Monday, March 2, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“MAN OF SECRETS – THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DONALD McLEAN” by Matthew Wright (Penguin / Random House, $NZ40)
As I’ve remarked a number of times on this blog, there has to be a really compelling reason to produce a new book-length biography of somebody whose life has already been analysed in detail in earlier biographies. [Look up "Why Write a New Biography?" via the index at right.] If new and hitherto undiscovered material has come to light, or if archives have yielded hitherto inaccessible papers, then a new biography may well be justified. But if the new biography simply puts a new interpretation on familiar material, then the author had better be damned sure that he/she has something worth saying. Otherwise we might find ourselves entering the territory of popularisation or sheer rip-off. (I analysed this phenomenon in relation to five or six biographies of Oscar Wilde that sit on my shelves – ranging from the definitive to the popular rip-off.)
As Matthew Wright frequently notes in Man of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean, Donald McLean has been the subject of two previous biographies, as well as featuring prominently in every history of nineteenth century New Zealand ever written. Way back in 1940 there was James Cowan’s Sir Donald McLean: The Story of a New Zealand Statesman which, despite Cowan’s undoubted skills as a storyteller, was a once-over-lightly, presenting McLean in the best possible light as befitted something published in New Zealand’s centenary year, when the process of nineteenth century colonisation was still seen as a wholly noble enterprise. Just eight years ago, however, there appeared Ray Fargher’s excellent study The Best Man Who Ever Served the Crown? A Life of Donald McLean (Victoria University Press, 2007). As I remarked when I reviewed it for the NZ Listener (12 January 2008), Fargher’s book is a “densely packed narrative” which deals comprehensively with the matters of politics and land deals in which McLean was involved. Fargher probably says as much as can be said in a biography on these subjects.
Matthew Wright is very much a populariser. Over 43 of his publications are listed opposite the title page of Man of Secrets. He sure churns ‘em out. He is always readable and usually sensible in his judgments, but most of his books offer to general readers subjects that have already been covered in detail by more scholarly works. Man of Secrets is no exception. The front-cover blurb promises us the story of a “Land buyer. Politician. Secret benefactor. Private lover. A man at war with himself.” Matthew Wright’s introduction freely admits that McLean’s public life has often been told, but he claims that here we will get “the real, living, multi-dimensional human being with his own wants, needs, insecurities, hopes and dreams” (p.9). Wright then proceeds to flag for us the character analysis he will present:
“The story of a desperately insecure man who tried to find validation in a love for a God that could never validate him, who felt desperate guilt for succumbing to what he regarded as the sins of the flesh, and who tried to redeem himself through relentless hard work. Then suddenly he found what he needed in his emotional and physical love for a woman, a love snatched away from him by tragedy. He never recovered; and the love he then showed for his adoptive place – Hawke’s Bay – and those who supported him in it did not compensate.” (p.10)
In effect, Wright claims that he will offer us a close-up of the private man as opposed to the public figure whose career is already so well known.
But is this what Man of Secrets really offers us? And does it say anything that was not already known?
Let me stick with the details of McLean’s private life as they are are presented here.
The first chapter rushes over McLean’s Scots background in a few pages – very odd given the baleful influence that Wright attributes to McLean’s unco dour and strict Presbyterian upbringing. Born in 1820, raised by a zealously religious uncle, McLean left Scotland forever at the age of 18, tried his luck in Australia, and was in New Zealand before he was 20. He rapidly learnt Maori – an asset that gave him a huge advantage over other British officials - and was already entrusted with the task of checking out land claims in Taranaki at the tender age of 24. Wright speculates (without examining the matter in any detail) that McLean may have spent some time cohabiting with a Maori woman, but there is nothing substantial to say about this, as there is no evidence available. Likewise, while he mentions the rumour that McLean may have fathered an illegitimate child, Eru Peka Makarini, who later died as one of Te Kooti’s partisans, Wright insists that there is no substance to the rumour (p.18; also pp.202-203). In a somewhat sensationalist fashion, this unsubstantiated rumour features on the back-cover blurb.
