Thursday, January 20, 2011


Serendipity (n): The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.

Governor Gore Browne, photograph by J.N. Crombie. (Ak Institute & Museum)
William Colenso, photographed by JN Crombie, (Hawke's Bay Museum & Art Gallery)

I had been working all day on a piece of writing to do with the above photograph of William Colenso. It belongs to the Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery and is a particularly beautiful ambrotype - an early form of photography which superceded the very first form of photography, the daguerrotype. It was taken by JN Crombie, a Scots man who made a very good living out of photography in colonial New Zealand. He had a hawker’s instinct for good publicity: a colonial photographer was many things, an artist who was also partly a circus performer, putting up his own tent, beating his own drum, taking the cash at the door and sending the punters away satisfied. He did vice-regal portraits - ie nobs - and catastrophes, like the sudden collapse of a building. He did panaromas and sold them to the Illustrated London News - a coup. (A contemporary parallel would be getting some footage on BBC or CNN - and being paid for it.)

This ambrotype was done in 1865 when William Colenso was a member of Parliament. Parliament sat in Auckland in those days and Colenso had gone into Crombie’s studio in Queen Street, situated above ‘The Stafforshire Pottery Depot.’ There he posed, the light flooding in from the windows in the roof.

It is an elegant image, finely composed with many different textures - plaid pants, glittering chair, silk frockcoat, the gleam of wood. But undoubtedly the eye always travels to the face and here one sees the face of a beautifully dressed man who has obviously been through some personal tragedy. His face looks haunted.

Nevertheless what interested me, as a film maker, was the composition of the photograph - the interesting way the arm of the leather chair intrudes into the photograph from the side, creating a kind of stepped back perspective which is echoed by the fact Colenso isn’t sitting four square on the chair. He is posed, dandyishly, sitting across the chair, with a rather lanquid arm resting on the balloon back’s top rail.

Altogether it is a fascinatingly complex ‘jumble’ of angles which yet holds together beautifully. It seems to say something about Colenso himself.

I had worked most of the day writing about this image and felt curiously exhausted by the end of my working day - about 2 o'clock. When I went to get my hair cut I couldn’t stop yawning. Then this evening I was going through a box of books my partner had selected to go off to a book auction. I came upon a book we have several duplicates of - an excellent book: William Main’s Auckland through a Victorian Lens.

I took it out, wondering if he wrote anything about Crombie. To my delight there was several pages of information, some of which I have used in my first para above. But I felt a flood of true pleasure when I turned the page and there, in an image of Governor Gore Browne was the very sofa and chair which had been used in Colenso’s photograph. I felt an almost idiotic delight. I rushed in to tell my partner. But as I told him, somehow the pleasure faltered. What was the big deal?

How could I explain the fact I felt I had made a remarkable connection. There was I seeing these photographic props in the round, so to speak. I had not known whether the obtruding leather chair in Colenso’s photo was a sofa or an armchair. Now I knew: it was one of those two winged Victorian sofas. And it was covered with what looked like, in this black and white world, a glittering manteau of horse hair. My joy doubled when I spotted the same balloon back in the back of Gore Browne’s photo.

I felt almost as if I had a personal relationship with these pieces of furniture. Realistically of course all I had seen was the same props used completely differently. A photographer probably grew exhausted trying to think of new ways of using the same old tools of enchantment. In the Gore Browne photograph they are used mundanely - almost as an after thought. Browne’s classic feathery hat of a colonial governor sits like a cat asleep at the very back of the chair: had he refused to place it on his head? Indeed the whole physical arrangement of the Governor looks awkward. His stick has a clumsy relationship to the chair and he himself lacks physical grace.

Or could one say the photographer failed to hide his lack of physical charisma. Compared with the Colenso photo, his face says nothing at all. Admittedly his eyes move past the lens but it is very hard to get a feeling for his personality. He recedes into his body, his period dressing, his epauletters, his ‘hair’ wear. He doesn’t seem anything more than them. He seems as alive - or dead - as the sofa.

Compare this to the Colenso photograph and you get a much keener sense of an individual.

Of course my discovery meant very little - almost nothing.

But the fact is I will go to bed tonight feeling good about being alive. I feel, for some strange reason, as if I pierced through to another dimension. As if I had actually climbed the stairs into Crombie’s studio and for one moment - the briefest moment- glanced into an empty room. And seen, sitting there, outlined in light streaming in from a window above....a horse-hair sofa.... and an empty chair.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A wind out of the mouth of hell....

I came to live in Hawke’s Bay five years ago. My mother’s family have lived here since 1858 but I am a new-comer. I had never lived ‘in the Bay’ before. So things like the weather struck me afresh.

I had no idea how cold it could get. I didn’t realise the impact of Napier having mountain chains at its back which, in winter, are often covered in snow. The winds from Antartica sweep up the island and coast over this snow, to add just that final chill factor to our wooden houses.

This is the misery that Colenso talked about so graphically when he said, vis a vis the Mission Station at Waitangi a few kilometres out of Napier, that the milk froze in the jug and water froze in his bedroom.

