Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Bully Hayes the Blackbirder

If I were inclined to become a smuggler of contraband—which I’m not, as the whole thing strikes me as being too much like hard work—this would certainly be the place to do it. It’s so isolated, so remote, so uninvolved with the rest of the world. And yet it’s also just a hop, skip and a jump to the voracious metropolis to the north. Provided you navigated the bar without mishap, all you’d need do is pull up at the jetty and off-load whatever goods you were importing. The only policeman in town would most likely be elsewhere—fishing. I swear you could deposit a boat-load of elephants on that jetty and there’d be hardly anyone around to notice, and anyone who was around would just offer to help you get them off. Of course, I’m not recommending anyone do this. Smuggling contraband, including elephants, is a low and disreputable occupation, with the exception of smuggling whisky during the Prohibition—then it was a point of honour and just plain good sense. Rather, my musings along this line are just a way of emphasising the beautiful, lonely remoteness  of this place. Also, it puts me in mind of W.H. Hayes, better known as ‘Bully’ Hayes. And I’ve been meaning to speak of him for some time.

Bully was born in 1827. Or 1829. You see, right from the get-go, Bully was mysterious and romantic. He died in 1877 when his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, shot him with a revolver, hit him on the head with an iron implement (a skillet, presumably) and then threw him overboard, to the very great distress of absolutely no one (indeed, Pete may well have been the recipient of rousing applause). Bully also died before then, but we’ll come to that in due course. Bully was someone you might describe as an adventurer. Also a liar, a cheat and a generally repellent sort of character. As a smuggler of contraband, his choice of cargo was mainly people, although he wasn’t averse to taking coconuts as well. He was, to use the nomenclature of the time, a ‘blackbirder’. He would visit the Pacific Islands and persuade, cajole, threaten, promise, lie and kidnap until he had enough  ‘recruits’ on his brig. Then he’d haul them off to plantations where they provided cheap labour. I don’t know if he enjoyed his work—sometimes we just have to take whatever’s available.

Still, to be fair, he hadn’t always been so bad, although he was probably never very good. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His dad plied liquor, an honourable enough profession provided you sell more of the stock than you drink. When Bully grew up, he went to make his fortune in Australia during the 1850s gold-rush. But while others found nuggets in the ground, poor old Bully just found dirt. With debts mounting as high as his dirt pile, Bully decided that it might be easier to find gold in New Zealand, so off he went to Otago. Instead of gold, though, Bully discovered the stage. He joined a troupe of vaudeville artists and toured the country. And he found love, a treasure much richer than gold, even if without the same utility. He married a widow, Rosa Buckingham, whose four sons were also vaudeville artists. In those days, it seems you were either looking for gold or doing vaudeville. He and his new wife opened a hotel in Arrowtown and called it ‘The United States’, but sensing that local sympathies tended more towards the Crown than the rebellious colonies, they renamed it ‘The Prince of Wales’.

Now, at this juncture, Bully might reasonably have expected to have settled into a pleasant and entirely unexceptionable life, seeing out his days serving up ale and the easy wisdom of a publican. And had he done so, he would surely have disappeared entirely from the pages of history. But anyone who’s been around the block more than once will tell you that you can have all the reasonable expectations in the world, but if Fate has something different in mind, you might as well relieve yourself into the wind for all the good those expectations will do you. And so it was with Bully. Although history doesn’t record the precise details, some happenstance set Bully at odds with the four vaudevillian Buckingham boys. Bent on vengeance, they wanted their pound of flesh, and they went after it in a particularly cruel manner—for a reward of £5, they invited anyone who could to cut off Bully’s . . . hair. Now, as history does record, the only noteworthy time that such an act, maliciously conceived, has been performed concerned the locks of the mighty Samson. It is, that is to say, an uncommon practice, but in the present instance it fit the bill—there was method in the madness of the Buckingham boys. Certainly, Bully’s hair, as far as we know today, was of little moment to his strength. Nor is there any suggestion that his hair was especially handsome, such that cutting it off would might have profoundly hurt Bully’s sensitivities. Rather, it was the case that Bully’s long locks concealed a dreadful secret—he was missing an ear! And why was he missing this most useful of appendages? Because it had been sliced off in California after he had been nabbed cheating at cards. O Bully, will your sins never be forgiven!

