A Tale of Two Cities: How William Wakefield Influenced London’s Opinion of Wellington


In the early 1840s, William Wakefield was the most important person in Wellington. As the principal agent of the New Zealand Company, a private London-based colonisation firm, he founded the settlement in 1840 and held considerable authority. In this position, William relayed information about the situation on the ground in Wellington to policymakers and Company directors back in London. However, his allegiance to the Company meant much of what he reported often suited its agenda.

William’s Company loyalty stemmed from his devotion to its founder, his older brother, Edward Gibbon Wakefield. The Company originated in a prison cell in 1829 when William and Edward were serving sentences for kidnapping a fifteen-year-old heiress and attempting to acquire her inheritance by tricking her into marrying Edward. Pursuing new endeavours, Edward used his time behind bars to write A Letter from Sydney, articulating a profitable method of colonising and ‘civilising’ the frontier, the Wakefield Scheme.[1] In short: cheaply acquired indigenous land was resold to capitalists at sufficient prices, allowing them to support the emigration of working-class settlers also hoping to buy land; low wages ensured this took some years, ensuring colonies flourished.[2] The National Colonisation Society (NCS) welcomed Edward after his release in 1830. After NCS lobbying, the South Australia Act 1834 saw the Wakefield Scheme’s first deployment.[3] When the settlement (Adelaide) fell into debt, Edward blamed poor implementation of his ideas and distanced himself from the project.[4] Focusing on New Zealand, he established the New Zealand Association (NZA) in 1837. As with Australia, he sought official sanction to colonise New Zealand, but opposition had now grown fierce. The Colonial Office and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) expressed alarm at Edward’s description of Māori as “thoroughly savage people” who “scarcely cultivate the earth.”[5] Permanent Under-Secretary for the Colonies James Stephen claimed Edward’s plans ensured “the conquest and the extermination of the present inhabitants.”[6] CMS Secretary Dandeson Coates warned Māori could become “despoiled of their lands, demoralized […] exterminated.”[7] Opponents defeated the New Zealand Bill in 1838, one member telling Parliament, “Each clause, if possible, was more monstrous than the other.”[8] The NZA disbanded, but “notwithstanding this temporary setback” its members committed to bestowing upon “the inhabitants of New Zealand the blessings of Christianity and civilization.”[9]

When Lord Normanby became Colonial Secretary in February 1839, some 2,000 British subjects already lived in New Zealand; colonisation seemed inevitable. When Edward learned in March that Normanby sought a treaty acquiring sovereignty over New Zealand, giving the Crown a monopoly over buying land from Māori, he rallied fellow capitalists, saying, “Possess yourselves of the Soil & you are secure—but, if from delay you allow others to do it before you—they will succeed & you will fail.”[10] Pooling resources, they formed the New Zealand Company and outmanoeuvred Normanby by executing a fait accompli; their actions, though illegal, would prove irreversible.

William Wakefield, who following his release had risen to the rank of colonel as a mercenary and a soldier, now accepted his brother’s invitation to lead the expedition to New Zealand. Hastily preparing a ship, the Tory, he set sail on 12 May. On 20 September, in a record-breaking 96 days, he arrived in the harbour at the bottom of the North Island, Port Nicholson (known to Māori as Te Whanganui-a-Tara). A week later, he had bought it. Before the Tory even arrived, 148 settlers left Britain on the Aurora on 18 September.[11] Normanby and the understaffed Colonial Office could scarcely keep up.[12] They dispatched Captain William Hobson to oversee the treaty process, but a fortnight before Hobson’s Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on 6 February 1840, the Aurora’s settlers had already arrived in Port Nicholson.

But by 1844, William’s settlement of Wellington faced bleak prospects. Struggling to attract new settlers after confrontation with Māori and Crown intervention in land acquisition and dispute resolution, Wellingtonians lamented their “deplorable condition,” blaming “one fundamental cause […] the Auckland Government.”[13] By now, William had dealt with three Crown representatives: Hobson, Lieutenant-Governor from February 1840 and Governor from May 1841, died of a stroke in September 1842, so New Zealand Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland administered the government until Governor Robert FitzRoy replaced Hobson in December 1843. William disliked them all, considering their efforts to assert control ruinous for the Company and its settlements. William’s animosity worsened when Ngāti Toa chief, Te Rangihaeata, killed Arthur Wakefield (another Wakefield brother and Company agent who had founded Nelson) in Wairau in June 1843 and FitzRoy agreed with Shortland’s assessment that Arthur had been in the wrong. In September 1843, Land Claims Commissioner William Spain then ruled the Company’s 1839 land purchases invalid, ordering it pay compensation to affected Māori. To offset its financial troubles, the Company sought its own compensation for shouldering colonisation costs in the name of the Crown. When that failed, the Company succeeded in establishing a House of Commons Select Committee on New Zealand on 26 April 1844 “to inquire into the State of the Colony of New Zealand, and into the Proceedings of the New Zealand Company.”[14] The Company hoped the Committee would see FitzRoy replaced with someone more sympathetic.

No historians debate the favourable nature of the Committee’s report for the Company. Regarding general scholarship of the Company, Rebecca Burke’s 2014 doctoral thesis says that “older scholarship seems to glorify, whereas more critical approaches began to appear in the 1960s.”[15] Indeed, Ian Wards’ landmark 1968 The Shadow of the Land describes the Committee’s Chairman, Lord Howick, as a loyal member of the so-called “Wakefield set.”[16] In 1989, Patricia Burns’ Fatal Success, to date the most comprehensive overview of the Company’s dealings,says eighteen of the Committee’s nineteen resolutions aligned “almost perfectly” with Company objectives.[17] Philip Temple’s 2002 Wakefield family biography, A Sort of Conscience, repeats Burns’ phrasing and adds that only the first resolution offered a “nugatory rap over the knuckles.”[18] In 2007, the Waitangi Tribunal summarised the report as taking a “strongly pro-New Zealand Company stance.”[19]

Where I aim to shed more light is in assessing William’s role in facilitating the report’s positive outcome by examining the influence he had on shaping opinions of Wellington in London. I contrast what really happened in Wellington against William’s correspondence and his contributions to the Company’s ongoing propaganda campaign. This is a tale of two cities, London and Wellington, but also a tale of two Wellingtons: the reality versus William’s rendition.

Fig. 1. Top (left to right): Edward Gibbon Wakefield (founder of the New Zealand Company), Arthur Wakefield (founder of Nelson), and William Wakefield (founder of Wellington). Bottom (left to right): Governor William Hobson, New Zealand Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland, and Governor Robert FitzRoy.


In 1839, five iwi had customary rights in Te Whanganui-a-Tara: Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Toa, Taranaki, and Te Ātiawa.[20] Numerous pālined the harbour, occupied mostly by Te Ātiawa hapū, including Kumutoto, Ngauranga, Pito-one, Tiakiwai, and Waiwhetu. Ngāti Tama occupied Kaiwharawhara while Ngāti Ruanui and Taranaki cohabited Te Aro. Ngāti Toa occupied no pā in the harbour, but their chief, Te Rauparaha, considered himself the region’s paramount authority.[21] Based on nearby Kāpiti Island, he commanded access to the Cook Strait, making him gatekeeper to New Zealand’s critical waterway. Trading with passing ships and acquiring muskets, Te Rauparaha increased his mana through warfare in the lower North and upper South Islands. His nephew, Te Rangihaeata, held Mana Island, controlling access to Porirua, an inlet with overland passage to Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Ngāti Toa’s dominance of the area led them to consider Te Whanganui-a-Tara within their territory.[22] (See Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Aerial view of modern-day Wellington marked with locations of key Māori settlement sites at the time of William Wakefield’s arrival on 20 September 1839: 1) Kāpiti; 2) Mana; 3) Porirua; 4) Pito-one; 5) Waiwhetu; 6) Ngauranga; 7) Kaiwharawhara; 8) Tiakiwai; 9) Pipitea; 10) Kumutoto; 11) Te Aro.

William arrived on 20 September, ignorant of the harbour’s tribal dynamics but nevertheless intent on buying it. Te Ātiawa’s chiefs, Te Puni and Te Wharepouri, greeted him. William’s nephew (Edward’s son), Edward Jerningham Wakefield, served as the expedition’s secretary and described the chiefs as “the two principal chiefs of the tribe living on shore.” Te Puni apparently “expressed the most marked satisfaction on hearing that we wished to buy the place, and bring white people to it,” while Te Wharepouri “expressed his willingness to sell the land, and his desire of seeing white men come to live upon it.”[23] While this account indicates a lack of knowledge of the area’s tribal complexity, the chiefs’ instant enthusiasm to part with their land suggests either the account or the interpreting was misleading. Both explanations are probably true; Jerningham’s Adventure in New Zealand was a precocious defence of the Company, and the translators were unqualified. Ngati, a Māori who travelled to Europe in 1836 and spoke limited English found employment as an interpreter in return for a voyage home on the Tory.[24] However, upon arrival in Queen Charlotte Sound, where the Tory anchored en route to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, his low tribal status became apparent; William wrote of Ngati’s “want of weight” when dealing with chiefly ranks.[25] Fortuitously, William then met Richard ‘Dicky’ Barrett, a “cheerful, poorly educated, roly-poly seaman.”[26] Despite Ngati being briefed on the Company’s plan (though to what extent and how well he understood it is debatable), and despite Barrett only speaking ‘pidgin’ or ‘whaler’ Māori, his local knowledge and his marriage to a Te Ātiawa noblewoman saw him supplant Ngati as lead interpreter.[27] With Barrett’s translation and a Company agenda, William’s account mirrors Jerningham’s: “[Te Puni] betrayed the most lively satisfaction at being informed that we wished to buy the place and bring white men to it.”[28]

Problems with the purchase began when William did not, nor could not, follow the Company’s own instructions. Assuming Māori had similar concepts of land ownership, or simply trying to cover themselves, the Company directed William to explain to Māori that land purchases, not to be completed without maps and unless “thoroughly understood,” sought to establish British settlement.[29] However, on 27 September, after a week of debate amongst chiefs, whose understanding of William’s intent suffered linguistic and cultural confusion, the Deed of Purchase of Port Nicholson (written by Jerningham in English only) was signed. Jerningham wrote how Te Wharepouri demarcated the boundary of the purchase from aboard the Tory: “He had followed with his finger the summit of the mountain ranges.”[30] The boundaries were so vague that no map was possible nor produced and the deed’s attempt to define the area was “scarcely intelligible.”[31] Nonetheless, the deed stated that the sixteen signing chiefs, the “sole and only proprietors,” had “sold and parted with all [their] right, title, and interest in all the said lands.” The payment of a hundred muskets and various other items exhibited the Wakefield Scheme in action.[32] William signed the deed and later wrote, “Thus has terminated, in the most satisfactory manner, this first and important purchase for the Company.”[33]

Differing concepts of land ownership and “totally ineffective” translators made ‘thorough understanding’ impossible.[34] Jerningham admitted, “It was extremely difficult ­– nay almost impossible – to buy a large and distinct tract of land, with fixed boundaries, from any native […] perfectly unused as they were to any dealing in land according to our notions.”[35] Some chiefs may have thought a few settlers would live and trade among them, but Barrett relayed nothing of the Company’s intent to remove Māori from their pā, cultivations, and burial grounds, permanently severing them from the land.[36] Nor did he communicate the Company’s policy of ‘tenths.’ To reassure detractors of their humanitarianism, the Company planned to designate one tenth of the settlement as ‘native reserves.’ They assumed Māori would abandon their land for a tenth and benefit from proximity to the growing settlement in further remuneration for selling their land.[37] Compared to the deed’s 1,600 words, Barrett translated a mostly meaningless 115.[38]

Although preceding the Treaty of Waitangi, William’s purchase could not escape legal scrutiny. On 19 January 1840, before Hobson left Sydney for Waitangi, New South Wales Governor George Gipps proclaimed all land purchases made before the upcoming treaty were subject to investigation. In February 1843, Barrett testified to Land Claims Commissioner William Spain, recalling fourteen of the sixteen chiefs who signed the deed and detailing to which pā they belonged: seven came from Pito-one, three from Waiwhetu, and one from Kaiwharawhara, Kumutoto, Ngauranga, and Tiakiwai respectively. Thirteen belonged to Te Ātiawa hapū; Te Kaeaea of Ngāti Tama at Kaiwharawhara giving the only other signature. No chiefs from Taranaki nor Ngāti Ruanui at Te Aro signed, and neither did any representatives from Ngāti Toa.[39] In September 1843, Spain’s preliminary report called the deed “perfectly unintelligible.” He wrote, “I am of opinion, that the greater portion of the land claimed by the Company in the Port Nicholson district […] has not been alienated by the natives.” Describing the Company’s purchase as “very loose and careless,” Spain labelled Barrett’s interpreting “exceedingly imperfect.”[40]

Fig. 3. Top (left to right): Te Rauparaha (Ngāti Toa chief), Te Rangihaeata (Ngāti Toa chief, Te Rauparaha’s nephew), Te Puni (Te Ātiawa chief), and Te Wharepouri (Te Ātiawa chief, Te Puni’s nephew). Bottom (left to right): Te Kaeaea (Ngāti Tama chief), Edward Jerningham Wakefield (Company secretary, Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s son and William Wakefield’s nephew), Richard ‘Dicky’ Barrett (Company interpreter), and William Spain (Land Claims Commissioner).

William knew problems existed, but his attempted resolution made matters worse. Anchoring in Cloudy Bay a week after buying Port Nicholson, he met John Guard, a whaler who knew Te Rauparaha. William wrote, “[Guard] questioned the validity of the title I had obtained for the Company to Port Nicholson, saying that Raupero [sic] had conquered it and only allowed the present possessors to cultivate it, and that no doubt there would be a fight about it.”[41] On 16 October, William visited Te Rauparaha at Kāpiti and commenced a tense ten-day negotiation. Te Rauparaha expressed anger at the Port Nicholson sale, concerned “white people intended to drive the natives away.” William wrote, “The negotiation was difficult and disagreeable […] [Ngāti Toa’s] rights to large portions of territory are however indisputable.” Progress came on 23 October, William writing, “full explanation and understanding took place in the presence of at least twenty witnesses and ended in the full cession to me, for the Company of all [Ngāti Toa’s] rights and claims in both islands.” Negotiations concluded the next day, William writing Te Rauparaha heard the deed “translated in all its important parts” to his “perfect understanding.”[42] On 25 October, the deed was signed. The land William claimed to have bought spanned the North and South Islands and amounted to a third of New Zealand. However, Te Rauparaha later told Spain he thought the deed only sold Taitapu (Golden Bay), was never translated, and meant Queen Victoria would consider him “the great chief of New Zealand.”[43]

Company settlement began in 1840 upon these questionable foundations and quickly encountered trouble. In William’s absence, Company surveyor William Mein Smith chose the shorefront between Pito-one and Waiwhetu for the settlement site. Although exposed to southerly winds, the nearby flat land surrounding the Heretaunga (Hutt River) offered the only suitable location to implement the town plan. (See Fig. 4). William returned on 21 January, the day before the first settler ship, Aurora, arrived. Three more ships followed and within a month the beachfront township of Britannia emerged, population roughly 600.[44] The number of settlers alarmed Māori. Some chiefs later told Spain they thought William only wanted to anchor in the harbour. Te Wharepouri thought “nine or ten” settlers might arrive, adding, “But I see that each ship holds two hundred, and I believe, now, that you have more coming. They are all well armed […] They will soon be too strong for us; my heart is dark.”[45] Then on 2 March, the folly of Britannia’s windswept location compounded when the Hutt River flooded, forcing the settlers to relocate.

The settlers’ relocation to Port Nicholson’s westernmost bay, Lambton Harbour, for its shelter and depth disrupted six of the harbour’s seven pā. Four pā already occupied the desirable new site, and while three chiefs from Kumutoto, Pipitea, and Tiakiwai had signed the deed (though with minimal say), none had from Te Aro.[46] Additionally, with the Hutt site rezoned for agriculture, a road linking it to the Lambton site would cut through Kaiwharawhara, Ngauranga, and Pito-one. Yet William considered freshwater access, not land issues, Lambton’s “most apparent drawback.”[47] With little regard for its inhabitants, settlers began building a government district in Pipitea, with residencies and businesses encroaching on Te Aro. William’s antipathy, particularly towards Te Aro, may have stemmed from learned intertribal prejudice; Te Wharepouri called Te Aro a “slave settlement.”[48] Also, when a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi arrived on 29 April and gained thirty-four signatures, few were sought from Te Aro—only two Taranaki chiefs signed, none from Ngāti Ruanui.[49] Possible explanations aside, William wanted the land, considered it his, and occupied it.

Fig. 4. The Company’s plan for a settlement, drafted in London in 1839 to sell sections to settlers.

