinses away the blood” – and refuses to see that it was an act of violence carried out in conditions of near hysteria by people who had somehow been inflamed. This is of a piece with other of Wells’ warnings against prettifying or sentimentalising Maori history.  For example in his considered “Postscript” he notes “Once again I get a sense of how Maori life and history was [sic] so powerfully informed by the effects of the inter-tribal killing fields – almost as much as by colonisation, if we are all being honest.”(p.366)
None of this means that Wells wants to return to the simplistic view of Volkner as martyr, any more than he wants to see Kereopa as helpless victim. He wants to enter the minds of all the major participants in this story, and establish some balance by determining the worldview each had
He does this by dividing his narrative into two parts.
The first 150-or-so pages of Journey to a Hanging are called “Walking at Night Without Stars” and concern Volkner. He is characterised, sympathetically, as an outsider in colonial Pakeha society. Offered no funding or livelihood by the North German Missionary Society, which had sent him to New Zealand, he switched to the Anglican CMS. But he was at first offered no parish and had to play something of a servant role to missionaries like Robert Maunsell.  Like so many missionaries, he was often isolated and lonely. One conspicuous “success” in his life, in worldly terms, was marrying Emma Lanfear, ten years older than he was and a woman who brought money into the marriage. Wells does not caricature this marriage, as I feared he might, but presents it as a harmonious one, noting:
 “Carl Sylvius, in marrying her, may have hoped for late children. More practically, both may have chosen each other, seeing in it a union which offered to the other individual gifts. That is was not a great romance does not mean that deeper feelings did not develop. Many an arranged marriage ends better than those that start off in a full cacophony of love and its intoxications. Indeed there is every evidence, in the careful actions and tender sentiments that Carl Sylvius and Emma Lanfear later expressed, that they had found in each other a soul mate.” (p.62)
Wells’ chief interpretation of Volkner is that, as a German, he often misread the intentions of his English colleagues, and sometimes pushed himself forward in rather tactless ways. He appears to have lobbied and volunteered for the Opotiki parish, especially at a time when the Anglican mission was worried at how well Catholic missionaries were then doing in that area. When war came to the Waikato in the 1860s, Volkner did indeed send letters to Governor George Grey informing him of the movements of Maori forces (the “spy” charge). But, argues Wells, this was very much the action of a German who was still trying to establish his loyalty to an English polity. Besides which, the information he sent to Grey was no more than that which he shared with other CMS missionaries and they with him.
Volkner went to Auckland with his wife when the war sucked the local Whakatohea people in and placed the missionaries’ lives in danger. Wells says Volkner returned to Opotiki for genuinely religious and pastoral reasons. The Whakatohea had suffered defeat and Volkner saw it as his duty to comfort his parishioners at that time. Unfortunately for him, and partly encouraged by Pai Marire (“Hauhau”) missionaries, the Whakatohea now saw Pakeha missionaries like Volkner as part of the reason for their defeat. And so he returned to his own death. Wells quotes in detail the many graphic – and conflicting – accounts of how Volkner died.
The second part of Wells’ narrative is headed “Journey to a Hanging”. For 200-plus pages it examines the circumstances of Kereopa Te Rau’s trial and death. A year after the murder of Volkner, five Maori men had already been tried and executed (in Auckland) for their part in Volkner’s killing. At that trial, no witness gave a leading role in the killing to Kereopa. But by 1871 Kereopa, largely because he was the Pai Marire missionary who arrived in Opotiki just before Volkner was killed, was generally seen by Pakeha as the man who had incited Volkner’s killers to murder. And he had eaten Volkner’s eyes. (Wells is unflinching about this fact, much as it has been “rinsed away” in some other accounts.)
Wells spends much time characterising the Pakeha society of Napier where the trial took place, and the difficulties of making the trial a fair one. He notes that:
the dangers of creating a jury in a small town were great. But what made things even more difficult was that many of these men [on the jury] occupied positions in the quasi-military volunteer units of which the town proudly boasted. In Te Rau’s case, many of the men sitting in judgement on him held positions in either the Napier Rifles or the Napier Artillery. Pakeha men had a double presence, an invisible shadow in the small town. They were not only civilians, they were semi-conscripted fighters in a colonial war.” [pp.170-171]
As to the Crown’s case against Kereopa, he writes:
there was a problem with the case; a whole lot of problems. Let’s call them eyewitnesses. It was shockingly unclear as to who did what to whom in the actual event in which Rev Volkner was killed. Like the hanging of Mussolini or the killing of Saddam Hussein, these were crowd events, a tumult of people carried along by a wave of emotion. There were many hands arising from the crowd, and the precise problem was, looking back over the span of six years, it was no longer clear who was responsible for the act of murder itself. This was complicated even further by this extraordinary detail: the eyewitnesses being produced had actually participated as perpetrators. It was impossible to be present without, in a sense, being an accomplice. The problem of war is that there is no innocence. ‘A dirty period requires dirty men’ is a saying in contemporary war-torn Syria and this was definitely a dirty period in New Zealand’s brief history.” [pp.244-245]
The witnesses the Crown produced had, in effect, their own reasons to dissociate themselves from Volkner’s murder and to load the blame onto Kereopa. Wells does not present Kereopa as blameless. As he languished in Napier’s claustrophobic little prison before, during and after the trial, it is clear that Kereopa tried to ingratiate himself with the authorities, and evade the gallows, by dobbing in other people. He wrote a memo telling the Crown exactly where they could find the “rebel” Te Kooti if they wanted to capture him [p.331]. In the end, though, Wells presents Kereopa as asserting his identity in a very Maori way and as a man who clearly had some part in the killing of Volkner, but was not the chief instigator of it.
Naturally Wells spends time characterising the major Pakeha players in Kereopa’s trial, the judge (biased and unfair), the prosecuting counsel (experienced, tricky, and given all the advantages by the judge) and the defence counsel (willing but inexperienced, and not allowed to introduce evidence that would have established the context of the murder). He is more concerned, however, with three Pakeha who did not appear in the courtroom.
First, the defrocked former Anglican clergyman William Colenso. Colenso, as the trial got underway, wrote an extensive pamphlet “Fiat Justitia”, arguing that there was no real case against Kereopa, that the trial was excessive Pakeha “utu” when others had already been hanged for Volkner’s death, that the trial was unnecessary, would inflame Maori feeling and was based on unreliable evidence. Wells notes that Colenso’s arguments were never raised at the trial, but it is clear that the prosecution was aware of them and (without ever mentioning Colenso by name) that the prosecution attempted to quash any sympathy for Kereopa that Colenso may have aroused.
