Friday, April 24, 2015

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.


Blogger Richard said...

That is very interesting! Richard von Sturmer is one of New Zealand's best poets and has put out some great writing and books.

There are some fascinating characters who feature in factual books about NZ. I liked that (controversial) book by Paul Moon and would like to read more.
Also the book 'Cannibal Jack' about Smithyman's man Jacky Marmon (the Pakeha Maori).
And 'The Prophet and the Policeman' was fascinating.
The book about John Webster looks interesting also.

10:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

A little off topic:

Did you ever hear of an anthopologist called Peter J. Wilson. He studied a man called Oscar in Providencia who was really eccentric and interesting. But he then worked in NZ in Otago University I think it was.

Have you come across the book 'Brown Conflict' by Leo Fowler. I just found it among books I am clearing out. It is about NZ history and the NZ Wars or NZ settlement. I know nothing about it having just looked at it briefly.

I also found a book about Gordon Watson (subtitled - 'A Memorial Volume to a NZ Writer Soldier and Communist') written by Elsie Locke.
Do you know of him, and / or that book?

You probably know of Leo Fowler. There is more here:

I see that he was a friend of Hone Tuwhare who read at his funeral about 1976.

11:04 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Richard,

interesting books. I don't know Brown Conflict, but I'm familiar with the Watson memorial volume. I've often wondered where the manuscripts that Elsie Locke edited into that book are, because there was a lot that doesn't seem to have gotten in. I know the term is overused, but Watson is a tragic figure. I wrote a bit about him at:

It's interesting that Watson, Bert Roth, and Smithyman were all together on Norfolk Island during World War Two, and that Watson seems to have been producing wall newspapers and possibly running study groups there. Smithyman's most enthusiastically 'red' poems and letters were produced on Norfolk. Was the island an incubus of left-wing thought during the war?

7:35 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I'll look at that. He seems to have been, potentially at least, an intellectual who might have become a Smithyman. I think he seems a tragic figure. His courage, if that is what he had, and his obsession with communism (which caught me for a few years in the 70s and some of that 'fanatacism' still lurks under the surface although transmuted): those seemed to me significant. I have decided to keep that book and peruse it more closely. I noticed he had been sent to an Island. In any case,yes, he is tragic. Well tragic for all. He was killed in Italy. When you concentrate on an individual in a war or anything, it brings it home.
The generalizations and abstractions, the jargon, are what would have troubled Smithyman. In my opinion he may have flirted with Marxism but the world, as he saw it (my assumption) was and is too complex for a "one fix all" idea. We suffer in fact, from too much political correctness. This became resultant in the USSR. I noticed this kind of wooden thinking in the days we used to read The Peoples' Voice etc but we were angry at the many injustices and in particular the US adventures in Korea, Vietnam etc. That continuation of British and French Imperialism lead to some of us radicals watching the film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We were cheering with great joy every time we saw US ships blown up or sunk or even men machine gunned. We loved the Japanese as did J G Ballard as a boy...But it leads to a kind of abstraction of the world the enormously simplifies it. Smithyman ultimately rejected any such possiblity. He was interested in things and ideas. One of my essays, a long one about a poem each of Yeats and Eliot, had by my word 'brain' the comment that brain and mind were not interchangeable. At that time I was not 'political' so science had told me that the brain was a kind of machine of the mind. I didn't know about Descartes etc Smithyman did, and much else he had mused on.

BTW I like that poem where he has the dream, then seems to wake up in Orewa and there is someone leading a cat on a leash and camel or something by the Orewa Marineland (is that still there?)...

I think that Leo Fowler had also, he it seems, did a lot of good work among Maori. Whether his book, it's a novel, and I know you are doing the 'neglected books' thing. I'm not sure how good it is.

Watson, by being a 'communist' in those days, would probably have isolated himself from his own family, as his poems are not as gauche as those of some of the poets who wrote around that time. In time, had he survived the war, who knows what he might have done.

One thing I think we could all be more aware of, and that is the class nature of society. That is still very true, as Marx defined it, and the unity of people above and beyond religion and nationality would have to precede any major political progress of the people. People feel that financial status, fame, etc, are more important.

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Anonymous Lucy Sussex said...

Spencer's older sister was travelogue writer Ellen Clacy, who visited the Australian diggings in the 1850s. She was quite extraordinary.

6:37 pm  
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