Oamaru has been visited by many important figures over the years but one of the more interesting was the American author and humorist Mark Twain, or to give his real name, Samuel Clemens.
Twain has been called the father of American literature, with his best known book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn often called the great American novel.
He came to Oamaru in November, 1895 to give a public lecture in the Theatre Royal.
An advertisement in the Oamaru Mail billed him as being the greatest humorist of the century and assured the public of a night of wit and wisdom.
The truth of the matter was that Twain desperately needed money and had embarked on a year-long world tour to clear his debts. Between 1880 and1894, he had spent $US300,000 (equivalent to $US8.1 million) on a range of failed business ventures. He had earlier filed for bankruptcy.
Before coming to Oamaru, he appeared in sell-out shows at Invercargill and Dunedin. He had landed at Bluff from Australia, where it was reported that hundreds had been turned away from his shows in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.
New Zealand and Australia were just a small part of his itinerary. By the time the tour finished, he would have lectured in Hawaii, Fiji, Sri Lanka, India, Mauritius, South Africa and England.
For nearly all of the tour, he was in poor health and by the time he stepped off the train in Oamaru, it is likely he was suffering with a heavy cold and a carbunckle.
What he thought of Oamaru was not reported in the local papers but the North Otago Times reported on November 12, 1895, that the theatre was packed for his show. “He received an unbounded reception,” wrote a reporter.
The Oamaru Mail’s reviewer ‘The Critic’ lamented that shows and entertainers only visited Oamaru when their star had waned.
“The lions, as a general rule, do not come here until they are mangy,” The Critic wrote.
There was, however, nothing mangy about Twain. The Mail:
“There are no flies on Mark Twain. Au contraire, he reaches us with the glories of ‘Pudd’n head Wilson’ still fresh upon him, with faculties undimmed and with the well-spring of his own inimitable humour bubbling as clear and fresh as when the English speaking world first grew hysterical over Harris, and Ferguson, and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn…’
But The Critic added the Oamaru crowd was the smallest Twain had experienced since his visit to New Zealand started.
“Possibly many were afraid to go. It is a dangerous experiment for a popular idol to come near enough to disclose his clay feet to his devotees.”
And of the show, The Critic wrote: “It would be impossible for me to endeavour to give any idea of the inimitable casual drawl of the lecturer. There was never anything like it, while his ‘At Home’ was a happy, haphazard browse at random among the pastures of his published work. There was nothing we had not read before – save his new poem – but to read it is one thing, to hear it at first hand is to double its interest, and its humour.”
The next day Twain, together with his wife and daughter, was on a steam train heading for shows in Timaru and Christchurch where he made three appearances.
The New Zealand leg of his tour was not without incident. Some found his comments could be “too close to the bone”. In Wanganui, his satirical jokes about imperialism did not go down well with the town’s leaders.
He remarked that the town’s monument, which honoured Kupapa Maori – Maori loyal to the British cause – should be blown up, as it encouraged the “natives” to become traitors to their own people.
While in Wanganui, an intruder broke into Twain’s hotel room and left a warning note that he would be assassinated by poison if he continued.
Twain ignored the threat and his New Zealand tour proceeded without a hitch.
By the time the world tour was over, he had cleared his debts and out of his travels came a new book – Following the Equator.
It is considered a classic of travel writing.