Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2019

The Naturalist (2014), by Thom Conroy

At home in Australia, I had Thom Conroy’s latest novel The Salted Air (2016) on the TBR, so I recognised his name when I stumbled on this book at the Paper Plus bookshop in Palmerston North.  (Unlike Whitcoulls, the other bookshop in this town, Paper Plus has a set of shelves dedicated to Kiwi fiction, so that made it easy for me to find and buy a couple of interesting books.  The other one was Thalia Henry’s Beneath Pale Water which I read and reviewed while in NZ).

Allegory to Ernst Dieffenbach reaching the summit of Mout Egmont (Wikipedia)

The Naturalist was fascinating.  Fascinating as a study of character, and fascinating as an introduction to the colonial history of New Zealand. The novel is historical fiction to correct the injustice of a history that has been unvoiced: it tells the story of illegal land acquisition but also the story of at least one man who respected the Māori and their customs—but ultimately was powerless to change the course of events.  The Naturalist is based on the real life story of Ernst Dieffenbach (1811-1855), a German physician, geologist and naturalist, and the first scientist to live and work in New Zealand.  The book tells the story of his travails as a subversive in Giessen in the Duchy of Hesse, his brief imprisonment and exile in London, and his subsequent voyage to New Zealand as an employee of the New Zealand Company and his attempts to rehabilitate his reputation and return home.

Conroy presents this complex character as an idealist who wanted Germany to emulate the democratic reforms of England and France.  Ernst imprudently gets involved in an illegal duel too, and what with one thing and another he has to leave what was then not Germany but a patchwork of principalities.  (Unification under Bismarck had to wait until 1871, thirty years after Ernst died; democratic reform took even longer).  The authorities take a very dim view of Ernst’s activities, and the exile’s lament for his lost home is a poignant theme throughout the novel.

In London Ernst schemes to regain his reputation and the possibility of being allowed home, by making a name for himself.   He had studied medicine in Zurich but became fascinated by what was then called natural history, and thanks to the influence of his old teacher Schönlein, in 1839 he gets a berth on the Tory as a ship’s surgeon, surveyor and naturalist.  The Tory is a private expedition to New Zealand to buy land for settlement.  It is not endorsed by Queen Victoria; she’s turning a blind eye to it, but everyone knows that the land will be acquired one way or another, legally or otherwise. (The Treaty of Waitangi had not yet been negotiated.) Ernst has a higher grasp of ethics than the other members of the expedition but he has to be circumspect in voicing his concerns because he is the outsider in the group.  Some of the crew loathe him just because he is German…

In London Ernst formed an attachment to Nora because she has a keen mind and she is impressed by his ideas, but he can’t possibly marry her because he has no money, no career, and no place in society.  In New Zealand where mores are different, he grows fond of Hariata, a slave offered to him in gratitude for saving the life of a chieftain’s wife. In one of many ironies in the novel, Ernst is not the only exile: at this stage the Māori have not been driven out of their homes by settlers, but rather have been forced from their homeland in Māori wars, while others are enslaved. A former American slave aboard the Tory has no home to go to either, and Nahiti, the interpreter and guide who went off with Europeans for adventure, is afraid to go home because he has talked up his status as a prince, and fears the consequences when his own people find out.

The story is told in a jigsaw of times and places, from Germany to London, New Zealand back again.  I did find it a bit confusing occasionally, but I only needed to consult the Table of Contents to work out the chronology of events.

At the Auckland Writers Festival, one of speakers noted that, these days, in many places around the world, people do not die where they are born.  Their children are born in places where their parents were not born.  People marry in places where neither partner was born.  For millions of us around the world in these restless times, home is—has to be—a flexible concept.

This novel speaks strongly of the importance of home.

