Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Joel Polack: how to tell a story

I have given some thought, a good deal of thought to how to tell the story of Joel Polack. I could start at the beginning, but about his end little is known. I could analyse and comment on his writings, but he was not that much of a writer and it is very likely that his most interesting written accounts were destroyed in the fire when his house was burned down in Kororareka. I know a lot about Polack, but there are also huge gaps that I will never be able to fill, the records just don't exist. So I consider starting with the story of the assault on Polack by his neighbour, Benjamin Evans Turner. Turner was a tough character. He was an ex-convict who had served a seven year sentence in Australia He arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1826, so by the time Polack arrived in the early 1830s he was an old hand. He married Hone Heke's sister, clearly a woman not to be trifled with. He had set up a grog shop, a lucrative enterprise in a popular port. Then along came Polack, who saw an opportunity, started a brewery, imported a skilled brewer from Australia, and expanded the range of booze available to sailors, officers and men. The missionaries resented this, but for Turner this was outright and unwelcome competition. Polack was, according to one of his contemporaries, 'an aloof individual who rather than mix with his neighbours preferred to play the gentleman on the hill. Other Europeans in the Bay of Islands, including the British Resident James Busby and the missionary, Henry Williams, detested him. But in reality, compared with the other early Europeans in the vicinity, he was a refined, educated man, with a substantial library and at home in a number of languages. He was widely travelled. He was an artist, a writer, a man of innovative ideas. No wonder that he had little in common with the escaped or emancipated convicts and desperadoes around him. He recognized that the had a “rascally bad' temper. The fact didn't help his popularity that he was a very successful businessman, starting with some money he borrowed from his brother and becoming the richest man in the district. So on the night of 10 March 1837, while Polack was asleep an intoxicated Turner banged on his door and and demanded to come in. Turner was accompanied by John Evans, a pugilist, and a man called Stewart. Polack told them to come back at a more decent hour, whereupon the intruders smashed the door down. Polack might have had wind of this planned attack, because he had his pistol ready. He told Turner to get out, and then fired his pistol which hit Turner in the mouth. Thereupon Turner and his cronies se upon Polack, bound, gagged and beat him up, dragged him to the beach, where Turner's wife, Hone Heke's sister kicked him. Polack crawled away with a dislocated knee, and was saved by the sailors of the barque Achilles which was moored in the harbour. Next day Turner, the upright gentleman that he was, plundered Polack's house. Polack plotted his revenge, complained to Busby, the British resident, who was the only representative of European law and order, but Busby washed his hands, saying that 'his instructions did not extend to disputes between Europeans'. Polack published an account of the incident, describing Turner as 'a well-known runaway convict', but this did not stop Turner from having a distinguished career in colonial New Zealand and living to a ripe old age. He died at the age of 80 in 1876