William’s administrative actions during this time worried Hobson in the north. In March, William formed a Council “to make regulations for preserving the peace of the Settlement.” As Council President, he also formed a settler militia, empowering himself with “the highest authority in directing the armed inhabitants.”[50] Louis E. Ward wrote in 1928 that the militia, compulsory for men aged 18 to 60, aimed to preserve “order and protection of life and property, and to uphold the power and authority of the British race.”[51] On 21 May, Hobson proclaimed sovereignty over New Zealand, yet his Ensign, A. D. W. Best, wrote how word reached Hobson of “a turbulent set of rebels, who were establishing a republic at Port Nicholson.” Referring to this “insurgent shore,” Best said thirty soldiers had been sent “to quell the rebellion!”[52] Hobson alleged William had “attempted to usurp the powers vested in me.”[53] On 25 May, he sent Shortland to Port Nicholson with the soldiers, labelling the settlers “demagogues.”[54] Shortland arrived on 4 June and recited Hobson’s proclamation of sovereignty. The insinuation that William and the settlers had displayed disloyalty to Britain strained their relationship with Hobson. Prominent settlers met on 1 July to discuss “the imputation upon their allegiance.” Speaking “in the most loyal terms,” they pledged “every assistance” to Hobson. Proving their sincerity, they proposed making Port Nicholson the seat of government and William travelled north to submit this in person.[55]

During William’s absence, Crown intervention in land issues began worrying settlers. Word arrived on 4 August that Gipps had passed the New Zealand Land Claims Act, fulfilling his January proclamation. Settler land purchased through the Company now awaited Crown investigation. The “injustice of this sweeping measure” alarmed settlers, some briefly considering relocating to Chile.[56] Others visited Sydney to petition Gipps, who made a special consideration after conceding the fairness of the value of goods paid in 1839.[57] The purchases still needed validation, but settlers considered them indisputable and called Gipps a friend.[58] William arrived back on 19 August, saying Hobson had welcomed him courteously and he passed on Hobson’s “sympathy for the community at Port Nicholson.” Alas, Hobson’s popularity still soured when William relayed his decision to make Auckland the seat of government.[59]

Hobson’s ‘snub’ aside, the Company, sure of their legal footing, released a town plan revealing their intention to relocate Māori. Labels of pā sites merely marked the vicinities where they presently stood, the plan replacing pā with streets and lots, and areas chosen for tenths were wholly unaccommodating of Māori custom.[60] (See Fig. 5). On 26 August, a fortnight after the plan’s publication, settler Edward Daniell began building on a lot overlapping with land Te Aro pā residents considered theirs. When an altercation arose, armed settlers made Māori back down. Shortland cautioned settlers “from assembling under arms on any pretence whatever, without being duly authorised so to do, upon the allegiance they owe to Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”[61] William wrote that Shortland was now “universally disliked.”[62] On 29 August, Shortland reached an agreement with Te Aro. Māori assigned him their rights, title and interest until the Company could prove they had bought the land fairly. If not, Shortland promised Māori compensation, but significantly not a return of the land. How well Māori understood the agreement is unclear.[63]

Fig. 5. Company plan for Wellington’s expansion by William Mein Smith, 14 August 1840, with native reserves coloured green. Pā (pah) labels are seen in the ocean, as if already removed, with streams used by pā (highlighted in blue) depicted but clearly intended to be replaced by development.

By 1840’s end, with the settlement now officially named Wellington, settlers and the Crown had entrenched themselves in its uncertain fate. On 16 November, the ‘Charter for erecting the Colony of New Zealand’ was signed in London, declaring New Zealand would become a separate Crown Colony on 3 May 1841 independent of NSW. On 19 November, the Company also secured an agreement whereby costs incurred in settling New Zealand on Britain’s behalf would be reimbursed in acres for new settlements. Then in exchange for a Royal Charter, the Company agreed to disclaim any purchases found to be invalid and handed over control of the tenths to the Crown.[64]

Tensions between all parties worsened in 1841. On 15 February, prominent settlers discussed Hobson’s latest perceived misconduct towards Wellington. “Viewing with surprise and disgust” Hobson’s “nefarious” enticements for labourers to move to Auckland (a practice known as ‘crimping’), they signed a petition calling for his removal.[65] But the opposite soon occurred; Hobson was promoted from Lieutenant-Governor to Governor on 3 May when New Zealand became a Crown Colony. On 9 June, he passed the Land Claims Ordinance, carrying over Gipps’ legislation requiring validation of all land sales. Meanwhile, expansive road building projects deteriorated relations between settlers and Māori. On 20 March, workers had completed the Hutt Road connecting the old and new settlement sites, cutting through Kaiwharawhara and driving out Ngāti Tama (Te Rauparaha allowed them to relocate to the Hutt Valley).[66] On 1 July, settlers reported to Police Magistrate Michael Murphy that Te Rangihaeata had destroyed bridges and felled trees, obstructing the new road linking Wellington to Porirua (also cutting through Kaiwharawhara) to prevent settler encroachment upon Ngāti Toa’s coastal territories. (See Fig. 6). Then on 5 August, the body of a Māori was found outside Te Aro pā. Settler doctors determined apoplexy as the cause of death, but disillusioned with settler activity, Te Wharepouri convinced other Māori a settler was guilty of murder. Hearing calls for blood, Murphy told settlers to arm themselves. That evening, William chaired a meeting, chastising Hobson for neglecting Wellington (having still never visited). Three resolutions passed: Crown protection was inadequate; settlers were in danger; settlers would defend themselves if necessary.[67] Two days passed with Māori and settlers bracing for violence. Fortunately, nothing happened.

Fig. 6. Aerial view of modern-day Wellington marked with locations of key settler activity c. 1841: Green) original Hutt Valley settlement site, rezoned for agriculture; Blue) new Lambton Harbour settlement site, zoned as government, commercial, and residential districts; White) Hutt Road; Yellow) Porirua Road; Red) disrupted pā sites; Black) undisrupted pā sites.

Hobson finally visited Wellington on 19 August but solved none of the settlement’s issues. Feeling he had shunned them, few settlers bothered to welcome him when he arrived. During his brief stay, Hobson visited Te Aro with Chief Protector of Aborigines George Clarke. Hearing residents’ grievances, Hobson authorised compensation of £50 if they moved to allocated tenths and it seemed an agreement was reached. However, after Hobson departed the following day, the pā’s residents reconsidered the offer and the issue remained unsolved. In the months following his Wellington visit, Hobson debated with Arthur Wakefield about the potential site of another Company settlement (Nelson).[68] They agreed upon a site in late 1841 and the first settlers arrived on 1 February 1842.[69] Nelson’s location in Te Rauparaha’s disputed South Island territory, which William claimed to have purchased in 1839, would soon have dramatic consequences.

Wellington’s situation complicated further when Spain arrived on 15 May 1842 to commence land investigations. William did not take the proceedings seriously, calling them “uncalled for” and predicting they would “disturb the settlers & the natives.”[70] Allowed to call witnesses, he presented just four: himself, Jerningham, his friend Dr. Dorset, and Te Puni. Questioned by William, Te Puni said he had agreed to sell his land, understanding the terms of the deed. Although he later said other chiefs agreed to sell their land, he initially stated only he and Te Wharepouri agreed to the sale. Even so, William considered his purchase “triumphantly established.” Spain felt otherwise and told him to call more witnesses. Te Wharepouri was away, so William questioned Wi Tako, the one chief from Kumutoto who had signed. Wi Tako said he never agreed to sell his land but accepted payment for the Tory’s right to anchor and as a present for marrying Te Wharepouri’s sister. Following this disaster, William refused to call more witnesses, but those called upon by Spain from Kumutoto, Pipitea, and Te Aro all repudiated the purchase.[71] Now realising the gravity of Spain’s investigation, William attempted to thwart it by stalling and not co-operating.[72] Spain wrote how William pursued an “undeviating system of opposition and annoyance […] he has done everything in his power to retard, and thrown everything in the way of, my proceedings.” William’s tactic to delay allowed more settlers to arrive and occupy land, making its return to Māori simply unfeasible. But Spain continued, and by late 1842, the Company’s position stood precariously.[73]

When Hobson died on 10 September 1842, Shortland administered the government until a replacement governor could arrive, but the situation worsened under his watch. William and many settlers considered Shortland pompous and incompetent, Auckland newspaper editor Samuel Martin calling him a “plague-spot” whose “demerits and incapacity” had “ruined New Zealand.”[74] During Shortland’s tenure, an incident occurred which local and British newspapers, called the “Wairau Massacre.”[75] Although Te Rauparaha considered the Wairau Valley his (believing he had only sold Taitapu in 1839), Nelson settlers sought to expand into it. (See Fig. 7). Te Rauparaha wanted to wait for Spain’s investigation, but surveyors began work anyway. Ngāti Toa responded by escorting the surveyors off the land and burning their hut. When Arthur led a group of armed settlers to execute an arrest warrant for arson, the confrontation turned deadly on 17 June 1843. Arthur surrendered but Te Rangihaeata killed him as utu when he discovered his wife, Te Rongo (Te Rauparaha’s daughter), had been killed in the crossfire. In total, twenty-two settlers and four Māori lost their lives.[76] For settlers and the British public this foreshadowed “a war of extermination between the Europeans and the native races.”[77] By 1844, immigration collapsed and Wellington’s population growth plateaued; annual settler arrivals was approximately 2,500 (1840), 650 (1841), 650 (1842), 250 (1843), 25 (1844).[78] The Company, already battling Crown involvement in land acquisition and disputes, faced financial ruin. Settlers felt abandoned by Shortland’s decision not to arrest Te Rangihaeata but to “warn all persons claiming land in this colony” against “exercising acts of ownership” towards “the original native owners.”[79] The CMS agreed with Shortland, as would Hobson’s replacement, FitzRoy, that Arthur should have waited for Spain’s adjudication.[80] But settlers claimed the Crown offered “official invitation” for Māori aggression, labelling any petty crimes involving Māori the “Fruits of Mr. Shortland’s Proclamation.”[81] Then on 12 September, three months after the Wairau Affray, Spain released his preliminary report. He ruled the 1839 purchases invalid, delivering the Company another heavy blow.[82]

Fig. 7. Aerial view of the modern-day Cook Strait region marked with key locations in 1843: 1) Kāpiti; 2) Wellington; 3) Taitapu (Golden Bay); 4) Nelson; 5) Wairau Valley.

By 1844, the Company’s enterprise in New Zealand sat exposed as illegal and unsafe. But sheer impracticality prevented the Crown from evicting thousands of settlers and returning the land to Māori, so Spain simply suggested the Company pay more for it.[83] Compensation as a means of resolution marked the completion of a transition, begun by the treaty, of ‘Māori New Zealand’ accommodating British intruders to ‘settler New Zealand’ tolerating Māori.[84] To help pay its debts, the Company again sought compensation for shouldering colonisation costs on Britain’s behalf. When Parliament rejected this effort in March 1844, the Company worked to establish a House of Commons Select Committee in the hopes of weakening the new governor, FitzRoy, and if possible, having him replaced with someone more sympathetic to their cause.[85]


The Company’s efforts to manipulate opinion began long before the House of Commons established the Select Committee on New Zealand on 26 April 1844 to investigate the Company’s grievances. Indeed, by the time FitzRoy’s governorship began on 23 December 1843, Company directors had already decided to try to destroy it;[86] the Committee simply gave directors a chance to “redress the wrongs inflicted on the Company” and potentially the means of forcing either a change of government policy or personnel.[87] FitzRoy’s appointment came recommended by the CMS, so the Company claimed his commitment to the “narrow philanthropy of the pure missionary system” caused him to doubt the “benefits of civilisation” were “the last hope for the natives.”[88] Certain FitzRoy would worsen their position, the Company wanted him replaced with someone who shared their agenda. However, directors in London faced a dilemma: they needed to convince the Committee of Wellington’s dire state, but they still needed to attract new colonists; they needed to ruin FitzRoy’s reputation, but not Wellington’s. Directors had two means of managing this balancing act: submitting carefully chosen evidence to the Committee and relying on their long-running propaganda campaign. To both these ends, William proved useful.

The Company submitted to the Committee nine hundred pages of appended evidence that allegedly proved the Crown’s failings. Alongside annual reports, meeting minutes, financial statements, memos, instructions to agents, deeds, correspondence, and eye-witness accounts and testimonies, approximately fifty of William’s letters and dispatches were included. The delay in sending material between Wellington and London prevented William from contributing evidence specifically for the Committee, however, what he had sent directors over the years provided a valuable service to the Company effort. While William wrote to directors in a mostly professional manner about day-to-day Company business, a clear theme did emerge when he shared personal views: the Company and its settlers were innocent and addressing Crown failings would allow Wellington to flourish.

William’s letters from 1841 to June 1843 (before the Wairau Affray) revealed his attempts to scapegoat Crown officials for Wellington’s problems, caused by their action and inaction. Regarding land issues, he wrote on 26 February 1841, “The conduct of Captain Hobson has naturally given much uneasiness” to settlers, particularly capitalists fearing “a deficiency of labour.”[89] On 12 October, he blamed Hobson and Clarke for inspiring “considerable annoyance from the natives,” describing Māori as “perfectly satisfied and quiet” until this point, as if the tension caused by the Company had not previously existed. He added, “[Māori] have been advised by Mr. Clarke […] to withstand the occupation of the land by the white population.” On 5 November, he wrote how Clarke’s “mischievous exhortations” had “frustrated my efforts to remove [Māori] to the places destined by the Company for them” and was “likely to produce great mischief and litigation.”[90] On 24 January 1842, William alleged the Crown had “always shown itself unfriendly to the rapid progress of the Company’s settlement” and that the “hostility of the local Government must either give way or be removed.”[91] On 29 August, he wrote, “Except by means of remonstrance and bribes, the natives here are unchecked in their lawless courses […] [Murphy] professes inability to interfere until the question of title has been set at rest by a grant from the Crown.”[92] Then six months before Wairau, William warned Shortland on 23 January 1843 of Ngāti Toa’s growing hostility, writing, “unless some decisive measures are adopted […] they must eventually end in collision between the two races.”[93]

William’s letters after the Wairau Affray in June 1843 show his intensified hostility towards the Crown and presentation of Māori as lawless. While not always about Wellington directly, they presented the Committee with the wider context of events surrounding the settlement. On 7 September, he wrote that if the Crown did not send troops to Nelson, it “would put the property of the settlers at the mercy of a lawless mob.”[94] He wrote on 12 December, “That this resistance, and the disposition to deny the validity of British law, by the natives, have been called into existence by the inaction of the Government respecting the late massacre, no sane man in the colony disputes.”[95] Company directors also submitted a series of letters between William and Matthew Richmond, who worked for Spain. On 22 September, Richmond requested William put a stop to a surveyor’s work in Wairau, worried of “the excitement it will create among the natives.” The next day, William informed Richmond that the surveyor in question was not a Company employee but he would instruct “the Company’s agent at Nelson in no way to sanction or countenance the progress.” A month later, Richmond warned William that the surveyor was still working and again asked him to stop “a work which is fraught with so much danger to the whole community.” William reiterated that the surveyor was not his employee and therefore beyond his control.[96] This exchange supposedly illustrated how the Company was expected to resolve matters that were the Crown’s responsibility. In the Company’s view, after being prohibited from forming militias by the Crown, they were then expected to exercise force to protect the community. The implication was that Crown officials exhibited a pattern of contradictory, ineffective, and ultimately dangerous behaviour.

William’s letters from early 1844 showed the Company’s apparent perseverance despite Crown-manufactured problems and their willingness to work with the Crown in everyone’s best interests following Spain’s report. On 12 February 1844, William wrote of five thousand acres of new land being prepared for settlement, adding, “the natives of this district are to receive further payment.” In correspondence between himself and Clarke regarding compensation the Company owed, William said he wanted to “prevent any future accusations of not having sufficiently paid for the land.” Although he doubted compensation would work, he nonetheless agreed to it:

Serious doubts are entertained by many of our most intelligent setters, whether these further payments will have the effect of ensuring quiet occupation of the land; and I cannot but participate in such doubts, after the repeated breaches of contract I have witnessed on the part of the natives. I can only, however, now follow the course pointed out by the Governor, and leave the questions it may engender to his management.

When Clarke requested information to determine what compensation the Company owed Māori, William sent him a report from the Company’s Survey Office. After Clarke calculated the Company owed £1,500, William said he was unqualified to judge Clarke’s assessment but he was “desirous to enable you to satisfy all the native claimants to these lands, and to avoid the delay of a reference to the Commissioner,” adding, “I am at once prepared to provide you the sum you have named.”[97] William’s letters to Clarke portrayed the Company as trusting and co-operative, characteristics totally absent in reality.

William had also forwarded to London accounts from other Company officials that painted FitzRoy in a negative light. William’s cousin, Francis Bell, worked as a Company secretary in Nelson and wrote a detailed account of witnessing FitzRoy’s meeting with Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata in Waikanae on 11 February 1844. Importantly, it detailed Bell’s version of Te Rauparaha’s version of events in Wairau, in which Te Rauparaha had allegedly stated Arthur was killed, despite surrendering, because it was Māori custom “after a fight to kill the chief men of their enemies.” According to Bell, FitzRoy told Te Rauparaha settlers were in the wrong but “you committed a horrible crime in murdering men who had surrendered themselves.” Bell added, “Such a proceeding was hardly calculated to impress the natives with a just idea of the course of justice of British law.” William had also shared an account by William Fox, Arthur’s replacement as Nelson’s Company agent, of FitzRoy’s visit to the settlement. According to Fox, FitzRoy expressed sympathy for Wairau’s victims. However, he also “expressed the strongest possible disapprobation” of the settlers involved, suggesting theirs was “an act of the grossest indiscretion, bearing the marks of extreme haste, and calculated to bring on a war of extermination.” Fox added, “Hence the natives justified in resisting, and the result justifiable homicide.” These accounts present FitzRoy as continuing the tradition of what the Company considered disastrous Crown mismanagement, particularly in relation to Wellington’s greatest threat, Ngāti Toa.

