In a blog post and an interview with the Herald Peter Wells has accused Creative New Zealand of interfering with his newest book, Journey to a Hanging. The book tells the story of Kereopa Te Rau, a member of Te Arawa hapu Ngati Rangiwewehi and evangelist for the syncretic, anti-colonial Pai Marire religion. After members of his family were killed by British troops during the Waikato War, Te Rau went to the Bay of Plenty, where he instigated and oversaw the slaying and mutilation of Carl Volkner, a missionary who had been spying on Maori rebels for the colonial government in Auckland. Volkner's death outraged Pakeha, and when Te Rau fled from the Bay of Plenty into the Urewera heartland of the Tuhoe people colonial troops soon followed him. Te Rau was eventually apprehended, tried and executed.
Wells says that, in exchange for funding him, Creative New Zealand insisted that he talk with the descendants of Kereopa Te Rau about his plans for Journey to a Hanging. He complains that he was made to feel ‘paranoid about getting the facts right’. He thinks that Creative New Zealand's keenness for him to consult with Ngati Rangiwewehi was a symptom of the 'political correctness' that afflicts New Zealand. This 'political correctness' has, according to Wells, made New Zealand's colonial history a 'taboo' area for researchers and writers.
I think that anyone who is writing non-fiction should be paranoid about getting their facts right, and anyone writing about one of the most notorious series of events in New Zealand’s nineteenth century history should be particularly paranoid.
I'm puzzled that Wells thinks Creative New Zealand was somehow burdening him when it tried to get him to talk with the descendants of the man whose life he was researching. I can’t think why any researcher wouldn’t want to acquaint him or herself with the oral traditions surrounding the subject he or she was researching.
I read Journey to a Hanging a few months ago, and I remember being surprised when Wells declared that he hadn’t looked at any of the Maori accounts, either in oral tradition or on paper, of the slaying of Volkner, the hunt for Kereopa Te Rau, and the trial and execution of Te Rau. I was even more bemused when he followed this confession with some knockabout criticisims of the supposed political correctness of unnamed historians who had studied the killing of Volkner and the trial of Kereopa Te Rau. How can you decide these interpretations are biased, I thought, when you haven’t looked at half of the story yourself?
I’ve just written a short book about another terrible series of nineteenth century events, the slave raids that some New Zealanders and Tasmanians made on Tonga in 1863
. I researched the book in the archives of New Zealand, looking at old newspapers and at missionaries’ letters and diplomatic despatches – but I also went to Tonga and sat around kava circles and heard what the descendants of the slave raids had to say, and looked at old Tongan publications. It’s not too hard to do all this, even if you don’t have command of a Polynesian language. Most Tongans, let alone Maori, speak English, and many oral traditions have been translated into English. Dictionaries are wonderful things.
I've blogged in more detail about Kereopa Te Rau and the killing of Carl Volkner here
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]