The research skills developed while working here at Te Ara can be hard to leave behind when we knock off for the day.

The other night I was winding down by reading a recent novel called The dream of the Celt, by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s about the real-life character Roger Casement, an Irish patriot, humanitarian and convicted traitor. Most of the book is set in the jungles of the Congo and Amazon, so it’s satisfyingly remote from the material we work with daily on Te Ara.

But then I came across a mention of Casement’s friend Herbert Ward, an English sculptor and explorer. He was said to have travelled to such far-flung parts as Australia, central Africa, San Francisco, Borneo – and New Zealand. Was Ward also a real person, I wondered, and if so, did he leave any traces of his time in this country?

The magnificent Papers Past website instantly confirmed that Herbert Ward arrived in Auckland in January 1879, direct from his English public school and aged just 16. I have a son that age myself, and I wondered what Ward’s parents thought of him taking such a journey unaccompanied. But he appears to have been a resourceful fellow.

A young Herbert Ward (from A valiant gentleman, facing p. 9)

A young Herbert Ward (from A valiant gentleman, facing p. 9)

Ignoring standard tourist destinations such as the hot lakes, Ward headed for the King Country, at that time the nearly inaccessible refuge of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement). There he met King Tāwhiao and got on so well with his people that they proposed to tattoo him. On the night before this ceremony was to take place, Ward’s courage failed and he slipped away.

He worked as a stock rider, circus performer and miner before spending two years among headhunters in North Borneo. Then this exceptionally adventurous young man, still aged only 24, travelled to central Africa where he worked closely with the legendary explorer Henry Stanley, the man who coined the immortal phrase, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’

I next learned that Ward is the subject of a biography (A valiant gentleman: being the biography of Herbert Ward, artist and man of action), and I had a look at it the next time I contacted the Hocken Library on Te Ara business. The book confirmed that the young Englishman had ‘lived for nearly a year among the Maoris’ and had learned, among many other skills, to ‘execute a passable war dance … and managed, as youngsters do, to pick up their language.’

I finished The dream of the Celt eventually, and enjoyed it, despite being led far astray by my own adventures in the archives.

Leave a comment

By posting comments you signify that agree to and accept the Terms and Conditions of this Blog.