Book Review: The Voyagers, by Paul Moon

Available in bookstores now. cv_the_voyagers

European explorers? Well there was Tasman, Cook, and, um, oh yes! d’Urville, and then I suspect most of us start to struggle. Some of us might eventually recall Julius von Haast and Charles Heaphy. But that’s about it. How mistaken we are!

During the first half of the nineteenth century very many early European visitors travelled huge distances on foot usually  and explored remote parts of NZ “on business”  as artists, missionaries or officials and vividly recorded their observations of the landscape, the flora and fauna, and of the people. Paul Moon has taken the journals and books left by 22 of these voyagers and distilled from them the often dramatic stories of their adventures.

The book is built around 22 individuals, loosely categorised in five groups: Soldiers and Sailors, Travellers and Settlers, Missionaries, Artists and Officials. Many of them are familiar names in other contexts: Edward Jermingham Wakefield as a colonist; Augustus Earle as an Artist, Deiffenbach and von Hochstater as geologists. They are also explorers.
Others are more obscure but no less interesting. Edward Shortland was a “Sub-Protector of Aborigines”; John Bidwill a botanist; Joel Polack a merchant. The events described cover the period 1805-1859, reminding us that this country’s history did not begin at Waitangi.


Maori War Expedition, by Augustus Earle

Some themes emerge. Many of the accounts describe the consequences of Maori and Pakeha meeting and the subsequent changes to Maori lifestyle. The aftermath of the musket wars, and the impact of whaling, also feature.

I found most of these accounts absolutely fascinating. There’s war and its aftermath, shipwreck, hardship and adventure a-plenty. And some more gentle, but equally fascinating, stories. Consider Thomas Shepherd. A Scot, Shepherd was sent by a group of English businessmen to investigate the possibilities of trade with New Zealand, and the conversion of the Maori to Christianity. They formed a New Zealand Company (with mainly commercial motives it must be said), chartered vessels and eventually Thomas Shepherd found himself on Stewart Island. Not exciting so far. But the date was 1826, before New Zealand was even part of the British Empire. He liked what he saw in an aesthetic sense, but a few encounters with starving sealers, poor terrain, and limited natural resources soon dampened his ardour.

Each chapter provides the reader with a number of almost accidental insights. While Thomas Shepherd’s story ends when the Company abandons its plans and he returns to Sydney, the glee of some Australians at this result speaks volumes about the trans-Tasman relationship at the time.

The author cleverly manages to get into the heads of the voyagers, and adopts their point of view, without the benefits of hindsight. He relates their observations, insights and reactions in a very natural way, and the reader can almost feel as if the voyager is sitting in the next chair, having a chat. Moon generally avoids reinterpreting the reactions of historical people in a more modern context, which here at least is a good thing.

Paul Moon is a Professor of History at AUT, and a prolific author on New Zealand history. This is one of his less academic productions, but, as is appropriate, a full set of notes, a bibliography, and an extremely good index are provided. Production values are high, and there are twelve beautifully reproduced plates.

But there is a major omission: time and again I found myself crying out for a map! Following Colenso’s incredibly long walks without a map is nigh-on impossible
It would be an extraordinarily well-read person who knew of most of the voyagers in this book. All the stories are interesting; the variety is astonishing and the text lively and readable. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

The Voyagers. Remarkable European Explorations of New Zealand
by Paul Moon
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143570554

Extract available here.