Frail flowers, dark marauders

by Melissa Gniadek / 09 October, 2004

The captivity narrative has long been considered a North American genre. Its form was first established through the 1607 capture of John Smith, who was saved from death by Pocahontas, and through the tale of suffering and redemption told by Mary Rowlandson after she was held by Native Americans for 11 weeks in 1676. In recent decades, the genre has received increasing attention outside the North American context - in Australia, through the work of such scholars as Kay Schaffer and Kate Darian-Smith; and now, in New Zealand, with the publication of Trevor Bentley's Captured by Maori.

In Pakeha Maori, Bentley explored the lives of European men who lived among Maori in the early 19th century. In Captured by Maori, the focus shifts from men who were, Bentley contends, allowed to have "ambiguous identities" upon their return to England, to New Zealand's white female captives. These women's voices were often mediated by male authorities who shaped their stories in ways that supported colonial endeavours and reinforced an opposition between ideas of pure female virtue and native barbarity.

In relating the experiences of nine white women who were forced to live among Maori during the 19th century, Bentley seeks to explode this dichotomy of the "frail flower" and the savage captor. Beginning with the life of Charlotte Badger, who arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1806 and lived among the Ngapuhi until escaping to Tonga 10 years later, Bentley proceeds chronologically through the tales of Ann Morley and Betsy Broughton, both taken during the 1809 Boyd massacre, to the story of Elizabeth Guard, captured with her two small children during the 1834 Harriet incident, a critical and little-known event in early New Zealand's past.

Mary Bell, seized in the late 1830s after the death of her whaler husband, provides an example of a woman who refused rescue, choosing to remain among her Maori captors, while Maria Bennett's account of her supposed shipwreck and subsequent capture in 1841 offers a sense of the published accounts that would have been circulated in London.

Agnes Grace, a missionary wife detained by Maori in 1862, and Eliza Benson, captured by Te Kooti in 1868, provide examples of female captivity during the period of the Land Wars, and the case of Caroline Perrett, taken as a child in 1874 and rediscovered by her Pakeha family nearly 50 years later, brings the captivity phenomenon into the 20th century, while providing an example of what Bentley calls complete "transculturation".

In resurrecting these captivity experiences, not only does Bentley bring to light forgotten and previously ignored moments in New Zealand's past, but also he unsettles them in critical ways, suggesting possible realities that would have been unacceptable to 19th-century audiences. By emphasising that some women chose to stay among their Maori captors rather than returning to "civilisation", by suggesting that some might have preferred life among Maori to the harsh realities of their settler lives, that some might have chosen to form sexual liaisons with their captors, and that the captive's return might have been more violent and harmful than her initial capture, Bentley challenges notions of civilisation and savagery, while convincingly locating these tales within the historical evolution of New Zealand's national identity and the development of New Zealanders as "culture-crossers".

In the process, Bentley draws upon an impressive scope of historical research. He reproduces some primary sources at length, making otherwise inaccessible documents available to the reader, allowing the texts to speak for themselves and encouraging the reader to engage with the past directly. As the book takes the form of a survey, a great deal of information is covered, but that also means that each woman's story is told in a concise manner that may ignore unresolved issues and contradictory accounts.

Although Bentley acknowledges the pitfalls involved in generalising about complex events spanning 70 years, using details gathered from fragments of documents and family histories, and although he candidly states that recreating the lives of these women was "an act of faith founded on research and informed speculation", some of that speculation seems unnecessary or unproductive. His chapter on Charlotte Badger, for example, includes statements indicating that Charlotte's Maori husband "would have been an athletic figure, approximately six feet tall, with full face and thigh tattoos" and that Charlotte "will have come to look, speak and carry her body like a Maori woman ..." Such a level of speculation might be misleading if readers fail to heed Bentley's brief warnings.

In other places, details are presented as truths when evidence may be inconclusive. Bentley's insistence that Elizabeth Guard became the lover of the Taranaki chief Oaoiti, and that Elizabeth was torn between two husbands at the time of her rescue, seems inflammatory. Elizabeth referred to the chief as her protector, and the Taranaki version of the rescue story suggests an emotional bond between the white woman and the Maori chief, yet a deep relationship of that nature cannot be considered a given.

Similarly, although Bentley admits that Edward Markham was prone to spreading rumours and that his assertion that Elizabeth gave birth to "dark twins" upon her return to Sydney was probably mere gossip (there is no proof that this was true, and it seems improbable based upon the date of the birth of her next known child), Bentley repeats the rumour when it supports a point. In such cases, Bentley's speculation may go too far in giving a concrete outline to stories that resist being known.

Although Bentley seeks to undermine the 19th-century notion of these women as "frail flowers" and pure mothers, he also seems to romanticise them, giving some a level of agency that does not seem clearly supported. There can be no doubt that these were strong women, but the idea that they consciously chose assimilation and worked towards it gives them more control than is realistic.

But the book's most significant unresolved issue is whether New Zealand can even be said to have "captivity narratives" in the North American tradition. Attitudes toward cross-cultural interaction and intermarriage differed dramatically in colonial America and New Zealand, and the impact of these factors on concepts of captivity cannot be under-estimated. Early in the book, Bentley acknowledges that "white captivity in New Zealand contrasts sharply with the American experience", but he then applies North American narrative formulas and captivity experiences to the New Zealand stories in a manner that can seem forced.

These issues aside, Captured by Maori is a fascinating read full of intriguing stories and, more important, a significant addition to the literature concerning New Zealand's pre-

colonial and colonial past. It is a book that needed to be written, one that was long overdue.

CAPTURED BY MAORI: White Female Captives, Sex and Racism on the Nineteenth-century New Zealand Frontier, by Trevor Bentley (Penguin, $34.95).

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