A family of Crusoes – how my novel was inspired by a true family history story
Writer Lydia Syson has already explored – but not exhausted – her own family history in a number of critically acclaimed historical novels for younger readers. For her adult fiction debut, Mr Peacock’s Possessions, she turned to her husband’s, and found herself heading for a remote Pacific Island.
Little did I know when I started quizzing my aunt-in-law about her antipodean ancestors that our conversation would eventually take me on an expedition with the New Zealand Navy to a chain of islands in the pristine ultramarine waters of the Kermadecs. The moment she told me about the Bells, a real life Swiss Family Robinson who claimed an uninhabited volcanic island for their own, I knew I had the seeds of a new book. But I didn’t anticipate how dark it would become.
Like me, my husband grew up in London, but he’s a New Zealander by birth, and his parents both died before I knew him. This meant our children were growing up with a distinct lack of family legends and anecdotes on his side. Luckily his aunt, Madeleine Brettkelly, more than made up for this when she came to stay on a rare visit to London. When she was a child, Madeleine told me, she spent every holiday with her aunt Phoebe and her uncle, William Bell, who was always known as ‘King’. He was the last of four children born on Raoul Island, or Rangitāhua – then called Sunday Island – a thousand kilometres across the ocean from Auckland or any other settlement. So he really was ‘King of the Kermadecs’.
Madeleine remembers a wardrobe in the spare bedroom which she was forbidden to explore: on the top shelf were the ashes of King’s mother, Frederica Bell. This formidable woman had always wanted to be scattered on the island which he had, against all odds, made her home for over 30 years. They were evacuated just before World War I, and it seems none of her children ever returned. An incredible plantsman, King could grow anything, and was able to quote from the Bible impressively. It was the book from which he had learned to read. But apparently he always had an odd way of speaking: he seemed to rehearse every sentence in his head before uttering it out loud. Not surprising, perhaps, when you’ve grown up in such extraordinary isolation. He must have been more used to talking to turtles than other human beings.
When King’s parents first arrived on Sunday Island, with six children under 12, they had ambitions to create their very own Eden. The story of how the family survived cyclones, plagues of rats, near-starvation – not to mention the obsessive iron-willed despotism of their own father – grabbed me instantly.
I exhausted Madeleine’s own memory. Then she told me about a book called The Crusoes of Sunday Island, written in the 1950s by a journalist called Elsie Morton. It was based on interviews with King’s older sister Bessie, who was then in her 80s. Crusoes was serialised in one British newspaper with illustrations evocative of a very jolly children’s adventure story. The girls trip elegantly up and down the cliffs with their goats like Pacific Heidis. Their father reads them stories by candlelight. But what must it really have been like? And did all the children feel the same way about their charismatic but brutal father?
Morton’s was a very sanitised account, Madeleine muttered darkly. The version she’d gleaned in childhood from her own family suggested a father who had perhaps become ever more tyrannical and violent as the years went by. It was hinted that the second youngest boy, Roy – who later became a distinguished ornithologist – had been crippled by his beatings.
Other gaps I found in Morton’s account of Raoul’s settlers were just as intriguing... who exactly were the Polynesian islanders who came to help the Bells clear the land? Why was one of them ordained? Why was their home, Niue, known as Savage Island?
Sadly, I never discovered the names of the real ‘boys’ from Niue, nor anything more about them. But I did learn about the work of the London Missionary Society across the Pacific, and their use of indigenous missionaries to spread the word. They called these men ‘native teachers’. You’ll find one in RM Ballantyne’s novel The Coral Island, the book William Golding turned on its head in Lord of the Flies. These ‘gospel ploughmen’ chose to leave their islands, but their names rarely appear in missionary archives and are hard to trace.
I also realised that the family histories of thousands of people now living in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia and also Australia, New Zealand and Chile, were violently disrupted at this time. Their ancestors were brutally torn from their homes, by force or by trickery, in a practice known as ‘blackbirding’. We tend to think of the 19th century as the great era of abolition and emancipation. In fact, after the American Civil War, the slave trade simply reinvented itself. It changed its victims and shifted to the Pacific. Eventually outright slavery was outlawed there too, but what replaced it was hardly an improvement. Even today, the terrible impact of the indentured labour trade remains a largely hidden history. Names and individual stories are very hard to recover.
We live now in another era of mass migration. Human trafficking and slavery continue on a terrifying scale. So many family histories are in danger of destruction. So many children are separated from relatives who can tell them about their pasts. Looking at the two groups of migrants who came together long ago in the Kermadecs, and reimagining their encounter in Mr Peacock’s Possessions, has made me realise what a privilege it is to know so much about my own family’s roots.
Images: Raoul historical photos © Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, from either ‘Photograph album of Kermadec Islands Expedition 1908. Ref: PA1-q-135-29-1’ or Bailey, Doreen, fl 1950-2012 : Photographs relating to the Bell family and Raoul Island in the Kermadec Islands. Ref: PAColl-9985-3-2.