Further evidence of the Crown’s purported shortcomings appeared in letters William forwarded to London from Fox and John Wicksteed, the Company agent in New Plymouth. These letters illustrated how Nelson and New Plymouth faced similar problems as Wellington and suggested once more that the Crown was to blame. Written after an attack on a settler’s farm, one letter from Wicksteed to the Colonial Office in Auckland read, “That the sanction of the Government ought to be accorded to the establishment of a local militia, or that a small body of regular troops should be stationed in New Plymouth for the preservation of the public peace, is now the universal opinion of the settlers.” In Nelson, Fox highlighted the recurring theme of ongoing Crown neglect when it failed to provide relief to the widows of Wairau’s fallen. Fox wrote to William that “the probable consequence of the Government neglecting to afford relief in such cases” was “that men will not be found to regard their lives in obedience to a Government which provides no aid for their widows and families.” Fox added, “those feelings of allegiance by which protection is reciprocated will be much weakened, if not entirely dissolved, by such neglect.”[98]

Fig. 8. Left to right: George Clarke (Chief Protector of Aborigines), William Fox (Company agent in Nelson, Arthur Wakefield’s replacement), Francis Bell (Company secretary in Nelson, cousin of the Wakefield brothers), and John Wicksteed (Company agent in New Plymouth).

In sum, William provided the Company with sufficient correspondence, either written by himself or by others, that showed Crown officials as inept and therefore dangerous. According to William, the Crown carried all the responsibility for the problems facing Wellington and other settlements. William’s correspondence told those in London nothing of his own controversial decisions and actions but crafted a blatantly false image of himself as willing to co-operate with the Crown and the Land Claims Commission.

As the Company’s principal agent in New Zealand, William had influence over the creation of propaganda to help sway public and parliamentary opinion in London. While not specifically aimed at Committee members, this long-running propaganda campaign formed a crucial part of the Company’s effort to control perceptions of New Zealand in Britain. Through propaganda, William fostered an idea of Wellington and its settlers that garnered sympathy, pride, and curiosity in the imaginations of the British public.

The artwork of Company draughtsman Charles Heaphy offers an example of this propaganda. The young artist travelled to New Zealand aboard the Tory in 1839 under William’s command at the impressionable age of 19. Throughout 1840 and 1841, he explored land around Wellington, tasked by William to depict the settlement’s progress. Heaphy’s work focused on the positive aspects of the colonisation effort that William wanted to promote, such as construction, infrastructure, and commerce. Importantly, Heaphy’s artworks largely hid the presence of Māori, and if they were shown, they usually appeared in exoticist ways, placed in the frame merely for composition and geographic context. When Māori were visible in this way, they were seen loitering under the Union Jack, never doing anything productive, and nothing of their pā, cultivations, or customs were shown. As well as Māori being mostly absent, nothing of Wellington’s problems appeared in the images Heaphy created either, allowing William to showcase his settlement in favourable ways. (See Figs. 9–11).

When Heaphy’s contract with William ended, he returned to London in 1842 and published his artworks alongside an account, Narrative of a Residence in Various Parts of New Zealand, under the name “Charles Heaphy, Draftsman to the New Zealand Company.”[99] He began his account by attempting to distance himself from notions of propaganda, writing, “having been in the service of the Company […] it may be imagined that I am interested in upholding its principles, and am now writing by its dictation. This, however, is not the case.” But he added, “I must own, that from having witnessed the successful working of the Company’s plans, I am inclined to think that its system of colonization is the best, and am predisposed in its favour.”[100]

Fig. 9. Sketch of Wellington by Charles Heaphy highlighting various settler features, c. 1841. Pā are not visible and the only reference to Māori appears last in the key, which reads “x x x Native Potatoe Plantations” (outlined in red). The faint x’s appear scattered in the distant hillsides (outlined in blue).
Fig. 10. Painting of Wellington by Charles Heaphy (based on Fig. 3.2), c. 1841. No pā are visible, though several should be. Māori are seen, but merely to add exotic context and fill in the frame, taking instructions from a settler while appearing underneath a British symbol and lazily watching industrious settlers below.
Fig. 11. Painting of Wellington by Charles Heaphy, September 1841. The Māori waka visible in the foreground (outlined in red) is the only indication that an indigenous population exists. Meanwhile, Māori themselves are not visible, nor are their pā.

Whatever Heaphy’s intentions, the Company’s propaganda machine benefited from his art and writings. Heaphy wrote, “On entering Port Nicholson, one is struck with the grandeur of the view […] On examining the bay, we found an inner harbour, with a convenient site for a town on its shores.” He made sure to note “the desire of the aborigines for its settlement by white people.”[101] Of the 1839 purchase, he wrote, “In the acquisition of the district from the natives, great care was taken that they should fully comprehend the terms on which they relinquished their rights.” From his perspective, this may have seemed the case. However, it is difficult to understand how he formed the following impression if not from pure imagination or a deliberate attempt to exonerate the Company: “On being told the amount of the immediate payment, their most influential chiefs replied, ‘that they cared but little about what would be given them for their land, but that they wanted white men and women to settle amongst them, and to bring cattle, and grow corn’.”[102] For good measure, he added, “Very few of the natives in the Company’s settlements repent having sold their land.”[103] As if defending the absence of pā in his artworks, Heaphy wrote how “the fast disappearance of the native huts about Wellington” resulted from “their inhabitants discovering the superior comfort of more roomy houses built in the English mode.”[104] When describing the Hutt Road as “an ornament to the colony,” he made no mention of the destruction of Kaiwharawhara nor the displacement of its people.[105]

Unlike his artwork, Heaphy’s writing did acknowledge Wellington’s problems, but like William, he blamed them on the Crown. He suggested, “[Māori] are contented with the quantity of land reserved for them, and now never interfere with the location of the settlers on their respective property.” Māori, he wrote, “were on excellent terms with the settlers.” However, he alleged Crown officials bore responsibility for making Māori “dissatisfied with their altered condition.” Heaphy also blamed the Crown for causing undue anxiety within the settlement, writing, “the colonists were given to understand that from the Government they would have no title to the land, and that should they commence cultivation or building on the site of the town, their property would be liable to forfeiture, and themselves to ejection.” He lamented, “In the state of uncertainty caused by this system of Government, the settlers could not, of course, proceed with any degree of assurance.” Sadly, “[settlers] soon lost much of the spirit and confidence which they had manifested before the interference of Government.”[106] Noting the mood improved after settlers petitioned Gipps in Sydney in August 1840, however, Heaphy concluded, “There are now no apparent obstacles to the progress of the Colony. At Wellington, in particular, the settlers have had much to discourage them; but the crisis is now past.”[107] That events in following years contradicted Heaphy’s optimism surely engendered more sympathy for the Company and settlers and resentment towards the Crown. Company surveyor William Mein Smith (who chose the original settlement site in January 1840 in William’s absence and who drafted the new town plan in August 1840) also produced artworks of a similar utility for the Company’s propaganda purposes. Tasked by William to audit the land in preparation for its sale and development, Smith created images like Heaphy’s showcasing Wellington’s progress.[108] Using the same vantage points overlooking the city, many of the characteristics found in Heaphy’s artworks regarding the depictions of Māori also appeared in Smith’s work. Repeated motifs in these two artists’ work suggest the presence of either a shared Company consensus among them or Company oversight of the production of such propaganda, or both. (See Fig. 12).

Fig. 12. The 1845 lithograph version of an 1842 painting of Wellington by William Mein Smith that appeared in Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s Adventure in New Zealand, from 1839 to 1844. No pā are visible, but Māori are shown as marvelling at British culture, being spoken down to underneath the British flag, and generally benefiting from their encounter and trade with settlers.

The New Zealand Journal, published fortnightly from February 1840 and to which William contributed regularly, served as the Company’s loudest propaganda mouthpiece to the British public.[109] Edited by Henry Samuel Chapman, a Wakefield supporter, the journal was broken into regional columns, its content mostly comprising of carefully chosen editorials, newspaper articles, and settler correspondence.[110] The journal, generally painting a positive picture, was revealing for what it did and did not say. For example, amidst the problems with the Hutt and Porirua Roads, the journal published a settler’s letter that read, “This place is going on very finely; they are making fine roads and grand houses.”[111] Likewise, despite worsening tensions between settlers and Māori, the journal described New Zealand as “the brightest gem in Britain’s crown, her noblest effort at colonisation.”[112] Not to seem illegitimate, the journal did sometimes acknowledge Wellington’s problems. Like William and other Company associates, however, it always blamed the Crown and tried to remain positive, one editorial reading:

Spain’s court of claims has done a deal of mischief more than anticipated, and more than he can quiet. In the 3rd year a cruel stop is putting to agricultural exertions just at springtime. Whenever an Englishman sits down to clear, even on the Porirua Road or in the valley of the hill, the natives make their appearance, and claim payment for the land […] Notwithstanding these obstacles […] everyone feels assured of the profit for his labours.[113]

William’s frequent contributions to the journal pushed his ongoing narrative. The 19 August 1843 issue included a letter from 28 January 1843 from William to the Company Secretary, in which William boasted about the progress of the roads linking Wellington to the Hutt and Porirua. He made no mention of the tensions these roads caused between Māori and settlers.[114] His official account of Wairau, written on 28 June 1843, appeared in the journal’s final issue of 1843 (it was also included in the Company’s appended evidence to the Committee).[115] William suggested Spain failed to stop Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, whom he described as alcoholics, from travelling to Wairau, where they “immediately commenced the obstruction of the survey, and finally burned down the reed house of one of the contractors.” According to William, Arthur then “put in execution the warrant against Rauperaha and Rangehaiata [sic].” When the parties met, “An accidental discharge from a musket carried by one of these then took place, and a moment afterwards a volley from both parties ensued.” He wrote that after “Repeated attempts to rally the fugitives proving ineffectual, Captain Wakefield called on [his men] to throw down their arms and surrender.” When Te Rangihaeata discovered his wife had been killed in the crossfire, he then “with his own hand and tomahawk” killed his prisoners.[116] William’s account was consistent with his other approaches to characterise the Crown as guilty of both failing to protect settlers and the Company, who were innocent, and of encouraging violence from Māori, who were peaceful until the Crown inspired resistance.

Following FitzRoy’s arrival in New Zealand in late 1843, 1844’s first journal issue published William’s 1842 letters to Hokianga Police Magistrate Arthur McDonogh, suggesting William had predicted the violence that happened in Wairau due to Crown negligence, as had his letters presented to the Committee. He wrote, “The community here deprecates a collision with the Aborigines,” adding, “It is certain, however, that to avoid it a military post should be established on shores of Cook’s Strait, and that the Police Magistrate should be instructed to repress violence and robbery by the Natives.” But, of course, the Company had been disarmed by the Crown, so William wrote, “I must, however, impress upon you, the importance of the Directors reclaiming, at the hands of the Colonial Minister, protection for the settlers at this part of the island.” The same issue printed another of William’s letters to McDonogh, furthering his presentation of Māori as marauders:

In spite of the strongest remonstrances on my part, and the expression of indignation at the total neglect of this question by Governor Hobson, no notice has ever been taken of it by him. The single Police Magistrate and twelve constables under his orders, form the whole protective force of this settlement; and whenever the public has offered to obey the Magistrate in the suppression of Native aggressions on property, their services have been declined.

Similarly, another letter read:

[Hobson] professes inability to interfere […] The predictions which I hazard in 1839, as to the mischievous practices of Rauperaha [sic] are now being realized, for want of a company of soldiers, or the formation of a militia, and the instructions to the Police Magistrate, forbidding his interference against the Natives, lease us without remedy or redress. The law, which is rigidly put in force at their instance, against the white man, has hitherto been in all these disputes dormant against the aborigines.[117]

While the letters railed against Hobson, the timing of their publication in the journal clearly aimed to imply FitzRoy was cut from the same cloth, another missionary governor soft on Māori but hard on settlers. Clearly, only a more militant governor, one prepared to reinforce William and address the issues he persistently raised, could repair the situation.


The contents of the Committee’s report reflect the Company’s success in influencing the outcome, an effort clearly aided by William. Published on 29 July 1844, the report’s first resolution described the Company’s behaviour in 1839 as “not only without sanction, but in direct defiance of the authority of the Crown,” calling it “highly irregular and improper.” However, there the reprimand ended. The second and third resolutions condemned the Treaty of Waitangi as “part of a series of injudicious proceedings” that “was an error which has been productive of very injurious consequences.” Resolutions four to ten, and resolution twelve, offered solutions to land disputes and the tenths, all of which benefitted the Company. Resolution eleven condemned Spain and echoed William’s narrative, stating, “it appears by Evidence, that the non-settlement of the Land Claims has been productive of great confusion and mischief in the colony.” Resolutions thirteen and fourteen dealt with the issue of security that William constantly raised, stating, “the Governor should have more effectual means of enforcing obedience to his authority” and “the settlers should be organized as a militia, under the orders and control of the Governor.” Resolutions fifteen to seventeen focused on Māori, of whom a “trustworthy” force should be raised, “officered in general by Europeans.” Māori employment in civil service was described as “highly desirable,” but “efforts should be made gradually to wean the Natives from their ancient customs.” This last point cited South Australia Governor George Grey’s report on how to introduce civilisation to indigenous Australians. This point warrants mention as Grey, far more militant in his approach, would eventually replace FitzRoy in New Zealand on 18 November 1845. The last two resolutions simply praised the Company for the tenths system and mourned Arthur Wakefield’s fate in Wairau.[118]

While historians agree on the favourable nature of the report, debate remains over its impact on FitzRoy’s governorship. The report’s immediate outcome disappointed the Company, Burns writes that their initial feeling of vindication was quashed when “little or no practical effect” eventuated. The report’s condemnation of the Treaty of Waitangi left Colonial Secretary Lord Stanley and FitzRoy little option but to ignore it; they could not abandon their agreement with Māori, nor did they want to. News of the report’s outcome reached New Zealand in December 1844, but FitzRoy, unable and unwilling, implemented none of its resolutions.[119] Temple agrees that while the Company celebrated the report’s “public triumph,” the treaty dashed any hope of implementing its resolutions.[120] FitzRoy survived the report’s immediate aftermath, and on 4 February 1845, Stanley wrote to him, saying, “I do not think the Report of the Committee renders it necessary that I should in any way modify the instructions which you have already received.”[121] By April, however, Stanley had changed his mind, and on 5 May, the decision to recall FitzRoy was announced in parliament.[122]

Interpretations differ as to the report’s contribution to Stanley’s rapid change of heart and FitzRoy’s demise. Johnathan Adams’ 1986 article detailing FitzRoy’s recall does not mention the report but cites FitzRoy’s economic decisions as Stanley’s motivation.[123] Wards also shies away from elevating the report’s role, suggesting FitzRoy’s recall and replacement with Grey came about because “Few of the problems confronting [FitzRoy] during his term could be solved within the limits of his means or his instructions […] almost every decision he made, was technically, a wrong one.”[124] In other words, though the Company sought FitzRoy’s ruin from the outset, circumstance had already done much of their bidding. Wards does accept, however, that by presenting FitzRoy with resolutions he had no choice but to ignore, the Company underlined his connections to the ‘failed’ governments of Hobson and Shortland.[125] Temple and Burns go further, arguing the report became a valuable piece of propaganda that FitzRoy could not endure.[126] Bruns quotes W. P. Morrell, who wrote in 1930 that the report “raked over the ashes of every controversy of the past in such a way as to add fuel to the wrath of the Company against the Government.”[127] Burns suggests that in early 1845, encouraged by the report and also by the recent success of Jerningham’s Adventure in New Zealand, Company propaganda and lobbying reached its height, forcing Stanley’s hand.[128] This dispute goes beyond the scope of my research, but there clearly remains more opportunity for historians to explore both William’s and the Committee’s roles in bringing about a fundamental change to the course of New Zealand history.


In 1839, Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s complex tribal arrangement collided with cunning colonisers, and while ignorance ran both ways and trouble ensued, it was the British who benefitted from the encounter. As the principal agent of the New Zealand Company, William Wakefield’s actions between 1839 to 1844 helped cause that trouble. However, in his varied communications relaying the situation on the ground in Wellington to London, he never acknowledged any wrongdoing. Instead, William scapegoated the Crown, especially after the Wairau Affray in 1843, blaming it for Wellington’s problems and for pitting settlers and Māori against each other. Company artists depicted Wellington as mostly lacking an indigenous presence, while William’s correspondence to London increasingly presented Māori as a lawless threat; the presentation of Māori clearly dependent on William’s changing propaganda needs. When the House of Commons established the Select Committee on New Zealand in 1844, William’s correspondence and contributions to the Company’s ongoing propaganda campaign helped push the narrative that if New Zealand had a Company-friendly government, Māori and settler populations would flourish. A comparison of William’s assertions versus the reality shows how far he bent the truth. A far more accurate description of the situation was that the Company’s behaviour forced Crown intervention, and once both embroiled, neither party acted in ways entirely beneficial to the colony’s inhabitants, indigenous or immigrant. William, for his part, helped ensure that Wellington, a city prone to earthquakes, stood upon unstable foundations in more ways than one.

