by Jennifer Ashton
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, then, for me, it stagnated somewhat before picking up again at the end. I think I know why.
The first half follows the young John Webster from his middle-class Scottish birth in 1818 to the sort of life about which every young man (and probably woman) can only dream. First John became a drover in Australia. He was astounded by the varied and foreign topography, the wildlife, the native population and the weather. He kept detailed journals of his adventures and throughout his life published several books based on them.
Moving from Australia to New Zealand, he settled for a while in the Hokianga, becoming involved in the Northern War of 1846 before moving south to live in Auckland. Soon he was off on another series of high adventures, sailing away to make his fortune (he didn’t) in the Californian gold rush. His adventures on the high seas were numerous, including almost losing his ship. He explored an active volcano in Hawaii, and briefly became the ‘owner’ of San Cristobel with dreams of establishing a utopian society in Polynesia. All the while, he was fascinated by the natural world, producing good amateur sketches of the flora, fauna and the native inhabitants of the Pacific. What a life!
The second part of the book, like middle age which was now upon him, details the life John Webster carved for himself after marrying a part-Maori woman he’d known for many years and settling into the life of a nineteenth century businessman in the Hokianga. The author appears to be less interested in his business life, or in what was essentially the quiet life of a family man, perhaps understandable given the contrast to his earlier life. He brought up his wife’s younger siblings and went on to father many children of his own, very much the family man. I enjoyed learning about the intricacies of the early timber trade, perhaps more so than our author who seems uncomfortable with his middle-class life. I saw him as a man who, after such a wildly adventurous early life, was making a success of the ordinary.
Ashton used this part of the book to criticise his Maori/Pakeha relationships, her arguments somewhat unconvincing to me, especially when she based them on other people’s words rather than Webster’s own. Also, it seems, she used this platform to air her own thoughts and views. But don’t let that put you off. This book is a treasure and the odd bit of politicising can be excused.
Eventually, John Webster retired from the timber business but remained involved with his farm, shop and community in Opononi. He was a man who lived life to the full, far beyond most others born in 1818. He travelled widely into his seventies continuing to find stimulation in new places and cultures. He developed extensive gardens and orchards at his home (so substantial Ashton calls it a ‘mansion’), fascinated by the varieties he could grow in the gentle climate of Northland, New Zealand.
I enjoyed learning about John Webster, an admirable man of his times, a man who displayed curiosity, intelligence and sophistication. I found his relations with Maori appropriate and generous (he maintained good relations with his wife’s Maori kin throughout his life and hated seeing what the worst aspects of ‘civilisation’ – presumably alcohol, sugar and flour – was doing to Maori). John Webster knew many famous New Zealand characters with which I was familiar: Sir George Grey, John Logan Campbell, George Russell, Hone Heke, William Brown and scores more.
If you are a history buff, read and enjoy.
Author: Jennifer Ashton
Publisher: Auckland University Press
ISBN: 978 1 86940 825 1