Paul Moon's work is obviously the product of indefatigable research among primary sources. He comes up with anecdotal background material that seldom fails to interest me, material that makes his work a resource in itself. This is his seventh book, by my count, that traverses those two decades in which New Zealand was born as a nation.
His last book, Fatal Frontiers, homed in on the 1830s and this latest is an account of the 1840s, subtitled, A History of New Zealand in the Decade of the Treaty.
The Newest Country is eclectic in its choice of events, which the author acknowledges by saying he aimed to create an impression of New Zealand from the point of view of those living in the country at the time.
Thus, for example, he discusses indigenous Maori religion and the impact Christian missionaries of the various denominations had on Maori at the time. Most of us know the stories of the Anglican missionaries and the Catholics led by Bishop Pompallier but, typically, Moon tells us about Wesleyan William Woon and, more fascinatingly, about Congregationalist Barzillai Quaife, who was a combination of moralist, printer and crusading journalist.
But there is a problem with this book as with all of Moon's work I've read. His language is imprecise, laden with intemperate adjectives and clumsily metaphorical. History is a story, or series of stories, but this is history as melodrama. French naval captains "swagger". Governor FitzRoy is "enraged" and "threatens to kick [William Spain's] door down ... ". FitzRoy, a bit later, "almost seems to be frothing at the mouth in this flustered dispatch". People "gush" and "splutter" to one another. George Grey, when he arrived in New Zealand, "strutted into the pantheon of national heroes with beguiling confidence, even if it entailed trampling over the corpses of his predecessors in the process". "Beguiling"? I don't think so.
As for Edward Gibbon Wakefield, "well-meaning historians who have been prepared to look the other way at what they depict as his minor foibles or quirky personality traits, and who have been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt ... " did not notice something: "He was a thief, an abductor, a convicted criminal, a racist, and a reckless speculator who ruined many other fortunes as well as ultimately destroying his own." Well, they did notice, but they noticed much else.
Perhaps the worst piece of silliness is his account of the French arriving at Akaroa to find the Britomart already there to remove any doubts among the French that they could gain sovereignty over the South Island. That is presuming they had such intentions anyway, which has long been a moot point.
Moon writes: "French bravery being what it was, when L'Aube and the Comte de Paris and their crews saw the Britomart already there, with Union Jacks fluttering ashore, Lavaud gave profuse assurances that he and the passengers would do nothing that would be considered hostile to the British Government." It is childish to accuse a whole nation of pusillanimity but especially the French at that time, only 25 years after it had taken the combined armies of Britain, Germany and others to defeat them at Waterloo.
Now I'm all for making history racy and colourful and Moon does dig up interesting material, but this is Boys' Own stuff, and surprising from a professor of history at AUT. And some of his metaphors become a kind of metaphorical stew. Here are a couple taken at random from Fatal Frontiers:
* "The stormy scenes that were played out at almost every location where Europeans set up shop in NZ in the 1830s were fodder for missionary groups ... "
* "His conception of the future political and administrative constitution of NZ had flowed like lava from his mind, but like lava, it cooled into strong rigour which was impracticable, yet also incapable of being remoulded."
And from The Newest Country:
* "Meanwhile, as the economy edged nearer the precipice of total ruin, FitzRoy responded by injecting more debentures into its veins, like an opium addict, hoping that a greater dose would somehow dull the pain.
* "In the meantime, hybrid efforts at establishing quasi-legal systems spontaneously emerged, and partially filled the vacuum of uncertainty as to how and by whom justice was to be administered. They were inadequate and were planted without any intention of them ever taking root.
"And while this was happening, the only thing the colonial officials could do was to wait, with enormous patience, until their system of justice finally trickled through all the country's social tributaries. If it is any indication of the magnitude of this task, it was to be another lifetime until New Zealand rulers could confidently assert that the nation was finally clothed in the rule of British law."
Then there is an hilariously garbled allusion to Gray's Elegy: FitzRoy was "more than some mute, inglorious Cromwell righteous but ultimately flawed". Poor old FitzRoy, once again mangled by metaphor.
* Published by Penguin, $40.00