Second, the Anglican Bishop William Williams of Waiapu, in whose notional diocese the murder and trial took place. Wells does not characterise Williams very sympathetically, seeing him as longing nostalgically for the settled, paternalistic relationship of missionary and Maori that had existed before the wars. Williams had, however, been brave at a time when Pai Marire first arrived at his mission station. Says Wells:
 “Whatever else one can say about Williams – that he was a land thief, a hypocrite, a political animal, a church functionary – he was certainly not a coward. He displayed remarkable calmness in a frightening situation. He is also all for clarity and certainty – in a situation in which absolutely nothing is clear.” (p.214)
By this, Wells is implying ironically that Bishop Williams tried hard to reach a clear-cut decision about Kereopa’s case, but extensive letters he wrote to Donald McLean and others show that he was in fact very troubled in his mind about the trial. But he never broke ranks publicly with majority Pakeha opinion.
Bishop Williams was severely antagonistic towards the third Pakeha figure upon whom Wells focuses. This was the French Catholic nun Sister Mary Joseph (Suzanne) Aubert. Under the sincere impression that Kereopa had been either baptised or confirmed a Catholic – before he became Pai Marire – the bustling 36-year-old Aubert gained access to Napier jail and tried to arrange for a Catholic priest to hear Kereopa’s confession and accompany him to the gallows. She was, as she saw it, trying to save his soul. News of this outraged Bishop Williams, who saw Aubert’s intervention as the interference of a denomination which he detested anyway (as did the Low Church Colenso).
In the event it was Williams’ son, the Rev Samuel Williams, who accompanied Kereopa to the gallows, willy-nilly.
Wells’ own attitude towards Christianity is ambiguous at best (in the introductory chapter there is a slightly ironical smirk as he tells of his participating in an Anglican communion service at the Opotiki church). An element of farce creeps into the way he presents Aubert’s manoeuvres and Bishop Williams’ counter-manoeuvres on the night before Kereopa was hanged. Nevertheless, Wells’ sympathies are more on the side of Aubert and of Colenso than on the side of Bishop Williams. Like Volkner and like Kereopa, the French nun and the defrocked gadfly are to him “outsiders” from the mainstream of Pakeha opinion. Or perhaps they show that Pakeha colonial society was more diverse than recent revisionist history has allowed? Wells writes:
            “It is only too common to dismiss New Zealand’s colonial society in terms of its worst aspects but at times it is also necessary to expand our understanding and include the alternative universes of remarkable individuals like William Colenso and Mary Joseph Aubert. They were also members of colonial society.” (p.263)
Wells, by the way, has another reason to say positive things about colonial Pakeha society. After all, it was literate and “the entire trail of deceit and obfuscation of the Kereopa Te Rau trial is only available to us today because of the excellence of a nineteenth-century colonial bureaucracy.” (p.325)
I found this book completely absorbing and its nuanced arguments quite persuasive.
I save a few misgivings for the end.
There are times when Wells does rather overdo the pictorial scene-setting and the dramatization, allowing his imagination to get the better of him. I find this in passages such as:
But first we must creep along those dark, echoing hallways. It is another hot day, close, even though occasional showers skitter across the ground. We have to stand outside a cell and wait patiently for the turnkey, perhaps Thomas Maloney, to select the correct key, enter it into the lock, turn the lock then pull it back” etc. etc. (p.325)
I am a little dissatisfied at the way Wells presents the (small and incidental) role of the French Catholic priest Fr Garavel. Some months before Volkner’s murder, Garavel, coming to Opotiki from the Waikato, carried to the Whakatohea people a letter from Wiremu Tamihana, which turned out to be urging them to join the war against the British. It is highly unlikely that Garavel (who was quickly hustled out of the country by his superior Bishop Pompallier) was aware of the specific contents of the letter, but Wells leaves the matter painfully ambiguous. He says that Garavel “either wittingly or unwittingly” carried Tamihana’s incitement (p.85). On p.235 this becomes “either knowingly or unknowingly”. This is an odd statement from a writer who is elsewhere so ready to reach conclusions about people’s motives.
I would also express my dissent from Wells’ characterization of Pompallier as “in person profligate and seemingly dishonest” (p.236). At least I’m glad that Wells included that word “seemingly” there, but this judgement is still glib to say the least.
I must declare a personal interest at this point. Five years ago, I was commissioned to write a biographical history of the Catholic Diocese of Auckland, which was published under the title Founders and Keepers in 2011. I included a detailed and documented chapter on the changing reputation of the far-from-perfect Pompallier. I will say, however, that Wells’ attitude towards Pompallier and Catholic missionaries in general is far less negative than that of Paul Moon in his various writings. In fact, for all his sincere efforts to reach into the worldviews of all parties, there are times when Wells is equally dismissive of all Christian denominations in their endeavours. Repeatedly he uses the term “franchise” for each Christian denomination, as if he is naming nothing other than a set of commercial companies. This shows a certain failure of empathy when, as far as both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were concerned, they were engaged in life-and-death matters of profound spiritual importance.
In this connection I must arraign one dopey wisecrack by Wells when he is considering some of the evidence of Sister Aubert’s and Bishop Williams’ activities the night before Kereopa was hanged. He remarks:
 “they help us to plot the dance of the night, move by move, as Catholic sought to outwit Protestant and Protestant sought to outwit Catholic. And as Te Rau, too, used the competing religions to create a space for himself in which neither could actually ever completely reach him, appropriate him and hence claim him as – I am afraid I have to write this – a scalp.” (p.336).
Well actually no, Peter Wells, you do not have to write something so insufferably facetious and I don’t think you’re really “afraid” of having written it either. In fact, I suspect you think you have written a king-hit bon mot.
But here I admit that in all my misgivings over the last few paragraphs, I have been nitpicking.
Journey to a Hanging is an extraordinary book. Despite the few failures I’ve noted above, Wells’ sympathies are wide and he recreates a whole society vividly. How we conceive of the past is always changing. There is no “final” history. But in reading Journey to a Hanging I felt that the wheel had turned, and that we are at last moving on from the type of postcolonial history that overcompensated for earlier triumphalist colonial histories by equally un-nuanced imaginings of the past.
If this does not make it into the finals of New Zealand’s next round of book awards, then I will say that somebody goofed badly.

