Arguing about New Zealand’s founding Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 174th anniversary of New Zealand’s founding as a Crown Colony, when Hone Heke became the first of around 40 Maori to sign a treaty with the British government at Waitangi (‘Weeping Waters’).

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Copies of the Treaty were subsequently taken around the country, and about 540 Maori subsequently signed. Today the Treaty of Waitangi is upheld as a founding document. Like most ‘founding documents’ it’s also grown with us. Today we uphold the Treaty as a definition of race relations – a device for establishing the relationship between two peoples, buoyed on ‘principles’, developed in the 1980s, which guide the way claims by Maori against the Crown are analysed and settled.

It is also terribly divisive. Arguments always flare at Waitangi and the associated Te Ti marae on the day – down to mud being thrown (literally) at dignitaries. Meanwhile, nay-sayers deny it’s valid – particularly a lunatic fringe of ‘Celtic’ evangelists who think they have found a ‘real’ version in the drawer of a bureau in an auction house. These fruit-loops trawl the Treaty, word by word, for literal meaning they twist to suit their own agenda. On what I’ve seen of their rantings, they don’t have the slightest understanding of historiographic methodology. Still less any acceptance of the context of the Treaty as a living document. If they were in a class I was teaching on history – or philosophy, or logic – they’d get an F.

The reality is that the Treaty has become part of New Zealand’s cultural fabric – an evolving, current concept that far transcends its humble historic origins.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Back in 1839, when the Treaty was first mooted, the Treaty wasn’t envisaged as a colossal nation-founding treatise at all. It was a quick and cheap expedient for meeting an immediate need.

The problem the Colonial Office faced was that New Zealand was off the beaten track – it had little economic value. But white crime was rife, leaking out of Sydney. Ex-convicts and other pakeha (white people) in New Zealand thumbed their noses at British law. Then former kidnapper Edward Gibbon Wakefield decided the place would make a perfect venue for the socially ideal society he envisaged.

From the Colonial Office perspective it was a perfect storm. Crown Law had to be established. But the Treasury wasn’t prepared to fund it – meaning that colony by treaty with Maori, as a cheap alternative, gained ground. This idea keyed into Church Missionary Society thinking, in the ascendant at the time.

I've covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.

I’ve covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.

New Zealand consequently became the only British colony set up by treaty. But it was done with terrible haste. William Hobson, the naval commander sent to undertake the task, didn’t know whether the colony should cover all the New Zealand islands, or just Northland where contact with Maori principally existed at the time. That was still being debated when he rushed to the Bay of Islands on board HMS Rattlesnake and met local British officials – the Resident, James Busby; and CMS head Henry Williams.

The short three-clause treaty that followed was hastily written and badly translated – there is evidence that Williams was given the wrong version to turn into Maori, and his translation of that was sloppy.

The  first clause repudiated the ‘Declaration of Independence’ of 1835, by which Busby tried to get Maori to enforce law over Britain’s wayward ex-convicts. The other two clauses  were designed to get land sales under control – and set up the colony. Maori had been falling victim to private deals during 1839 which, by British law, had the appearance of scams. Hence Maori were guaranteed possession of what they had – until they sold it to the British.

The lot fell foul of cultural differences. None of the British officials were sure Maori understood the distinction between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘chieftainship’, and the wording that emerged – which never made it into the Maori version – wasn’t clear.

It’s from this that a lot of the debate has since generated about the Treaty – but at the time it was a product of mis-fired good intentions. And, as I say, things have evolved since. As they should.

The story of how it was signed – which was only accidentally on 6 February – and the subsequent fate of the actual parchment signed that day almost exactly matches the way we’ve conceptualised it, culturally – but that’s another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, fun with science, and more. Watch this space.

How professional book reviewing works – ideally

A week or so back my publicist at Penguin sent me the reviews of my book Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, that have been published since that title came out.

