You won’t see the likeness of John Webster in statues around New Zealand. There are no major streets named after him either. But author and historian Jennifer Ashton says his story reveals so much about New Zealand history, race relations and the shift in colonial power in the late 19th century. Webster became a timber baron in Northland, and Ashton tells Afternoons with Simon Mercep that he had fascinated her since she was a teenager on holiday with one of his descendants in Opononi in the Hokianga. “One winter’s day we went for a walk along the waterfront to a shop next to the fish and chip shop to get a paper” Aston recalls. Her friend took her down a gully and asked her to look through the overgrown trees. “You could see this quite ornate, slightly dilapidated house that he (John Webster) had lived in the late 19th century. It captured my imagination and stayed with me for years. Who was the person who built and had lived in this house?” She tells his story in her book, At the Margin of Empire: John Webster and Hokianga, 1841-1900 (Auckland University Press).
The story of John Webster begins in the small Scottish town of Montrose on the East Coast of Scotland where he was born. “It’s a pretty conservative traditional town, but it’s also a port” says Ashton. He went to work for his Uncle in Glasgow. “Glasgow at the time was huge imperial city and it just captured his imagination. He wanted to get out there and see what was out there with all these ships arriving from all over the world." So in the late 1830s, Webster goes to Australia taking a sense of adventure shared by so many of his generation, and his colonial views of European racial superiority. Ashton says he wrote about the Aboriginals. “They were almost doomed. They were down the racial ladder. You can see in his writings this idea of racial rankings."
Webster’s older brother William, who had already settled in the Hokianga, wrote a letter asking John to come to New Zealand. There were only about 100 Pakeha in the area at the time, and several thousand Maori by 1847. When he arrives he compares Maori and Aboriginals. “Some of their behavior he sees as savage but they are further up the racial ladder” says Ashton.
Webster traded gum and timber in the region. “He would go up the various tributaries of the Hokianga river gathering timber on behalf of the timber merchants” Ashton explains. He also ran a small trading enterprise, trading potatoes Maori would grow for tobacco and then selling the potatoes to visiting ships.
Webster and a few other settlers got involved in one of two conflicts during The Northern War, 1845-46, considered the first serious challenge to the Crown following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Nga Pui leader Hone Heke famously chopped down the British flag on Maiki hill above Kororāreka. Webster sided with a different Nga Pui leader, Tamati Waka Nene, fighting against Hone Heke. “They saw it as the most effective way to bring Hone Heke into line. I don’t think they were fighting with Nene for Maori goals. They were fighting because this guy's a rebel and he needs to be taught a lesson” Ashton explains.
Still seeking adventure, Webster left the Hokianga in 1950 for the great California Gold Rush. He doesn’t find his fortune, but he does connect with Scottish-born Australian entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd who is one of the largest landholders in New South Wales. Webster hitches a ride home on his yacht, the Wanderer. Boyd goes ashore in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. “Boyd disappears and the Wanderer is attacked. They get out their small cannon and fire the cannon and quite a few died in the process” Ashton describes. Webster survives and returns to the Hokianga.
By the mid 1850s, more Pakeha are coming to New Zealand and the population mix starts to equalize. Not in the Hokianga. “Websters’ got these expectations of what’s going to happen. We are now the people in charge. But for the next 20 years that expectation is frustrated." Outwardly, he moderates his racial views. Inside, Ashton says, he had to learn how to behave. “He has to learn how to hongi and he doesn’t like it... at one point he receives a hongi and says that’s a favour I could have done without. He knows he has to do well economically."
John Webster lived well into his 90’s and finishes his days in Devonport. “I’ve spent 10 years with this guy rumbling around my head. I admire him for his courage. I think someone coming from Scotland to New Zealand, and particularly this part of New Zealand in the 19th century is the equivalent to people who want to go to Mars these days” Ashton says, “New Zealand history is absolutely fascinating. I think if you talk to many New Zealand historians they go to parties and tell people what they do, ‘I write New Zealand history’ and they say, ‘oh that must take all of 5 minutes’. You say 'actually no'. It’s fascinating. The whole history of this country, all of its component parts is really interesting and the story of John Webster confirms just how interesting it can be."