• Renee Rowland

1/19: Taranaki: A Tale of the War

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

In 1861 Charles Dickens was writing Great Expectations, Abraham Lincoln presided over the un-United States of America, George Eliot wrote Silas Marner and Baudelaire was in the peak of his career.

In New Zealand, the first Taranaki war ended in ceasefire and a chap called Henry Butler Stoney wrote what is known as New Zealand's 'first modern novel', an account of the first Taranaki War, superfluously titled:

Taranaki: A Tale of the War.[1]

With a description of the province

previous to and during the war;


an account

(chiefly taken from the despatches)

of the

principle contests with the natives

during that eventful period.

There is little to recommend Taranaki, aside from its claim to be the ‘first modern NZ novel’. Butler Stoney, an Irish born soldier in the British Army, settled in Tasmania[2] and contributed a few pieces to the Tasmanian archives, mainly non-fiction and travel writing.

Butler Stoney was a British subject, a gentleman with artistic inclinations – his prose, watercolours and oil paintings survive him - educated at Trinity College in Dublin[3] but also the embodiment of white, western male privilege, indoctrinated into the righteous power of the Queen and the colonial imperative, often mistaking British tyranny for British philanthropy.

I read this novel on an e-reader [4], so I knew that 34% of the way through Butler Stoney was still setting the scene whereby some pretty local girls were planning fetes and parties in the lovely valleys and glades of Taranaki and a love affair was to be thwarted by the inconvenient business of settling down some antagonistic ‘savages’.

Butler Stoney has a particular beef with the colonial tolerance for Te Reo Maori, voicing his frustration multiple times about how much energy was being wasted on learning the native language when (in his opinion) their energy is better spent enforcing English language, law and customs on the 'savage folk'.

“If the time, labour and expense for the last five and twenty years employed in forming a useless and imperfect language, was used in the teaching English and its customs, and using every endeavor to change the native and savage ones to ours, instead of giving way to them in every iota, permitting their customs to be their law in defiance of British law, and cherishing their habits and peculiarities, contrary to moral and revealed religion.”

By modern day standards, Butler Stoney is a rampant racist, a narrow minded, brainwashed soldier of an imperial war machine. He makes his views very clear: the English who have spent time learning the language and ways of the Maori people have wasted everyone’s time, and their might should just be asserted to gain power, so that they can build a road into Taranaki and make lots of money from the beneficent and fertile land. For him, this was the crux of the Taranaki Wars: In order for the English to encourage a better class of man with more capital to settle in the otherwise near perfect region, roads needed to be constructed so that trade in and out of the region wasn’t hampered by lack of a port. “The only drawback to the rapid advance in the settlement of the lands was the maori land question, still the long vexed question between the native inhabitants and the government.” Furthermore, “the government had allowed a long and tiresome dispute” and should just exert the “strong arm of might”. The ultimate reason behind his righteousness: “tis against the interests of Great Britain as a nation, and contrary to the fundamental principles of colonial policy”.

Seems to me that the poor bugger couldn’t think for himself. As I read my incredulity and frustration gave way to laughter and sorrow. The man’s a fool. And that’s the essence of my take on Taranaki, the ‘first modern NZ novel’[5].

When I dreamed up this reading challenge in the early days of this year, it was simply to read more kiwi-lit. But as I started looking into the last 150ish years of NZ publishing, other questions starting emerging. If our ‘first modern novel’ only appeared in 1861, while Dickens was penning a rollicking good read while also tackling social inequality and mass political corruption, how did NZ literature stack up now? Is NZ literature still comparatively juvenile or has it gone through the same stages of development in a microcosm: medieval to renaissance, romantic to gothic, realism and naturalism to postmodernism? Or do we have our own distinctive evolution? And when does NZ identity kick in?

Taranaki in this light seems to be a dispatch from the dark ages of NZ history, as much as Butler Stoney himself was insufferably romantic – quoting English poets at the beginning of every chapter, he was also a horrific colonial fascist (in my opinion). He doesn’t himself choose to identify as a New Zealander and the novel celebrates colonialism and the British Empire rather than New Zealand.

Taranaki lacks sophistication and offends on nearly every level, but, fair dues to the man who put pen to paper and recorded stories, no matter how male, pale, stale much I disagree with his views, I cannot disavow his experience. No matter how racist and unfair the account seems through a modern lens, no matter how brainwashed he appears to be, no matter how long the coat tails of his privilege, he wrote a book that is still being read 157 years later and allows us to understand how compassion is so easily lost when righteousness appears.

How was it received upon publication? Probably with great delight as white English men nodded their heads, drank port and complained some more about those pesky savages.

Taranaki is no swashbuckling adventure with razorsharp social commentary, but I am not a literary or historical scholar and have quite a few prejudices of my own. I didn't enjoy the book, but i'm glad I read it. I haven’t said anything nice about this novel because its not a nice novel and Butler Stoney seems pretty basic. But, it started something, and it will always have that going for it.

[1]We shall hereafter call it simply,' Taranaki'

[2]Reminds us of The Trowenna Sea by Witi Ihimaera which excellently explores the relationship between Tasmania and New Zealand during the 19th Century.

[3]But not at all like the Trinity of Normal People by Sally Rooney

[4]With many thanks to the NZ Electronic Text Centre (NZETC)

[5]Stories were being told in NZ before 1861, so i think this definition is more 'first white man to write a book and have it published in a printing press by another white man in New Zealand'.

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