…Nahiti continued, ‘Though I return to Aotearoa, I shall not be with my ancestors again.  You see, my people were driven from their home.  Te Rauparaha led us to safety, and so my people go on surviving, yes, but living—that’s a different matter.’ (p.49)

Finally, Te Horo spoke again.  ‘First to Waikanae we came, now here to Tōtaranui…But our tūrangawaewae* is not here.  It is far away at Taranaki.  That is our mountain.  There our ancestors lie.  We live in this place, but we will never call it home. (p.126)

*Tūrangawaewae: a place to stand, where one feels empowered and connected. A foundation, a place in the world, home. (see Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

My peripatetic childhood predisposes me to an open-minded view of what home might be:

[With a panoramic view from the ridge of Arapawa Island] ‘Do you know what you see?’ Charles replied.  ‘Home.  Our new home.’
‘Home’, Ernst said, half under his breath, ‘If only you could tell me what that word means.’
‘Don’t be quarrelsome, Ernst.  Could you not be happy here?  If you never saw Germany again, what would that matter?  Name one thing which you cannot have here the same.’ (p.148)

[Back in London] …he thought he might be beginning to form some understanding of what the word now meant to him.  A home was a place where a man felt at peace, where his mind was active and his laughter was heard.  (p.176)

‘Home is also being with one’s people,’ [Ernst] said.  ‘People who know who one really is—as long as that criterion is met, anywhere can be home.’ (p.313)

The most important observation that Ernst makes is quoted at the beginning of the book:

I am of opinion that man, in his desires, passions and intellectual faculties, is the same, whatever be the colour of his skin; that mankind forms a great whole, in which the different races are the radii from a common centre; and that the differences which we observe are due to peculiar circumstances while have developed certain qualities of body and mind.  (Ernst Diffenbach, Travels in New Zealand, Vol 2, 1843)

Picture credit: Allegory to Ernst Dieffenbach reaching the summit of Mount Egmont (artist unknown, public domain, Wikipedia)

Author: Thom Conroy
Title: The Naturalist
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2014, 362 pages (not counting the maps, notes & cast of characters at the back of the book)
ISBN: 9781775536482
Source: Personal library, purchased from Paper Plus, Palmerston North, New Zealand, $37.99NZD

Available from Fishpond: The Naturalist



  1. I think, as an ignorant Australian, that I might learn something about NZ by reading this book. I think if I was an NZer I might be concerned about another white guy writing that not all whites were bad (#notmetoo and all that) and I might also be concerned that it was not his place to write about Maori culture. That said, I simply don’t understand bookshops that don’t have sections for Australian (or NZ) writing.


    • You know, I meant to say in my review, that I think this is a worthwhile book for anyone interested in colonialism: it is a glimpse of what might have been.
      There are authentic notes in the back of the book about how the threat to whaling stocks was noted by Ernst at the time and how he campaigned for conservation – this was in the middle of the 19th century, and it took the world over a hundred years to do anything about it. (And Japan is *still* whaling!) He really did recognise the destructive powers of imported cats and dogs, and he really did discover the remains of a cannibal feast on a beach.
      And he really did write in his book that legislation for New Zealand should include “collective ownership of land, granting natives citizenship, rewarding their labour at the same rate as that of the European, permitting tribes to establish their own courts”.
      Just imagine if the colonial enterprise had, from the middle of the 19th century, incorporated these ideas. One might still very well disapprove of colonialism, though in the case of NZ, it did bring an end to slavery and cannibalism which is unquestionably a good thing, But it would have been a very different kind of colonialism to what actually happened. In India, America, Africa and the Antipodes, the First Peoples as citizens would have had the vote, and they would have had an economic future instead of dependence.


  2. Not knowing much about how colonialism has played out in New Zealand – and being interested in all those naturalists who came out to our respective countries, I’d be interested to read this book. And, I love the cover.


    • I think you’d love this, Sue. I think anyone who wants to understand NZ and its reluctance to federate back in 1900 (and ours now, in 2019) would be fascinated by the difference between their colonial history and ours. And the way Thom humanises it, means the history is not just painless, but enjoyable to read.


      • I’m going to try to get some New Zealand books into my reading group! That’s one way for me to fit in some of these books. We haven’t read a New Zealander for a long time.


  3. […] complete contrast to that fatalism is the idealism shown in The Naturalist by Kiwi author Thom Conroy.  It’s based on the real life story of Ernst Dieffenbach […]


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  6. […] the defining genre in [New Zealand’s] contemporary literary culture. Conroy is the author The Naturalist, a book I really loved. The novel is historical fiction to correct the injustice of New […]


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