We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“UNDER A BIG SKY” by Tim Saunders (Allen & Unwin, $NZ34:99) ; “THIEF, CONVICT, PIRATE, WIFE” by Jennifer Ashton (Auckland University Press, $NZ35)
Read the opening words of Tim Saunders’ Under a Big Sky and you find the sort of prose that begs to be poetry: “The hawk scoops broad arcs in the air, churning and turning over patchwork paddocks. Yellow eyes scythe the earth in search of the small and the dead as his shadow flicks over sheep and cattle. The Oroua River cuts a meandering line through open plains, clouds crumple against distant ranges. Buoyant air lifts the hawk in ever-widening circles, and I wonder if it is him that is turning or the earth itself.” (p.10) The hawk in question is known to Saunders’ family as Kahu, and Kahu becomes an emblem, opening every one of the five sections into which Under a Big Sky is divided – “The Elements”, “Fire”, “Air”, “Water” and “Earth” – as the seasons are tracked.
This book is written with a poet’s sensibility, and we frequently encounter scenes such as “The sun sent speculative fingers through the clouds, spotlighting random trees and clusters of corrugated sheds. Padlocks, dappled with light, lay in a tartan mishmash as far as I could see. Cattle grazed aimlessly, a bark murmuration of silent foraging.” (p.103) You will also encounter scenes where Tim Saunders looks closely at the smaller creatures in a way that would have done Thoreau credit. Take the description of naughty piwakawaka tormenting a house cat that is safely on the other side of a window and cannot retaliate. Or the sequence where the author looks closely at insects, thus- “I pulled my raincoat from the hook by the back door, yanked my waterproof over-trousers from the string stretched out in the carport. They crackled in my hands, stiff and dry after so many months of no rain. I went to put my arm through the sleeve, but something made me pause. I slipped the jacket off again, turned it inside out. A plethora of insects and spiders fell to the ground, as if every bug ever conceived had built empires in the folds and stitches. Some had constructed whole townships, and the next generation was already planning families of their own. None of them had been concerned with social distancing, bubbles or lockdowns.” (pp.216-217)
But do not assume that poetic description and close observation of critters are all Tim Saunders has to offer. In many respects, Under a Big Sky is a very down-to-earth account of the strenuous labour that goes into farming.
Under a Big Sky is subtitled “Facing the Elements on a New Zealand Farm”. Saunders is part of the fifth generation of a family that has been running a farm in the Manawatu, between the Tararua Ranges and the sea, since the late nineteenth century. The farm is 290 hectares, near the Oroua River and quite some drive away from Palmerston North and Feilding. Tim Saunders’ father, now in his 80s, still works on the farm, as does Tim himself, his German partner Kathrin, and his brother Mark. They run sheep and beef, as well as cultivating maize and other crops.
Throughout the book Saunders gives respect to his father, his more traditional ways, his knowledge, his physical resilience and his ability to do strenuous things even at his advanced age. His father still chips in with the heavy work, or at least he does until his health declines. But Saunders Senior remains such a tough old rooster that he goes through a major operation without general anaesthetic. His son is still in awe of the way his father can read the weather. His parents tell him much about older times with some hilarious anecdotes, such as the chaos that ensued when his great-grandfather, in about 1903, drove a flock of sheep through central Wellington. (Only years later was it made illegal to drive livestock through a town or city.) There is also awareness of all the traditional recipes that have been passed on by generations of farm women. Sometimes there creeps in a note of nostalgia for simpler times – the passage about the orchard with its ancient walnut trees and the smell of venerable trees growing in the shade. But all this is in tension with awareness of how farming has changed and has had to change. As a little boy, Tim Saunders sees his father fix a combine harvester; as an adult he sees the combine harvester dead and falling apart as more sophisticated machines do the reaping. There is a long description of how new shearing equipment had to replace the older rig that had become useless and description in detail of a new cultivator machine.
Another major theme is simply what ruddy hard work farming is. Digging holes for fence posts. Treating ewes whose hooves are blighted with maggots [involving wresting a ewe to the ground to make her more cooperative]. Calling in the vet to medicate a steer which has “wood tongue”. Facing the disgusting job of having to fix a sewer pipe when it has cracked, the septic tank is no longer functioning, and ordure is spread over the fields. Corralling and having to bring back a large flock of shorn sheep which were running wild on the road after having escaped through a hole in the fence. And all this on top of the daily work of ploughing, sowing, reaping, keeping the fences in order etc.
