Thursday, 7 August 2014

A Blighted Fame

This is the speech made by retired judge James O'Donovan at the launch of Helen Riddiford's biography of George Evans, A Blighted Fame, at Novel in Auckland on Wednesday 30 July.

I am not going to say very much. This is Helen’s night and I do not want to steal her thunder. I feel privileged to be invited to introduce her and her book. I am not an historian – just what is called a ‘general reader’. I love books. This is a book to love.
When Helen first mentioned to me that she had written this book, I had to confess that I did not know who George Evans was. She briefly told me about him and mentioned that Evans Bay was in wellington is named for him. I had lived in Wellington for several years, first as a student at Victoria, and later as a fledgling Solicitor. I was familiar with Evans Bay – that’s the one on your left as you drive out to the airport – but I had no idea how it got its name. And really, that is a very sad state of affairs, because Evans was a great New Zealander who deserves to be remembered.
And Helen is to be congratulated for restoring his memory. He was no tonly an early colonist, but he was very prominent among those who shaped the post-contact development of this country. Even before he set foot in New Zealand in 1840 he had been most active in seeking the establishment of an English colony in the lower North Island and the upper South Island. Most people nowadays associate this part of our history with Edward Gibbon Wakefield, but it was Evans who tirelessly worked to fulfil the dream, giving up opportunities for personal advancement to ensure that the venture was a success.
He was a brilliant scholar, winning a scholarship to Oxford at the age of only thirteen, which, for religious reasons, he was unable to take up. Nevertheless, he pursued his studies elsewhere and attained a Doctorate in Law. At one stage he had considered a legal career in India, and for two years studied Sanskrit by way of preparation. He was a classical scholar of great repute, and surely would have risen to academic heights had he decided to remain in England. Before coming to New Zealand he had learned to speak Maori and had compiled a Maori Grammar. In New Zealand he was respected by Maori and enjoyed excellent relations with them at a time of rising tensions between the races.
More than anyone else, he might be said to have been responsible for the establishment of Wellington as we know it. But his influence in New Zealand was not limited to Wellington.
He was a brilliant advocate, not only in the Courtroom, but also in promoting the interests of the colonial settlers who, in turn, regarded him as a leader.
After leaving New Zealand he went to Victoria where he quickly became prominent in the politics of that colony, both as a Member of Parliament, and for a time, as a Member of Cabinet, holding important portfolios. While in Australia, he did much to promote trade and other relations between that country and New Zealand.
At the conclusion of his political life in Australia, he returned to New Zealand where, despite a lengthy absence from this country, he was warmly welcomed. He died here and is buried in Wellington.
This is a wonderful book, beautifully written and revealing a great wealth of research. It is a work of serious scholarship. Pop history it is not. At the same time it is a literary work of great power, at times very moving, as it plots the course of one man’s life.
Victoria University Press is to be congratulated for publishing this work, which is at once a great read, and at the same time a beautiful artefact.