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August 7, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

When The Past Whispers… Wicked Things

Black Sheep and the Villains of NZ History


Black Sheep crept up on me…. Not in a field or a dream — but on my phone, in my ears. No, not the weird splatter film of 2006, but a podcast, on “the shady, controversial and sometimes downright villainous characters of New Zealand history.” From tales of infamous chief Hongi Hika to that of “bad cop” John Cullen, graverobber Andre Reischek, and the more nebulous (but equally nefarious) idea of eugenics and the influence it had here, Black Sheep presents an entertaining, informative take on some of the juicy morsels of our past, each in concise twenty minute chunks.

While available online, the series is produced by RadioNZ, and joins existing history-based shows such as Eyewitness and The 9th Floor — not distinct from the broadcaster’s content, but occurring within and alongside it. I was curious how the show came to be, so sat down to talk with its creator and presenter, journalist and self-professed dinosaur aficionado, William Ray.


Dan Kelly: As far as I can tell (no guarantees here), there doesn’t seem to be much precedent for what you’ve done with Black Sheep, at least within New Zealand. What gave you the idea for the series, and how did it come about? Were there any other podcasts that inspired you?

William Ray: So the story of how it came about is a bit convoluted. When RNZ was first setting up our podcast unit I knew I wanted to do something on NZ history. One of my colleagues recommended looking at Rua Kenana, so I originally was trying to make a pilot based on his story. But the more I got into that, the more I became fascinated with John Cullen’s side. I think there’s just something compelling about hearing the backstory of the “villain” so I decided to shift the focus to that.

Prisoners, including Rua Kenana Hepetipa, being led from Maungapohatu. Arthur Ninnis Breckon. 1916. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Prisoners, including Rua Kenana Hepetipa, being led from Maungapohatu. Arthur Ninnis Breckon. 1916. Alexander Turnbull  Library.

As far as inspiration goes, I’m a huge fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. His style of picking out weird, twisty side stories is something I’ve definitely tried to copy in Black Sheep. I also took some inspiration from Extra History, which is a popular YouTube-based history show. I actually got some tips from the creator of that series before I started Black Sheep. He had some really interesting advice which funnily enough comes from his background as a computer game developer. For example, in their series they keep a really strict cap on the number of proper nouns and dates which appear per minute of each episode.


Dan: There is a general sense (in my opinion, unjustified) that history is boring, a bit dusty, and generally removed from our day-to-day lives: the feuds of Kings and Queens, warring armies, and the urge to control that drives them. The narratives of power aren’t absent from your stories (John Cullen, the bad cop who illegally raided Rua Kenana, was obsessed with legacy; property speculators Thomas Russell and Frederick Whitaker explicitly used their position of power to obtain cheap land; and so on), but they seem to play out on a human scale, and as such are much more relevant to life today. Is this something you aimed to do? To make history relevant?

William: I guess the answer is both yes and no…. Some episodes, like the one about eugenics, I think are really relevant right now. Partly that’s because eugenic thinking is still with us and we are starting to develop the technologies like CRISPR and rapid gene sequencing which early eugenicists would have died for (not that I think any of the people working on those technologies right now are eugenicists!).

Also, I think that episode was a real wake up call for how well meaning, intelligent people can end up doing reeeeeally bad things. I mean the whole time I was working on it I was thinking that if I’d been born in the 1900s, I probably would have been a eugenicist. I’m pretty progressive as far as politics go and I’m really interested in science — and at that point in history pretty much everyone who had those kind of views also believed in eugenics.   

It can also be fun just to see how forces which drove historical figures are still around. Like how the New Zealand Wars were largely driven by greedy Auckland property speculators (with more than a healthy dose of racism thrown in).

That said, I don’t think you can treat history as a morality play, so you have to be careful to what degree you make parallels with the world we live in today.


Dan: That’s a good point, and perhaps a slightly sobering one. For all our notions of self-determination, so much of “who we are” comes from the time and place we find ourselves. For example, I often think that, despite my aversion to war, if I was of age at the time of, say, World War I or even II, then I think I would have served. It’s not that I’m into it; I just wouldn’t have known any better.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that I hated Serial [the American whodunit podcast that *spoiler* fails to ever reveal whodunit]. Perhaps it reflects my aversion for “news” and the generally grim account of the world it supplies, day after day, but I found it sensationalist, misleading, and largely devoid of content  — none of which applies to Black Sheep. However, there is still a macabre angle to the series (grave robbing, racism, murder), and so I was wondering if you could speak to this? What drove you to focus on our villains, and why is it so appealing? Would you ever do a series on… white sheep? No, saintly sheep? Shepherds? This metaphor is going nowhere.

William: [Laughs] I actually quite liked Serial but I’m a total news junkie so maybe that explains it.

Everyone has a morbid fascination for why people do bad things, that’s part of why I decided to do the “villains”. I also think that their stories are more interesting because they tend to be less black and white than you originally think. Andreas Reischek, for example. I started his story thinking he was basically a caricature of everything wrong with science in the 1800s, but the more I worked on it the more I came to decide he was really just a creature of his times.