[1] Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand (Australia: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 171

[2] Edward Gibbon Wakefield, ‘Appendix: Outline of a System of Colonization’, A Letter From Sydney, the Principal Town of Australasia ed. Robert Gouger (London: Joseph Cross, 1829), pp. iii–xxiv.

[3] ‘South Australia Act, or Foundation Act, 1834,’ Museum of Australian Democracy, foundingdocs.gov.au/item-did-1.html; accessed 16 March 2021.

[4] Edwyna Harris and Sumner La Croix, ‘When Colonization Goes South: Understanding the Reasons Behind the Failure of Wakefield’s Systematic Colonization in South Australia,’ Lecture, ASSA Meetings, Atlanta, GA, 3 December 2018.

[5] EGW, The British Colonization of New Zealand; being an account of the principles, objects, and plans of the New Zealand Association (London: John W. Parker, 1837), pp. 28–9.

[6] Patricia Burns, Fatal Success: A History of the New Zealand Company ed. Henry Richardson (Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1989), pp. 44–5.

[7] Dandeson Coates, The Principles, Objects and Plan of the New Zealand Association examined, in a letter to the Right Hon. Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State for the Colonies (London: 1837).

[8] ‘Parliamentary Intelligence: New Zealand Bill,’ Times, 21 June 1838.

[9] Burns, p. 64.

[10] Edward Betts Hopper, ‘Diary of Edward Betts Hopper,’ 1839, Alexander Turnbull Library, in Burns, pp. 13–4.

[11] Louis E. Ward, Early Wellington (Wellington: Whitecombe & Tombs, 1928), p. 23.

[12] Burns, p. 33.

[13] ‘Wednesday, July 12, 1843,’ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 4/262, 12 July 1843, p. 2.

[14] ‘Report from the Select Committee on New Zealand; Together with the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, and Index,’ House of Commons, 29 July 1844, in British Parliamentary Papers: Colonies, New Zealand, Vol. 2 (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1968), p. ii.

[15] Rebecca Burke, “Friendly relations between the two races were soon established”?: Pākehā interactions with Māori in the planned settlements of Wellington, Nelson and New Plymouth, 1840–1860 (PhD Thesis: Victoria University of Wellington, 2014), p. 32.

[16] Ian Wards, The Shadow of the Land: A Study of British Policy and Racial Conflict in New Zealand 1832–1852 (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1968), p. 93.

[17] Burns, p. 254.

[18] Philip Temple, A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002), p. 375.

[19] R. P. Boast, ‘Ngati Toa Lands Research Project: Report One, 1800 to 1870,’ Waitangi Tribunal, 2007, p. 131.

[20] ‘Te Whanganui A Tara Me Ona Takiwa: Report on the Wellington District,’ WT, 2003, § 2.7, p. 44.

[21] Burns, p. 113.

[22] WT, 2007, § 2.7, pp. 44–9; Rosemarie V. Tonk, The First New Zealand Land Commissions, 1840–1845 (Master Thesis: University of Canterbury, 1987), p.143.

[23] Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand, from 1839 to 1844: Vol. I (London: John Murray, 1845), p. 71.

[24] Burns, p. 113; WT, § 3.5.1, p. 52.

[25] William Wakefield, ‘Colonel Wakefield’s Journal,’ ATL, AAYZ 8971, NZC 3/1/1, Dispatch No. 2, Folios 54–128, 6 September–9 October 1839, p. 29; Angela Caughly, The Interpreter: The Biography of Richard ‘Dicky’ Barrett (Auckland: David Bateman, 1998), p. 269.

[26] Caughly, p. 15.

[27] Burns, p. 113; WT, § 3.5.1, p 52; WW, p. 13; Caughly, p. 269.

[28] WW, p. 24.

[29] Instructions to Colonel Wakefield, in BPP,p. 579.

[30] EJW, Vol. I, p. 85.

[31] WT, 2003, § 3.5.5, pp. 57–8.

[32] Port Nicholson Deed of Purchase, 27 September 1839, in WT, 2003, p. 497.

[33] WW, p. 29.

[34] WT, 2003, § 8.6.1, p. 176.

[35] EJW, Vol. I, p. 85.

[36] WT, 2003, § 8.6.1, p. 176.

[37] Ibid, § 3.2.4, p. 48.

[38] Richard Barrett to William Spain, ‘Richard Barrett’s evidence in the Court of Land Claims Commission,’ 8 February 1843, ATL, f-88-103, Case 374b; Tonk, p. 337.

[39] WT, 2003, § 3.5.5, p. 57.

[40] Ibid, § 3.7.3, pp. 63–4.

[41] WW, p. 35.

[42] Ibid, pp. 42–6.

[43] WT, 2003, § 3.6.1, pp. 58–9.

[44] Ward, pp. 23–9.

[45] WT, 2003, § 3.8.3, p. 67.

[46] Ibid, § 5.3.2, p. 85.

[47] WW, p. 68.

[48] WT, 2003, § 3.5.4, p. 56.

[49] ‘Treaty signatories and signing locations,’ New Zealand History, nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/nga-tohu-treaty-signatories; accessed 15 April 2021.

[50] ‘The Provisional Constitution,’ New Zealand Gazette, 18/2, 18 April 1840, p. 2.

[51] Ward, p. 51.

[52] A. D. W. Best, Journal of Ensign Best, 1837-1843, ed. Nancy Taylor (Wellington: Government Printer, 1966), p. 409.

[53] WT, 2003, § 5.2.1, p. 82.

[54] EJW, Vol. I, p. 360–1.

[55] Ibid, pp. 346–7.

[56] EJW, Vol. I, pp. 354–8.

[57] Tonk, p. 40.

[58] ‘Saturday, Nov. 14, 1840,’ New Zealand Gazette and Britannia Spectator, 1/31, 14 November 1840, p. 2.

[59] Temple, p. 278.

[60] WT, 2003, § 5.4.1, p. 91.

[61] ‘Notice,’ New Zealand Gazette and Britannia Spectator, 1/21, 29 August 1840, p. 1.

[62] Ward, p. 68.

[63] WT, 2003, § 5.3.4, p. 87.

[64] WT, 2003, § 5.4.2, p. 92.

[65] EJW, Vol. I, p. 440.

[66] ‘Te Kaeaea Biography,’ Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t38/te-kaeaea; accessed 17 April 2021.

[67] Ward, pp. 89–90.

[68] Temple, pp. 291–4; EJW, Vol. II, p. 44–6, 53–4.

[69] Burns, p. 187.

[70] Temple, p. 300.

[71] WT, 2003, § 3.7.1, p. 61.

[72] Burns, p. 214.

[73] Ibid, p. 224–5.

[74] Raewyn Dalziel, “The Politics of Settlement,” in The Oxford History of New Zealand: Second Edition ed. Geoffrey W. Rice (Auckland: Oxford University Press), p. 89; S. M. D. Martin, New Zealand; In A Series of Letters (London: Simmonds & Ward, 1845), p. 24.

[75] ‘Massacre at Wairau,’ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 4/259, 1 July 1843, p. 2; ‘Wairau Massacre,’ Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 2/92, 9 December 1843, p, 365; ‘Massacre of English Colonists at New Zealand, by the Natives,’ Hull Packet, 22 December 1843, p. 4; ‘Horrible Massacre in New Zealand,’ Waterford Mail, 23 December 1843, p. 1; ‘New Zealand – The Wairau Massacre,’ Glasgow Citizen, 21 September 1844, p. 2; ‘New Zealand – The Wairau Massacre,’ Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 23 September 1844, p. 1.

[76] ‘Wairau affray, 1843,’ Te Ara, teara.govt.nz/en/artwork/28561/wairau-affray-1843; accessed 12 April 2021.

[77] ‘Wairau Massacre,’ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 4/304, 6 December 1843, p. 2.

[78] Ward, p. 75, 471; King, p. 172.

[79] Willoughby Shortland, Proclamation, in Robert Stokes, A Letter to the Right Hon. The Earl of Devon, on the late Massacre at Wairau (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844), pp. 81–2.

[80] Paul Moon and Peter Biggs, The Treaty and its Times (Auckland: Resource Books, 2004), p. 85; King, p. 182.

[81] ‘The Fruits of Mr. Shortland’s Proclamation,’ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, in Stokes, p. 85; ‘Proclamation,’ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 4/269, 5 August 1843, p. 3; ‘Shortland’s Proclamation,’ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 4/280, 13 September 1843, p. 2; ‘More Fruits of the Proclamation,’ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 4/283, p. 3.

[82] WT, 2003, § 3.7.3, pp. 63–4.

[83] Temple, p. 309.

[84] Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington: Allen and Unwin, 1987), p. 31.

[85] Burns, pp. 252–4; WT, 2007, p. 315.

[86] Paul Moon, FitzRoy: Governor in Crisis 1843-1845 (Auckland: David Ling Publishing, 2000), p. 77; Wards, p. 71.

[87] New Zealand Company Minutes, HL CO 208/179, p. 32, in Temple, p. 374.

[88] EJW, Vol. II, pp. 470–1.

[89] BPP, p. 638.

[90] BPP, pp. 546–7.

[91] Ibid, p. 551.

[92] Ibid, p. 693.

[93] Ibid, p. 685.

[94] Ibid, p. 727.

[95] Ibid, p. 745.

[96] Ibid, pp. 414–5.

[97] BPP, pp. 417–20.

[98] BPP, pp. 421–9.

[99] Charles Heaphy, Narrative of a Residence in Various Parts of New Zealand: Together with a Description of the Present State of the Company’s Settlements (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1842), p. i.

[100] Ibid, pp. vii–viii.

[101] Briar Gordon and Peter Stupples, Charles Heaphy (Wellington: Pitman Publishing New Zealand, 1987), pp. 3–5.

[102] Heaphy, p. 4.

[103] Ibid, p. 65.

[104] Heaphy, p. 52.

[105] Ibid, p. 78.

[106] Ibid, pp. 5–10.

[107] Ibid, p. 115.

[108] ‘Smith, William Mein,’ Te Ara,teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1s16/smith-william-mein; accessed 23 August 2021.

[109] ‘The New Zealand Journal,’ Te Ara, teara.govt.nz/en/zoomify/44366/the-new-zealand-journal; accessed 18 May 2021.

[110] ‘Chapman, Henry Samuel,’ Te Ara, teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1c14/chapman-henry-samuel; accessed 23 August 2021.

[111] The New Zealand Journal, 7 January 1843 to 20 December 1845, microfilm, Kelburn Library, Victoria University of Wellington, p. 44.

[112] Ibid, p. 66.

[113] NZJ, p. 116.

[114] Ibid, pp. 213–4.

[115] BPP, pp. 693–5.

[116] NZJ, p. 331.

[117] NZJ, p. 342.

[118] BPP, pp. xii–iv; Wards, pp. 172–3.

[119] Burns, p. 255; D. Moore, B. Rigby, and M. Russell, ‘Old Land Claims,’ WT, 1997, § 8.20, p. 210.

[120] Temple, pp. 375–6.

[121] Lord Stanley to Robert FitzRoy, 4 February 1845, in The Westminster Review: Volume XLV; March and June, 1846 (New York: Leonard Scott & Co, 1846), p. 114.

[122] House of Commons Debate, 5 May 1845, vol. 80, cols. 172–3, UK Parliament, hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1845-05-05/debates/6b68de1b-1c11-4a55-8d5c-2fff2b6e5551/NewZealand%E2%80%94CaptainFitzroy; accessed 17 September 2021.

[123] Johnathan Adams, “Governor FitzRoy’s Debentures and their Role in his Recall,” New Zealand Journal of History, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1986, p. 44.

[124] Wards, p. 72.

[125] Ibid, p. 94.

[126] Temple, p. 377.

[127] Burns, p. 255.

[128] Ibid, pp. 263–6.

The Light and the Dark


Wherefore then do you realize these nets of beauty & delusion / In open day to draw the souls of the Dead into the light — William Blake, “Jerusalem”

Only the Nazis were supposed to see their ‘death mills’ and live. The expectation all knowledge of such places would be taken to the grave perhaps the only thing they ever felt they shared with their millions of victims. In 2019, however, 2.3 million people visited Auschwitz, the deadliest Holocaust site. Other camps also drew large numbers: 800,000 went to Dachau, 700,000 to Sachsenhausen, and 200,000 to Majdanek (1). Justice and memorialisation are difficult subjects to navigate in relation to the Holocaust, but if the Nazis wanted these places hidden, opening them to visitors is surely a positive step. Yet seeing Holocaust sites in person is not how the majority of people actually see them; for all those who visit in reality, many more visit through camera lenses. This paper returns the gaze of those lenses, analysing who has taken photographs at Auschwitz and why. Outlining four types of Auschwitz photography—perpetrator, resistor, liberator, and visitor—I discuss examples of each alongside their effects upon modern engagement with Auschwitz and understanding of the Holocaust.

Sight, Photography, and History

Sight is prized among human senses. Aristotle’s Metaphysics opens: “All men by nature desire of knowledge, and an indication of this is the love of the senses […] preeminently above the rest, the sense of sight” (2). In Christian tradition, Thomas refused to believe Jesus had risen, saying “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands […] I will not believe” (3). Eyesight has long been considered trustworthy, conventional wisdom holding that ‘to see is to believe’ as “sight provides a bridge between the interior realm of the mind and exterior realm of matter” (4). The Renaissance, however, began blurring the distinction between reality and its representations: the printing press spurred debates of ‘book experience’ versus ‘world experience’ and artists’ use of camera oscura (dark rooms or boxes with holes through which images of external objects are projected onto the opposite internal surface) led to more accurate replications of reality and the development of perspective (5). Use of telescopes, microscopes, and glasses later reemphasised sight’s value but also highlighted the potential for distorted perspective (6).

Photography’s arrival in the nineteenth century intensified debates of sight versus perspective and representation versus reality. In 1824, Leopold von Ranke wrote historians were “merely to show how it actually was”, photography thus threatening to make them redundant (7). Defending their utility, historians detailed photography’s limitations, particularly its inability to see beneath surfaces (someone’s thoughts) or beyond the frame (circumstance) (8). Favoured though sight is, the simultaneous experience of other senses (physical and emotive) enhance it. While touching and smelling physical photographs is possible, communicating their content depends mostly on narrowed application of sight alone; after all, photographs are flat, fixed, and cropped (9). Modern language hints at these limitations. The phrase ‘photos don’t do it justice’ is commonly said by eyewitnesses underwhelmed by photographic representation. Photographs can underwhelm because they are merely compositions of light wholly dependent on the skill and circumstance of the photographer. Another clue is the ‘taking’, not ‘making’, of photographs. We do not consider photographs fabrications of reality, but we do consider them representations lifted from reality; as photographers ‘take’ or reveal perspectives from within wider reality, so wider reality is ‘taken’ or concealed from photographs.

Ultimately, these limitations meant photography did not supplant historians, though by the mid-nineteenth century, photography was predicted to be a “great service […] to the historian of future ages” (10). In 2019, however, Elizabeth Edwards described photographs as historical sources as:

strange and different […] ‘alternative’ sources […] subject to the familiar cultural processes […] They are dynamic, difficult, slippery, ambiguous, incongruous and contradictory […] They lead on seductively. They reveal in ways texts never could. But they also face us with the dualities of the relationship with history – visceral yet discursive, instinctive yet interpretive, sensuous yet cognitive, voluptuous yet analytical (11).

Critically, as Edwards suggests, photographs can be useful historical sources but can also be manipulated and manipulating, a fact exploited by propagandists. Beyond propaganda, photography still manipulates perception and memory, whether people were present at a photographed event or not. Roland Barthes insists “not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory […] but it actually blocks memory” (12). Certain perspectives are made permanent, distorting memories made from lived experience (13). John Tagg writes:

What alone unites the diversity of sites in which photography operates is the social formation itself: the specific historical spaces for representation and practice which it constitutes. Photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends on the institutions and agents which define it and set it to work (14).

Tagg’s work establishes the theoretical framework for my suggestion there are four types of Auschwitz photography: 1) perpetrator – taken by, or under orders from, the Nazis, showing victimisation; 2) resistor – taken by victims in acts of resistance, showing criminality; 3) liberator – taken by enemy forces, showing extent; 4) visitor – taken by visitors post-1945, showing (dis)connection. These distinctions are critical to meaningful engagement with Auschwitz photography.

Perpetrator Photography

On 2 February 1943, Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss banned all unofficial photography, adding “I will punish with the utmost severity those who do not observe this order” (15). Considering they wanted Auschwitz hidden, the SS took an incredible amount of official photographs during the camp’s operation: from prisoner identification, to propaganda depicting ‘humane’ treatment of Soviet POWs, to executions and medical experiments (16). Their assumption Germany would be victorious contributed to such brazen documentation of their own atrocities, so when the Red Army approached, the SS scrambled to erase the evidence at Auschwitz. Between 17 and 26 January 1945, the SS blew up crematoria and gas chambers, set fire to warehouses and records, and evacuated 58,000 prisoners on ‘Death Marches’ into the Reich’s interior (17). Soviet troops liberated the camp on 27 January, finding a former gas chamber intact, the belongings of hundreds of thousands and victims, and some 7,000 prisoners left behind; the SS simply failed to obscure the truth from history (18).

