Mark Twain ‘At Home’ in Christchurch in 1895

Mark Twain 'At Home' Advertisement
Mark Twain ‘At Home’ Advertisement. Star , Issue 5413, 14 November 1895, Page 3.

One of the most famous literary figures of the nineteenth century to visit Christchurch, was author, raconteur, journalist and social critic, Mark Twain.  Tired and elderly, yet a force to be reckoned with, Twain a.k.a. Samuel Clemens spent a year of his life in 1895, performing as Mark Twain around the world.  This ‘come back’ tour was to address the 250,000 pounds of debt he had accumulated after bankruptcy. During this year, Twain spent a month touring New Zealand.

Turned away at the doors

Twain stayed in Christchurch for four days in November 1895, and entertained thousands of people at his ‘At Home’ show held at the Theatre Royal on Gloucester Street. Limited to just three shows (one of which was added to his schedule due demand), the great humourist and entertainer delighted the audience with his stage presence and disappointed many others who were turned away at the doors due to the over subscription of crowds trying to get a seat.

As the curtains rose on the first night of his performance the audience were so enthusiastic, they stamped their feet and cheered for several minutes. Twain was so overcome by the reception, he told them they had taken away his sense of feeling an alien and stranger and instead made him feel as if he were amongst friends.

Irresistibly mirth-provoking

The audience was made up of as many women as men was entertained for two full hours. They had never known entertainment like it. His style and American humour was as brilliant as it was in his books while his clever ‘‘mimetic and dramatic powers’ presented with his “nasal twang, slow deliberation and a kind of absent-mindedness rendered some of the quaint sayings of the speaker, irresistibly mirth-provoking.”

At the conclusion of his performance, the Theatre echoed to the sound of more cheering and stamping, followed by a rollicking rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”.

Twain concluded his third and final lecture in Christchurch on the evening of the November 15th by saying he had ‘a real good time whilst in Christchurch, and he left the crops flourishing and everybody prosperous, which was very satisfactory to him.’

Not at all my idea of a humorist

Amongst the audience was Christchurch resident and New Zealand literary giant, Johannes C. Andersen, who did not care for his humour and considered some of it to be irreverent. Despite this, he was determined to see and hear him. Some time later, whilst employed as a librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library, he wrote a column in the Evening Post recalling his experience of seeing Twain:

“In appearance he was not at all my idea of a humorist. From what I remember he was rather on the short side, stockily built, with a great, head of white hair. He walked quietly on to the stage, and in a subdued, deliberate voice told his yarns with hardly the shadow of a smile….he looked and spoke as if he were starting a really serious lecture, – and the humour was an after-thought which made it all the more telling no doubt.”

At a supper following the last performance, Twain was entertained by the members of the Christchurch Savage Club at the Provincial Council Chamber, and  supped on “such curious viands as ‘consomme du vagabond en route’, ‘mayonnaise a Mone Thomas Sawyer,’ and ‘Gelee au vin Fin Huckleberry’.” Fifty ‘savages’ attended, in full ‘war paint’, which was actually standard evening dress of the era.

I shall be as extinct as your great moa

Mark Twain
Portrait of Mark Twain. Photographer unknown. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library File Reference ID: 1/2-037422-F.

Made the first honorary life member of the club, whose members consisted of Christchurch’s professional elite, he was reported to have said he felt “as large as your great moa – and if I go on dissipating like this I shall be as extinct as your great moa.”  (He was referring to the skeleton he had seen a few days earlier at the museum.)

Whilst in Christchurch, the Clemens family (Twain travelled with his wife and daughter) were befriended by Mr and Mrs Joseph Kinsey, who showed them the sights such as the Botanic Gardens and Museum. Joseph Kinsey had arrived in New Zealand from England just fifteen years prior, established the firm of Kinsey and Co., shipping and travel agents and ships’ provendors, with offices in Christchurch and Lyttelton. He was also a member of the Christchurch Savage Club.  The Kinseys lived in a grand house in Papanui called ‘Warrimoo’. It was here that Twain expressed regret that he did not get an ornithorhynchus (platypus) to take away home with him when he visited Australia. Kinsley then went to his cupboard and produced the skin of one and presented it to Twain. This act of generosity, lead to the well quoted line in Twain’s next book, “Mr Kinsey gave me an ornithorhynchus, and I am taming it.”

Twain’s humour fails to impress

Although his show was hugely popular, Twain discovered perceived gaps and differences between the different English speaking world were not always bridged and the racial and social differences he chose to discuss, were not always appreciated. The adored Twain’s visit did not meet with overwhelming popularity in Wanganui. In the December 9th edition of the Hawera and Normanby Star, a correspondent reports that Twain only pleased ten percent of Wanganui’s audience due to him not explaining his jokes nor laughing when he said something humorous. It appears his satirist jokes about Imperialism were met with disapproval by the town’s English establishment.  The jokes perhaps ran ‘too close to the bone’ and the audience found it hard to understand when he was trying to be humorous and when he was being serious!

