Digging Deep and Finding the Gem

I was recently asked by author and blogger, Mary Tod, to ‘Guest Blog’ on her website, A Writer of History, about research.


I’ve frequently said, “History is about the untold story, and writing historical fiction is a wonderful way to present the past in a compelling and entertaining way.” The caveat is to find that hidden gem which can develop an idea, and through research, morph into a story.

And I’ve found a few. A curious mind helps, and access to historical records is a must, as evidenced when I wrote my first published novel.

During the early stages of my research, I was poring over the manifest of the English ship ‘Tory’. This ship was used to transport the principal agent of the New Zealand Company, William Wakefield, and his associates, to New Zealand, for the express purpose of acquiring land from Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Tory’s manifest listed a passenger named Nayati, and his occupation as, interpreter. Very innocuous and nothing peculiar about that. Other related historical documents I found refer to the names Nayti, Neti, Nahiti and Naiti. I made the presumption they all refer to the same person and he was probably named Ngaiti. Phonetically, the names sound very comparable, and it was unlikely many Māori were in England in 1839 with similar misspelled names.

Later, I discovered that in subsequent land court hearings, William Wakefield’s interpreter was proven to have lied to Māori during the first land transactions. According to court documents, the translators name was Richard Barrett. A far cry from Ngaiti. So where was he, what happened to Ngaiti? (no, he didn’t change his name)

I obtained an original book from ‘New Zealand Archives’, titled, ‘Information Relative to New-Zealand: Compiled for the Use of Colonists’, published in 1839, and written by the New Zealand Company secretary, John Ward. He writes of a male Māori –

‘We shall be particularly anxious about the fate of Nayati. He is no longer a New Zealander in manners, habits or tastes but has acquired those of a well bred Englishman.’

As Ward never visited New Zealand, this suggested Nayati, or Ngaiti, did live in England, and he was a Māori. Secretary Ward wrote more.

‘When the New Zealand Company dispatched their preliminary expedition in May last, Naiti was selected for the office of interpreter to the expedition, which he gladly accepted, as an opportunity of returning home in an honourable station in the English service.’

According to Ward, Ngaiti was offered the position of interpreter, and he gladly accepted. Then why was Ngaiti dismissed before he could begin work? There was no mention of misbehaviour, bad conduct or poor performance. Other written accounts of him state he was well liked and respected.

I found a short article written in an old journal that stated the author had met Ngaiti in New Zealand in 1841, and he had returned to wearing native costumes. This is odd when most other Māori began wearing European clothes. I can only surmise that Ngaiti departed England on the Tory as Company interpreter, but during the voyage to New Zealand either Colonel William Wakefield changed his mind, or Ngaiti did. What happened? The logical assumption is that Ngaiti disagreed with New Zealand Company ideology and may have expressed his feelings on the subject to company officials. This conclusion led me to begin a rough plot outline on a novel I would call ‘Boundary’.

Boundary Small

As an author, real historical events sometimes unexpectedly fall into your lap that can truly enhance a story.

I mapped out my plot on Boundary, connected historical dots and made conclusions. However, there was a gap in my timeline that required filling. It would be convenient if a particular ship carrying an important figure, and very central to my plot, were to encounter difficulties during a sea voyage. A shipwreck would be ideal.

You can imagine my delight at discovering an article in a South African newspaper, ‘The Cape Government Gazette’ that detailed a brief News story about a ship which had run aground. It happened to be the same ship, and carrying the very same passenger I was writing about in my novel. What I’d only hoped would happen, actually did happen. Many events I detailed in ‘Boundary’ are true. I wove a fictitious story through these events and researched them in excruciating detail.

The harder you dig, the greater the reward. Perhaps my biggest find happened in the year 1873, where I uncovered the biggest hoax ever perpetrated in New Zealand history. You can read about that in my third novel to be published in August 2017, titled, ‘For Want of a Shilling’.

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