Cristina Sanders has done an immense amount of research to recreate the first years of colonial settlement in Wellington with her debut novel, Jerningham. Starting off in 1839, the story follows newly arrived Arthur Lugg, an imaginary character, through whose eyes we meet a bunch of the key players in the colony, particularly Colonial William Wakefield and his loose cannon of a nephew, Jerningham Wakefield. They’re the down-under representatives of the New Zealand Company, which sold land that wasn’t exactly theirs to sell. So it’s up to the colonel and his nephew to make it happen.
There are a number of story threads here which help to build a picture of what it was like for the early settlers arriving in a promising new colony, expecting a plot of land on which to start their new life. We all know the story: how Maori were given items ranging from nails to guns to blankets for land – but was the land to be shared or bought outright? And then the ships came, bringing wave upon wave of hopeful new settlers ready to roll up their sleeves and rebuild England’s green and pleasant land.
The story follows the difficult relationship between the Wakefields and Governor Hobson who was pushing through the Treaty of Waitangi, to events building up to the Wairau Affray several years later. Arthur Lugg, first working for Colonel Wakefield as a procurement officer, is a witness to it all as well as a friend and minder to Jerningham who it seems can charm Lugg into anything.
There are some wonderfully evocative scenes as the two travel to Wanganui (as it was spelt then); the river, the bush and the friendly local Maori are all described in detail. Jerningham has his own mini empire, trading with whalers and Maori alike. There’s lots of wine, women and song wherever Jerningham (still barely 20) holes up.
I enjoyed meeting Charles Heaphy – I’ve always loved his stylised watercolours of the country he explored – who becomes a particular friend of Lugg’s. Meanwhile Arthur has his own personal trials, disappointment in love, losing his thumb and almost his life, a struggle with his own personal demons. Somewhat naïve, he fails to see how much he is manipulated by Jerningham.
And behind the scenes the machinations of the New Zealand Company, the governor and the treaty – much of it on morally and legally shaky ground. We get our fair share of earthquakes too.
At the heart of the story is Jerningham, the charmer; a young man of immense talent, if only he could use it wisely. He’s a wild boy but also has the knack for seeing the country as it is, falling into easy friendships with Maori, even daring to sit down to korero (talk) with the powerful chief Te Rauparaha.
Cristina Sanders tells it with plenty of factual detail and colour – what it’s like living in a raupo whare, the basic food (lots of pork and potatoes), a storm at sea, encountering Maori and their way of life for the first time. The workings of the men with power, the greed and the determination. It all makes for a fascinating read for anyone interested in the early years of New Zealand, colonisation or issues of empire. It reminds me why I love historical fiction so much – you can learn a lot about a period and place all wrapped up in a darn good story. It’s an impressive debut and well recommended – a four star read from me.