I wouldn’t rule out “white sheep” but I think we already do a pretty good job of telling our more heroic stories. I also think that it’s good for New Zealanders to embrace the grimmer side of our history.


Dan: Media is a hotly contested, global arena now, and while the internet reduces our isolation, it also illuminates our difference. In particular, Michael King is very strong on the need to tell our own stories: “We’ve got to be able to trace our own footsteps and listen to our own voices or we’ll cease to be New Zealanders, or being New Zealanders will cease to have any meaning.” Is this something you think about at all? Is there a growing interest in New Zealand stories?

William: I don’t know that it’s growing… I think we’ve always been interested in New Zealand stories. I mean for many Māori, knowing the stories of their history, both pre and post-colonisation, is just a fundamental thing to their culture. But even with Pākehā, stories about New Zealanders have always been popular. I mean RNZ’s Spectrum programme was telling NZ stories for 44 years until it finally ended in 2016.

Maybe you could say that interest is being served better than it used to with a wider variety of styles of storytelling? It’s surprising what people are interested in. For example, before The 9th Floor was released I was pretty sceptical that many people would listen to a series of hour long interviews with former Prime Ministers, but that show was the most downloaded thing on RNZ’s website for several weeks running.

I also think it’s interesting how popular New Zealand stories can become overseas. The awesome thing about the internet is that really niche content can reach a huge number of people in a global audience. On Spotify Black Sheep actually got a lot of downloads in the USA which I found pretty surprising.


I explained to William that what I meant was whether there was a growing interest in facing up to the darker parts of our past — whether we were moving beyond narratives of battling white settlers, myths of good race relations, and our “pure” environment, often in denial of what was (and to a certain extent still is) a very gritty process of colonial conquest. Black Sheep seems to do this really well, offering a nuanced take on the various pieces — good, bad, and messy — but William deferred, suggesting that I see what an actual historian had to say. I took William’s advice, and called Vincent O’Malley, historian and most recently author of The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000.


Dan: Do you think New Zealanders are getting better at this, at facing up to the bad side of our history?

Vincent: Yeah I think we are starting to get better at acknowledging that stuff, and really that was the key theme of my book: that New Zealanders need to take ownership of our own history, the bad stuff as well as the good. And it’s not about finger-pointing or making people feel guilty or ashamed, it’s just about being mature enough to say, yup, this happened, it’s bad but it’s part of our history, and we can’t just cherry pick the good stuff. You know — rallying round the flag on ANZAC day and so on. We need to acknowledge that some really bad things happened as well in our history, and what I say in the book is that acknowledging that for Pākehā is crucial to better relationships with Māori in the future, so, you know, it’s a way of healing. A precondition for genuine reconciliation between Māori and Pākehā is accepting and understanding and owning that history.

I mean, at the same time, to be realistic about this — my book’s had a really overwhelming kind of response, which has been heartening, but it’s still kind of a small minority of the population, and large numbers of people will be unaware of this history. There is still this kind of wider forgetting, and there’s this phrase I quite like that some historians came up with, it’s called “the art of forgetting”, which kind of implies that there’s kind of… a deliberate aspect to this. It’s not as though things are completely forgotten. People know that it’s there as a background and bad stuff happened, but for many people they don’t want to know, they don’t want to acknowledge it, and so it’s kind of a suppressed history. And so for me, the important thing is that we bring this out, and we acknowledge it and own it.


DK: Your book is obviously quite a formal and serious look at this stuff, whereas by comparison Black Sheep is a little more pop culture-y…  I’m not quite sure how to put it, but maybe that’s helping it play a broader role?

Vincent: I think so, and it has quite a sort of humorous aspect to it as well, it’s a bit sort of hard-case if you like, so it’s tapping into this sort of thing. I saw someone say on Twitter that a lot of history podcasts are pompous and very serious, whereas this is a bit more jaunty.



Dan: By the end of its run, Black Sheep was the highest rated New Zealand podcast. Is there a second season in the works? What can listeners expect?

William: Yes, Season Two is in the works. I’ve already done one interview so far, which is for an episode we’re looking at doing on how NZ authorities handled the 1918 flu epidemic, in Samoa. I’ve also got a really weird story about a guy who managed to con New Zealand’s top spy into thinking there was an underground network of Nazi agents operating in NZ during the second world war.


Dan: Sounds great man, looking forward to it! Lastly, let’s talk dinosaurs: you love them; I’m… pretty into them, I thought I loved them, once, but ah, it’s difficult— anyway, if you had to pick one dinosaur to represent the villains of New Zealand history, what would you pick and why?

William: Ooooh tricky one… I’ll pick a local native: Taniwhasaurus.

It’s technically not a dinosaur, it’s a mosasaur, which is sort of like a giant sea-dwelling monitor lizard. I’m not sure how well it represents the villains of NZ history other than that it comes from New Zealand, it was pretty scary looking, and we know very little about it.




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