The other von Sturmer
Since the early nineties, when I found a copy of Moments of Invention, Gregory O'Brien and Robert Cross' big, magical book about New Zealand writers, in my school library, I've known the name Richard von Sturmer. In Moments of Invention Richard was shown feeding ducks on the edge of Lake Pupuke and talking about the book of surreal prose poems he called We Xerox Your Zebras. His short yet spiky hair made him look like a punk, which he had been for a decade, and a Zen teacher, which he was becoming.
For the last twenty years I've followed Richard's career as a writer, actor, film maker, musician, and proponent of Zen, collecting small books with the exotic and resonant surname von Sturmer on their spines. Recently, though, I encountered a new von Sturmer.
Spencer William von Sturmer emigrated from Britain to New Zealand in 1855, and was soon performing a variety of administrative duties for the rickety colonial state. By the end of the 1860s von Sturmer was one of a small set of white men living beside Northland's Hokianga harbour. The government in faraway Wellington had appointed him the district's magistrate, coroner, customs officer, inspector of native schools, and chemist.
Von Sturmer was soon sharing drinks and books with Frederick Maning, a pioneer turned respectable gentleman and Native Land Court judge who is remembered today as the author of the memoir Old New Zealand, and John Webster, a survivor of Ben Boyd's psychotic attempt to build an empire in the tropical Pacific who had become improbably rich by milling the Hokianga's kauri forests.
I encountered Spencer von Sturmer during my research into the schoonerload of ni-Vanuatu who were, in 1870, removed from their homes on the island of Efate, brought to New Zealand, and put to work in the colony's flax mills. By 1871 at least twelve of these ni-Vanuatu were working at a mill in Waiarohia, near the southern head of the Hokianga harbour. As keeper of the district's drugs and inspector of its dead, Spencer was responsible for supplying an ailing ni-Vanuatu worker nicknamed Kuri with medicines, and for recording the man's eventual demise from consumption. Von Sturmer's services are mentioned in a report by the Auckland policeman John Thomson, who was sent to the Hokianga to investigate the welfare of the islanders after newspapers and the Governor of New Zealand had complained about the arrival of 'slavery' in the colony.
Von Sturmer, Maning, and Webster were all prolific epistolarists, and over the past few weeks I've been holing up in the Auckland's museum and its public library, and searching their texts for references to the ni-Vanuatu toiling at Waiarohia. Surely, I thought, John Webster, a man who once tried to conquer the Solomon Islands, would take an interest in the Melanesians who had arrived in his neighbourhood? Wouldn't Frederick Maning, who had a fascination with Maori culture, have been keen to report on the dances that the ni-Vanuatu apparently performed for their hosts? And wasn't it likely that Spencer von Sturmer, a man with a fondness for gossip, would have been intrigued and worried about the investigation that the colonial government launched into affairs at Waiarohia?
Unfortunately, though, I haven't found, in all those letterbooks, the briefest reference to the mill at Waiarohia, let alone an account of its inhabitants.
I e mailed Richard von Sturmer recently, and asked him whether he acknowledged Spencer as an ancestor; Richard explained that Spencer was his great-grandfather.
I'm not sure whether I'd want a famous great grandfather. Ancestors can, after all, be troublesome. Like small children, they make us feel responsible for their errors, even when we know we cannot correct their behaviour. Faced with the follies of their forebears - with bar brawls or wars started by a bout of pedantry or a drunken boast, and fortunes gambled and lost on a flax mill or stump farm - genealogists must learn the patient but critical manner familiar to parents and kindergarten teachers. It is easier to study someone else's ancestors.
I hope Richard won't mind too much if I post my favourite text from the oeuvre of Spencer von Sturmer. It was sent in 1871 to William Fox, the Premier of New Zealand.
My dear Sir,
I take the liberty of again troubling you -
The fact is that the inhabitants of this place, with very few exceptions, are given to excessive drinking, and of course all sorts of evils follow in its train. So bad has it become, that unless some change takes place in the habits of the people, I shall be compelled to leave the District, even though my living depends upon my remaining here, as my family are subject to every sort of annoyance from drunken people; as, though they never leave my own premises, still, it is impossible to drown the shouts and noise of thirty or forty, and sometimes more, drunken natives and Europeans, wrangling and fighting together.
The enclosed letter, from Mohi Tawhai, is just to hand. He requests me to caution - J.R. Clenden, J.P.; Capt. Rowntree, J.P.; and John Eryson, and other sellers of spirits, not to sell in large quantities to the natives, naming one in particular) belonging to his settlement.
Could not a J.P. be removed from the Commision of the Peace when he takes to selling spirits? or something be done to shame him? Capt. Rowntree does not himself hold a Licence, but the spirits are sold in his house by his brother-in-law.
Can nothing be done to alter the state of things here? I have spoken to Mr. Webster, and other J.P.'s in the District; and they would gladly assist in anything to prevent spirits coming into Hokianga, were it possible. Perhaps it would be in your power to assist us in some way, to bring about a better state of things here.
Should you think it possible that anything can be done to improve matters, would you kindly, when you have the opportunity, give me some appointment elsewhere, (keeping a Lighthouse would be better than staying here). I am not ambitious. Any situation in any Office that you think I could perform - anything to get away from this place; not so much on my own account, as on that of my wife and family.
I have no right to complain of the people here, either white or black. All are very kind - in fact, more so than I have a right to expect. The shocking dissipation is what I complain of. The Websters and Manings will, I am satisfied, corroborate all I say. They themselves live in isolated spots, so are not so much troubled. I should not have written to you, as I imagined you would have visited this place, in company with Mr. McLean; but Mr. Maning, (just returned) tells me you will not come, and so will not be able to see this delightful spot for yourself.
Please excuse this, and hoping that Mrs. Fox and yourself are well,
Believe me, dear Sir,
Yours very faithfully (Signed)
Spencer von Sturmer.