Humiliated before the world, made mock of even in the theatre, Bully gathered up the shabby remains of his reputation and left town. Finding his way to Port Chalmers, he acquired a brig and so began his wicked career as a blackbirder, a venture he got underway by abducting and then ravishing a young girl from Akaroa. By the late 1860s, Bully was, in the words of one report, ‘wanted by the police of nearly every country of the South Seas, on charges of almost every indictable crime on the calendar, from murder to common piracy.’ An exaggeration, possibly, but you get the idea. Then, in May 1868, it was reported in all the newspapers that Bully had met that most terrible of deaths—which is to say, an ‘untimely’ one. After a quarrel with his first mate, it was said, Bully had challenged him to a duel. Going ashore for this purpose in Fiji, the first mate had reportedly shot Bully, foolish enough to have gone ahead, in the back. The extent of honour among thieves and brigands and all the rest is well known, so no one would have been surprised by this. The only real surprise was that it wasn’t true. It seems it was just a story cooked up by Bully to throw the law off his tail. Indeed, it seems Bully quite enjoyed propagating tales of his own demise—a newspaper later wryly noted that Bully had turned up once again, in spite of the various reports of his ‘death by violence, shipwreck, and sundry other causes received from time to time’.

Now, you might reasonably say, this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Kawhia? Well, Bully wasn’t averse to trading of a more legitimate kind, and one day, finding himself in the vicinity of this port, he determined to offer the wares he was carrying to the local Maori. As the country was then in the grip of war, he knew there would be a healthy demand for what he had to offer—firearms and liquor, both of which, any soldier will tell you, are essential for the successful carrying on of warfare. Then, when business was done, Bully decided that this quiet little spot was just the place to give his Leonora a much-needed scraping and cleaning. So the boat was hauled from the water and his men set about removing the barnacles.

You can imagine, as a man wanted in several jurisdictions and known to be missing an ear, Bully must have been at least a little uneasy about having his means of maintaining his liberty immobilised in this manner. And, as it turns out, he would have been right to have felt such unease. Fleet of foot, as ever, word of Bully’s presence in Kawhia soon reached the military authorities in the Waikato. Less fleet but still admirably fast, the authorities dispatched a sizeable company of militia to bring the wicked Bully Hayes to justice. Admirably fast, but not fast enough. The men of justice had barely broached the crest of the hill whose great height affords such a vista of the harbour when they saw a boat, all its sails raised and trimmed taut, tearing through the waters towards the harbour mouth and its promise of freedom eternal.

And so the brigand Bully Hayes lived to scheme, cheat and steal his way around the Pacific a few more years yet. Until, finally, in 1877, Bully really did die, at the hands of his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, and no one really did lament his passing, for he really had been a proper scoundrel and now the world was a better place.


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Logical to the bitter end

Before the dawn, as another front roared over us, I lay awake thinking about those men and women who came to make their lives on this land, and before them, the Maori who had lived for centuries on this land. I thought about how they would never have asked themselves why they did what they did. When almost everything you do is necessary for life, when the failure to do something means personally suffering the consequences and very often immediately, the question ‘Why do I do this?’ doesn’t even make sense. Even we, here, in a limited fashion, live like that—when we climb into the hills in search of dry firewood, we don’t stop to ask what the point of it is. There is an immediacy and a self-evident relationship between what we do and the life we live.

