The Seasonwife: Saige England researches Aotearoa’s harrowing history

"They will crawl out of the sea and over our land, devouring our fish, our water, our birds, our forests, even our sky..." Manaia 

"Look at the New Zealanders clamouring to greet us. Think us gods, they do, and no wonder. This great ship of ours, all our fine implements. And look at you, pretty as an English peach." Robert Fitch

"Sod your rotten peach, I am not nor will ever claim to be one of the sodding English." Bridie

The Seasonwife

Author Saige England doesn't shy away from detailing the distasteful actions of men during the wild days of the colonisation of Aotearoa and Australia, in her first book, The Seasonwife.

Demonstrating her skill as a writer, England balances the ill-treatment of women, children and indigenous people with lyrical language and descriptions of nature that highlight an affinity between Irish and Māori.

Vivid characterisation brings this time in history to life. England depicts the unsavoury truth of a skewed Victorian view of first nations people and women: as commodities and playthings: lower in the pecking order than white man, who is lesser only than God. 

England includes many details to truthfully illustrate life in these times: points of view in the story come from both Māori and Pākehā. 

Cuthbert is Irish. He's found a way to survive persecution from the English as many did: his family changed their religion from Catholic to Protestant. Cuthbert becomes one of them, speaking as they do and serving as a protestant missionary. Tempted by the flesh and by the way of life of Māori who live in harmony with the land and listen to their dead ancestors, this character embodies those Europeans who chose to live with Māori in the early days. He's dubbed 'the Sky Pilot' by Robert Fitch, who's abducted him to use as an interpreter.

Brash and violent Robert Fitch, Captain of a ragged band of whalers and sealers, is a rapist, thief and murderer. He's a 'beau nasty' - a well dressed rogue who entertains ideals of becoming a gentleman, by way of exploiting land and sea. He will trade anything for money and power. Not satisfied with Bridie, the 'wife' he abducted from Australia along with her brother, he demands he be given a wife for the winter from local Māori, who he hopes to lull into seeing him as an ally; all the while planning to murder them all for the abhorrent trade of their heads.

Bridie is an orphaned Irish teen whose mother was a convict sent to Tasmania. She's a spitfire but no match for Fitch on her own. Her only weapons are her belief in the powers of St Brigid, her ability to cast a curse in Gaelic, and dissociation from her body when she is abused by Robbie Fitch. Through Bridie, the author is able to shine a light on the lives of the wives of whalers and sealers.

Her brother Tom, press-ganged by Fitch into service as a cabin boy, survives by trying desperately to be a man, matching the behaviour of his crewmates.

Hā ki roto (breathe in), hā ki waho (breathe out).

Manaia is a young Māori woman with the gift of sight. The daughter of the tohunga, she is chosen as Fitch's second wife, to keep an eye on him for her iwi. Before the manuhiri arrive, she dreams for several terrifying nights of a worm that breaks into pieces: 

The night is full of terror, for the worm has once again invaded her dreams. Cowering behind a thorny manuka bush, she screams as the worm divides itself into multiple worms, shakes its small heads and calls. Waking, she sees shapes rising and hastening.

Her uncle tells her, 

"Do not welcome the creature when it appears, then it won't breed. Do not give it food or water or rest."

Yet when Fitch's ship arrives, no one makes the connection. Welcoming their first non-Māori visitors, Manaia's iwi are generous hosts, but become suspicious at Fitch's disrespect and ignorance of their customs, when he rudely talks over the karanga.

Halfway through this animated glimpse into the lives of our forebears or tīpuna, I began to wonder if 'the brute', as Bridie refers to Robbie Fitch, would meet his come-uppance at the hands of these two women. How would the author resolve this tale of wanton destruction in the name of colonisation?

England describes the process of colonisation in uncompromising terms:

People of the land and water are pushed into the interior, pushed away from the coasts, pushed away from cultivated foods, pushed away from wild foods, while white men rape, enslave and massacre, invoking God as they do so. ...what was done in Scotland and Ireland is being replicated here... Cuthbert

She tells the story of the harrowing days of colonisation from several points of view: of Māori, where she highlights customs, teaching and a structured society not considered at all by the disrespectful, brutish whalers; the aforementioned brutes with their entitled, violent, misogynistic and self-interested ways (who are less civilised than their graceful hosts), and that of the Irish characters: Bridie, Tom and Cuthbert, who suffers a real crisis of conscience.

I can’t help thinking that if hunters and explorers had just passed through, taking only what they needed and marking the territory on their maps as belonging to first nations people, the world's ecosystems and peoples wouldn’t be damaged and struggling to survive today. Such was the arrogance of men – perfectly highlighted in this tale.

Saige England has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. The author has approached this work with the utmost respect for Te Ao Māori, tikanga and history, displaying knowledge gained from consultation with Māori, several years as a journalist covering Waitangi Tribunal claims, and through her MA.

The Seasonwife is incredibly well researched. England provides an extensive glossary of phrases used in the story, in Te Reo, whaling slang, and Irish Gaelic (so we can understand Bridie's curses on Robbie Fitch).

Saige England has won Qantas Media Awards for her journalism and the New Zealand Media Peace Award. She has reported from countries in conflict such as Romania, the former Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. Her work has been published in the Daily Telegraph. the Financial Times, and the NZ Listener, while her short fiction and poetry appears in anthologies from Penguin and is available from Turbine, Blackmail Press, Reed NZ, and Shotglas Journal.

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