It is unknown how many prisoner identification photographs the SS successfully destroyed, but images of 38,916 prisoners survived; taken in profile, face on, and face on with caps for males and shawls for females (19). Those sent straight to gas chambers were not photographed (20). Defining these photographs is their subjects’ powerlessness; the images themselves constitute abuse. Moreover, the photographers were also prisoners, units known as Erkennungsdienst, forced to abuse fellow prisoners accordingly (21). Wilhelm Brasse, an Erkennungsdienst photographer who took some 50,000 prisoner identification photographs, died in 2012, guilt preventing him from holding a camera after 1945 (22). He described photographing his fellow prisoners:

At first their eyes were bursting with fright, with time, they became indifferent. The vision of a starving human being is forlorn, looking into infinity […] When I was taking pictures of them, I asked them not to look into the camera directly, but just to the side of the camera. “Don’t smile, don’t cry” – I would say (23).

Exhibiting these photographs risks perpetuating abuse and defining the subjects on such terms. The Faces of Auschwitz project, a collaboration between the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial and Brazilian photo colourisation specialist, Marina Amaral, says their aim is:

to honor the memory and lives of Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners by colorizing registration photographs […] By bringing color to the original black and white registration photos and telling prisoners’ stories, “Faces of Auschwitz” commemorates the memory of those who were murdered […] More than coloring their faces, we will also tell their stories (24).

If telling prisoners’ stories is the aim, why use photographs of them experiencing genocidal abuse? Why include an interactive ‘before and after colouristation’ tool? If memorialisation is the aim, does colourising the pictures achieve this? For example, of Seweryna Szmaglewska’s two images (below), does not the black and white one from her normal life better preserve the memory of who she really was than her colourised Auschwitz registration photograph?

These two images appear on Szmaglewska’s page on the project’s website. Attaching her regular photograph (though without information of when, where, or by whom it was taken) underneath her identification pictures and (brief) life story suggests an awareness of the need to show Szmaglewska as she really was, not only as the Nazis saw and abused her; an admission, perhaps, of the project’s controversial nature. No regular picture appears on Aron Löwi’s page and his identification photographs (below) reveal an injury, so the ethicality of exhibiting his images is even more questionable. If ‘telling Löwi’s story’ is the aim, why does the project not discuss a lack of other photographs of him or even how he sustained his injury? Apart from the red triangle branding him a communist, what does colourisation really achieve?

Some might say exhibiting these photographs of Löwi is better than exhibiting none at all, but doing so with minimal context moves from commemorating him as a Nazi victim to cementing him as one; viewers forced to look through Nazi eyes yet not to see what they did. Of photographs of abuse, Susan Sontag writes:

What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel “bad”; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don’t they rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)? (25)

These photographs provide evidence of Nazi crimes and the Auschwitz arrival process, but voyeurism is inherent howsoever their exhibition is justified. An article in Metro, titled ‘Faces of Auschwitz prisoners are even more devastating in colour’, uses voyeuristic and revictimising language to describe the project: “artist Marina Amaral has managed to bring these nine victims of the Nazi regime back into the present”, the colourisation “breath[ing] life” into the photographs (26). Online, the article is surrounded by advertisements (screenshot below). The undignified presentation in Metro is not the project’s fault, but it underscores the risks of exhibiting perpetrator photographs no matter how they are redressed.

Resistor Photography

The only surviving examples of resistor photography at Auschwitz are the four Sonderkommando photographs. While the industrialisation of the genocide makes the Holocaust a unique historical event, the mass murder systems still required significant manual slave labour. Sonderkommandos assisted in every stage of the murderous ‘assembly line’ at Auschwitz: corralling victims from trains to gas chambers, pillaging their belongings (and bodies) for the Reich treasury, moving their corpses from gas chambers to crematoria, and disposing of their ashes. However, the number of Hungarian Jews arriving in the summer of 1944 ‘overloaded’ Auschwitz’s facilities and alternative methods were needed. Taken that summer, these photographs (below) are the only visual record of these events.

A note smuggled out of Auschwitz by prisoners Jósef Cyrankiewicz and Stanisław Kłodziński on 4 September 1944 reveals something of the desperate circumstances surrounding these photographs:

Urgent. Send two iron reels of film (2 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.) as soon as possible. It is possible to take pictures. We send you photographs from Birkenau—people who have been gassed. The photograph shows a heap of bodies piled outdoors. Bodies were burned outdoors when the crematorium could not keep pace with the number of bodies to be burned. In the foreground are bodies ready to be thrown on the heap. Another photograph shows one of the places in the forest where people were told to undress, allegedly for a bath, but in fact before being driven to the gas chambers. Send a reel as soon as possible. Send the enclosed photographs to Tell (27).

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum’s exhibition of these four photographs says they were taken by “members of the Sonderkommando of crematorium V: Alex from Greece […] Shlomo Dragon and his brother Josel, Alter Szmul Fajnzylberg […] and David Szmulewski”. In his testimony, Fajnzylberg said “even though the Greek Jew, Alex, was the person who pressed the shutter, one can say that the pictures were taken by all of us” (28). These photographers were all victims of Nazism, but their actions documenting Nazi crimes stem not from their victimisation, but their resistance (29). In his assessment of these photographs, Dan Stone writes:

Photographs taken by members of the SS are today no less horrific to our eyes for the fact of their authorship, but the Sonderkommando photographs are especially harrowing, not only because of their content but also because of the extreme difficulties involved in taking them, smuggling the film out of the camp, and having them developed in Kraków (30).

Stressing their “manifest importance”, Stone nonetheless criticises their exhibition at places like the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and the Holocaust Exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum (31). Stone’s critiques centre on the editing or omission of some combination of the four photographs, often without informing viewers. Instead of showing the four photographs as they were taken by the Sonderkommandos, which Stone says produce horror and disorientation, exhibitors select and manipulate the images to retain only the desired horror. For example, the original Sonderkommando photographs (below, left) are often enhanced and cropped (below, right).

Detail is gained in the manipulated images, and detailing Nazi crimes was the Sonderkommandos’ intention, but the manipulation loses all context; as if taken in the open by a passive bystander, resistor photography essentially disfigures into perpetrator photography. The ethics of morphing resistance photography into furthering victimisation are obviously questionable. Stone suggests the second images satisfy “a desire to get closer to the ‘thing itself’, possess it, render it amenable to the senses and cognizable in a way that the [original] photograph will not allow” (32). Yet without context of who took these pictures and why, what is the point of exhibiting them? In the instance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial’s exhibition, Stone writes “Apart from the fact that the visitor is seeing them in Auschwitz, there is nothing to indicate why these photographs are important”, noting the label of “pornography of violence” is applicable since “The photographs are displayed with only one thing in mind: shock” (33). Understanding the nature of Auschwitz photographs, as much as they can be ‘understood’, extends into their presentation in ways reflecting this understanding.

Liberator Photography

On 10 December 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published a report detailing Germany’s systemic mass murder of Polish Jews “In the hope that the civilised world will draw the appropriate conclusions” (34). The report mentioned “Extermination camps” where people “were stripped and killed by various means, including poison gas” (35). But so extraordinary were the claims they were “simply unbelievable” (36). Experienced with Nazi brutality, the Soviets nonetheless struggled to comprehend the extermination camps they encountered as they moved across Poland, beginning with Majdanek on 23 July 1944. They opened Majdanek as the first camp museum in November 1944 for journalists and soldiers “who needed to see in order to believe” (37). Western media remained suspicious, David Shneer writing:

The problem with Soviet photographs was that the Soviet media were considered unreliable. Western press agencies were suspicious of Soviet sources, and dismissed images published in Soviet newspapers or coming over the wires from Soviet sources as “propaganda,” […] like Soviet print and radio, Soviet photographs were presumed to be lies (38).

It was not until the Western Allies pushed into Germany in 1945 and discovered camps for themselves that the truth dawned on them; they had ‘to see it to believe it’. The same was true for the public. An exhibition staged by the Daily Express at their reading room in London, titled ‘Seeing Is Believing’, opened on 1 May 1945 and left visitors in “horrified silence” (39). Some attendees were interviewed upon exiting, many saying they had heard about the camps but had never envisaged anything so terrible, assuming the reports had been exaggerated. One said “I couldn’t bear to look at them all” and another “I believe it’s true. I can see with my own eyes. Pictures don’t lie” (40).

While the Soviets the Allies both liberated camps, their experiences were different. Owing to the rapid Soviet advances in the East, the Nazis relocated eastern prisoners to western camps, so the Soviets typically encountered relatively small numbers of prisoners in large, abandoned complexes, while the Western Allies typically found large numbers of prisoners in relatively small, overcrowded complexes. The horrifying liberator photographs of emaciated prisoners and corpses that became so well-known in the West were taken at these smaller, overcrowded camps liberated by the Western Allies in the spring of 1945, such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald. Meanwhile, photographs from the East (such as Auschwitz), while capturing the human suffering also focused on abandoned industrial evidence (41). Furthermore, getting photographic material on the Eastern Front was much harder, limiting what could be photographed (42). In sum, liberator photographs in the West were easier to take and distribute, the sources were more ‘reliable’, and the images more ‘dramatic’, resulting in Auschwitz slipping into the background of Western consciousness.

That said, the Western Allies took the first of what can be classed as liberator photographs of Auschwitz. On a reconnaissance mission of a nearby fuel factory in Monowitz on 4 April 1944, the South African Air Force unintentionally took the first photographs of Auschwitz by people who were never supposed to see it. Later missions photographed it in more detail, and while it was identifiable as a sprawling camp complex, the truth was only revealed when Soviet ground forces arrived on 27 January 1945 (the labels on the aerial photograph below added later by US intelligence) (43). On the ground, Soviet photographers took ‘traditional’ liberator photographs, with stills taken from the film Chronicle of the Liberation of Auschwitz among the most well-known, such as the one of children behind barbed wire (44). Other photographs show piles of the deceased’s belongings (wedding rings, glasses, shoes, prosthetics, hair, etc.) and the terrible physical states of the survivours. These images eventually became familiar in the West, as evidenced by CNN’s feature marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation (45).

It may seem Allied aerial photographs and Soviet photographs from the ground have little in common, other than their militaries fighting the Nazis. However, two striking characteristics are shared that define liberator photography, transcending time, place, and politics. First, there is an emotional ‘distance’ between the photographers and the subject. This is not to suggest the photographers lack empathy, it is simply an inevitability when the photographer is neither victim nor perpetrator. For many liberating photographers this distance was necessary, Margaret Bourke-White writing of photographing Buchenwald “Only through the viewfinder could I calmly watch these macabre scenes” (46). This distance has only increased with time and problematises much modern engagement with the Holocaust (discussed more in ‘Visitor Photography’). Secondly, there is a sense of the need to show extent: the size of the camp; the depth of a hatred that imprisons children; the severity of the starvation; the sheer number of victims, shown through piles of wedding rings, glasses, prosthetics, shoes, and corpses.

These characteristics suggest ‘liberator’ photography might be better labelled ‘documenter’ or ‘chronicler’, but the photography is an extension of liberation. Since the Nazis had already left, how is this the case? Was the Red Army ever a ‘liberating’ force or just a ‘conquering’ one? Were they liberating truth or seizing “control of the means of symbolic production”? (47) As Jefferey Alexander writes:

if it had been the Soviets and not the Allies who “liberated” most of the camps, and not just those in the Eastern sector, what was discovered might never have been portrayed in a remotely similar way. It was, in other words, precisely and only because the means of symbolic reproduction were not controlled by a victorious postwar Nazi regime, or even by a triumphant communist one, that the mass killings could be called the Holocaust and coded as evil (48).

For example, unsatisfied with footage of Auschwitz prisoners’ emotionally and physically exhausted reactions to the initial ‘liberation’, the Soviets re-staged the event with prisoners rushing up to the soldiers in a wave of euphoria (49). Certainly, however, the Soviets saw themselves as liberators of Europe and of historical narrative from Nazi control. In this way, liberator photographs from the East and West, regardless of circumstances, bear similar hallmarks: distance, extent, and liberation of the truth from Nazi domination. The characteristics of distance and extent (or multitudinousness) are easily seen when viewing liberator photographs side-by-side (not shown, the well-known photographs of the dead would also demonstrate this characteristic):

Visitor Photography

More than 6,000 people a day walked underneath the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate at the entrance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial in 2019. It can be assumed hundreds of cameras (including smartphones) accompanied them, meaning thousands of digital photographs were likely taken at the camp each day. Indeed, the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate bottle-necks daily as visitors stop to photograph it. Struk writes “Not to be photographed under these gates would be like leaving Pisa without having been photographed with the leaning tower” (50). Inside the camp, visitors continue taking pictures; there exist more photographs now of the pairs of shoes than there are pairs of shoes. Some visitors even photograph the photographs on display—perpetrator, resistor, and liberator—a redoubling of the distance characteristic of latter’s category. Why photograph a photograph? Sontag answers:

Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph and move on (51). 

What happens to these images? Struk suggests these pictures become lost in people’s physical and digital collections, or posted to social media accounts, a modern variant of the nonchalance seen in the albums the Nazis kept, such as the so-called Auschwitz Album (an infamous example of perpetrator photography showing the arrival of Hungarian Jews about to be gassed in the summer of 1944, kept in the same album as pictures of Christmas celebrations) (52). Struk perhaps goes too far in drawing a moral equivalency between perpetrator and visitor rphotography, but her point is still valid: what use are these photographs beyond proof that a person visited Auschwitz? The ease in which digital photographs can be taken today is part of the answer; when technology changes, so does human behaviour: “the machine evolves together with us; its mutation is our mutation” (53). But the phenomenon of ‘dark tourism’ provides more insight.

Visiting places like Auschwitz falls under tourism’s ‘dark’ subset. Lea Kuznik outlines 17 categories of dark tourism, distinguishing the Holocaust from other genocide tourism due to its number of associated sites, museums, and memorials across Europe and the world (54). Since they had no choice, dark tourism does not describe the German citizens forced to visit the camps by the victorious powers in the war’s immediate aftermath, though on this subject Shneer writes:

when photographs might fail to convince, the act of physically bearing witness, of seeing with one’s own eyes, became the most important way of proving to a disbelieving public the veracity of Nazi atrocities (55).

Kuznik outlines the seven main motivators behind dark tourism—curiosity, education, empathy, horror, nostalgia, remembrance, and survivour’s guilt—all thus acknowledging the Holocaust’s factuality (56). So, as Stone suggests with regards to the manipulated Sonderkommando photographs, dark tourists also seek getting ‘closer to the thing’, to make personal connections. Once at these sites, satisfying some combination of these seven motivators, dark tourists behave in different ways; some take no photographs, some take hundreds. In order to maintain decorum at the site, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum has rules it expects visitors to adhere to: “Visitors to the grounds of the Museum should behave with due solemnity and respect. Visitors are obliged to dress in a manner befitting a place of this nature” (57). Only commercial photographs, drone usage, and photographing security systems require permission (58).

Inevitably, with the volume of daily visitors, some fail to meet the expectations of ‘due solemnity and respect’. Often, these visitors take photographs as part of their disrespectful behaviour and share them on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Only when their posts receive online backlash do they realise the inappropriateness of their conduct, sometimes making apologies and deleting their posts, suggesting the gravity of Auschwitz was poorly understood during their visit. In 2017, for example, Republican Congressman Clay Higgins took a selfie video inside the former gas chamber at Auschwitz and uploaded it to YouTube, using the setting to advocate for US military spending. After severe backlash, he took the video down (59). But perhaps the most famous example is Breanna Mitchell, who on 20 June 2014, posted a selfie of her at Auschwitz to her Twitter account ‘Princess Breanna’ with the text “Selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp” followed by the rosy-cheeked smiling emoji. Quickly going viral, Mitchell became known as the “Auschwitz Selfie Girl”. Breanna’s example gained more attention than others (of which there are plenty) partly because she defended her actions, saying the Holocaust was the area of history her father was most interested in and that he had recently passed away, so the post was in memory of him (60). Though her explanation provided some context, it suggested she remained unaware of what is so objectionable about such posts: relegating Auschwitz to a mere background for photographs emphasising the photographer sidelines the millions of victims. Attempting to show their connection, photographs like Mitchell’s (below) actually reveal a serious disconnect, the expansion of the distance which began enlarging the moment liberators arrived. Of the four Auschwitz photography subsets discussed, visitor photography has the unique ability to make the photographer the central focus.

While the Internet sometimes forgives, it never forgets, and the image of Mitchell smiling in Auschwitz serves as an enduring warning to would-be visitors to understand the nature of their visit and their photography. Last year, the museum attempted to reinforce this message on its own Twitter account,  reminding visitors that victims should be the focus their visit, not themselves, including objectionable visitor photographs (below) and adding “Respect their memory”.