” colonial audiences in the matter of humour are intensely critical. They can only appreciate the keenest of satire and first class humour.”

It is not surprising that in a town so heavily traumatised by race wars that Mark Twain’s lecture tour came to a slamming halt due to his outspoken views on the town’s local monument which honoured Kupapa Māori (those Maori loyal to the English cause) be blown up as it encourages Natives to become traitors to their own race.  Also that the Rebel Māori, slandered as barbarians and fanatics, were in fact the country’s true patriots.

Mark Twain Christchurch
During his visit to Christchurch, Mark Twain, accompanied by his wife. was shown the delights of the city by their hosts, the Kinseys. Source: Old Picture Book of Christchurch, page 82.

Twain’s fame arose to great heights after he wrote about a runaway slave, the racially and socially prejudiced world of “Tom Sawyer” and  “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. It is not surprising that he would have strong views on the treatment of Maoris and their progress of integration into Western life.

A certain opponent who did not agree with what Twain’s views decided to make a stand while he was visiting his town. During Twain’s performance at Wanganui’s Oddfellows Hall, Twain’s hotel room was broken into by an intruder. It appears nothing was taken but a hand written note was left, warning him, that he would be assassinated by poison or more dramatically, during a performance on stage if he carried on. Twain ignored ‘the lunatic’, commenting that he had “less refinement than any I have met”. His show went on, he survived the threat and continued his tour of the country.

However overall, it was a huge success,  showing the readiness of the audiences to revel in celebrity based culture, reviving both his career and his fortunes,  and allowing him to repay his debts in full. It also lead to the writing of his last major book “Following the Equator”.

Although Twain’s trip was intermingled with some dangers of travel such as a ship nearly sinking, it was easier than ever to travel between America and New Zealand with the introduction of the steamer service between San Francisco and Auckland in 1870.

Travel between America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand brought shared ideologies and many American visitors of the religious, social and political ilk came here.  The country’s trade union, temperance and women’s suffrage were all heavily influenced by the American activists such as Walter Mills and Mary Leavitt who came to our shores.  Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormons were more easily able to widen their influence, finding very open and easily influenced colonials. Likewise, Americans such as Frank Parsons and Henry Demarest Lloyd found the new reforms the New Zealand liberal government had introduced, were enlightening and ahead of their times.

After his tour of New Zealand, Twain wrote of his experiences and impressions of the country in his book called “Following the Equator” (published in 1897).

Extract from “Following the Equator”

Mark Twain Performing in Dunedin. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Field-Hodgkins Collection  Reference: A-212-024 Wash drawing by William Mathew Hodgkins
Mark Twain Performing in Dunedin. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Field-Hodgkins Collection Reference: A-212-024 Wash drawing by William Mathew Hodgkins

Chapter XXXII: Description of the Town of Christ Church – A Fine Museum – Jade-stone Trinkets – The Great Man – The First Maori in New Zealand – Women Voters-‘Person’ in New Zealand Law Includes Woman – Taming an Ornithorhynchus

The man with a new idea is a Crank until the idea succeeds.

– Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

It was Junior England all the way to Christchurch – in fact, just a garden. And Christchurch is an English town, with an English-park annex, and a winding English brook just like the Avon – and named the Avon; but from a man, not from Shakespeare’s river. Its grassy banks are bordered by the stateliest and most impressive weeping willows to be found in the world, I suppose. They continue the line of a great ancestor; they were grown from sprouts of the willow that sheltered Napoleon’s grave in St. Helena. It is a settled old community, with all the serenities, the graces, the conveniences, and the comforts of the ideal home-life. If it had an established Church and social inequality it would be England over again with hardly a lack.

In the museum we saw many curious and interesting things; among others a fine native house of the olden time, with all the details true to the facts, and the showy colors right and in their proper places. All the details: the fine mats and rugs and things; the elaborate and wonderful wood carvings – wonderful, surely, considering who did them wonderful in design and particularly in execution, for they were done with admirable sharpness and exactness, and yet with no better tools than flint and jade and shell could furnish; and the totem-posts were there, ancestor above ancestor, with tongues protruded and hands clasped comfortably over bellies containing other people’s ancestors – grotesque and ugly devils, every one, but lovingly carved, and ably; and the stuffed natives were present, in their proper places, and looking as natural as life; and the housekeeping utensils were there, too, and close at hand the carved and finely ornamented war canoe.

And we saw little jade gods, to hang around the neck – not everybody’s, but sacred to the necks of natives of rank. Also jade weapons, and many kinds of jade trinkets – all made out of that excessively hard stone without the help of any tool of iron. And some of these things had small round holes bored through them – nobody knows how it was done; a mystery, a lost art. I think it was said that if you want such a hole bored in a piece of jade now, you must send it to London or Amsterdam where the lapidaries are.

