At the Margin of Empire: John Webster and Hokianga, 1841–1900

Jennifer Ashton


This book is far more than a simple biography: it offers a different way of looking at the history of nineteenth-century New Zealand.  Jennifer Ashton focuses on the everyday life of one man in a particular location to reveal how dramatic social, economic and political changes in early New Zealand were worked out in daily cultural and social practices. – Hazel Petrie


In this remarkable biography, Jennifer Ashton uses the life of one man as a unique lens through which to view the early history of New Zealand.


Born in Scotland in 1818, John Webster came to New Zealand via Australia in 1841 (after a violent encounter in the outback which he just escaped unscathed) and spent most of the rest of his life in Hokianga. At the Margin of Empire charts his colourful experiences carving out a fortune as the region’s leading timber trader and cultivating connections with the leading figures of the day, Māori and Pākehā. Webster fought alongside Tāmati Wāka Nene in the Northern War, married one of Nene’s relatives and built up his kauri timber business through trade with local chiefs (though at one point awoke to find a plundering party had arrived on his front lawn). He was also friends with Frederick Maning, and visited by George Grey, Richard Seddon and other luminaries of the day.


Ashton takes us into Hokianga to reveal how the evolving intimate relationships and economic transactions of everyday life reflected larger shifts in colonial power. She argues that through his daily interactions, Webster helped slowly shift the balance of power in the North: the credit that he extended to his customers and kin saw them selling land to pay debts, helping push Māori into economic dependence. In telling the story of John Webster’s long and colourful life for the first time, this biography also explores the wider transformation of relationships between Māori  and Pākehā during the nineteenth century. It is an intimate and revealing account of life in early New Zealand.


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After a career as a technical writer and editor, Jennifer Ashton graduated from the University of Auckland history department with a PhD in 2012. Her doctoral thesis was placed on the Dean’s List and won a special Post-Doctoral Award from the Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust. She lives in Auckland.

February 2015, 228 x 148 mm, 276 pages, Colour illustrations
Paperback, ISBN 978 1 86940 825 1, $49.99