Pardon best final chapter in historic tale

By Roger Moroney

7 comments
OUTSTANDING: Sister Aubert
OUTSTANDING: Sister Aubert

In a way, Napier author Peter Wells' new book Journey to a Hanging could be seen as something of an intriguing taster.

Although an extensively researched, colourfully and adventurously written taster, it would have to be said.

For there is "more to come", Wells said of the remarkable story of Kereopa Te Rau who, it transpired, was wrongfully hanged at the old Napier Prison off Coote Rd back in 1872.

His research into the full story was, as it was for his previous book The Hungry Heart: Journeys With William Colenso, detailed and intensive and a tad time consuming ... like five years.

Wells uncovered - a lot more than he anticipated.

Asked if the research or the actual writing was the most demanding ingredient to its eventual publication, he simply said "neither really

"I enjoy both aspects - but I would have to say the editing is the toughest part."

The manuscript submitted to publishers Random House was twice the length of what eventually became bound between covers.

So he mused over that, and said the "online world" provided something of a solution.

"I am looking to every so often release online parts which did not make it into the book."

Wells will be running the idea past his publishers and sees it as a way of complementing what has already gone into print.

The story of Kereopa Te Rau absorbed him from the start and was sparked during the research and writing of The Hungry Heart as William Colenso, along with Sister Mary Aubert, were both proponents of Te Rau - supporting his innocence.

"Yes that certainly was one of the major roads into doing this."

To say Wells has a love, indeed a passion, for history would be an understatement.

While growing up in Auckland, he heard the tales from his mother about the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake - she had been a pupil at Napier Girls' High School when it struck.

"It sparked my interest (in history). It would be harder to get a more sensational account of history - so history to me was always something dramatic and alive.

"I wanted to find out what was real, what was true, how people lived and make sense of contradictions."

The contradictions were almost a staple part of many historical accounts, he discovered during searching through the archives of MTG Hawke's Bay.

"Oh you get it all the time, and with this story there was so much contradictory evidence - you have to take it all in and make a call," Wells said.

"History is like a jigsaw so you have to fit the pieces together - look at it, work through it and come to a conclusion."

Wells said Kiwis were "only just beginning" to discover the many stories which made up their history.

"As more stories enrich our knowledge of living in this country so our own history becomes the most interesting to us, because it is the history that pertains to us ... tells us who we really are."

Wells said he became fascinated by the interplay between Maori and early Pakeha migrants "as both were fascinated by the other, each possessing something the other wanted desperately".

For Maori, it was confronting alluring material things they had never seen before and, for Pakeha, it was putting down stakes in a new land.

"Essentially, the global world in all its shiniest raiment arriving for a people who were among the most isolated in the world, as well as the hidden reality inside the material riches, powerful new drugs and diseases and, beneath it all, a different way of understanding the meaning of land."

Wells said most British migrants came from a culture in which land had been wrested from them in clearances (in Scotland) and incorporation of common lands (in England) so the first priority of these migrants was to obtain the security of land.

"But land also had a very powerful meaning to Maori in a different ancestral sense - hence the great conflict in the 19th century over different understandings of what land meant."

Wells said it had been difficult for early Pakeha to cope with what was a strange and distant new landscape.

"East being west, north being south and winter being summer.

"Everything was topsy-turvey and everything they looked at reminded them they were as far as it was humanly possible to be from their family, friends, the place they were born, the streets they knew, the tongue they understood.

"You have to understand Pakeha went as far as anyone on Earth away from home so it was not easy."

Asked if he thought Journey to a Hanging would help in understanding our history, Wells said he hoped so.

"I hope it helps people understand that goodness and truth are not based on race.

"We are all humans and as humans, we all make mistakes and even act quite differently at different times.

"In the colonial period, among Pakeha, there were truly outstanding 'outsiders' like Suzanne Aubert and William Colenso - both residents of Hawke's Bay in my story and both seeing things in a highly individual way."

Wells described Kereopa Te Rau's story as "full of insight and wonder".

There were times during his research that he had to stop and take a breath - stop and mentally digest what he was uncovering.

"Because it is a story set in a time of war and, during times of war, people can emerge with animalistic behaviour - and we are still seeing that in conflicts today."

Wells said the pardon of Kereopa Te Rau earlier this year had sparked interest in what he was preparing.

"It certainly amped things up."

It was, in effect, the best possible final chapter in what had been a momentous historical journey - about a colourful and eventually tragic journey more than 150 years ago.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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