When exhibiting or taking photographs of Auschwitz, there exists a fine line between honouring victims and exploiting them. I have outlined four distinct categories of Auschwitz photography and suggested that understanding these categories can help avoid revictimisation or denigration. In short: perpetrators documented victims; resistors documented criminality; liberators documented extent; visitors document themselves. Perpetrator photography was abuse and exhibiting it risks perpetuating that abuse, while resistor photography was evidence and tampering with it risks tampering with evidence. Meanwhile, liberator photography was necessarily distant, with photographers needing to emotionally and physically step back in order to reveal scale, while visitors step forward in an attempt to reduce that distance, but by photographing their attempt they merely expand it. Ultimately, however, all these photographs are merely compositions of light, so it is incumbent upon historians and exhibitors to aid the understanding of what lies beneath the surface and beyond the frame, the ‘dark’. With careful consideration, we can use photographs to help illuminate what the Nazis tried to keep shrouded in darkness.


  1. ‘2 million 320 thousand visitors at the Auschwitz Memorial in 2019’, 7 January 2020, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, http://www.auschwitz.org; accessed 24 September 2020; ‘Concentration Camp Memorial Site: Visitor Information’, Dachau, http://www.dachau.de; accessed 25 September 2020; Marcel Fürstenau, ‘Sachsenhausen concentration camp: Anniversary of liberation’, Deutsche Welle, 22 April 2018, http://www.dw.com; accessed 25 September 2020; ‘Annual Reports: Reports on the Museum Activities’, State Museum at Majdanek, http://www.majdanek.eu; accessed 25 September 2020.
  2.  Aristotle, The Metaphysics trans. John H. McMahon (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1991), p. 11.
  3. John 20:24.
  4. Carsten Strathausen, “The Speaking Gaze of Modernity”, The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision around 1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 45.
  5. Ibid, p. 38; ‘Frisius Gemma’s illustration of a camera obscura, 1544’, Science & Society Picture Library Prints, http://www.ssplprints.com; accessed 30 September 2020.
  6. Alasdair Whittle, The Times of Their Lives (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2018), p. 19.
  7. Jens Jäger, “Elective Affinities?: History and Photography”, Global Photographies eds. Sissy Helff and Stefanie Michels (Magdeburg: Transcript Verlag, 2018), p. 40.
  8. Ibid, p. 40-1.
  9.  Nicoletta Leonardi and Simone Natale, Photography and Other Media in the Nineteenth Century (United States: Penn State University Press, 2018), p. 208.
  10. Jäger, p. 42.
  11. Elizabeth Edwards, “Thoughts on Photography and the Practice of History”, The Ethics of Seeing: Photography and Twentieth-Century German History,eds. Jennifer Evans, Paul Betts, and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019), p. 24.
  12. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), p. 91.
  13. Dario L M Sacchi, Franca Agnoli,  and Elizabeth F Loftus, “Changing history: doctored photographs affect memory for past public events”, Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 21, no. 8, 20 November 2007, pp. 1005–22.
  14. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 118.
  15. Janina Struk, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 104.
  16. Ibid, p. 102.
  17. ‘Liberation’, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, http://www.auschwitz.org; accessed 3 October 2020.
  18. ‘Liberation’, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org; accessed 3 October 2020.
  19. ‘Faces of Auschwitz’, Faces of Auschwitz, http://www.facesofauschwitz.com; accessed 28 September 2020.
  20. ‘Registration and Marking System’, Ibid.
  21. Struk, p. 102.
  22. Anna Dobrowolska, The Photographer from Auschwitz (Poland: Rekontrplan, 2013), p. 9.
  23. ‘The Photographer from Auschwitz’, Adam Mickiewicz Institute, 26 November 2013, http://www.culture.pl; accessed 4 October 2020.
  24. ‘Faces of Auschwitz’.
  25. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), p. 92.
  26. Joe Roberts, ‘Faces of Auschwitz prisoners are even more devastating in colour’, Metro, 31 May 2018, http://www.metro.co.uk; accessed 4 October 2020.
  27. Struk, p. 114.
  28. Dan Stone, “The Sonderkommando photographs”, Jewish Social Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, Spring 2001, p. 132.
  29. Kate Lawless, “Memory, Trauma, and the Matter of Historical Violence: The Controversial Case of Four Photographs from Auschwitz”, American Imago, vol. 71, no. 4, Winter 2014, p. 395.
  30. Stone, p. 132.
  31. Ibid, p. 137.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland’, Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 10 December 1942, p. 3.
  35. Ibid, p. 9.
  36. David Shneer, “Is Seeing Believing? Photographs, Eyewitness Testimony, and Evidence of the Holocaust”, East European Jewish Affairs, vol. 45, no. 1, 2015, p. 65.
  37. Ibid, p 68; ‘Museum History’, State Museum at Majdanek, http://www.majdanek.eu; accessed 7 October 2020.
  38. Ibid, pp. 65-6.
  39. Maureen Waller, London 1945 (London: John Murrary, 2004), p. 78.
  40. Struk, p. 125.
  41. Ibid, p. 146.
  42. Ibid, p. 143-6.
  43. ‘Aerial Photographs of Auschwitz’, Yad Vashem, http://www.yadvashem.org; accessed 8 October 2020.
  44. ‘The film that documents the crime’, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, http://www.auschwitz.org; accessed 10 October 2020.
  45. ‘In pictures: The liberation of Auschwitz’, CNN, 27 January 2020, http://www.cnn.com; accessed 9 October 2020.
  46. Struk, p. 146.
  47. Jefferey C Alexander, Remembering the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 8.
  48. Ibid, pp. 8-9.
  49. John J Michalczyk, Filming the End of the Holocaust (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), p. 50.
  50. Struk, p. 189.
  51. Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 10.
  52. ‘Struk, p. 190; Auschwitz Through the Lens of the SS: A Tale of Two Albums’, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org; accessed 10 October 2020.
  53. Jelena Stojković, “Vision Without the Eye: Following the Material of Abstract Photography”, See eds. Andrea Pavoni, Danilo Mandic, Caterina Nirta, and Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (London: University of Westminster Press, 2018), p. 40.
  54. Lea Kuznik, “Fifty shades of dark stories”, Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology (Fourth Edition) ed. Mehdi Khosrow-Pour (Pennsylvania: IGI Global, 2018), p. 4079.
  55. Shneer, p. 67.
  56. Kuznik, pp. 80-1.
  57. ‘Regulations for visitors and persons staying on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, 1 October 2020, § 2.1.
  58. Ibid, § 3.14-5.
  59. Jack Holmes, ‘This U.S. Congressman’s Selfie Video At Auschwitz Is Deeply Unsettling’, Esquire, 5 July 2017, http://www.esquire.com; accessed 11 October 2020.
  60. Jessica Durando, ‘Auschwitz Selfie Girl Breanna Mitchell Defends Her Controversial Picture’, USA Today, 24 July 2014, http://www.huffpost.com; accessed 9 October 2020.

The Over(arching)story

A Trump-Biden Debate Without Climate Change Is Inexcusable | WIRED


Art is inspired by that which precedes it, akin to genetics and evolution. Richard Powers’ The Overstory celebrates this tradition, referring to famous literary works throughout; a selection by no means arbitrary. The title’s double meaning is an immediate clue: ‘overstory’ referring to forest canopies but also to narrative’s long ancestry. To align his novel with the historical novel tradition, for example, Powers references the genre’s defining works, Scott’s Waverley and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This essay shows Powers’ similar efforts to align Overstory with myth through careful reference to Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses, and Macbeth. Examining these texts, I detail how Powers uses them to seed his-story’s overarching message: to survive the Anthropocene, humanity needs new myths.

1700 BC – Gilgamesh

The oldest fragments of Gilgamesh are attributed to an anonymous Babylonian poet chiseled 3,700 years ago; no human narrative predates it. A logical starting point in Powers’ efforts to align Overstory with myth, it nonetheless speaks to his ambitious timescales. An example of his vast temporal considerations is the description of the tree that breaks Douglass’ fall when his plane is downed over Vietnam: “It grew; its roots slipped down and encased its host. Decades passed. Centuries. War on the backs of elephants gave way to televised moon landings and hydrogen bombs” (101). Unlike War and Peace, Metamorphoses, and Macbeth, Powers only briefly employs Gilgamesh, much like Waverley. Douglass is furious to learn that trees are left to line highways only to block views of deforestation:

But the deliberate, simpleminded, and sickeningly effective trick of that highway-lining curtain of trees makes him want to smack someone. Every mile of it dupes his heart, just like they planned […] He feels like he’s on the Cedar Mountain, from that Gilgamesh […] The forest from the first day of creation. But it turns out Gilgamesh and his punk friend Enkidu have already been through and trashed the place. Oldest story in the world (110).

Enkidu, raised in the wild, is sent by the gods to end King Gilgamesh’s tyranny over Uruk. However, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu and ‘civilises’ him. Then, in a quest for fame, they travel to the Forest of Cedar and kill its guardian. While environmentalists in Overstory see themselves as forest guardians, arguably the most relevant aspect of Gilgamesh to the modern world is its depiction of the ‘civilised’ versus the ‘wild’; urbanisation firmly established as superior over nature. This relevance to modern attitudes responsible for causing the Anthropocene is remarkable, but not coincidental. Civility between strangers developed in Mesopotamia after the repurposing of nature to human service, agriculture, required people to remain by their crops; settlement creating civilisation. The Agricultural Revolution, perhaps the earliest origin of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al 845), redistributed labour in ways unmatched until the Industrial Revolution, creating two populations: urban and rural. The city-country divide in modern democracies’ voting habits suggests this division remains substantial, affecting ideologies and stalling societal responses to climate change (Damore et al 6). Gilgamesh, humanity’s oldest story, tells of humanity’s oldest divide.

The brevity of Gilgamesh’s inclusion in Overstory, like Waverley, suggests Powers is seeding a mythological narrative tradition that will grow like Scott and historical fiction. Explanations for using Gilgamesh in this way are found in Andrew George’s edition, where he cites Assyriologist William Moran’s description of Gilgamesh as a human story insistent on “human values” (xxxii). George warns of reading Gilgamesh as myth because:

the function of the poem is not to explain origins. It is more interested in examining the human condition as it is. On these grounds the epic is not myth […] myths are incidental to the story and the epic is certainly much more than the sum of its mythological parts – unlike, for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (xxxiii).

However, Gilgamesh is often studied alongside mythological texts because “no book on the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia can resist it […] [Gilgamesh] retains, in spite of its long literate history, an unmistakable aura of the mythical” (Ibid). Gilgamesh, though not mythological, has become mythic. Powers uses it accordingly; not as a myth of origin, but as an origin of myth. This aspect of the epic transcends its main theme: the search for immortality. Unsuccessful in acquiring immortality, Gilgamesh realises death can be metaphorically vanquished by building lasting legacies in life, the epic closing with him admiring the towering walls he has constructed to protect Uruk (XI.323-6). Powers’ first marker of myth thus establishes humanity’s views of nature and death as enemies to overcome.

8 AD – Metamorphoses

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, containing some 250 myths, is the most explicitly mythological text Powers uses to position Overstory. Ovid opens with “Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me/now to recite” (1.1-2); Powers, concerned with the natures of change and the changes in nature, could not have avoided Metamorphoses if he tried. Dramatising physical, emotional, and spiritual transformations, Metamorphoses’ opening words introduce Patricia’s character and remain central throughout; her scientific career goes through phases and transforms how other characters consider trees, changing their lives in turn. An important moment in Powers’ use of Metamorphoses to explore Patricia’s character comes when it prefaces her attempt to rationalise finding a tree that resembles a woman:

The word turns odd, foreign in her head. Myth. Myth. A mispronunciation. A malaprop. Memories posted forward from people standing on the shores of the great human departure from everything else that lives […] They laugh at the stupefying odds against anything accidental growing exactly like this, like us, out of mindless wood […] Her staff, her scientists, her board of directors: no one has any use for myth. Myths are old miscalculations, the guesses of children long ago put to bed (492-3).

Three similarities between Metamorphoses and Gilgamesh are particularly noteworthy. First are the floods (also found in Genesis). Like the urban-rural divide, it is again remarkable how relevant these ancient texts are to specific twenty-first century concerns of the Anthropocene; rising sea levels and increasing frequency and intensity of storms among the most pressing. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh writes “through much of human history, people regarded the ocean with great weariness” and “before the early modern era, there had existed a general acceptance that provision had to be made for the unpredictable furies of the ocean” (37). Yet during the “mastery and conquest” of European imperialism, founding cities like Mumbai and New York defied ancient wisdom; considered defendable islands with strategic harbours, the Anthropocene is revealing them as “precarious” (37-9). Resulting from Jupiter’s anger (God’s in the Bible), Ovid’s flood (the ‘Deluge’ in Gilgamesh) depicts nature as a “method of punishing mortals” (1.260). As in the Bible and Gilgamesh, Ovid’s flood, in which “The world was reduced to an ocean” (1.292), is an early literary example of climate change; the distinction between these depictions and today’s understandings of climate change is while human activity inspired the floods, it did not cause them; they are supernatural punishments, not natural consequences. Other environmental transformations occur throughout Metamorphoses’ opening: before the flood, Chaos becomes the world, which then passes through ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron (1.5-252); divinity always the prime mover.

The transition of humanity from rudimentary and natural states to civilised ones is the second noteworthy similarity. Like Enkidu in Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses depicts humanity originating within nature but quickly positions them at odds. Ovid writes “Thus clay, so lately no more than a crude and formless substance/ was metamorphosed to assume the strange new figure of Man” (1.87-8) but adds humankind is “a holier living creature, more able to think high thoughts […] freshly formed and newly divorced” (1.76, 80). After the flood, the current iteration of humanity forms from stone (1.401-13), and while Ovid admits we “bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin” (1.415), humanity’s evolution, or elevation, to “hold dominion over the rest” (1.77) is firmly established.

The third comparison is the quest(ion) of immortality. To close, Ovid upstages Gilgamesh, inserting himself to claim immortality:

Now I have finished my work, which nothing can ever destroy […] My name shall be never forgotten […] people shall read and recite my words. Throughout all ages, if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my fame (15.871-8).

Crucially, though Ovid exemplifies myth’s ‘old miscalculations’ of death and nature as requiring mankind’s conquest, Powers’ use of Metamorphoses to explore Patricia’s character also underscores the potential for humanity to make ‘new calculations’, repeating Ovid’s words four times throughout the novel “people turn into other things” (147, 445, 492, 583).

1606 AD – Macbeth

Shakespeare presents myth in radically new ways. For Ray and Dorothy’s first date, Dorothy takes them to an audition for an amateur production of Macbeth: “Why? She says no reason. A lark. A whim. Freedom” (80). But Powers’ reason is to prime fate and prophecy as ‘evolutionary cousins’ of myth, narrative and supernatural traditions their ‘common ancestors’, writing “they both get cast. Of course they get cast. They were cast already, before they tried out. That’s how myths work” (81). Macbeth thus serves Overstory’s vast temporal considerations and establishes a symbiosis between myth and prophecy, an ‘ecosystem’ where past and future imply each other.

Like Powers, Shakespeare uses narrative traditions passed down from writers like Ovid to frame his characters, the Witches and Hecate, who in turn frame the play. Hecate, the Greek goddess of mythology, does nothing to advance the plot, so her inclusion in Macbeth is similar to Overstory’s inclusion of the works in question: a marker to signal wider narrative traditions. The nature of the Witches, central to Powers’ framing, has become obscured over time. In some editions, the Witches are called the ‘Weïrd Sisters’, often misinterpreted as ‘strange’. However, the 1623 folio calls them “weyward” (136), again often misread as ‘wayward’. ‘Weyward’, however, is a variant spelling of an Anglicised spelling of a Norse word: weyward = wyrd = urðr, meaning ‘fate’ (“urðr”). That Shakespeare makes Hecate (mythology) ‘oversee’ the Witches (fate) as “the mistress of your charms” (3.5.5) underscores Powers’ implication that myth and fate exist on a spectrum of time, the arrows simply travelling in opposite directions.

Macbeth acts as a steppingstone in Overstory, a ‘missing link’ in the evolution of myth from Antiquity to the Anthropocene. Macbeth’s attempt to overcome one mythologised enemy of humanity (death) is ill-fated by his interpretations of another enemy (nature). When the Witches tell him “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.94-5) and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinan Hill/Shall come against him” (4.1.107-9), Macbeth’s assumptions of nature betray him. He misses that ‘none of woman born’ could mean Macduff, who “was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped” (5.7.46-7), and he dismisses the threat of Birnam Wood, for “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/Unfix his earthbound root?” (4.1.110-1). In this way, while Gilgamesh and Metamorphoses establish humanity’s views of death and nature as enemies, Macbeth exposes these views as problematic. For example, the Witches set the ominous tone of the play by suggesting perverted views of nature are the real enemy, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12-3).

