Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Jerningham by Cristina Sanders (Cuba Press, 2020)

The Wakefields haven’t gone down well in history, more notorious for scandals like Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s abduction of a 15-year-old heiress than celebrated for any of their achievements. Despite the evidence of Point Jerningham, I hadn’t even heard of Edward Jerningham Wakefield (apparently the Wakefield males of Edward’s line all shared the same first name) so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Drawn in by the striking cover by Rakai Karaitiana, what I found was a colourful and detailed picture of 1840s Wellington.

When we read and think about the 1840s, our attention is often drawn to the north: the signing of Te Tiriti at Waitangi, the rowdy town of Kororāreka, the fledgling settlement of Auckland.  In Jerningham, Sanders presents us with the shiploads of bewildered new settlers who had left behind everything they knew and sailed across the world, fooled by the rhetoric of the New Zealand Company’s advertisements into believing that their land purchases were legal, and expecting a more established community than the cluster of tents and ramshackle buildings on the windswept beach of Pito-one.   

Some of the characters in this book are real: Colonel William Wakefield, Captain Arthur Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Ernst Dieffenbach, Te Puni, Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata – and, of course, Jerningham himself. Others, including the narrator, Arthur Lugg, are not.

Edward Jerningham Wakefield from the frontispiece of his book Adventure in New Zealand, Christchurch, Whitcombe & Tombs, 1908 (First published in 1845). Artist unknown.

Arthur Lugg arrives on the Aurora, one of the first settler ships. He is a bookkeeper, the son of a clergyman, and only recently rich, thanks to an inheritance received by his wife who died soon afterwards. There is no hint of foul play here – Arthur Lugg is a completely upright Victorian chap, conservative, a little clumsy but generally well-liked, intensely loyal to the Queen and the Crown, and a hard worker who terms himself the “invisible man” as he slogs away on paperwork for the burgeoning Wakefield settlements. Nevertheless, despite or perhaps because of the difference in their temperaments, he falls under the spell of the wild and mercurial Jerningham. He also falls in love on the journey out with a young woman called Ada Malloy, but due to various machinations – not of his making – ends up married instead to the quiet and beautiful Dorothy, oblivious to the rumours that swirl around her.

With Jerningham, Arthur Lugg travels to Kāpiti, Wanganui (as it was then) and up the Wanganui River to the central North Island, as yet hardly glimpsed by Europeans. After a personal crisis, his travels also take him to Nelson in time to be embroiled in a crucial point in the history of that new settlement and of Māori-Pākeha relations.   

Wellingtonians (especially) will be fascinated to trace the early days of today’s city as familiar streets are formed and buildings erected. Sanders treats her material with confidence, and her sailing experience on tall ships shows in her descriptions of weather and in the often frightening and totally believable scenes on board small and large boats. On land, earthquakes add to the general sense of unease. We see the growing tension and distrust between the New Zealand Company and Governor Hobson, the constant presence of the surveyors, the pressure on the Company to prepare for the hundreds of settlers they have already – with whatever motives and degree of truth - enticed to their unformed towns and the misunderstandings and illegal land dealings that will lead to the disaster of the Wairau Affray and later confrontations. 

Point Jerningham, at the far end of Oriental Bay, will now serve for me as a reminder of a young man who was deeply flawed but drew people to him – both Māori and Pākeha, according to this retelling – with his combination of brilliance, good humour, impulsiveness, exuberance and daring.   

Sanders writes intentionally through the lens of the 1840s and points out In her author’s note at the end of the book that “the attitudes to race, culture, gender and class.. are not designed to offend or provoke, but to illustrate the common perspective among 1840s colonials.” However Arthur Lugg, her narrator, comes across as perhaps more enlightened than some. He is curious about the Māori whom he meets in Wellington and on his travels with Jerningham, in awe of the magnificent physique of the men and the beauty of the women. He tries to learn te reo and tell us that his accent improves over time, and worries that the New Zealand Company’s land purchases are illegal. He even owes his life to Te Puni, who rescues him from drowning.

This is Cristina Sanders’ debut novel, released by Wellington publishers The Cuba Press and printed by Wakefield Printers, both of them – in a nice piece of synchronicity – located on Wakefield St. She is also the winner of the 2019 Storylines Tessa Duder award for an unpublished manuscript. That book will be published by Walker Books next year, and I’m sure there will be more.

To hear Cristina Sanders talking about Jerningham, the Wakefields and the messy, fraught, flawed and often ugly business of colonialism, listen to this interview on Radio NZ, recorded on the day of her book launch at Unity Books.

Roseneath, Oriental Bay, Point Jerningham (in foreground) and Point Halswell, Wellington New Zealand (russellstreet / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)



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