Added to this there are new economic constraints upon farmers. Says Saunders “Dad still remembered when the bank manager was a farmer’s friend, budgets were calculated in his head, and deals were sealed with a handshake. A recent visit from our rural loans supervisor had changed all that. He demanded we make a better profit, the land was there for income and nothing else.” (p.38) Together with this, there is the gradual loss of a way of life as “new houses dotted the roadsides, productive farmland subdivided into sections. The roads we had biked to school were now much busier, especially around 5 p.m. as people returned home from work in town to their little slices of paradise. More people meant more regulations for land use, and we weren’t even allowed to drove cattle along the road between farms anymore without proper permission. Words such as development, growth, housing shortage were used. What would happen when there was no farmland left, where would food come from?” (pp.240-241)
And then there is the impact of the pandemic. Suddenly there are statements about farmers being essential services, after their having so often been vilified as anti-conservationists and polluters of the land. There is also the awkward social distancing when drivers come to harvest the corn (=maize) and stay in their cabs rather than meeting and having a chat as they usually did. Before you take the wrong message from this however, bear in mind that Tim Saunders is very concerned with conservation and the literal health of the land. He questions the nature of farming itself while at the same time lamenting the loss of farming land as life-style blocks eat up much ground that is arable. He is critical of exotic pine trees taking over much nearby land which had been bought by speculators. He is very aware that in former times, pollution was not regarded as a problem, and he knows that over-grazing has, in many cases, damaged the land irreparably : “The rotational grazing of our cattle would eventually return some of the nutrients from the hay back to the soil. Most grasses had evolved to make use of the nomadic herbivores that grazed them, encouraging growth and flowering, and manure naturally fertilised the pastures. Intensive overgrazing was where the problem lay. Grass needed to be rested, given time to recover and absorb the nutrients nature supplied. It was a system most farmers recognised and made use of right up to the 1980s, when markets had forced them to put income ahead of nature. Rising populations meant more productivity was needed from a land area that never changed.” (p.92) In a mood of despondency, he also notes: “There were times when I wondered if I should be farming at all. Every morning the internet was full of articles and comments about the damage farming was causing the environment. Perhaps all of the internet experts were right, and everything that was wrong with the planet was our fault. Climate change. Dirty rivers. Air pollution. The only people to blame were the farmers. Stop all farming and we could live in utopia.” (p.259)
But there are a number of dilemmas, such as the hard reality about the price of organic food : “I actually wasn’t a fan of any spray, but they were sometimes a necessity. Pests and diseases could decimate a crop, and more demand for food meant crops had to yield as much as possible. Demand for perfect, pest-free food is higher than ever, and supermarket shelves are filled with flawless produce. Most consumers don’t want caterpillars or bugs in their apples and potatoes, and will always choose the plumpest, most juicy tomatoes. The greenest Broccoli. Not something small and hard that has been choked by weeds. More shoppers are turning to organic produce, which is fantastic. I prefer organic and am grateful we can grow many of our own veggies in the garden. But the population is growing too quickly to supply everyone with organic crops, and some find the higher prices prohibitive.” (p.127)
For a townie like me, there are many enlightening things in the book, including the understanding that farming life is often very, very different from suburban life. Take, for example, this brief comment about some farmers’ ways during the pandemic: “Many of our friends on remote farms hadn’t bothered to go to town during lockdowns. They lived on meat hunted from the hills, veggies from their gardens and foraged in the wild.” (p.230) Yes indeed – a very different life from the one most readers of this review will know.
No beating about the bush, I found Under a Big Sky to be an excellent read, honest in its intent, vivid in its presentation and closely observed. One of the best. You can see I like it because I quote so much of it.
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Back in 2015, Jennifer Ashton produced a very interesting book called At the Margin ofEmpire (reviewed on this blog ) which examined the life of one man as a way of understanding the assumptions and norms of a certain sort of 19th century Pakeha settler. Her new book Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife – The Many Histories of Charlotte Badger is a very different book, but it has something in common with At the Margin of Empire. It too looks at one person as a key to understanding an historical era. The difference is that in this case, the woman she is examining has left little trace and few records behind her (she was illiterate) and has very often been depicted in purely fictitious form.
All real historians are in some sense spoil-sports. It is their duty to sort verifiable fact from fiction and to debunk the fictions, no matter how popular they may be. By scrupulous detective work in archives that others hadn’t accessed, Ashton systematically kicks away the fictions that have been woven around the life of Charlotte Badger. But at the same time she admits that primary sources are sparse, and so she spends much time critiquing the fictions and explaining why and how they became part of the historical record. As she says in her introduction “In the telling and retelling of Badger’s story, fiction has become history and history has become fiction, and the result has been the creation of a number of different histories of the same person.” (p.5) In the course of her book, she notes that even illustrious New Zealand historians such as James Belich, Barbara Brookes, Vincent O’Malley, Anne Salmond and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography have made statements (usually just passing comments) about Charlotte Badger that prove to be complete fiction. Maybe this is the problem of having to rely on secondary sources when there are very few primary ones.