Macbeth foreshadows the events that happen in Ray and Dorothy’s life, like Metamorphoses did for Patricia; the play about prophecy becoming prophetic. Unable to have children, Dorothy gives twisted meaning to ‘None of woman born shall harm Macbeth’ when her infertility spurs her infidelity. Similar to how Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth to murder by subjunctivising his manhood —“When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.49) [italics mine]—leading to Macbeth’s undoing, so does Dorothy question Ray’s manhood by cheating on him. While not explicitly stating this causes Ray’s ‘undoing’, Powers nonetheless is highly suggestive by writing of Ray’s thoughts of Dorothy “off getting her brains fucked out” alongside a breakdown of the seconds leading to his aneurism (387-90). Echoes sound of Macbeth’s forewarning: “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3.2.39). In the same way Gilgamesh became myth, Macbeth has become prophecy; the ‘Scottish Play’ warning of the dangers of ‘conquering’ death and misreading nature. When Macbeth learns that branches have been used as camouflage and Birnam Wood has ‘come’ to Dunsinan, he charges nature a conspirator against him, saying “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun/And wish th’estate o’th’ world were now undone” (5.6.51-2). Macbeth’s wish prophetic of the Anthropocene.

2018 AD – The Overstory

While Overstory openly works to rectify humanity’s relationship with nature,Powers more subtly recalibrates immortality. Immortality, an egotistical concept, progressively darkens from inspiring ‘greatness’ in Gilgamesh, to inspiring Metamorphoses itself, to inspiring Macbeth’s downfall. Given this trajectory, a downward spiral of egoism ironically detrimental to human life, Powers reevaluates the myth: Patricia nearly succumbs to suicide twice but ‘overcomes’ death by choosing to live, while Olivia survives an overdose, becoming ‘reborn’ with an awareness of the everlasting qualities of nature. Though Olivia dies, the novel’s final lines belong to her, as thought by Nick: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end” (625). Powers redefines ‘immortality’ as something possible through humility, when death and nature are seen not as enemies but vital parts of human life. This is depicted in Nick’s rearrangement of fallen branches to spell the word “STILL”:

Already, this word is greening. Already, the mosses surge over, the beetles and lichen and fungi turning the logs to soil. Already, seedlings root in the nurse logs’ crevices, nourished by the rot. Soon new trunks will form the word in the growing wood, following the cursive of these decaying mounds. Two centuries more, and these five living letters, too, will fade back into the swirling patterns, the changing rain and air and light. And yet – but still – they’ll spell out, for a while, the word life has been saying, since the beginning (624-5).

Refraining from adding new myths himself, Powers’ prognosis of the need to do so and his reassessments of existing myths constitute evolutions of the mythological tradition all the same. The final section of the novel is called “Seeds” for this reason: planting new ideas that will grow. Ghosh suggests fiction, myth, and epic make it possible to imagine the world “as if it were other than it is”, which is “exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis” (128). He adds, “to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide” (Ibid). At first, Powers’ efforts to meet Ghosh’s challenge might conjure the famous diagram of human evolution:

Left to right: Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses, Macbeth, Overstory, new myths…

But this diagram presents modern humans as ‘more evolved’ than our ancestors, suggesting evolution has a ‘destination’ that is us. If Powers is not suggesting Overstory is ‘more evolved’ than Gilgamesh or his novel is the ‘destination’ of narrative tradition, what is he saying? Tree rings, a metaphor and narrative device throughout Overstory, help answer this question. After Olivia dies, Nick sleeps on the massive tree stump of Mimas, the tree they tried to save:

He lies on his side as night comes on, his head on a wadded jacket near the ring laid down the year Charlemagne died. Somewhere underneath his coccyx, Columbus. Past his ankles, the first Hoel leaves Norway for Brooklyn and the expanses of Iowa. Beyond the length of his body, crowding up to the cut’s cliff, are the rings of his own birth, the death of his family, the roadside visit of the woman [Olivia] who recognized him, who taught him how to hang on and live.

A more accurate diagram of Powers’ work on the evolution of myth might therefore look like this:

Powers hints at this through Mimi: “Time was not a line unrolling in front of her. It was a column of concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outward along the outermost rim” (42-3). In short, our past is not behind us, it is within us, as will be our future. It is through Ray, however, after his aneurism renders him as immobile as he (and Macbeth) once considered trees to be, that Powers most succinctly summarises humanity’s need for new myths in the face of the Anthropocene:

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one […] and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. But Ray needs fiction now as much as anyone (478-9).

—as much as everyone.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh ed. Andrew George (London: Penguin Books, 1999).

Damore, David F, Robert E Lang, and Karen A Danielsen. Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America’s Swing States (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021).

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Ovid. Metamorphoses trans. David Raeburn (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

Powers, Richard. The Overstory (London: Vintage, 2018).

Shakespeare, William. First Folio: Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623).

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNiell, “The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives”, Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 369, no. 1938, 13 March 2011, pp. 842–867.

“urðr”, Old Norse Online, The University of Texas at Austin, Linguistics Research Center, http://www.lrc.la.utexas.edu; accessed 1 October 2020.

NZ stand (together) 2m APART

A piece of graffiti appeared in Wellington soon after the Christchurch terror attacks in March 2019. It read “NZ stand together”. It was updated a year later in March 2020 for COVID-19; a sign of the times.



As I write this, COVID-19 has infected 1.2 million people, 64,000 of whom are dead. The true scale of the pandemic, particularly in developing nations, will likely never be known; estimates will range in the millions. To reduce those numbers as much as possible, the entire world has come to a screeching halt. Humanity is in lockdown. Nobody knows how long this will last, but unemployment is certain to spiral as entire industries are being wiped out. Governments are mobilising in ways not seen since World War II, writing blank cheques to mitigate an economic collapse rivalling the Great Depression. Undeniably, these are historic days. Not since 9/11 has the world been so suddenly upended, so irreversibly divided into distinct eras before and after the event. While this is less ‘spectacular’ and less symbolic than jetliners knocking down skyscrapers, it is no less deadly; it comes with its own sense of the surreal, wholly quieter and eerily dispassionate.

9/11 and its repercussions were horrific: the Middle East was set ablaze, civil liberties were eroded, trillions of dollars were wasted, and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. It’s hard to think of a single positive resulting from that September morning. If peace is the only real tribute to the victims of war, then the victims of the War on Terror are yet to have their tribute. But perhaps they finally will if we learn not to make the same mistakes; those who die from COVID-19 needn’t die for nothing. We have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our economies in fair and sustainable ways which will improve not only our quality of life but that of future generations. It’s clear that generation-defining action to a crisis is possible; if we can do it to stop a virus, we can do it to stop ourselves from becoming a virus. We can tackle climate change; we can work to end poverty; good can come from bad.

After all, the Black Death helped spark the Renaissance.

Hand of God

My Own Eulogy


One should only write such a thing
in a good mood.
And I am.
I am.

Scatter me in the trees and sunlight
in the wooded, fern-laden hills
of my country
after a day of food and drink
where birds speak for us
and play Nostalgia by Ethiopiques
for that is where you shall always find me
smiling drifting living dying ending. being
Then get mad and drunk and high and jam
or go to bed and wake in the morning
to be whoever you want to be

Saga of the West

‘Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Carl Rasmussen, 1875.

‘Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Carl Rasmussen, 1875.

When a Genoese mariner sailed west across the ‘Ocean Sea’ in search of Asia in 1492, he happened upon the Americas and claimed them for the Spanish Crown that had financed his voyage. Christopher Columbus’ return to Spain in 1493 laid the foundations for contact between Europe and what he thought were Asia’s eastern shores, the ‘Indies’. In 1501, another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, seconded Columbus’ subsequent realisation that the shores were not Asian at all, but an entirely separate continent “unknown” to European powers. This ‘New World’ soon bore Vespucci’s name, and by Columbus’ death in 1506, the link between the ‘Old World’ and America was firmly established, forever changing human events (1).

Or rather, the link was firmly reestablished. Half a millennia earlier, the Vikings had already begun colonising parts of North America. Their story is recorded in literature known as the Icelandic Sagas (Íslendingasögur). Set mainly between c. 850 and c. 1050 AD, the traditionally oral (2) sagas were committed to vellum in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (3), the word ‘saga’ being Old Norse for ‘what is said, utterance’ (4). Two sagas recount the Viking exploits in North America: The Saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendinga Saga) and The Saga of Erik the Red (Eiríks Saga Rauða). By investigating the potential transmission of the sagas and Columbus’ own whereabouts, this paper will seek to answer the question that naturally arises: did the Íslendingasögur help inspire Columbus’ first voyage?

‘First Landing of Columbus of the Shores of the New World’ by Dióscoro Puebla, 1892

‘First Landing of Columbus of the Shores of the New World’ by Dióscoro Puebla, 1892.

Humanity in the Americas

The first humans to set foot in the Americas came on foot. During the Last Glacial Period (c. 115,00 – c. 11,700 years ago), what is now the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was bridged by the lost region of ‘Beringia’. Over the millennia (c. 25,000 – c. 15,000 years ago), humans moved from Asia across Beringia into the Americas. The end of the Last Glacial Period saw sea levels rise to their current position, severing the human connection between the landmasses of Afro-Eurasia and America. Isolated, these early Americans soon populated North and South America with cultures and civilisations independent of those in the Old World (5). Thousands of years later, the long-lost cousins of humanity reunited on 12 October 1492 when Columbus landed in the Bahamas and encountered the Lucayan. In none of their wildest imaginations did either group think they were meeting their distant relatives.

Beringia, the bridge between Asia and the Americas near the end of the Last Glacial Period

Beringia, the bridge between Asia and the Americas near the end of the Last Glacial Period.

Yet this was not the first ‘family reunion’. While Greenland is not connected to mainland North America, it is often considered part of the North American continent—though the definition of ‘continent’ varies—as it sits on the North American tectonic plate and shares flora and fauna with the mainland (6). ‘Chapter 2’ of Eiríks Saga Rauða tells of Greenland’s naming and colonisation by Erik the Red in the late tenth century; Europeans’ first contact with the Americas. ‘Chapter 8’ tells of the first contact with mainland North America, when Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, reaches ‘Helluland’, ‘Markland’, and ‘Vinland’, which twentieth-century archaeology suggests are Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland (7). Thorfinn Karlsefni later follows Leif’s route and in ‘Chapter 12’ he battles the ‘Skrælingar’, ancestors of today’s Inuit:

There was seen approaching from the south a great crowd of Skrælingar boats … the Skrælingar were all howling loudly. Then took they and bare red shields to meet them. They encountered one another and fought, and there was a great shower of missiles (8).

Woodcut frontispiece of Erik the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson’s ‘Gronlandia’, 1688

Woodcut frontispiece of Erik the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson’s ‘Gronlandia’, 1688.

Commemorative U.S. stamp of Leif Erikson, issued on Leif Erikson Day, 9 October 1968

Commemorative U.S. stamp of Leif Erikson, issued on Leif Erikson Day, 9 October 1968.

Bronze statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni by Einar Jónsson, Philadelphia, 1920.

Bronze statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni by Einar Jónsson, Philadelphia, 1920.

Columbus’ enslavement of the Taíno in Hispaniola in the 1490s was not the first episode of violence and inhumanity between people of the Old and New Worlds. But as Fitzhugh writes:

Not least is the question of whether Nordic knowledge of the northwestern North Atlantic and its lands and peoples was transmitted to Europe from its medieval manuscripts and tradition-bearers in Iceland and Scandinavia, what information this consisted of, and whether it influenced later European exploration (9).

Columbus offers us no easy answers, for if he did know of the Íslendingasögur, he never indicated so (10). In Libro de las profecías (Book of Prophecies)—his collection of Biblical, Classical, and even Islamic sources ‘proving’ his Divine fulfillment of ancient prophecy—he makes no mention of the Íslendingasögur (11), nor in his letters (12). Yet their absence alone from his writing does not mean he never encountered them. Plausible reasons for their omission include: he did not consider them noteworthy; he chose not to cite them; he cited them in work still undiscovered. Short of unearthing hypothetical documents, this paper will instead seek to determine the probabilities of Columbus and the Íslendingasögur crossing paths. To do this, both their paths need to be traced.

Transmission of the Íslendingasögur

The Íslendingasögur “exercised enduring influence upon the English literature of the Middle Ages” (13), but Columbus’ opportunity to encounter either their printed or oral forms in fifteenth-century Spain or Portugal was limited. Like the people mentioned in the sagas, it is hard to know precisely how far they themselves travelled. To determine where the sagas could have theoretically travelled by Columbus’ lifetime, we need to define the geographic extents of the ‘Viking World’.

Contemporary map of Old Norse place names by Sandra Rimmer, revealing the extent of the known world to the Medieval Nordic elite

Contemporary map of Old Norse place-names by Sandra Rimmer, revealing the extent of the known world to the Medieval Nordic elite.

Graham-Campbell describes the Viking World as consisting of “a loose grouping of the Scandinavian homelands and new overseas colonies, linked by sea routes that reached across the Baltic and North Sea, spanning even the Atlantic”. Those colonies stretched from Novgorod to Normandy, and possibly even Newfoundland, while Viking raids took place in the Mediterranean and North Africa (14). After the ‘Viking Age’ (c. 790 – c. 1050 AD) (15), by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Christianisation of Scandinavia saw members of the Nordic elite pilgrimaging to Rome and the Holy Land (16). In the twelfth century, Icelandic, Danish, and Norwegian clerics studied at universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Orleans, Montpellier, and Bologna. By Columbus’ lifetime, Scandinavians were studying in Prague, Leipzig, Vienna, and Rostock (17). This is not to say that the Íslendingasögur necessarily travelled to these places too, but they could have. Additionally, with Scandinavians adopting the Latin alphabet in the eleventh century (18) and the first Icelandic histories being written in the vernacular and Latin (19), it is also possible that the Íslendingasögur could have been read, transcribed, or translated beyond Scandinavia.

The numbers of verified pre-Columbian Íslendingasögur manuscripts suggest this scenario is incredibly unlikely. No other saga survives in as many copies as Njáls Saga, of which there are just 18 extant copies, all in Scandinavia (20). With parameters set between 1200 and 1500 AD, Karlsson totals the number of existing texts at 59. Including earlier fragments, Lethbridge counts 64. Of Grænlendinga Saga and Eiríks Saga Rauða, Lethbridge counts just one and three copies respectively (21). That four copies survive is undoubtedly remarkable, that Columbus read one of them is undoubtedly impossible. Unless a miraculous fifth copy is someday unearthed miles from Iceland, it can be safely assumed none ever accompanied the Nordic elite to European universities or on pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.

While Columbus never read the sagas during his time in the Mediterranean and Iberia, spoken versions cannot be dismissed so confidently. Unsurprisingly, Flint’s chapter on the texts Columbus is known to have read makes no mention of the Íslendingasögur (22). More surprising is their absence in her following chapter of “the stories of water and sea crossings [Columbus] knew, or might have known” (23). If a lifelong mariner like Columbus was as insatiable for clues of what lay to the west as Granzotto (24) and Philips (25) suggest he was, why is Flint left with nothing to say about the Íslendingasögur?

The dissemination of the Íslendingasögur was so limited, in part, because Iceland had a “conservative, exclusive society” which “maintained heavy restrictions on change” (26). Far from the affairs and concerns of continental Europe, Icelanders had about as much interest in sharing the Íslendingasögur with the outside world as the outside world had in hearing them—excepting, perhaps, certain explorers. Foreign interest in the Íslendingasögur is a more recent phenomenon. It was not until the nineteenth century when Scandinavian migration to the United States increased and English translations of Scandinavian histories became available, that interest in Viking history spread beyond its traditional bounds of Scandinavia (27). Other than King Eirik of Denmark marrying Princess Philippa of England, who happened to be a cousin of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, Seaver writes “it is doubtful that the Spanish and Portuguese paid much attention to either Denmark or Norway in the late Middle Ages” (28). Even Icelanders at the time saw little importance in the territorial discoveries of Leif Erikson, Clements suggesting “Vinland was merely one more place where they could find furs and wood” (29). To Icelanders, the sagas serving as entertainment and expressions of cultural memory spoke of people and places closer to home (30). The common trait of intertextuality between sagas of genealogical histories, family feuds, and local places render single sagas taken out of this context largely meaningless and uninteresting to outsiders (31).

By the 1180s, the colonies in Greenland had come under Norwegian rule (32), and evidence that knowledge of Arctic colonies had spread beyond Scandinavia, if not knowledge of the Íslendingasögur themselves, is found in Church documents. A letter from Pope Nicholas V, dated 20 September 1448, concerns the Bishopric of Garðar in Greenland, the ‘Diocese of Ice’, which had become “cut off from Scandinavia … imprisoned in the ice, abandoned by all, left without support or hope” (33). The letter reads:

Profoundly impressed therefore with the responsibility of our position, it is not difficult to understand how our mind was filled with bitterness by the tearful lamentations which have reached our ears from our beloved children, the native and other inhabitants of the island of Greenland, a region situated at the uttermost end of the earth (34).

Two things are noteworthy. Firstly, there is no reference to colonies or lands beyond Greenland, it is ‘the uttermost end of the earth’. Secondly, Greenland is described as a faraway island, not a part of Asia nor any other continent (35). These are significant points in light of other documents. In c. 1070, the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, wrote in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen) of his conversations with King Sweyn II of Denmark. Adam specifically mentions Vinland—tentatively believed today to be located at the L’Anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland (36)—making it the earliest European record of the Americas (37):

[Sweyn II] spoke also yet of another island of the many found in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes (38).

