Rich Man’s Coffin
Kenneth Gardner’s brilliant debut novel, Rich Man’s Coffin, is as close as you can get to living in New Zealand in the 1800’s. The heart of this exciting tale revolves around an African-American, Arthur Alesworth, born into slavery in Mississippi in 1812.
In the year 1828 and at the age of 16 our principal character decides he wants to be a whaler and escapes to New York’s waterfront. It is here where he finds employment on a British whaling ship. However, unbeknown to Arthur, and as he is illiterate, he is duped into signing a kind of unjust indenture agreement with the captain of the ship.
The narrative continues when the ship eventually makes its way to New Zealand. Eventually, Arthur Alesworth acquires the skill of a whaler and becomes known as Black Jack. Our hero experiences many near death episodes and eventually becomes a Maori tribal chief. Unfortunately, however, until the very end of the novel, Black Jack seems to be a tragic figure that never quite escaped the shackles of slavery.
Gardner’s meticulous research skilfully blends Black Jack’s experiences with the history of the Maori and the colonization of New Zealand by the Europeans. The mixing of our hero’s personal story with the historical events of the day make for a compelling read. In addition, the clever use of intense dialogue masterfully captures the flavour of the area and the inter-relations between the Maori and the Europeans.
The reader is apprised of such historical events as the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, in which the Maori transferred the governorship to the Queen of England, and in turn the British recognized the Maori’s equality and ownership of land. This probably was the most important treaty of New Zealand’s history. Other events touched upon are the brutal wars between the Maori and the British and the eventual loss of large tracts of land by the native people in favour of their colonists. Unfortunately, this led to the dispossession of Black Jack’s home in favour of a British captain.
Rich Man’s Coffin is sure to delight fans of history, especially those of us who are unfamiliar with New Zealand. Although the pace of the novel somewhat falters towards the latter chapters, the book still qualifies as a first-rate adventure story. Clearly written and insightful, it is refreshing to discover a first time novelist who at a young age exhibits the maturity of an experienced novelist.