Despite being relatively few in number, Jewish newcomers formed a significant part of New Zealand’s coterie of early European pioneers, leaving an indelible trace on the new country’s advances in art, literature, politics and business. These men and women, author Paul Rose reveals, were not simply explorers, much less missionaries trying to convert the local Maori, nor even farmers or workers of the land—activities that had not been part of the European Jewish experience. Rather, they were, as Mr Rose writes here in a foreword, People of the Book, sojourners who would add a unique chapter to their ancient story here in the South Pacific.
I was astounded at some of the things that I learned in my research: I hope you will be too. This is by no means meant to be a complete survey, focusing as it does instead on the first 60 or so years of real European impact on what had been an untouched Polynesian land.
Before we begin this story, however, there’s a need to paint a picture of the new country as it was in the early 1800s. It had been the home for a large number of Maori tribes who had settled after what seems to have been a long sweep southwards through the Pacific, probably from an ancestral home on the island of Taiwan. The Maori were excellent sailors and navigators and appear to have had little trouble in finding their new and final home, thereafter using paddle and sail to traverse the islands of Aotearoa.
As far as Europeans were concerned, it took Captain Cook to chart his way to the area in the later 1700s and plot a lot of its coastline sufficient to declare it not to be part of the Australian continent. Cook was followed by ships seeking whale and seal meat and blubber from the Southern Ocean. These came from many parts of the world, but a significant number were Americans in search of blubber or fat, which were in great demand as lighting oil in the days (and dark nights) before gas.
Whaling stations were soon located around the coastline of this new territory by the end of the 17th century and into the early 18th century. One such station was on the Canterbury coast on what was to become Banks Peninsula; it was called Port Levy—named for a Jewish whaler of the time.
The whalers made contact with Maori and traded with them for flax and food. At the same time, convicts on the run from the Australian prisons found refuge and often marriage and a permanent life among the Maori tribes.
Such were the very early newcomers before traders began to arrive and settle into the new land bereft of central government and therefore without a structure of law and order other than the unwritten laws of the Maori people. Neither were there any principles of land ownership other than tribal possession and use as part of Maori daily life.
The Maori of the time were quite warlike between each other—and sometimes in respect of the newcomers. To compound this problem, the Europeans brought the technology of the gun with them; for their part, Maori were keen to use this as an alternative to hand to hand fighting. With the traders, too, came Christian missionaries looking for fresh fields to conquer.
Against this background, New Zealand began to develop as a bicultural society based on the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by the Governor on behalf of the Queen of England and some 500 Maori tribal chiefs.
Two radically different cultures with two radically different views of life and death thus began to merge, sometimes through marriage, sometimes through war, sometimes through religion and sometimes just by sheer determination.
Throughout all of this period, demand for land was the prime cause of serious friction between settlers and the local tribes. It began with the Wakefield Company ‘purchases’ and ending up in the Maori Wars and a raft of unjust and often illegal acts usually perpetrated by the newcomers. And against this backdrop, the Jewish settlers would also make their own unique mark.
Image header (above): Photograph of Maori Burial Ceremony. Otago Witness, 21 December 1904). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/14325139. Reproduced here with permission.