Reading Byron in Kororāreka: The Journal of Ensign Best

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Abstract

This essay offers a case study of the reading habits of Lieutenant Abel Dottin William Best, who arrived in Port Nicholson in June 1840. He commanded thirty men of the 65th regiment who had been sent to accompany Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland. Their task was to intimidate the New Zealand Company settlers who preferred independence to the Crown Colony status conferred by the recently signed Treaty of Waitangi. Best describes the settlers, perhaps unfairly, as ‘English Radicals & Chartists, Canadian Rebels, Dogsmeat Field Officers’. Of all the references to reading matter in his journal it is the works of Lord Byron, by 1840 dead for sixteen years, seemingly out of fashion and ostensibly antipathetic to the taste of the Victorian middle-class reader, that are by far the most frequent.

In 1840 the New Zealand Company settlement of Wellington, Port Nicholson barely existed.1 New immigrants were still moving their possessions from ship to tent to raupo hut; negotiations for land purchases with local Māori were tentative and legally problematic; socially there were few meeting places apart from Barrett’s Hotel on the beach and the intermittent hospitality of visiting ships.

Given this, it may seem odd that one of the first things that the settlers set about was the formation of a Pickwick Club. The New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator of 22 August 1840 described the inaugural meeting of the Pickwick Club of New Zealand comprised of what the paper called the ‘gay son of Erin, the calm reflecting Scotchman, and the blunt and manly Englishman’ (‘The Pickwick Club of New Zealand’, 22 Aug. 1840).2 ‘To our friends in England’, the Gazette had written earlier,

this cannot fail to awaken…

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Published 31 October 2015 in Volume 30 No. 3. Subjects: New Zealand history, Reading.

Cite as: Stafford, Jane and Mark Williams. ‘Reading Byron in Kororāreka: The Journal of Ensign Best.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, 2015. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.6e3b882d9d.