Two days ago there was an infernal wind. It was like putting your face into a furnace. The wind was harsh, constant and hot. It was impossible to find anywhere cool in the house. (Like many New Zealanders, we don’t have air conditioning.)

The front verandah was as cool as it got - and that was an itchy, restless, sweaty heat. All the time the Westerly wind kept up its monotonous force. Windows rattled. The weights within the windows banged against the wood. Doors slammed. Pictures on the wall rattled.

This hot wind dried out all the earth and battered the plants. The wind felt outsized, larger than human. Slightly inhuman, in fact.

This was the Westerly wind which was blowing when Colenso’s mission station house caught fire.

I listened yesterday, at 3pm, because that was the hour - and the day - the 8th of January - in 1853 - that his mission house began to burn. Or rather, when Elizabeth Colenso, his wife, came screaming down the path, to William’s wharetuhituhi (study). Their worst nightmare had begun.

The house was made of a combination of raupo (reed) walls and wood interior. Houses made of raupo were notorious for burning down extremely quickly - sometimes in a matter of minutes. (Think hay.) In fact even by the 1860s there was legislation about the construction of raupo houses - the first kind of dwelling most migrants had on coming to New Zealand in those very early days.

William, Elizabeth and the few inhabitants of the house (mainly female), and other women from the nearby Maori village, dragged out whatever they could. Since these people weren’t that familiar with European objects they often pulled out the wrong things. For example the village women tipped out all Colenso’s valuable lead type faces for printing and saved the wooden boxes they were stored in.

But the combination of that devilish wind and the heat from the blaze eventually forced them back.

Elizabeth - desperate but also practical - had rugs and blankets dipped into the nearby stream, to try to beat the fire with.

Only too soon their dwelling house was reduced to smouldering ashes. The heat was so intense the flames leapt along the wooden fences and burnt them too.

A heavy brass bell turned liquid in the fierce heat.

Grass withered and turned to ash.

Day turned to night.

William, his wife and his illegitimate son, Wiremu - and their few retainers - huddled in the unlined store, which was seperate from the house. They had little with them - some tea, no salt.

They began to penetrate deeper into the nightmare which surrounded them on every side.

Colenso had just been ejected from the Church the previous September, because of the birth of his son, Wiremu. Colenso was fighting to keep Wiremu. His other children - a daughter and a son by his wife Elizabeth had already left.

Nominally they were going away to be educated. Practically speaking they were taken away from him. He never saw his daughter again.

And even more humiliating, Colenso was up on a charge of common assault for kicking a relative of his Maori lover in the head.

It was rock bottom.

So two days ago, when that horrible wind took up - and the claustrophobic heat - and its feeling bordering on insanity - I thought of that day, so many years ago, when the Mission house burnt down.

To this day it remains a mystery: how did the fire start?

I have my theories and I’ll talk about them in my book, The Hungry Heart, which comes out next year.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The obtuseness of the physical envelope.

I began to question my search for physical evidence.

I decided, since it was the day on which Kereopa Te Rau was hanged 139 years ago, to go and look at the Napier Prison. (This was where he was hanged.)

The prison was opened in 1862, and only closed in the 1990s. It used to be a backpackers. Today it is a kind of free enterprise museum, promoted by the Lonely Planet’s ‘Blue List’as ‘good value’.

It was an overcast morning, a thin veil of cloud occluding the sun. I was pleased about this, as the weather recently had been oppressively heavy. I listened to the sound of the waves as I stood there, waiting.

It was still that low tide time of the year, when everything is exhausted by the aftermath of Christmas and New Year.

A young man came out, dressed as a prison guard.

Having paid my $20 the guide turned out to be a pleasant young woman with a strong foreign accent. In fact the people running the museum seemed to be migrants. I thought about what this meant: obviously the prison tour business seemed to be an ‘opportunity’. And true enough, on a holiday morning, probably twenty people turned up. There were two tours a day.

I was anxious, of course, to see the old part of the prison. I wanted to imagine myself back to December 1871 when Kereopa Te Rau was brought to the prison, then put on trial for the murder of the Reverend Volkner at Opotiki.

Kereopa Te Rau was notorious as a ‘Hau Hau’. He seemed to be high priest of the bloodbath proceedings, following Volkner’s hanging. He swallowed Volkner’s eyes, one for the Queen and one for the State. He choked on the second eye and he believed this was an omen leading to his downfall.

The entire killing of Volkner was drenched in hysteria, omens and rituals. Historian Judith Binney, in her customary role of Savanorola, always talks of Volkner’s death as an ‘execution’. Volkner was a ‘spy’ giving information to the government on hostile Maori forces. He was also a pious and somewhat naive German who thought he needed to get back to his flock, to help them through their latest bout of sickness. So it was slightly more mixed up - more human - than Binney makes out.

Also I kind of doubt that an ‘execution’ incorporated beheading, drinking of the blood of the dead man, the swallowing of his eyes and the contemptuous throwing of his corpse into a latrine to be eaten by dogs.