They got me thinking about reviews and reviewing. I write such things myself for New Zealand newspapers and magazines. And at that professional level, reviewers are trying to inform readers – to give an impartial and useful judgement. Most do; and for this reason, professional reviewers usually come to much the same conclusions independently, even if individual reviewers have minor gripes with one thing or another.

The best reviews are, themselves, mini-essays; arguing a case about the book and its subject – where it comes in context with the rest, what contribution the author has made.

If a ‘wrong at every turn’ assault on the book and author pops up amidst general acclaim it sticks out like a sore thumb – and is usually because that individual reviewer has succumbed to a personal agenda. The main problem in New Zealand is territorial; it’s such a small place that authors get to review works of competitors – commercially or ideologically, and use the review as a device to avenge themselves.

Professional reviewers, though, do give books a fair go. And it is important, both in fairness to the author being reviewed – and to the reviewer’s own repute.

Personally I try to look for the best in the books that come by my desk. Sometimes it’s hard; but as an author myself I’m always acutely aware that a writer has poured their heart and soul into the work. Shovels, of course, get called shovels; sometimes real stinkers do pop up – and in fairness to readers, I have to mention it. One book I reviewed earlier this year was so execrably written I could not ignore the point. But for the most part there is usually something positive to be found in any author’s work.

As for the reviews I got – well, see for yourself. A nice consistent batch from some professional people:

‘As Matthew Wright acknowledges, although “generations of historians have told and retold the tales, openly and happily”, the true story of convict involvement has been ignored by many New Zealanders who have sought to differentiate themselves from their Western Island… Although some academic reviewers use the word “prolific” as a pseudo-insult, Wright combines a scholar’s mastery of the sources with a journalistic skill at communicating complex messages to lay people, all sharpened by the experience of writing nearly 50 books.’ – Gavin McLean, Otago Daily Times, 11 August 2012.

‘…great reading, full of specific real-life personalities and daring escapades, some horrifying, to be measured and understood against the background of Maori and British cultures of those decades of the nineteenth century. This is the first time the tale of New Zealand’s convicts has been told to this detail, in a single book – one destined to become a New Zealand classic. – Jo Keppel, Greymouth Evening Star, 26 July 2012

‘Wright has done a great job of exposing activities which society had considered best forgotten, and made it interesting reading to boot’. – Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate, 23 July 2012, and Wanganui Chronicle, 16 August 2012.

‘…an entertaining and informative account of some of the larger-than-life characters who made this country their home in the early 19th century…’ – Alister Browne, Manawatu Standard, 17 August 2012.

‘…adds to the colourful tapestry of New Zealand’s early settlement.’Mana, New Zealand, 1 September 2012.

‘Wright has carved out a niche for himself in pre-Treaty New Zealand history, from which very few written records survive. It’s not an easy field to research.’ – Mike Houlihan, D-Scene, 5 September 2012.

Veering for a moment into shameless plug territory, if you feel like owning this book, it’s available online from Fishpond. But that’s by the by. As, indeed, is the fact that I’ve been asked to submit an academic paper based on the book to an Australian peer-reviewed journal.

Have you ever had a book published and fielded reviews? What were your experiences? Did the reviews help or hinder? How did you feel afterwards?

 Matthew Wright text copyright © 2012

First reviews of ‘Convicts’ – and a couple of radio interviews

I’ve fielded a couple of reviews of my book Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, which I’d like to share:

‘Wright has done a great job of exposing activities which society had considered best forgotten, and made it interesting reading to boot’ – Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate, 23 July 2012.

‘…great reading, full of specific real-life personalities and daring escapades, some horrifying, to be measured and understood against the background of Maori and British cultures of those decades of the nineteenth century. This is the first time the tale of New Zealand’s convicts has been told to this detail, in a single book – one destined to become a New Zealand classic. – Jo Keppel, Greymouth Evening Star, 26 July 2012

I like it. And here’s the link to my interview Sunday last on RadioLive, 29 July http://www.radiolive.co.nz/Convicts-NZs-Hidden-Criminal-Past/tabid/506/articleID/29638/Default.aspx

Also the link to my 15-minute slot on Jim Sullivan’s Sounds Historical programme on Radio New Zealand National, last night: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/soundshistorical/20120812 My slot starts at 26:47 in Part 2.