Also we saw a complete skeleton of the giant Moa. It stood ten feet high, and must have been a sight to look at when it was a living bird. It was a kicker, like the ostrich; in fight it did not use its beak, but its foot. It must have been a convincing kind of kick. If a person had his back to the bird and did not see who it was that did it, he would think he had been kicked by a wind-mill.

There must have been a sufficiency of moas in the old forgotten days when his breed walked the earth. His bones are found in vast masses, all crammed together in huge graves. They are not in caves, but in the ground. Nobody knows how they happened to get concentrated there. Mind, they are bones, not fossils. This means that the moa has not been extinct very long. Still, this is the only New Zealand creature which has no mention in that otherwise comprehensive literature, the native legends. This is a significant detail, and is good circumstantial evidence that the moa has been extinct 500 years, since the Maori has himself – by tradition – been in New Zealand since the end of the fifteenth century. He came from an unknown land – the first Maori did – then sailed back in his canoe and brought his tribe, and they removed the aboriginal peoples into the sea and into the ground and took the land. That is the tradition. That that first Maori could come, is understandable, for anybody can come to a place when he isn’t trying to; but how that discoverer found his way back home again without a compass is his secret, and he died with it in him. His language indicates that he came from Polynesia. He told where he came from, but he couldn’t spell well, so one can’t find the place on the map, because people who could spell better than he could, spelt the resemblance all out of it when they made the map. However, it is better to have a map that is spelt right than one that has information in it.

In New Zealand women have the right to vote for members of the legislature, but they cannot be members themselves. The law extending the suffrage to them went into effect in 1893. The population of Christchurch (census of 1891) was 31,454. The first election under the law was held in November of that year. Number of men who voted, 6,313; number of women who voted, 5,989. These figures ought to convince us that women are not as indifferent about politics as some people would have us believe. In New Zealand as a whole, the estimated adult female population was 139,915; of these 109,461 qualified and registered their names on the rolls 78.23 per cent. of the whole. Of these, 90,290 went to the polls and voted – 85.18 per cent. Do men ever turn out better than that – in America or elsewhere? Here is a remark to the other sex’s credit, too – I take it from the official report:  “A feature of the election was the orderliness and sobriety of the people. Women were in no way molested.”

At home, a standing argument against woman suffrage has always been that women could not go to the polls without being insulted. The arguments against woman suffrage have always taken the easy form of prophecy. The prophets have been prophesying ever since the woman’s rights movement began in 1848 – and in forty-seven years they have never scored a hit.

Men ought to begin to feel a sort of respect for their mothers and wives and sisters by this time. The women deserve a change of attitude like that, for they have wrought well. In forty-seven years they have swept an imposingly large number of unfair laws from the statute books of America. In that brief time these serfs have set themselves free essentially. Men could not have done so much for themselves in that time without bloodshed – at least they never have; and that is argument that they didn’t know how. The women have accomplished a peaceful revolution, and a very beneficent one; and yet that has not convinced the average man that they are intelligent, and have courage and energy and perseverance and fortitude. It takes much to convince the average man of anything; and perhaps nothing can ever make him realize that he is the average woman’s inferior – yet in several important details the evidences seems to show that that is what he is. Man has ruled the human race from the beginning – but he should remember that up to the middle of the present century it was a dull world, and ignorant and stupid; but it is not such a dull world now, and is growing less and less dull all the time. This is woman’s opportunity – she has had none before. I wonder where man will be in another forty-seven years?

In the New Zealand law occurs this: “The word person wherever it occurs throughout the Act includes woman.”  That is promotion, you see. By that enlargement of the word, the matron with the garnered wisdom and experience of fifty years becomes at one jump the political equal of her callow kid of twenty-one. The white population of the colony is 626,000, the Maori population is 42,000. The whites elect seventy members of the House of Representatives, the Maoris four. The Maori women vote for their four members.

November 16. After four pleasant days in Christchurch, we are to leave at midnight to-night. Mr. Kinsey gave me an ornithorhynchus, and I am taming it.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Dear Wendy:

    I greatly enjoyed your article on Mark Twain’s visit to Christchurch. I work at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, USA, and we always tell stories about Twain’s world travels and the enduring legacy he left behind. Your story confirmed that we are right! Thank you for helping to keep Twain’s legacy alive and well in the 21st century.


    Jeff Nichols


  2. Graeme Collins says:

    Appreciate your research and stories, Wendy.

    Considering the photo caption to the four in the carriage:
    As Clara Clemens was accompanying her father and mother on the NZ trip, has it been considered whether she might be the young woman in the carriage (rather than the person being identified as a Kinsey)?


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