No Simple Passage: The Journey of the London to New Zealand, 1842 — a Ship of Hope, by Jenny Robin Jones (Random House, 2011) 350 pp., $45.00.
This book is very different from either historical ‘faction’ such as Ray Grover’s excellent Cork of War (on Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata), or Judy Corballis’s Tapu (on Hongi Hika), let alone orthodox history books. The novelty is appealing because it provides a fresh approach on the early settlement of Wellington. Instead of unfolding a chronologically structured narrative of voyage and settlement, Jones sits, Goddess-like, on the shoulder of her ancestors, expanding on the somewhat cryptic and skeletal story told in the diary and letters of her great-great-grandmother Rebecca Remington and others who travelled on the London as it voyaged to Wellington for 124 days between 29 December 1841 and 1 May 1842. The others include Dr William Mackie Turnbull, obsessed with the illnesses of the passengers, especially the many sick children on board, and William Empson, fixated on the weather and the ship’s progress, or lack of it. Jones starts each day’s entry with Dr Turnbull’s notes on ailing and dying children. Then she fasts forwards to develop some comment or theme revealed in the diaries. In this way the story of her family’s experience is told along with that of other passengers and the broader, Wellington community.
There are advantages in adopting this imaginative approach in that it really brings home the awful problem of high infant mortality aboard ship before the discovery of antibiotics. The heartbreak that will affect any parent or grandparent is deepened by the savage irony that these hopeful immigrants thought they were travelling to a healthier place. Trawling around in contemporary records like newspapers also highlights the sheer physical courage required for such a long and uncomfortable voyage. After reading this account the modern traveller will feel ashamed at complaining about the discomfort of long (twenty-four-hour) flights on cramped jets. It is all too easy to forget just how claustrophobic most below-decks accommodation was and the dreadful smells that had to be endured. The sheer terror of storms at sea also helps explain why many migrants to New Zealand, the world’s ‘farthest promised land’ as Rollo Arnold once put it, including some of my own family, refused to ever again travel on any kind of a boat. Some stayed in New Zealand simply because they could not get back to Britain, especially before the advent of steam ships services in the 1870s.
Jones’s thorough research in manuscripts, letters and newspapers held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Archives and Masterton Archives catches much of the texture of life in early Wellington. Once again she reminds us that settlers, despite their high expectations, experienced much more physical discomfort in poorly built housing served by chronically underdeveloped infrastructure. Rudimentary sanitation made the new settlement anything but healthy and parents had to continue coping with the pain of losing more children. As Jones points out, losing children then was no less painful than in other, more secure periods, despite the reality of high infant and maternal mortality persisting into the twentieth century. Certainly infant mortality remained high in Britain as in the rest of the Empire and the USA, but migrants were disappointed that rates took so long to drop in a supposedly ‘better’ environment. On top of the trauma of losing children came the terror of the 1855 earthquake — an 8.2 monster that would have proved catastrophic in a more intensively settled town. Danger also took on less spectacular forms for adults: clearing forests to make way for farms involved the danger of being burned alive or of having heavy trees falling upon the less expert woodsmen. Cuts, easily gained in bush clearance, could trigger fatal blood poisoning. Travel, too, involved dangers, especially drowning in swollen rivers that could only be crossed on foot. Horses, although nowhere near as dangerous as motor cars, sometimes threw their riders and rolled on top of them. The marginalisation of Maori, from the seven mysterious figures on board the London to those encountered at Wellington, is also probably a fairly accurate reflection of both the attitudes and experiences of the majority of British settlers concerning race relations.
Involvement in churches and a host of other social and cultural organisations also rings true, and provides further evidence that contradicts Miles Fairburn’s argument that nineteenth-century New Zealand was made up of atomised, disconnected individuals rather than cohesive communities. As Jones demonstrates, many of the families who came on the London ended up intermarrying and supporting one another in the tough business of building towns and making farms. Jones and Random House must also be praised for the high standard of presentation including the attractive colour reproductions of period paintings. Even if the relevance of one or two seems questionable, they look stunning.
Yet, for all its energy and imaginative evocation, assisted by Jones’s lively prose, there are problems with her novel approach. By hopping around so much and playing fast and loose with time, she produces a work that is very retrospective and over-loaded with hindsight. The people whose lives she hopes to illuminate simply did not experience things this way. Rather they engaged with life and its vicissitudes day by day as history unfolded. They did not know that earthquakes were coming until at least 1844, and could only assume that Maori resistance would eventually be overcome. They anticipated that sheep farming and wool growing would earn the colony a living — but there were no guarantees of success. Leaping around between theme and time also makes the interwoven stories a little hard to follow because the narrative drive is frequently disrupted. For this orthodox historian, at least, the experiment would have worked better if the author had related the voyage first and then unfolded the story of what happened after arrival next. Alternatively, holding an imaginary conversation, or creating a dialogue with her ancestors on the London, would have provided more coherence for this reader, at least, than the approach employed here. Of course, others who find mainstream historical writing to be rather dull and plodding may prefer this rather different and highly playful approach.
It must be conceded, nevertheless, that nineteenth-century New Zealand was an experiment in every sense, whether we are talking about economic development, environmental transformation, social engineering, cultural formation, race relations, or political systems. Wakefield’s theories and schemes added to the sense of trying something different, but the British migrants who became New Zealanders had to start anew and develop their country in their own way, with or without Wakefield.
Adjusting to very different realities involved working through a very organic process, just as eastern Polynesians had become Maori before British settlers arrived by learning to come to terms with the larger land mass and harsher and cooler environment of Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu. It is fitting, therefore, that Jones has experimented with the presentation of family and migration history and tried something different. For her imagination, bravery and hard work she deserves plaudits, but like most experiments her approach needs fine-tuning and modification, just as Wakefield’s ideas had to be significantly adjusted in practice to match the difficult realities of a new and very different land.
TOM BROOKING is Professor of History at the University of Otago. His books include Seeds of Empire: The Environmental Transformation of New Zealand, (with Eric Pawson), published by I.B.Tauris (London) in 2010, and Lands for the People? The Highland Clearances and the Colonisation of New Zealand: A Biography of John McKenzie (1996). He is currently writing a biography of Richard John Seddon, New Zealand’s longest-serving Prime Minister.