Kereopa Te Rau became a kind of terrorist in the mind of Pakeha settlers. But not all.

Enter William Colenso who wrote a long and passionate defence of Kereopa in a letter to the papers called ‘Fiat Justitia’. His motto was ‘see the other side of the story’ and he tried to say that, by 1871 (six years after Volkner’s death), others had been pardoned for the offence, that vast land confiscations had subsequentlty taken place as well as a lot of Maori deaths - ‘what more could be done?’ he asked, by way of retribution.

In a way the Pakeha military response was a kind of ‘shock and awe’ tactic. However, as Colenso quoted Shakespeare in another essay,

‘O, it is excellent

To have a giant’s strength,but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.’

British power was at its peak in the nineteenth century. It was the global superpower. But in this pamphlet Colenso argued passionately for a different understanding of justice.

He was ignored.

The jury was out a token ten minutes before the ‘death by hanging’ verdict was brought in.

Kereopa spent the long days of Christmas and New Year in Napier prison, awaiting his execution.

So what did I hope to find by going there on the day of his execution, 139 years later? (He was executed at 8am. I was there at 9.30am) I wasn’t sure. In some ways it took the form of a pilgrimage. I hoped to gain some insight, some sense of otherness by simply standing on the spot. X marks the spot, once again. Also, simply by going to a place, you are paying homage to the past. You are trying to connect up with that most fugitive of things - the past.

What has passed, gone.

But my problem became immediately apparent, once the tour took off.

The prison had altered a lot since 1872. The outside wall was created as late as 1906 and the interior of the prison is a hotchpotch of buildings, some dating from the 1980s.

I was always searching for the oldest layer.

The old wooden building, I thought, had the look of early Napier.

And then I saw the very back wall, made of stone which looked like it might even have been imported from Australia.

This was indisputably old.

Later we were taken through into the ‘graveyard’. I noted the cautionary note over the door, to placate Maori sensibilities.

It was ignored - or was invisible to the people passing under it.

Outside the guide talked about the people buried there.

I knew Kereopa Te Rau was not buried there. Nevertheless I obediantly marked the spot in the contemporary manner: by taking a photo.

I noted the interesting differences in the story-telling. Here the eyes represented his dead children, killed by Pakeha soldiers. He became a kind of family man seeking justifiable revenge. Or was that Russell Crowe in the Gladiator? It's easy enough to get things confused.

Finally, and as the last frisson, we were taken through to the part of the prison where people were hanged.

A somewhat rudimentary hanging device was placed there.

The guide talked about how people attended the hangings, as one attended a particularly good theatrical event. There were steps to the right of the entrance which allowed people to walk along to the top of the walls, and get an excellent view downwards.

I wondered how much entrance to this ‘front seat in the circle’ position cost.

The young man in prison guard uniform seemed particularly agitated about this area. When he spoke he revealed he was an Englishman. He had those beautiful cornflower blue eyes which must have been so astonishing to early Maori - to whom blue was an especially rare colour.

He told me that the hangman, an Irishman called Long, had his own hanging device, in a kind of kitset assemblage, which he took from hanging to hanging. The spine was quickly broken so the death was relatively painless. He was knowledgeable about the way the actual noose was callibrated. He seemed excited by his knowledge and I wondered about the sort of person who enjoyed sleeping in a cell, at night, listening, as he said, to strange sounds.

I had no particular feeling from being there on the spot on the exact day so many years later. When I mentioned to the young man, in passing, that today was the day of the execution, he said he knew. He had thought it was yesterday.

We agreed to differ.

I thanked the young guide and asked her where she was from. Argentina, she said, immediately oplogising for her slightly clotted English.

I left soon after that, uncertain about exactly what it was I had obtained by going there. But in one way it is too soon to know. These things have a way of lying in the subconscious, like a body in the tide, being pulled to and fro, before being dleivered to their resting place.

Then the bones emerge.

There was a weight of greif in that building though, of lost souls and souls removed from the body of their family and landscape. People were isolated and brutalised there. They were there, after all, to be punished.

Some of this tragic intensity still lingers.

Colenso had tried to stop the unstoppable. He had tried to articulate a conscience at a time the majority of Pakeha had no interest in hearing ‘the other side of the story’.

Today we sometimes seem to only hear ‘the other side of the story’.

It is one of the fascinating things about William Colenso: he tried to walk the knife-edge of the difference.

Little wonder that occasionally, when he slipped and fell, he got his legs and arms - and perhaps a more tender part of his anatomy - almost sliced off.

But this is the thing I like about him so much: he kept on trying to work out the right line. He kept on making an entirely individual call on all sorts of things. (For example by the 1880s he was writing that he believed that the Muslim religion was in many ways superior to Christianity.)

He was an oddball.

Well, so am I.

And I guess that is why I ended up in Napier prison, five days after New Year - in search of the faintest reverberation of a long ago - and seemingly almost forgotten - hanging.

As I left the waves sounded louder.