It is a couple of years now since Penguin New Zealand’s former managing editor, Geoff Walker, approached me with a request. I’d just finished my history of the ‘musket wars’ for them – ‘Guns and Utu’ – which covered the Maori side of New Zealand’s past from around 1810 to 1845.
Now it was time to do the British side of the same time and place. Specifically, the story of the convicts who leaked out of Australia from 1788.
Of course I thought that was a good idea, too. The thing about New Zealand’s past is that we popularly think it began in 1840 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed – and Crown government began. But of course Maori had been in the place since the 1280s (by the latest estimates), and by
1840 the British and Americans had been around for half a century or more, too.
Most of the Europeans didn’t behave too well. It was a classic example of what Niall Fergusson has called lawlessness leaking from the periphery of Empire. Isolation and the fact that they were literally outside the long arm of British law gave license, it seemed, for would-be traders and sea captains to behave badly.
In New Zealand’s case, they were joined by actual criminals – convicts and former convicts who had been transported from Britain’s over-packed prison hulks to Botany Bay and the other prison colonies in Australia. Most of them were not particularly hardened criminals; back in the 1780s it was possible to be transported for stealing a coin or two. Or filching coats from corridors on Sundays. Or stealing panes of glass from butchers’ windows (I am not joking).
But although these transported folk had not done much, the world they found was leveller – and it hardened them. It was also possible to walk out of it. The walls of Botany Bay were not stone; they were distance. And none of the prisoners knew exactly how much distance.
The escapes began even as the First Fleet arrived from Britain – and a good chunk of them ended up in New Zealand. It wasn’t too surprising. None of the convicts knew exactly wher they were. Some thought China was just over the horizon to the west. Others hoped that by stowing away on one of the ships leaving Sydney, they might be carried off to some magical tropical island, usually Tahiti.
In fact, most of them ended up in New Zealand, including a woman named Charlotte Badger who is often considered New Zealand’s first pakeha (white) settler.
Some of them – foolishly - thought that Maori would be so over-awed by white skin as to treat them like lords. Naturally Maori were not going to tolerate any of that nonsense. They were not impressed by convict behaviour in the slightest – and the convicts had to work, or they didn’t eat. Quite a few threw themselves on the mercy of passing British ships, trying to get away.
As time went on other convicts arrived legally. By the 1820s many of the former prisoners were being freed – they had done their time and could rejoin society. Not that they had any way of getting back to Britain. But New Zealand beckoned, and as the whaling industry began expanding it attracted a good selection of former convicts to work on it.
All of this contributed to the notion that Europeans in New Zealand were a lawless bunch. When the Treaty of Waitangi established Crown government and the first large-scale settlements appeared, all in a rush around 1840, there was a good deal of back-pedalling. Upright middle-class settlers drew a line in the sand – hoping to distance themselves from the moral stain they imagined had coloured their immediate past.
New Zealand’s convict past was ruled out of history. It was never secret – and historians, later, wrote down some of the more lurid adventures. But it was conveniently hidden from easy view.
Convicts: New Zealand’s hidden criminal past is by Matthew Wright and published by Penguin
You can get ‘Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past’ here
Matthew Wright blogs at: http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com He is one of New Zealand’s most published historians, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.