Wrapping it all up – blog meltdown, book launch, radio promos and earthquake

What a month. My book Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past was published. The city I live in was shaken by a larger-than-usual quake the same week. My blog blew up. Our internet connection kept going on the fritz.

And I was embroiled in a promotion frenzy. The key way to push books in New Zealand, at least, is through radio interview. I’ve had quite a few this month, and I’m always grateful I did that voice work, all those years ago.  There’s also the foot work - going to bookstores to sign stock. Among the highlights, Unity Books - my favourite indie. (They’ve been a Wellington institution for decades. I can’t walk in without finding a book I must buy.)

These days online networking is part of the picture – and I had a contest to run. Except my blog blew up as I got going. WordPress problem. ‘Aaaargh!’ Solved it by re-theming, re-customising and making an ‘emergency’ header – which the theme needed. Rule No. 1 for promotions is NOT to change your brand at the crucial moment. But I had no choice. I also had to code updates on my custom-built website (www.matthewwright.net) – no CMS, and there are amoeba on Saturn better practised at HTML than I am.

Highlights? Here’s the podcast of an unexpected interview I had, by cellphone, on 95b FM ‘The Wire’: http://95bfm.com/default,206700.sm

Coming up next on this blog – no more new books for a while. Instead there’s stuff about flying cars, writing, sci-fi, history and other things.

But enough about me. How’s your month been?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Convicts Contest – we have a winner

The winner of my ‘Convicts Contest’ – prize, a copy of my book Convicts, New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past - is Helen McMullin.

Helen’s great-grandfather was a missionary here in New Zealand, back in the 1880s. You can check out Helen’s blog at http://www.conantstation.com/2012/07/09/of-new-zealand-and-my-bucket-list/

She Who Must Be Obeyed picking the winner from the Topee Hat of Extreme Britishness.

And a big thank you to all who entered - with special mention and shout-out to -

Julia Indigo: http://juliaindigo.com/2012/07/08/awesome-new-book-by-matthew-wright/

Bev Robitai and the Mairangi Mob: http://arrestingprose.blogspot.co.nz/2012/07/win-book.html

Lemuel Lyes: http://historygeek.co.nz/2012/07/03/convicts-in-new-zealand/

All their blogs are well worth a look – and if you’re a history buff, Lemuel’s got some wonderful stories, ephemera and general New Zealand history posted. Fabulous stuff.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Last chance to win ‘Convicts’

Get in quick to win Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past. The contest closes at midnight 28 July NZT. Check it out.

It’s been a hectic month since the book was released. I’ve had radio interviews, an interview with the national Sunday paper, a request to guest-post on a blog, and lots of visits and comments on my own blog. It’s finishing with a flourish. Tune in to RadioLive, 11.15 am Sunday 29 July, NZT – I’m on interview with Graeme Hill for half an hour. Join me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

A wonderful discovery, hidden behind balloons

Those of us who write and publish books know what a lottery it is actually getting them featured in the bookstores.

So it made my day when I found this in the window of Wellington’s biggest bookstore today. Kinda hidden at the bottom, behind some balloons…but yes – that’s my book Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past. Sharing the window bays with that salacious vampire trilogy on one side – and Greg Broadmore’s new ‘Dr Grordbort’ book on the other (local artist, is Greg).

Convicts is still featured on their main table in the front of the shop too. Yay. If you want to win a copy, enter my ‘Convicts Contest’ – closes this Saturday, 28 July NZT.

