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The Counterfeit Seal: A Tale of Otago's First Settlers.

Fact in Fiction

Fact in Fiction

So what aspects of The Counterfeit Seal’s depiction of Otago’s early settlement can we understand to have been faithfully represented? While the reader may question the manner in which the Māori are depicted in the novel, the concerns expressed by the friends and family left behind by Scottish immigrants at the prospect of their relatives meeting New Zealand’s indigenous population are very accurate. Upon Eric’s departure from Scotland for Otago, Kirsty becomes terribly concerned for her young man’s safety as David Moir recounts to her wild tales of Māori savagery:

“I have read in a recent copy of the Scotsman of some terrible doings by New Zealand natives. Their treachery is there described as of the lowest and most cunning nature. While they pretend to be friends of the missionaries and of whalers who have gone to live among them, they do so merely from policy, and when it suits themselves they fall on them in cold blood in the most ferocious manner, and massacre men, women, and children, and then eat their bodies after roasting them in a great oven dug out of the earth” (73)

In 1810 Australian newspaper The Gazette printed a letter from Alexander Berry – Supercargo of the City of Edinburgh – reporting that all on board the vessel Boyd (save a boy, two women and a child) had been massacred and eaten by Māori in New Zealand (Wevers, 12)48. The circumstances surrounding this event are murky, with multiple accounts having been given, and blame laid on both the Boyd’s captain and the Māori chief Te Pahi (who allegedly led the attack) for causing the incident. Whatever the case was, the oft-referenced story of the ill-fated Boyd – in conjunction with similar stories of Māori cannibalism and their treatment of Europeans – led to the association of New Zealand with murder and cannibalism becoming relatively commonplace (Wevers, 24). That the Thomson family would be warned off emigration to Otago by their friends for fear of the New Zealand natives would very probably have been the reaction many New Zealand-bound European settlers encountered from their loved ones. Similarly, Eric agreeing to leave Kirsty behind in Scotland so that he might build a ready-made home for her arrival in Scotland is reflective of an actual trend in Scottish settler society at the time; as the colonizing movement continued, more young, ostensibly single men emigrated to the country, only to be followed one or two years later by the ‘young single women’ to whom they were betrothed (Brooking and Coleman, 113).

It perhaps speaks to Adams’ desire to “[point] out… something of the real life-character of our Early Days” (298) that what we might consider the more tangible elements of The Counterfeit Seal are startlingly accurate. The narrative informs us that the Philip Laing (one of the first settler ships to Otago) set sail from Greenock, Scotland, on the 27th of November, 1848, and later announces to the reader that “it was on Saturday morning, the 15th April, 1848, that Captain Elles brought his ship round Poatiri headland” (106). Further, it is narrated that upon the of the Philip Laing in Otago, all the recently arrived settlers gather aboard the John Wickliffe and in their first united act “[mingled] their voices in the return of praise and thanks giving to Him who had so signally watched over them” (123). The Cyclopedia of New Zealand49 confirms Adams timeline – the Philip Laing is, in fact, recorded as having left Scotland, and then arrived in New Zealand on the dates provided by Adams. In a novel written by such a religiously minded author it might be tempting to consider the communal prayer meeting an embodiment of wishful thinking, however Ernest Merrington50, in his work on the Rev. Thomas Burns, also writes that “when the Philip Laing arrived about three weeks after the John Wickliffe, however, the opportunity was taken to mark the event with suitable thanksgiving to Almighty God” (171).

Whether The Counterfeit Seal succeeded in leaving its reader “pleasantly entertained and instructed”51 – as promised by the Otago Witness – is certainly a matter of opinion. But it is hoped that we, the reader, may engage with the work of Robert Noble Adams in appreciation for the message he sought to convey, and respect for the generations he desired to honour.

"Death of Wahanui." Otago Witness [Dunedin] 9 Dec 1897, 2284th ed.: 39. PapersPast. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.

"Death of Wahanui." Otago Witness [Dunedin] 9 Dec 1897, 2284th ed.: 39. PapersPast. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.