Adventure Capitalism and the Arrogance of private property, with a footnote on the taste of Kereru

I am reading the diary of adventure capitalist brat, and son of 19th Century Jimmy Saville*, E Jerningham Wakefield’s trip to New Zealand beginning 1839. The scene of their arrival in Ship Cove (Meretoto, Totaranui) is an interesting one. Jerningham has some sort of historical reverie following the footsteps of Captain Cooks earlier visits to the same place. The purpose of the trip is to buy up large tracts of land for a European settlement and market speculation. It is clear in Jerningham’s account, that he is unable to conceive of any other form of ownership or exchange beyond individualised private property. In fact, he seems to have an unswerving conviction that world belongs to Europeans, any other claims being mere nuisance or extortion.


Maori did not own the land in anything like the european sense, but understood themselves as being of the land. Hapu held the land in common, and various hapu, and indeed individuals within hapu, would have had different and overlapping mana giving authority over different uses of the land and resources. To be able to cut down trees in a particular area for instance would have required the mana to do so. The closest European approximation being something like the usufructuary rights to the commons, although the language of ‘rights’ is entirely inadequate here. In any case, lease-hold would have been about the closest thing young Jerningham could have parsed through the limitations of his hot little hothead.

Bearing in mind that chopping down trees, fishing and taking water would have definitely required negotiating the complexities of reciprocal exchange, the forming of relationships between parties, Jerningham’s complete lack self-consciousness is astounding and cant simply be waved away with charges of anachronism. Jerningham is well aware  that the whole reason for the voyage is to dispossess Maori of their land, quite precisely through extortion, the journal being geared to valourise such an endeavour. He recounts:

A mischief-making native, belonging to the Kapiti tribe, but who has married a woman here, tried to annoy us by threats and extortions of payment for wood and water, on account of the tapu of Ship Cove. As, however, his demands were exorbitant, and renewed after the satisfactory settlement of the point by a small present, he was quietly and firmly refused by my uncle; who reminded him that the natives had themselves broken the tapu, large numbers of them having removed to the immediate neighbourhood of the burial-place in order to have the advantage of proximity in their dealings with us.

Note big Willy Wakefield’s self-confidence in explaining tapu to Maori. Jerningham continues:

He persisted in his violent demands; and early one morning came alongside in a canoe, and carried away our fishing-sean, having first pushed over one of the apprentices who was in the boat. Captain Chaffers went on shore with an armed boat to demand instant restitution of the net; and found that our tormentor had enlisted the feelings of the other natives in his favour. They were sullen and reserved, and refused to give it up at first. Their appearance, and the fact that many fresh natives were ashore, induced Captain Chaffers to return on hoard, and prepare the ship for an emergency. The guns were shotted, the crew armed, sentries placed at the gangways, and a spring put on the cable so that the ship’s broadside might be brought to bear on the beach where the natives were encamped. During these preparations, one or two large war-canoes came round the northern point of the cove, and dashed in to the beach at great speed, the rowers singing in time with their paddles. A single canoe, full of natives, now came off to the ship. As they silently paddled round the stern, we observed that some carried their tomahawks and green-stone clubs or meri ponamu. The others kept their blankets and mats wrapped over everything but their heads. Our original persecutor was the first who attempted to ascend the ladder, tomahawk in hand; but he was startled to find at the top a sentry with musket and bayonet, and my uncle, who quietly but firmly told him to go ashore, and that he would allow no natives to come on board armed. “Dogskin,” as we had nick- named him from his wearing a mat of that material, seemed inclined to persist in his intention of getting on deck; but the sight of the end of a pistol sticking out of my uncle’s coat-pocket suddenly made him change his mind; and he descended into the canoe, which pulled slowly back to the shore.