But today that is not how most people in the modern, industrialised world experience their lives. How many spend their days wondering what the point is of what it is they do, day after day after monotonous day? By far the greater portion of most people’s lives is spent working, and so it must be, if we are to live, but when that work is so divorced from living, when we spend our days merely doing the bidding of others, a bidding which all too often is patently absurd and merely emphasises with astonishing cruelty the pointlessness of it all?—cursed with self-awareness, what a torment it is to observe your life passing purposelessly in this way, and yet feeling helpless to escape it. We have unthinkingly made for ourselves a monstrous and exquisite trap, a maze from which we can never escape, into which we are born and in the midst of which we must die. We tell ourselves we are blessed with all manner of freedoms—and undoubtedly we are, in some senses, freer than our forebears—but for all our freedom, we remain enslaved nonetheless, compelled like the Red Queen to run and run without getting anywhere, chasing status, chasing wealth, chasing our tails.
There yet?

But we are idiots and fools, too, for we will not help ourselves. Instead, we drive and push our children like cattle so they can join us in this mad and endless pursuit of nothing, we compete ourselves into a state of stupor, worn out, numb, confused because when we lie down at the end of each day in exhaustion, we cannot understand how we find ourselves in this condition, confused because we constantly assure ourselves we can make of our lives whatever we will, only to discover we have almost no control over them at all—we simply wake up one day and find we are in a place we don’t recognise, as if we have stepped blindly onto a train heading who knows where and then slept throughout the entire journey. The masterful Russian storyteller Mikhail Bulgakov observed precisely this reckless squandering of life: ‘This, of course,’ he wrote, ‘is something that happens more often than not in life. A man may be engaged in some occupation for twenty years, such as studying Roman law, and then in the twenty-first year it suddenly transpires that Roman law is a complete waste of time, that he not only doesn’t understand it and dislikes it too, but that he is really a born gardener and has an unquenchable love of flowers’.

If flowers are your thing, go and tend them, but how many will?

Of course, of course, these observations are hardly new. People have been saying much the same thing for millennia—‘How much this fierce condition of eternal hurry . . . is likely to defeat the grandeur which is latent in all men’ (de Quincey), ‘Believe me, it is the sign of a great man . . . not to allow his time to be frittered away’ (Seneca), ‘It’s all a nonsense, and a man who at the behest of other people and not for his own passion or need works himself into the ground, for money or status or whatever else, is always a fool’ (Goethe), ‘To preserve his freedom he was prepared on countless occasions to throw away or reject things the world at large saw as advantages or blessings’ (Hesse)—I could pile quote upon quote, the wisdom is so old. But that is not the point. This is the point: for all we know it, for all our awareness of our situation, however much we regret it, we seemingly remain incapable of doing anything to remedy it. For all we claim to have freedom to make our lives as we wish, we act as if we have nothing of the sort. We pause only long enough to wring our hands and lament the miserable condition of our existence before we start running again, fearful lest we have fallen already too far behind.

We have not helped ourselves, of course, by killing God. He gave both reason and promise. Now we have neither. And so we spend our lives coming to terms with the fact we have lives to spend. Once we had answers, but now, with our reason—the reason we esteem so highly, the reason we congratulate ourselves on possessing, oh magnificent reason! oh wondrous reason!—with this we have stripped ourselves bare and wonder why life feels so cold. In this way, how many lives have become miserable and cheap and devoid of all substance! How many lives have contracted into little more than a series of conveniences paid for by days of monotony, one hardly distinguishable from the next!

And I needn't be reminded there was no Golden Age to which we might return. That is not the point either. Nothing is gained by romanticising the past. But there is something in the idea that when we are engaged in doing tasks that bear immediately on life, then we need not ask ourselves why we do them. If we would live, then we do them; if we would rather die, then let us be idle, and let that be our choice. But to spend your days at meaningless labour, enriching others at your own expense, without even the promise of a better life to come, there can be no surer way of skewering your own soul.

These are not uplifting thoughts, I grant you. But this is merely doing what Camus called being ‘logical to the bitter end’, something, he said, which it is almost impossible to be, because so often we find the end abhorrent, the more so because it was given us by logic, and logic will never take it back. But there remains this to be said. Our lives are not governed by fate. We do have a certain degree of freedom, some of us at least—it is merely a question of whether or not we wish to use it.