In the third chapter, there is a passing reference to Mclean’s uncle Donald McColl, who wrote God-soaked letters from Scotland, reinforcing McLean’s residual guilt. At pp.61-62, when he deals with Donald McLean’s meeting with Susan Strang, Wright mildly rebukes McLean’s earlier biographers for making so little of the Strang family. Wright says that because McLean’s marriage to Susan was so brief, documentation on her is slender and she has been sidelined in earlier narratives. But, says Wright, “The fact was that Susan became everything to McLean during 1849-50” (p.62). He talks up their affectionate letters, claiming they provide a “tool” for the biographer, making it possible to plumb McLean’s depths. Nevertheless, most of this chapter concerns the familiar story of how McLean, under Governor Grey’s guidance, set about purchasing the Rangitikei region from iwi for the government to re-sell to the New Zealand Company.
Apart from the author’s repeated assertions about the state of McLean’s soul, his self-doubts and his Scottish upbringing, Chapter Six is the only chapter that truly focuses on McLean’s “Private Life”, as the book’s subtitle has promised. In August 1851, Donald McLean married Susan Strang in Wellington’s Presbyterian church. Wright quotes in detail from letters McLean wrote when business called the 30-year-old groom out of Wellington and away from his 22-year-old bride. They are seen as signs of his great and compelling love. However, even this chapter must perforce spend much of its length relating the story of a land deal. This is not to say that some of McLean’s outpourings were not passionate – and infused with his religious faith, as when, separated from his wife, he wrote:
“Another day is past and gone; and Susan, my pet, is left alone to Him Who ever hears her prayer. May she, this night, her wants declare; and may His gracious love prepare our souls for that last awful day, when we, before Him, must repair. And happy she whom faith sustains, to pass life’s trials without blame; trusting in God, and loving the man to whom she has given her heart and hand. Oh! Take her Father, in Thy care. She is more to me than I dare say.” (p.117)
Tragedy struck. First, in one of Donald’s absences, Susan had a miscarriage. She had the added burden of having to look after her mother who was dying. Susan became pregnant again, but in November 1852, after only 15 months of marriage, she died in childbirth, leaving Donald McLean with a son.
And this, really, is the entire “secret” that the title hints at – that McLean was so shattered by his wife’s death that he never really recovered. Throwing himself into work was a form of sublimation – or penance. True to Matthew Wright’s rather heavy-handed thesis, the following chapter is called “Labouring for Redemption”. Wright notes that McLean never remarried (unusual for a colonial man of means) and also suggests that he was led, by a governmental rebuff, “to ditch government service in favour of becoming laird of his pastoral Hawke’s Bay manor” (p.131) when he could well have gone back to Scotland. His work ethic was combined with a real commitment to the colony. Having been “Protector of Aborigines”, industrious McLean went on to be Native Minister and Defence Minister, got knighted in 1874 and might have had his eye on the premiership before he died, probably worn out from work, at the age of 56 in 1877. But his sharp practice was revealed when he put pressure on an official government agent to let him buy part of, and lease a huge part of, an estate he wanted in Hawke’s Bay.
Does all this add up to a hidden side of Donald McLean that we’d never heard of before? Not really. The circumstances of his short marriage and subsequent grief were narrated (albeit more briefly) in Ray Fargher’s earlier biography, although admittedly Wright does make them more central. I’m not altogether convinced that this biography really adds to our understanding of the man.
Judged on it own merits, however, and without odious comparisons to other works already in print, Man of Secrets has its moments and the story of McLean’s land dealings is probably worth telling to people who haven’t already read it. For, despite the “private life” material, it is McLean’s public doings that take up most of this book.