Fifty years later, Pope Paschal II appointed Eiríkur Gnúpsson as the first Bishop of Garðar and its “lands to the west” (39). According to the Íslendingasögur, however, Gnúpsson went looking for Vinland in 1121—the same year he received episcopal consecration in Lund, Denmark, from Archbishop Adzar (40)—suggesting contact between Greenland and Vinland had been lost (41). Bishop Jon Smyrill later made a pilgrimage from Greenland to Rome before his death in 1206 (42), but even if he had spoken of Vinland, any knowledge from him, or from Adam and Paschal II, appears forgotten in Nicholas V’s 1448 letter. Furthermore, the information privy to Nicholas V regarding Greenland, or Vinland to previous Pontiffs, and that privy to Columbus does not simply overlap. Nonetheless, Rome’s ties to the Catholic monarchies of Portugal and Spain, alongside Columbus’ own relationship to these monarchies, means the possibility of Columbus knowing of Greenland or Vinland cannot be ruled out entirely. In any case, however slight the possibility, Columbus’ knowledge would not have come from the Íslendingasögur, it would have bypassed them altogether.

Scholars who claim Columbus had knowledge of the Íslendingasögur often provide poor evidence or none at all. For example, Ólafsson writes unequivocally “Icelandic chroniclers spread the knowledge of these new lands to Europe. It is likely that Columbus knew about this discovery when he sailed west” (43). But he provides no sources for his assertions. Fitzhugh writes “Some scholars believe that [Columbus] … must have grasped the import of the Norse voyages” and cites “Stefansson 1942, Egilsson 1991, Quinn 1992, and Seaver 1996” (44). Yet enquiry into these sources reveals immediate flaws. Fitzhugh’s bibliography lists two of Stefansson’s works but neither date to 1942. Egilsson’s 1991 article appears in a magazine promoting Icelandic culture, Iceland Review. Published by MD Reykjavík, a tourism company, there is no publicly available archive of their publications (45), but given the quincentennial of Columbus’ first voyage was to take place the following year, Egilsson’s work is likely a celebration of Columbus’ Icelandic connection. No ‘Quinn’ appears in Fitzhugh’s bibliography, but he is probably referring to David B. Quinn, a specialist in North American colonisation. Quinn also wrote during the quincentennial, but his article appears to contradict Fitzhugh’s claim:

There is no need to suggest that [Columbus] learned of the medieval Greenland colony: Icelanders had lost interest in it after Norway took control of contacts with it in the late thirteenth century. He is still less likely to have heard of the Vinland sagas, even if they had been retained in folk memory, which is very doubtful, or had been written down in unintelligible language between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries (46).

The closest Seaver comes in her 1996 book, The Frozen Echo, to supporting Fitzhugh is when discussing Columbus’ possible trip to Galway, writing if he did make such a voyage then “accounts of unfamiliar land glimpsed by storm-tossed crews must have joined both vague tales of Vínland and reports of relatively uneventful working voyages to such well-known places such as Iceland” (47). Evidently, we must now assess the whereabouts of Columbus himself.

Travels of Christopher Columbus

In the Journal of his first voyage, Columbus wrote on 21 December 1492:

I have traversed the sea for 23 years, without leaving it for any time worth counting, and I saw all in the east and the west, going on the route of the north, which is England, and I have been to Guinea (48).

There appears no reason to doubt Columbus’ claim that he visited the West African coast, ‘Guinea’. The town of Elmina in Ghana grew around the São Jorge da Mina Castle, which the Portuguese completed in 1481 (49). Logic dictates that Columbus must have visited Elmina between 1481 and his proposal of a westward Atlantic voyage to the Portuguese in 1484-85 (50), as notes either written or authorised by him refuting the idea of an uninhabitable equator state:

It is not uninhabitable, for the Portuguese sail through it today, and it is even very populous, and under the equator is the castle of Mina of the most serene king of Portugal, which we have seen (52).

Elmina Castle as viewed from the sea by Georg Braun, 1572

Elmina Castle as viewed from the sea by Georg Braun, 1572.

Less convincing are the details surrounding Columbus’ “much-debated” (53) northern voyage, his ‘route of the north’, in the 1470s. Such a voyage could have very easily brought him into contact with some iteration of the Íslendingasögur, if it happened. Fernández-Armesto’s chronology of Columbus’ life states Columbus “Makes voyage to Iceland, perhaps via England and Ireland” next to the year “1477?” (54). He later adds:

Columbus might well have joined a Bristolian venture to Iceland. There is nothing inherently implausible in his claim, and his participation in such a voyage would also provide a context for the visit to Galway in Ireland which he mentioned in another marginal annotation (55).

That annotation appears in Columbus’ copy of d’Ally’s Imago Mundi and translates to “Men of Cathay have come from the west. [Of this] we have seen many signs. And especially in Galway in Ireland” (56). This note is not itself evidence that Columbus himself visited Ireland, but if stories of ‘Chinese’ bodies washing ashore in Galway hold some truth, an explanation might be that indigenous Americans, whose distant Asian ancestors crossed Beringia, could appear thus that Europeans could not distinguish them from Chinese. Instances of this phenomenon occurring in the Azores are cited by Morison (57) and Knox-Johnston, the latter writing “two bodies with Chinese-type faces (probably Eskimos) were found on a beach at Flores in the Azores” (58). The likelihood of corpses drifting across the Atlantic aside, why would Columbus have travelled to Galway in the first place? One explanation might be if he was en route to the farthest known land to most Europeans, ‘Ultima Thule’, Iceland. But if he travelled as far north as Iceland, why write ‘the north, which is England’?

As with the Íslendingasögur, Columbus offers us no easy answers regarding Iceland since he never wrote of such a voyage (59). His son, Ferdinand, is our sole source for the voyage and the evidence he cited has since been lost (60). Nevertheless, he claimed his father wrote:

In the month of February, 1477, I sailed one hundred leagues beyond the island of Tile [Thule], whose northern part is in latitude 73 degrees N, and not 63 degrees as some affirm, nor does it lie upon the meridian where Ptolemy says the West begins, but much farther west. And to this island, which is as big as England, the English come with their wares, especially from Bristol. When I was there, the sea was not frozen, but the tides were so great that in some places they rose twenty-six fathoms, and fell as much in depth (61).

The loss of Ferdinand’s physical evidence has led to the content of it coming under heavy scrutiny, particularly the impossible tidal measurements, the incorrect latitudinal coordinates, and the apparent folly of sailing amid the Arctic winter. Hanns Graefe offers explanations: Columbus was using Arabic measurements for the tide; he was not referring to the latitude of Iceland but Jan Mayen; his report of an ice-free coast is corroborated in “old records” found by Magnusen and is a fact that could only have been known to Columbus “as a result of personal experience” (62). Debate about measurement systems has validity (63), but Graefe’s claim that Columbus was giving the latitude of Jan Mayen is contradicted by the comparison in size to England. Whether Columbus was referring to the island of Great Britain (209,331 km2) or literally the country of England (130,395 km²) is unclear, but a comparison between either to Iceland (103,000 km2) in 1477 is more forgivable than to Jan Mayen (377 km2). What Magnusen’s ‘old records’ were, Graefe does not say, but both Storm and Ruddock cite evidence in the Icelandic Annals that refer to 1476–77 as “unusually mild” (64). Another of Magnusen’s claims, however, is described by Storm as “fantasy” (65) and De Lollis suspects it of being “freshly fabricated” (66). Lacking evidence, Magnusen claims that Bishop Magnus Eyjolsson of Skálholt was abbot of the monastery of Helgafell, where Grænlendinga Saga and Eiríks Saga Rauða were supposedly kept, and when Eyjolsson met Columbus in 1477, he showed them to him (67). Lacy, also with no sources given, paints a similarly Romantic scene of Columbus in Bristol, “where news of the Norse voyages would have made good conversation over a mug of ale” (68).

Established trade networks and a lack of record-keeping do leave open the possibility that Columbus entered England en route further north. Fifteenth-century Genoese merchants sailed to Southampton and London, and while Genoa and Bristol had no direct link, Lisbon and Bristol did. Bristol was the main English port for trade with Galway and Iceland (69), and despite no customs records of Columbus entering England exist, no records at all exist for Southampton in 1476–77 (70). Open-ended possibilities abound, but does any proof?

Ronciére first presented the so-called ‘Paris Map’ in 1924, now housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale, verifying for some Columbus’ northern voyage. The Paris Map depicts the North Atlantic with particular details of Norway, Ireland, and Iceland, which Seaver says provide “significant clues to Columbus’s geographical knowledge on the eve of his first trans-Atlantic voyage”. Rather than being the work of Columbus and his brother, Bartholomew, Nebenzahl suggests the Paris Map was merely commissioned by Columbus. Nevertheless, Pelletier concludes the Columbuses were involved in its creation. But the Paris Map proves only his knowledge, not his northern voyage (71). How else then could Columbus have come to possess such knowledge if not through personal experience?

The ‘Paris Map’ (1491), potentially revealing Columbus’ geographical knowledge of the North Atlantic and proving the veracity of his voyage to Iceland.

The ‘Paris Map’ (1491), potentially revealing Columbus’ geographical knowledge of the North Atlantic and proving the veracity of his voyage to Iceland.

Palos in Spain is where Columbus first set sail in 1492, but its significance is more than symbolic because the Friary of La Rábida is located there and may have been the site where Columbus learnt of the north. Hunter (72) and Ruddock (73) both provide evidence that Bristolian merchants had contact with the Franciscans at La Rábida. Columbus’ own connection to La Rábida is not disputed and this is the most likely scenario in which information regarding the Bristol-Galway-Iceland route could have been shared with him. Such information could explain Columbus’ vague and incorrect notes and supplied him with details for the Paris Map. It is simply unknown if Bristolian merchants also shared the Íslendingasögur at La Rábida.


Seeking conclusions and closure in storytelling is a universal human instinct, but historical enquiry does not always satisfy this desire and all we can state for certain is an uncertainty: we do not know if Columbus ever knew of the Íslendingasögur. Written Íslendingasögur almost certainly never crossed Columbus during his time in the Mediterranean—but oral accounts may have, particularly at La Rábida. It is possible Columbus encountered the Íslendingasögur in either form in the North Atlantic—if he went there. He might have learned of the Viking colonies through Church sources—though this remains unclear. Frustrating as this may seem, the intertextuality of the Íslendingasögur offers a satisfaction to our need for narrative conclusion, a need which probably drives so much of the unsubstantiated writing on this subject. From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, by viewing the different strands of ‘discovery’ of the Americas, from Beringia to Vinland to Columbus, as individual episodes of one great human story requiring no fictional contrivances, we can appreciate the true wonder of humanity’s collective ‘Saga of the West’.



  1. Wilcomb E. Washburn, ‘The Meaning of “Discovery” in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries’, The American Historical Review, vol. 68, no. 1, October 1962, pp. 9–10.
  2. Emily Lethbridge, ‘The Icelandic Sagas and Saga Landscapes: Writing, Reading and Retelling Íslendingasögur Narratives’, Gripla, vol. 27, January 2016, p. 56.

  3. James H. Barrett, Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2003), p. 140.

  4. ‘ONP: Dictionary of Old Norse Prose’, University of Copenhagen, http://www.onp.ku.dk; accessed 22 January 2020.

  5. Ker Than, ‘On Way to New World, First Americans Made a 10,000-Year Pit Stop’, National Geographic; http://www.nationalgeographic.com; accessed 29 January 2020.

  6. Emily Upton, ‘Why Greenland is an Island and Australia is a Continent’, University of California, Santa Barbara; http://www.geog.ucsb.edu; accessed 3 February 2020.

  7. Jonathan Clements, A Brief History of the Vikings (European Union: Avalon, 2005), pp. 150–151.

  8. ‘Eiríks Saga Rauða’, trans. J. Sephton, The Icelandic Saga Database; http://www.sagadb.org; accessed 24 January 2020.

  9. William W. Fitzhugh, ‘Puffins, Ringed Pins, and Runestones: The Viking Passage to America’, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, ed. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Japan: Smithsonian Institution 2000), p. 13.

  10. John Noble Wilford, The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 75.

  11. Carol Delaney, ‘Columbus’s Ultimate Goal: Jerusalem’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 48, no. 2, April 2006, p. 266.

  12. Christopher Columbus, The Authentic Letters of Christopher Columbus, trans. William Eleroy Curtis (Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, 1895), pp. 118–192.

  13. Alexander Bugge, ‘The Origin and Credibility of the Icelandic Saga’, The American Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 2, January 1909, p. 259.

  14. James Graham-Campbell, The Viking World (Hong Kong: Frances Lincoln, 2001), p. 10.

  15. Knut Helle, ‘Introduction’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 5.

  16. Eljas Orrman, ‘Church and Society’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 457–458.

  17. Lars Lönnroth, Vésteinn Ólason, and Anders Piltz, ‘Literature’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 495.

  18. Thomas Lindkvist, ‘Early political organisation: (a) Introduction survey’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 160.

  19. Nicolas Jaramillo, Íslendingabók and the Book of the Icelandic Sagas (Oslo: University of Oslo Press, 2018), p. 10.

  20. Emily Lethbridge, ‘‘‘Hvorki glansar gull á mér/né glæstir stafir í línum”: A Survey of Medieval Icelandic Íslendingasögur Manuscripts and the Case of Njáls saga’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi, vol. 129, 2014, pp. 55–56.

  21. Ibid, p. 65.

  22. Valerie I. J. Flint, The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 42–77.

  23. Ibid, pp. 78–112.

  24. Gianni Granzotto, Christopher Columbus (London: Guild Publishing, 1986), p. 34.

  25. William D. Phillips, Jr., ‘Columbus and European Views of the World’, The American Neptune, vol. 53, no. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 263–264.

  26. Clements, p. 137.

  27. Ibid, p. 8.

  28. Kirsten A. Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca A.D. 1000-1500 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 256.

  29. Clements, p. 158.

  30. Lethbridge, 2016, pp. 54–55.

  31. Ibid, p. 75.

  32. Magnús Stefánsson, ‘8 (d) The Norse island communities of the Western Ocean’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 213.

  33. Lewis Rey, ‘The Evangelization of the Arctic in the Middle Ages: Gardar, the “Diocese of Ice”’, Arctic, vol. 37, no. 4, December 1984, pp. 330–331.

  34. Nicholas V, ‘Letter of Nicholas V., September 20, 1448’, The Voyages of the Northmen, ed. Julius E. Olson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), pp. 70–71.

  35. Ibid, p. 70.

  36. Stefánsson, p. 212.

  37. R. I. Page, Chronicles of the Vikings: Records, Memorials, and Myths (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 92–93.

  38. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trans. Francis J. Tschan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 219.

  39. Terry G. Lacy, Ring of Seasons: Iceland, Its Culture and History (United States: The University of Michigan Press, 1998), p. 133.

  40. Richard H. Clarke, Lives of the Deceased Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States: Volume I (New York: P. O’Shea, 1872), p. 17.

  41. Stefánsson, p. 213.

  42. Rey, p. 331.

  43. Haraldur Ólafsson, ‘Sagas of Western Expansion’, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, eds. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Japan: Smithsonian Institution, 2000) p. 143.

  44. Fitzhugh, p. 13.

  45. ‘About Iceland Review’, Iceland Review; http://www.icelandreview.com/about-us; accessed 5 February 2020.

  46. David B. Quinn, ‘Columbus and the North: England, Iceland, and Ireland’, The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, April 1992, p. 285.

  47. Seaver, p. 208.

  48. Christopher Columbus, The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492–1493), trans. Clements Robert Markham, (London: Chas J. Clark, 1893), p. 121.

  49. Wilford, p. 76.

  50. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. xvii.

  51. P. E. H. Hair, ‘Was Columbus’ First Very Long Voyage a Voyage from Guinea?’, History in Africa, vol. 22, 1995, p. 223.

  52. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942), p. 41.

  53. Paulo Emilio Taviani, Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design, trans. William Weaver, ed. John Gilbert (London: Orbis Publishing, 1985), p. 319.

  54. Fernández-Armesto, p. xvii.

  55. Ibid, p. 19.

  56. Quinn, p. 284.

  57. Morison, p. 60.

  58. Robin Knox-Johnston, The Columbus Venture (London: BBC Books, 1991), p. 22.

  59. Alwyn A. Ruddock, ‘Columbus and Iceland: New Light on an Old Problem’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 136, no. 2, June 1970, p. 180.

  60. Ruddock, p. 180.

  61. Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus: by his son Ferdinand, trans. Benjamin Keen (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1959), p. 11.

  62. Hanns Graefe, ‘Die Islandfahrt des Columbus vom Jahre 1477’, Erdkunde, vol. 9, no. 2, May 1955, p. 153.

  63. Seaver, pp. 210–211.

  64. Ruddock, p. 183.

  65. G. Storm, ‘Studier over Vinlandreiserne’, Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, 1887, pp. 369–71.

  66. Cesare De Lollis, Cristoforo Colombo nella leggenda e nella storia (Rome: 1923), p. 44.

  67. Taviani, p. 351.

  68. Lacy, p. 133.

  69. Taviani, pp. 318–319.

  70. Quinn, p. 280.

  71. Seaver, pp. 208–210.

  72. Douglas Hunter, The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery (United States: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 213.

  73. Ruddock, p. 187.