Looking for eurocentrism in Jerningham’s diary is, of course, about as difficult as finding jokey racist ignorance in anything that comes out of the facehole of John Key (pronounced Jonky). Anyway, the point is to show that this is the only way it could appear to Jerningham. The indelible limiting structures of his market orientated mind, if you will. A page or so later, he makes this clear with regard to their attempt to gain clear title to land:

We could do nothing here towards attaining our object, which was to select and purchase a location suitable for the emigrants whom we expected to follow us in January. Neither Ngarewa nor Te Wetu could give us any distinct information as to the ownership of the land in this neighbourhood. They both spoke of Rauperaha as the great chieftain to whom they were in a measure tributary; but they seemed to agree that Hiko, the son of Te Pehi, had the best right to the land here. Neither, however, was described as having an absolute right to dispose of land; and the vested rights appeared to us to be involved in much confusion. Our White friends could not clear up our doubts; and, moreover, it was plain that although the immediate vicinity of Ship Cove could boast of excellent harbours and sublime scenery, it was not at all suited for a large European colony.

A following passage, probably deserves some sort of award for the monstrous disfiguring of reality. Perhaps having a sewarge treatment plant named after him might be a fitting tribute. The logical contortions and acrobats deployed  to make dispossession sound, not just as an ok thing, but as indeed payment in itself, is if nothing else, impressive:

As, however, we did not propose to take possession of any territory without a positive sanction on the part of the natives, it was determined that Barrett should explain our views to them. He confessed that they would be sure to accept a payment, and that certainly they had a right to it, as we should probably include, villages and cultivations in such large districts as we proposed to buy.

A very important part of our projected plan was, to reserve a tenth portion of the land bought by us for the benefit and use of the natives. We had it in view thus to secure a valuable property to them, which might preserve their chiefs in circumstances equal to those of the higher order of settlers in future times. We had looked forward to the time when the value bestowed on these native reserves, by the improvement and cultivation of the other lands with which they should be intermingled, and by the presence of a large and thriving civilized community, might afford the means of furnishing the natives with abundant revenue to support the dignity of their chiefs, with improved clothes and food, with houses like those of Europeans, with cattle and agricultural implements, with education and the means of religious worship; in short, with all that might make them respectable in the eyes of the future colony. It had of course been provided that these reserves, although tapu for the natives, should be inalienable by them, as it was foreseen that, without such a precaution, the natives would part with their reserves for a nominal value, as soon as they should acquire a real one in the eyes of speculating colonists. It had also been provided that the defects of the system of Indian reserves in North America should be avoided. There the reserves have been selected in huge blocks which lie unimproved themselves, and which, while they produce no benefit to the natives, impede the cultivation and consequent rise in value of all the lands in their neighbourhood. They have been found to produce there the same evils which arose from the excessive grants made to individuals at the first foundation of the colony of Swan River. The Indian reserves in Canada would doubtless become of real value to the Indians, if small portions of them could be given away to bona fide settlers, able to bring labour and capital to bear on their land. The intervening parts of the great desert would then acquire more value, and produce more revenue, than the whole of it while it remained tapu to any but the Indians.

Aware that I may be seen as overly negative about Jerningham’s gap yar in the pacific, I offer one extremely interesting tidbit gleamed from his diary. Besides, I can’t completely hate Jerningham. He enjoyed drinking, hot pools, orgies, and combinations thereof. Three pretty good things, I think we can all agree. Especially when the sustenance for such activities is provided by roast Kereru in a delicate red wine grave. Anyone who as seen a Kereru (New Zealand wood pigeon) haul its luxurious carcass onto the strained branch of a puriri tree has wondered if they taste as delicious as they look. Turns out, yes. Jerningham, being lucky enough to be there before laws protecting native birds from the roasting tray describes them as,  ‘very large, of brilliant plumage, and extremely well flavoured.’ There you have it, then.


*Edward Gibbon Wakefield abducted a pre-pubescent girl and forced a marriage with her hoping to access her father’s fortune. He spent 3 years in New Gate Prison, presumably on the nonce wing.


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