The book’s second chapter shows him in Taranaki, trying to validate the settlements at New Plymouth and Whanganui while working out the complicated entanglement of messy New Zealand Company deals. These had been made with iwi who had, in the “musket wars”, conquered or driven out other iwi who had real and more legitimate claims to the land. The portrait that arises here is of somebody astute and more capable of seeing and appreciating the Maori point of view because he did know te reo. He even performed such charities as using government money to buy medicine for Maori children when he had no commission to do so. But, says Wright:
“The risk he faced was being dubbed ‘racialist’, a derogatory term of that period which meant a British official who promoted indigenous folk over the intruders. In fact McLean never lost sight of his end-goals, or his belief in the ‘superiority’ of his own society. However, his softly-softly views, tempered with his clear familiarity with Maori, risked alienating those who did not fully understand him.” (p.48)
This judgment is essentially repeated in Chapter Five, an account of McLean’s negotiations for Maori land in the Wairarapa. Wright once again says that McLean was there to weasel land out of Maori but he did it with more finesse than other Europeans and was given a great degree of respect by Maori; and once again the government was being forced to do much of the dirty work that was left behind by shoddy and illegal deals which the Wakefield company had made with Maori. Wright claims that Maori wanted legalised settlements and “Part of their enthusiasm for getting lawful settlement was a reaction to the way Pakeha low-lifes were flooding into their region.” (p.74)
Chapters Six to Eight examine McLean’s part in contributing, by his land dealings, to the outbreak of the wars of the 1860s; and then finally his settling in Hawke’s Bay. Wright suggests that in Hawke’s Bay, McLean overreached himself only inasmuch as the rangatira with whom he most negotiated, Te Hapuku, was much more clever than he bargained for. Also he did not have the full support of the colonial government in this phase of his dealings, as Hawke’s Bay was not one of the areas which Governor Grey favoured for European expansion. To maintain his position, McLean had to negotiate his way through changes in colonial government, never knowing how much senior ministers would favour his methods. As war broke out in Taranaki, he had to face a parliamentary enquiry about the land purchases he had brokered there, which had sparked the conflict off. He had a major role in organising the “defence” of Pakeha settlers in Hawke’s Bay against the raids of Te Kooti. The ministry of Stafford wanted to relieve him of his duties, but the locals thoroughly supported him; McLean was able to raise kupapa (forces made up of cooperative Maori) to rival in size the government militias; and the ministry of Fox, who replaced Stafford, favoured McLean to the point of putting him on the front bench.
So far, so familiar, but still a story worth telling.
But there is one paragraph in Chapter Six which may be quoted at length to get the flavour of Wright’s viewpoint as an historian. It goes like this:
“The three purchases he [McLean] organised in Hawke’s Bay between December 1850 and early 1851 were unprecedented giving the Crown some of the largest blocks yet sold in the North Island under the Treaty. They were also subject to Treaty claims in the 1990s. The historical work undertaken to support the cases was pioneering, but as more than one commentator has observed, there were differences between the style of interpretation and the more balanced demands of general historical enquiry. The problem from the academic perspective was that Treaty history was ‘overwhelmingly presentist’ [this is Giselle Byrnes’ phrase], evaluating past events in terms of late twentieth century values, rather than the factors that applied at the time. McLean’s adventures in Hawke’s Bay during 1850-51 highlight the point; a 1994 report commissioned by the Waitangi Tribunal concluded that the Waipukurau, Ahuriri and Mohaka sales were ‘calculated to disadvantage’ Maori. But non-Tribunal analysis of the same evidence has made the point that McLean had future sales in mind, offering more concessions in 1850-51.” (p.90)
Dare I say that in much of Wright’s writing, including this book and including the above paragraph, there is a muted reaction against the current orthodoxy concerning McLean’s land transactions and the old Maori Land Court? Since the 1980s, and with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, both McLean and the court are routinely seen as factors depriving Maori of land by dubious means. Part of Wright would like to establish the older colonial pieties, seeing McLean and the court as a necessary assertion of legality. In quite other ways, the more sophisticated writings of Peter Wells (The Hungry Heart, Journey to a Hanging) are doing something similar – saying that not all was negative in Pakeha colonisation.
Fair enough. Prevalent historical orthodoxies always do have to be questioned and re-evaluated. But I’m still not sure that Man of Secrets tells us much that we have not heard before.