Poenamo Revisited by Sir John Logan Campbell – review

by Lawrence Patchett / 24 November, 2012
The best of <em>Poenamo</em> hits the modern reader with a slap of historical recognition, thanks to its immediacy and the hindsight we now bring to it, says Lawrence Patchett.
Poenamo Revisited by Sir John Logan Campbell


The best of Poenamo hits the modern reader with a slap of historical recognition, thanks to its immediacy and the hindsight we now bring to it. In one episode, the young John Logan Campbell is attempting to buy pigs from a rangatira of Ngati Whatua. Suddenly, the rangatira brings a great pile of sovereigns from his blanket. The coins are, he explains, “te utu mo te whenua – the payment for the land”. Parts of the Waitemata shore have just been sold to the Crown, transforming Campbell’s future and New Zealand history by enabling a new Pakeha settlement called Auckland.

Campbell’s classic memoir of that pivotal year in his life, 1840, has now been republished as Poenamo Revisited. Unabridged and illustrated, this attractive facsimile edition is supported by notes and biographies that give context to Campbell’s cannily shaped story. A helpful introduction by historian Russell Stone shows how Campbell created an atmosphere of “new chum” innocence by writing in a direct style and deliberately misspelling Maori words and names.

Certainly, there are aspects of Campbell’s style that can weary modern readers – his sentimentalising of landscape and relationships, for example, and his tendency to labour a joke – but read on its own terms the memoir still sparks the imagination and provokes many questions. It’s best where Campbell is not reflecting from his later wealth but actively negotiating his new environment – crossing the Hauraki Gulf by waka, for example, to the tune of a “boat-song” mocking Pakeha behaviour, or surviving “Robinson Crusoe-style” on oysters prised from the rocks of Motukorea (Browns Island). Of course, every aspect of Campbell’s “adventure” is facilitated by “Tongata Maori”, who accord him the status of rangatira Pakeha and provide hospitality, trade links and labour. On the one hand,

Campbell is aware of his debt to Maori and their “chivalrous conduct” towards Pakeha in this period when they were still “the dominant race”. But he is also influenced by the Social Darwinism of his time and writes with a mixture of respectful curiosity and bemused mockery about aspects of local life that strike him as strange, such as tangi, tapu and what he calls “the taihoa Maori mind”. It’s this clash of the Pakeha colonist’s world view with the local one – and the perspective of new readers today – that makes this book so fascinating.

POENAMO REVISITED: A FACSIMILE OF THE 1898 EDITION OF POENAMO BY SIR JOHN LOGAN CAMPBELL, with an essay and notes by RCJ Stone (Godwit, $45).

Lawrence Patchett’s I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Tales was released earlier this year.
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