No Simple Passage by Jenny Robin Jones review

by Julia Millen / 25 June, 2011
Jenny Robin Jones takes a refreshingly different approach to New Zealand history.
Gravesend, January 2, 1842: the London weighs anchor with another load of migrants bound for the antipodes. And over 160 years later, another writer embarks on the voyage of discovery necessary to record and understand New Zealand’s colonial past.

Most historians focus on voyages featuring dramatic events – shipwreck, fire, mutiny, plague – but in No Simple Passage Jenny Robin Jones has taken a refreshingly different approach. She has “sidled up the gang plank” of the London, clinging to the skirts of her great-great-grandmother Rebecca Remington, travelling steerage to Port Nicholson (Wellington).

Many migrants wrote shipboard diaries, but Jones’s ancestors did not oblige, so she uses her imagination and research from other sources.

As author, she keeps a diary for Rebecca, for the 124 days “until you and your husband John touch land again”, beginning each daily entry with the ship doctor’s sometimes gruesome notes and comments from passengers. Although this provides a unifying framework, I, like passenger Charles Empson and presumably most on board, could have done with a port of call, or for the author to use an event or some other device to relieve the daily routine and relentless narrative structure.

The poor tend to move invisibly through pioneering history, and to flesh out the diary Jones has trawled tirelessly through historical resources, especially death notices, obituaries and coroners’ inquests (lifeblood of the historian), for information about the London migrants. The presence of seven Maori crew members allows her to cover bicultural aspects of colonial history, and several immigrants later follow the lure of gold.

Rebecca remains elusive. Although pregnant, she never sees the doctor, and throughout her life rates minimal mention in official records. Near the end of this densely written narrative, Jones comes to the realisation: “I know nothing about you, Rebecca.” Husband John, however, makes ­several visits to the doctor and as a “volunteer” at one point in later life enables Jones to background the Wairau Massacre debacle.

Although No Simple Passage is extensively illustrated, the artist of the original sketches deserves greater prominence, and a full passenger list would have helped.
At the end of the voyage, Rebecca is delivered of a baby daughter and Jones concludes her narrative – for both, a labour of love.

NO SIMPLE PASSAGE: THE JOURNEY OF THE ‘LONDON’ TO NEW ZEALAND, 1842 – A SHIP OF HOPE, by Jenny Robin Jones (Random House, $45).

Julia Millen’s books include Colonial Tears and Sweat: The Working Class in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand.

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