To get to the story, Charlotte Badger, born in 1778 in England, in a small town near Manchester, was much later celebrated as “one of the first Pakeha women to have resided in New Zealand”. As a young woman, she was convicted of housebreaking and stealing goods, she spent four years in prison and then was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. These are things that the archives show, but Jennifer Ashton provides general context by discussing the nature of poverty in the Industrial Revolution, the lowly status of working-class women, the very few options they had in life and the nature of England’s penal system in the early nineteenth century. Similarly, she discusses how convicts were taken to Australia, how there were nearly three times as many male convicts as there were female convicts both on the transportation ships and in early Sydney, and how men would come aboard the docked ships to pick out women as potential partners or brides. But of Badger’s arrival in Australia in 1801, Ashton says “We do not know what happened to her when the men came on board the [ship] Earl Cornwallis to make their selections. In fact, we know next to nothing about what happened to Badger in the five years after she arrived in Sydney. We do not know if she found herself in the house of a marine officer or some other colonial official, making his meals and warming his bed. We do not know if she struggled by on government stores hoping for a more stable life But we do know that on the day she arrived she met the criteria of being a typical female convict. Like most of the women transported to New South Wales, she was young and unmarried. She was also a first offender rather than a career felon…” (p.54) We know nothing of her personal life except that an 1806 census said she had a young child.
And now we come to the period in her life that became most fictionalised. In 1806 (presumably for some criminal offence, but we do not know what) records show Charlotte Badger was on a ship called the Venus, bound for a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). But in mid-voyage, the ship was taken over by mutineers, and the course was now set for the Bay of islands in New Zealand. However, the mutineers split into factions. Only Charlotte Badger and five others went ashore in the Bay of Islands and stayed there, while the rest of the Venus’s complement sailed away (and despite tons of speculation, nobody knows what ultimately became of the Venus). Clearly the few who had gone ashore would have had to “cross the beach” and interact with Maori iwi, being dependent on Maori hospitality (or tolerance); but there is no reliable record showing what specifically happened.
Legends grew, all totally unverifiable. In Sydney, the first reports and articles about the mutiny made it clear that the mutiny was carried out by men; and if Badger and a few others went along with it, it was only because they were fearful and had no option other than to comply. But gradually writers sexed it up, to give Badger and another woman a more prominent role in the mutiny, and finally – years after the event - Charlotte Badger was fictionalised as a “pirate queen” and the leader of the mutiny. Then other fictions were concocted. Badger either married or cohabited with a rangatira (there is no evidence for this). Badger escaped and went to Tonga (no evidence for this). Badger became a skipper, sailed across the wide Pacific and went to either America or Chile (complete fantasy).
Alas, by looking at surviving Australian government records, Jennifer Ashton shows that Charlotte Badger was picked up by a government ship in 1807 and taken first to the penal colony on Norfolk Island and then, months later, taken back to Sydney. She had been in New Zealand for at most six months. As Ashton remarks “Charlotte Badger was on a boat back to New South Wales to meet whichever destiny awaited her at the penal colony she had escaped only a year before.” (p.113) The fact that she faced no prosecution in relation to the mutiny (in those days often a hanging offence) shows that she was not a mutineer and certainly not the leader of the mutiny. She was allowed to “merge back into Sydney society and resume her life”. Goodbye fantasies about pirate queens. Her “destiny” (proven by records) was to marry in 1810 the soldier Thomas Humphries. She was nearly 33, he was considerably older. As both were illiterate, they both signed the wedding register with an X. Nobody knows what happened to Badger’s first child, who may have died in New Zealand. Badger had two children by Thomas Humphries, one of whom died at an early age.
Ashton again gives much general context as she discusses the widening frontier of British settlers which pushed more and more into Aboriginal land, leading Aborigines to retaliate in wars and raids. It could be a violent frontier. Charlotte Badger and her husband saw or experienced some of this. Ashton remarks “We cannot know how her six-month residence in New Zealand shaped her views of Maori and whether that experience informed the way she judged Aboriginal people. There is evidence to suggest that some colonial women were willing to challenge aspects of the prevailing negative wisdom about Aboriginal cultural practices because of their close proximity to Aboriginal women and children. But we do not know whether Badger came into contact with Aboriginal people often enough or at close enough quarters to likewise question conventional European wisdom.” (p.125) What we do know is that Thomas Humphries was not very successful as a settler and might have encouraged Charlotte to go back into crime. At any rate, in 1843, when she was 65, there is evidence that she was charged with larceny – but in this case she was acquitted. And then she disappears from verifiable history.
In a final chapter called “The Histories of Charlotte Badger” Jennifer Ashton examines why exactly the many fictions about her were devised. Essentially, she argues that it has to do with how women have been regarded and depicted in different ways as times changed. If early male writers wanted to see her as an exotic adventurous person for the sake of a good yarn, later writers (many women now among them) wanted to frame her as either a victim of circumstance or a pioneer bravely opening up knowledge of a new country. After examining the reasons for the fiction, Ashton generously remarks “Just as writers such as [the 19th century fabulist] Louis Becke took [Badger’s] life and used it to tell fictionalised stories that reflected the time in which they lived, so we continue to interpret her life in ways that help explain our own lived experiences, both local and global.” (p.156)
Perhaps – just perhaps – some modern historians, no matter how well academically- trained, are still sneaking in their own fantasies about a real woman.
Regardless of what I have said about Jennifer Ashton’s rigour as an historian, this is still a lively, readable and very engaging book.