10 Questions with Helen Beaglehole



Q1: What prompted you to write this book?

The credit really should go to Wellington historian Gavin McLean. I had finished my book on a history of rural fire fighting and was searching for another topic. Gavin pointed out that there was no history of the Marlborough Sounds. It sounded like a great adventure!

Q2: What is your connection to the Sounds?

As I describe in the introduction to the book, around 1976 or 1977, my husband Tim and I, along with our three rather young children, sailed in a small yacht across a stormy Cook Strait on our first sailing holiday. Tim was an experienced sailor, having made numerous crossings (including on Alexander Turnbull’s Rona); the rest of us learned rapidly. For over 40 years after that, Tim and I sailed with family, friends and on our own, exploring the area under sail, on foot or, more latterly, by bike. We returned to remote bays, the tracks that let us climb to the top of the ridges, the quiet in which we might lie on a still night listening to phosphorescence crackling against the hull.

Q3: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?

I began researching this book with no idea of the size of what I was taking on. But I soon discovered that Papers Past, the country’s digitised newspaper collection, contained a terrifyingly vast trove of material on the Sounds, both in terms of volume and scope. Reporters wanted to describe and catch the essence of this new world. They hoped to entice new settlers and reassure others and they were eloquent about how and where settlers could make money. The problem I faced – and this was the case throughout the book – was to maintain a forward-moving narrative not over-encumbered with the detail that provided such engrossing windows on that new world and the new settlers’ response to it.

The second challenge, increasingly obvious as I trawled through the newspaper and settler narratives on European settlement, was on another level. The Sounds lands were bought up in the vast Waipounamu land sales; by 1856 Māori had been relegated to inferior land where any attempts to maintain traditional lifestyles were increasingly frustrated by growing European settlement and lack of capital. They faced poverty, illness and systemic racism, and deracination from their culture, language and history. I hope my record does justice to the situation they faced and the resilience and courage with which they faced it. But I found no publicly available letters or diaries to provide those telling lived details of Māori daily lives or, for instance, of their responses to Pākehā settlement.  I’m therefore very conscious of the resulting qualitative difference in the narratives about Māori and Pākehā lives throughout most of this book and am doubly grateful for Florence Trotter’s memories of growing up in Waikawa in the 1950s and Richard Bradley’s substantive narrative of his background and boyhood in the Sounds in the 1960s. I also hope that those who hold oral or written records of those times will soon publish and fill out our understandings of Māori settlement in the Sounds.

Q4: What was your most surprising discovery?

How little I knew of the post-Treaty history of Māori in the Sounds.

Q5: How would you sum up the Sounds ‘story’?

I think first one needs to acknowledge that we are talking about stories, not a story. The narrative of European settlement in the Sounds is quite different from that of Māori, though both have themes common to much of European New Zealand settlement. In an area noted for its unique beauty, the European ‘boom and bust’ exploitation of resources from the start created questions around exploitation and conservation that perhaps even more relevant today than they were when they were. The Māori story is, as elsewhere, one of a people adapted to their environment facing land loss, poverty, illness and loss of culture and language. Their decades-long situation has been at least partly relieved by the 2014 Treaty settlement.

Q6: What is the quintessential Marlborough Sounds experience?

The essence of the Sounds is land, light and water, in good weather or bad. To capture this, you have to move slowly through the landscape. There are yachts for hire and kayaks, or walking and biking even parts of the Queen Charlotte Walkway are further options. And there are the mail boats that go in and out of the bays. In Te Hoiere Pelorus, high steep hills and ridges border great stretches of water that in bad weather are swept by willy waws. In Tōtaranui Queen Charlotte Sound the land seems to enclose the sea; exploring it is a gentler experience. In both Sounds, find opportunities to get away from light pollution and experience the vast night sky ablaze with stars while dolphins accompanying a moving boat are framed by phosphorescence.

Q7: What makes the Marlborough Sounds such a challenging environment, even today?

I primarily think of the Sounds in boating terms, as it is in boats that you can really experience the challenges. As a sailor, the light Sounds winds that come from all points of the compass are deeply frustrating; more overtly challenging are the sudden and often very strong katabatic gusts that without warning sweep down the ridges. In both Sounds, too, winds that build up a considerable sea are common and make gaining headway almost impossible, even under motor.

Q8: What do you hope the reader will get from the book?

I hope readers will come away with a sense of a well-paced, engrossing narrative of place and people and their efforts to establish (or re-establish) themselves in a unique part of New Zealand.

Q9: Where is your favourite place in the Sounds?

We used to sail into Ngawhakawhiti Bay in Tennyson Inlet, Te Hoiere Pelorus Sound feeling we had come to one of the Sounds’ most remote bays. It has now lost some of its remoteness, but it remains a small bay enclosed by bush that comes down to the water. That water is warm and even the noise of motor boats in other bays seems muted. We used to lie at anchor there, listening to the lap of the water against the yacht and watching the play of light on the water and bush – then a bad weather forecast would force a rapid retreat to a sheltered mooring.

Q10: What are you currently reading?

I am currently engrossed in Rules of Civility, the first of Amor Towles’s novels, having thoroughly enjoyed the other two, A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway. I’ve just finished Shadowlands by Matthew Green, an elegiac narrative of history of various English towns or settlements that over the centuries have been lost to sea levels, plague or progress. Alongside that was Osbert Lancaster’s 1963 All Done from Memory, a witty and fascinating account of growing up in Edwardian London in a life cocooned by cash, comfort and privilege – ingredients we might note as we watch England’s political world today that are still part of England’s class system. I’ve just ordered Life in the Shallows: The wetlands of Aotearoa New Zealand, published by Massey University Press, as wetlands, the flora and fauna they support and the contributions they can make to climate change are of vital interest in today’s world.