Book Review: Cleansing the Colony, by Kristyn Harman

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cv_cleansing_the_colonyFrom 1840 to 1853, 110 convicts were sent from New Zealand to Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land. We learn something about most of them in Kristyn Harman’s wonderful Cleansing the Colony, the best book I’ve read about the immediate post-treaty period. Don’t let the seemingly niche subject trick you into thinking this is dry, academic stuff – it’s a fantastically energetic book about a fledgling colonial society that’s half priggish utopians, half irrepressible lowlifes, reading more like Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York than some drab textbook.

New Zealand was meant to be a superior colony free of the convict stain, and tried to cultivate an image as an idyllic New Britain where the commerce of good, clean, middle-class folk could proceed unbothered. Reality dissented – when Auckland had 5000 residents, it had 1000 convictions. Early Pākehā settlers are often former Australian convicts or practitioners of sketchy itinerant trades. Bad Stock is rife. For colonial authorities, proportional justice is less important than the weeding out of bad influences who might spoil the whole project.

The government’s zest for demographic hygiene isn’t matched by its ability. Jails are so run-down, overcrowded, and understaffed that they have little real control over the prisoners; there’s controversy over a report that “two of the female prisoners had been engaged with the men and a fiddler in getting up a dance”. Escapes are frequent. The Clarke brothers, jailed for breaking into Rowland Davies’s house and stealing women’s clothes, swipe a musket from an unlocked chest while the gaoler’s not looking, lock all the constables up, and run for the hills. They’re the subject of a brief media furore until the embarrassed authorities handsomely pay a local hapū to capture them, the cost presumably far greater than that of Mrs Davies’s dresses.

Cleansing the Colony is especially illuminating on post-treaty Māori-Pākehā relations. It avoids the big concepts and sticks to the realpolitik of it all, the practical considerations of each case. At first, Māori are encouraged to cooperate with the Pākehā legal system with generous rewards, and the relationship’s somewhat symbiotic. Māori strategically use the Pākehā legal system to resolve intra-iwi conflict, as in the nicely lurid case of Maketū Wharetōtara, a beautiful youth who killed a family of five with an axe. His father’s a rangatira, but one of the dead was the iwi leader’s granddaughter, so to avoid conflict with minimal loss of face on all sides, his dad dobs him in to the colonial government. They’re chuffed at the chance to flaunt their sovereignty and Maketu’s hanging is widely publicised. But the case is used as precedent for the Pākehā legal system’s universal authority, and soon Māori resistance is being delegitimised by trying rebels in criminal courts and shipping them off to Van Diemen’s Land with the sheep thieves.

Harman has a rich comic subject in colonial society’s anxious self-seriousness, as well as a terrific feeling for anecdote. She knows we want to hear about fashionable Wellingtonians being wheelbarrowed home after wild balls at Barrett’s Hotel, or which vegetables were deemed ‘remarkably fine’ at the city’s second anniversary fête, or the details of the first session of Wellington’s court, where two men are tried for killing a pig of unknown ownership; when called to testify, the sole witness can’t remember anything. The judge scolds him and throws the case out. Newspapers laud his magisterial dignity.

The convicts emerge as vivid personalities from the handful of surviving details. They’re a diverse bunch; pickpockets, surgeons, deserters, sausage-sellers. Some stole, some hit their commanding officer, some killed livestock. Poor John Harris of Nelson stole “two old blankets” and got seven years. They have rich, suggestive backgrounds – they have a string of aliases, or they’re pretending to be each other’s relatives, or they claim expertise in a half-dozen weird, unrelated trades.

I don’t mean to give the impression Cleansing the Colonies is all quirky anecdotes and snide remarks. It never offers unnecessary comment – it knows how good its raw facts are. This is serious history that happens to be readable and charming because of Harman’s clever structuring and lucid style. It contains good scholarship and good fun, and is a serious contender for the Ockham non-fiction prize it’s been longlisted for.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Cleansing the Colony: Transporting Convicts from New Zealand to Van Dieman’s Land
by Kristyn Harman
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531069

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