New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

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. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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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