And I’ll be guesting on RadioLive this Sunday, 11.15 am NZT, for an interview and talk-back session about the book with Graeme Hill. Check it out!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

The lure of temptation and history as novel

I’ve been reading Hamish Clayton’s novel Wulf, which Penguin published last year. It’s his first novel, and a few weeks back won the New Zealand Society of Authors award for best first novel of 2012. I can see why. Fantastic stuff.

The story pivots – creatively – around a real episode in New Zealand’s history; the notorious Elizabeth affair. Back in 1830, Captain John Stewart was persuaded by the chief Te Rauparaha (Clayton’s ‘Wulf’) to carry a war party south to the Akaroa peninsula. Stewart and his crew were complicit in the atrocities that followed, including what by British law was kidnapping, murder and cannibalism.

Clayton’s fictional version is unashamedly literature, formed as a Saxon epic poem. It is not ‘history’ in a literal sense. People of 1830 didn’t talk and behave as he portrayed them. His lead character is soulful, poetic, intellectual - the antithesis of rough sailors of the day. Clayton’s words speak to modern values, styles – the very things that make the book such great literature; he offers an epic, haunting experience for the twenty-first century reader.

And I think all of this enhances – not diminishes - the value of the book as a voice commenting on our history.

Let me explain. I’ve written the factual story of the Elizabeth affair into several of my non-fiction books – most recently Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, where I devoted half a chapter to it. And there is one curious fact – every source varies in the details. Sometimes opposing each other.

That has been the story for me – the fact that it has come down in versions, that we cannot reduce the tale to a coherent list. I devoted a chunk of that chapter in Convicts to the differences. But it doesn’t mean the truths of what happened are a mystery – quite the opposite. All the evidence, however much it collides in detail, points to a single coherent truth. We get a clear picture of the dissonance between British and Maori values, the strictness with which Maori adhered to Maori protocols – and the disgraceful way the British captain and his sailors disregarded British ones.

This is what history is really all about – events whose meaning highlight the human condition. I approached it one way in Convicts. Clayton has done so in a completely different way in Wulf. Allegory and metaphor – all the art of writing, in short – still conveys the real truth about what happened when people of one culture were removed from the frameworks that constrained them and fell to the lure of what was forbidden to them in their own world.

It’s not just a New Zealand historical thing. It’s called succumbing to temptation.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

A good news moment that made my day

Something made my day today. I went for a walk along Lambton Quay, the shopping street in central Wellington that follows the old coastline and is widely regarded as New Zealand’s retail ‘golden mile’.

Half-way along is the flagship outlet of national book retail colossus Whitcoulls. And in the front, exactly where it will capture customers walking in off that hallowed retail footpath, I found a stack of my book Convicts: New Zealand’s hidden criminal past.

You couldn’t ask for better placing.  I had to photograph the pile, of course, with the 1.3 mP camera in my trusty iPAQ (that’s not a typo).

Last week they had my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010) in the same spot. Go Whitcoulls!  Discovering my books placed just there in one of New Zealand most heavily-trafficked bookshops made my day.

Without reducing anyone’s urge to rush in and buy the book, I should add that you can also win a copy, my ‘Convicts Contest’ is open until 28 July.

Have you had a good news moment this week you’d like to share? Do tell!

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Radio sells books. Really.

Anybody remember Wall of Voodoo? Stannard Ridgway’s alternative early 80’s synth-pop band. ‘Mexican Radio’ is worth a listen.

What’s it got in common with my book Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past?  The getting on the radio bit, that’s what.

You’d think radio’s obsolete these days. It isn’t. In fact, I’ve learned over the years that it’s one of the best ways to promote a book. I’ve had newspaper, magazine and TV ads for my books before. But radio strikes the best chords. And Penguin’s publicist has done a great job getting me on air. Here’s one of the podcasts http://plainsfm.org.nz/on-demand/mornings-Matthew-Wright-jul3/

Here’s the podcast of the on-air review: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/20120709

More to come.

*** Reminder – if you want to win a copy of Convicts – signed by me – check out this contest. Runs until 28 July 2012.***

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012