A Few Silly Footnotes:
I am interested to learn that Robert Maunsell, having translated the whole of the Old Testament into Maori, had to re-translate it all after his only draft of the translation was destroyed by fire (p.48). This puts me in mind of Thomas Carlyle’s heroic feat of re-writing, from memory, the first volume of his The French Revolution after the only manuscript copy of the volume was accidentally burnt by John Stuart Mill’s maid. Open fires were very destructive things in the nineteenth century.
If I were Peter Wells I’d have a quick word with my proof-reader or copy-editor. On p.293 he refers to a non-existent work called the “St. James Bible”. Obviously this is the King James Bible, and I have seen the mistake made by other hasty writers. However, it’s the type of thing that an alert copy-editor should pick up. Other than this, the production of Journey to a Hanging is excellent
HOWEVER, I would have preferred a full and conventional bibliography at the end, rather than only the source-giving endnotes.


  1. A longer word with Wells' copy-editor would have been justified. The spelling errors in Wells' text pulled me up sharp several times, and Luther did not nail up those theses in Württemberg (p 34), but in Wittenberg.

    The bloopers look all the worse when you encounter Wells' tut-tutting little sic next to perfectly good 19th-century English– "I have had opportunity" SIC! (p 42), "Catholicks" SIC! (p 49), "opened for government" SIC! (p 84) "phrenzy" SIC! (p 242) – or legitimate 19th-century German spelling wobbles (Karl/Carl or Völkner/Völckner). William Williams' signature "William Waiapu" does not make the bishop "the owner of geographical space" (p 330): it follows episcopal etiquette since time immemorial, just as the next incumbent will sign his name "Andrew Waiapu".

    I read Journey to a Hanging on a journey from a funeral, and I enjoyed Wells' discursive empathy for the different characters: the whole book is very much like the discourse at a funeral, with everyone's opinions colliding, helped along by alcohol and tears, ending in the collective sense which the mourners take away with them that life is too complicated for cut-and-dried judgments. We have to grant all the dead their dignity.

    Journey to a Hanging is a great read and would deserve that award. We could do with more like this too: I would love to see Wells or a similar author tackle the controversial story of Ropata Wahawaha (who claimed the capture of Kereopa Te Rau) in similar vein, exploring the close-up testimony that survives.

  2. and noisome doesn't mean noisy ...