Mark Twain, rabbits and matters of race

It was Mark Twain who said of Dunedin's Scots settlers, "They stopped here on their way from home to heaven - thinking they had arrived."

The passage is in his travelogue, Following the Equator, widely instanced as one of the first true classics of modern travel writing.

A day or two previously he had landed in Bluff, having come from Tasmania.

It was 1895.

He was on a world speaking tour on account of the fact that he was gravely in debt and needed to "sing for his supper".

He would not have been surprised to read an article in the Otago Daily Times last Saturday about the rabbit infestation in Central Otago and how the dry conditions, ideal for breeding, were exacerbating the situation.

Even 115 years ago, this remarkable personality had his finger on the pulse.

"In New Zealand the rabbit plague began at Bluff," he wrote in his account of the tour.

"The man who introduced the rabbit there was banqueted and lauded; but they would hang him, now, if they could get him."

Quite.

The author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, public speaker, journalist, bankrupt, legendary wit, and general stirrer further ruminated on the so-called plague by comparing attitudes to the rabbit in England and New Zealand.

"All governments are more or less shortsighted: in England they fine the [rabbit] poacher, whereas he ought to be banished to New Zealand.

New Zealand would pay his way and give him wages."

These sentiments weren't too far off the mark either, but for a discrepancy of some 50 years or so.

Back then transportation wasn't an uncommon fate for petty criminals, albeit more usually to Australia.

One such man to suffer the fate was William Geary, transported in the 1830s to Tasmania for stealing a bag of wheat. After seven years in that penal colony he arrived in New Zealand as a whaler, working out of Waikouaiti in the employ of Johnny Jones, whaler and farmer.

William later settled at Otakou on the Otago Peninsula where he established a farm and fathered three children.

Recently, more than 200 descendants of William Geary and Etahi Taputai of Nga Mahanga iwi in Taranaki, met up for a family reunion in Dunedin.

Among them was great-great-grandson and playwright David Geary, whose latest work, Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland is on at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington*.

Geary's play takes off from an incident in Wanganui on that same lecture tour, following visits to Dunedin, Oamaru, Christchurch, Nelson, Hawkes Bay, Palmerston North . . .

"He met Dr Hocken in Dunedin," says Geary, "who introduced him to his collections."

The encounter is described by Twain: "To the residence of Dr Hockin [sic].

He has a fine collection of books relating to New Zealand; and his house is a museum of Maori art and antiquities.

He has pictures and prints in colour of many native chiefs of the past - some of them of note in history.

There is nothing of the savage in the faces; nothing could be finer than these men's features, nothing more intellectual than these faces, nothing more masculine, nothing nobler than their aspect . . ."

In fact it is his sympathies and outspoken views concerning Maori and a couple of monuments in Wanganui that give rise to the inciting event of the play in which a lunatic bursts into his hotel room and warns Twain that he is to be assassinated - on the stage that very night during his lecture.

Controversially, Twain had spoken out about Maori who had joined the Pakeha to fight other Maori and had been memorialised in a monument: "Sacred to the brave men who fell on 14th of May 1864."

The visitor noted the 20 or so Maori names engraved on the back, and later wrote: "It is an object lesson to the rising generation.

"It invites to treachery, disloyalty, unpatriotism.

"Its lesson, in frank terms is, `Desert your flag.

"Slay your people, burn their homes, shame your nationality - we honour such'."

It was the sort of sentiment guaranteed to put Twain seriously offside with the local establishment, never mind the odd lunatic.

"He was a bit of a hothead, had a raging temper and as a young man was challenged to duels," says Geary. But as with the rabbit plague he identified in Bluff, he also homed in with unerring prescience on race relations in this country - both subjects still very much in evidence today.

Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland plays at the International Arts Festival in Wellington until Sunday.

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor of the Otago Daily Times.

 

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