I’ve been mesmerised recently by a series of novels that I’ve often looked at in the library, but had never got out before. Until recently, that is … and now I’m hooked. These books are the New Zealand Wars trilogy by Mauriuce Shadbolt (1932–2004), a triptych of historical novels set during the New Zealand Wars of the 1840s and 1860s.
The House of Strife is actually the last written of the three books, but is set earliest, so I’ll mention it first. The story takes place during the 1845–46 rebellion of Hone Heke. The story covers the whole campaign, from Heke’s bloodless flagpole-cutting sorties that started it all, through to the bloody Imperial assaults on heavily-defended Maori pa (fortifications). This is my favourite book in the series, partly because its setting in the beautiful Bay of Islands is one of my favourite spots in New Zealand, partly because the story and characters are so fascinating, partly because the campaign was such a bungling fiasco at times, and partly because it is a period I am collecting miniatures for!
This is the third book in Shadbolt’s “Maori Trilogy”, and is set in the 1840s when New Zealand was annexed by Queen Victoria. It combines historical detective work with humour and a host of eccentric characters.
Season of the Jew (1986) focuses on Te Kooti’s Poverty Bay campaigns of the 1860s. This book starts rather slowly, but picks up once Te Kooti and his band escape from their island prison and ravage the bay area, well and truly bloodying the noses of British and colonists alike. The story is especially strong in describing the siege of Te Kooti’s hill-top pa on Ngatapa peak.
Based on historical fact, this is a wonderful story of little-known events and characters in the dramatic 19th-century colonial history of New Zealand. Lieutenant George Fairweather, late of her Majesty’s British Imperial Army, has resigned his commission and journeyed east to Poverty Bay, seeking new vistas to paint and hoping to resume his relationship with a half-caste Maori woman.
Ever on the outside looking in, a man who shies away from permanent ties, Fairweather is enlisted in the defense of the colonists, against the rebel Kooti and his followers, who liken themselves to the Israelites cast out of Egypt, led by a new Moses. Tough and tragic, this novel powerfully explores some universal themes: the futility of war and the rights of the conqueror and the conquered. It deserves a wide audience. Highly recommended.
Lydia Burruel Johnson, Mesa P.L., Ariz.
Monday’s Warriors moves to Taranaki, also in the 1860s, tells the story of the real-life American rebel Kimball Bent, who deserted from the 57th Regiment and eventually joined with renowned Maori fighting chief, Titokowaru. In this story Bent reckons he fires the last shot of the American Revolution!
“Between one luckless general and the next there is a fleck of fable in history’s eye called Kimball Bent.”
What a fleck and what a fable! Frontier tales don’t come much wilder or woolier than this rollicking, riveting story of Kimball Bent, born in Eastport, Maine, and dragooned into Her Majesty’s army in the middle of the last century. Sent off to subdue the restless Maori in distant New Zealand, Bent finds himself at the wrong end of too many court-martials and deserts his regiment, becoming the unlikely hero and chief strategist of a Maori band that fights the British to a standstill in what proves to be the bloodiest and most terrifying of the colonial wars.
Most remarkable is that this story is true. Titokowaru and his fierce and feuding lieutenants did humble the English armies that had been sent to snatch their land, and they were led by this slightly befuddled Yankee, who was fighting (and mostly winning) the American Revolution all over the far side of the globe.
A Pakeha (European) character is central to each novel: soldier and milita-man George Fairweather in The Season of the Jew, deserter Kimball Bent in Monday’s Warriors, and the split personalitied potboiler-writer Ferdinand Wildblood/Henry Youngman in The House of Strife .
Shadbolt’s writing reminds my of Patrick O’Brian in his Napoleonic Aubrey/Maturin sea stories – a mixture of excellent word-smithing, vivid imagery, period detail and delightful humour. From a wargamer’s point-of-view, the novels provide lots of scenario ideas. And Shadbolt appears (from my limited knowledge) to drop only the very occasional military detail clanger.
As The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature says, “together the three volumes offer a revised version of the New Zealand Wars. More importantly, they remind us that history is above all else story, and that there are many versions of it. Shadbolt’s work to date now presents a distinctive version of the whole of postcolonisation New Zealand history.”
There was a reprint of all these novels in one giant paperback.