John Asher was a New Zealander who, shall we say, did things his own way. This ostrich egg in the Te Manawa collection, painted with a scene from South African life, is an unusual milestone that he left on his colourful travels across the globe.
He was born Isaac David Asher, in Wellington in 1897. By age 13 his parents had perhaps caught a glimpse of his unruly future and signed him on to the Amokura, a naval training ship. Isaac must have decided that any adventures were to be on his own terms: a mere two years later, he appeared in the newspapers for desertion.
He dropped off the radar for two more years, resurfacing in an unlikely place: Gallipoli. His elder brother was most surprised to come across Isaac, fighting for the Australian infantry and using the name John Asher. ‘John’ had added four years to his age at enlistment, taking him from 17 to the necessary 21 years old.
John was only at Gallipoli for two months before being hospitalised off for illness. He was sent to the Western Front in 1916. While there his Australian military file became extensive, cataloguing numerous offences against military authority. True to form, most of these involved going AWOL, and included using obscene language to an NCO then giving a false name.
In 1917 John suffered a wound of uncertain origin to his left hand, in the base of one finger. He was returned to hospital in England – from which he promptly absconded.
He returned to Australia in late 1918 on the troopship HMAT A71 Nestor. He arrived home with the ostrich egg in his possession, presumably acquired in Cape Town. Whether he actually paid for it is unknown!
The war was over, perhaps inconveniently for John; idle hands and all that. He kept himself busy with petty crime, and once again found himself in the newspapers: in the 1930s his new habit of burglary and thieving sent him to prison; first for a year, then again for eighteen months.
Australia decided that they’d had enough of John. In 1939 he was deported to New Zealand – but he was clearly not taken with the idea. The day after his arrival he stowed away on another ship and headed back over the ditch. Unimpressed, Canberra tried again, this time remembering to let us know he was coming, and could we please ensure Australia never sees him again?
They didn’t. John was back in his country of birth, and made no further attempts to leave it. Perhaps one place to do crimes was as good as another: he was on probation in 1940 in Auckland, and he appeared in court reports from 1945, connected with a two-up school gambling den in Auckland.
After that we know of no further shady activity. John got married and worked around Auckland and Waikato as a barman and labourer. He was a wharfie during the 1951 strike.
He died in 1976 and is buried under the name John David Asher. His family say that he remained proud of his service at Gallipoli and would attend Anzac Day services.
John’s painted ostrich egg – accession number 2018/16/1 – has come to Te Manawa from a friend of his stepdaughter. The caption “kaffir kraal” under the image on it was very much of its time; “kaffir” is now legally considered hate speech in South Africa.
Rob Mildon arrived in New Zealand in 1918, inside
an ostrich egg, and has written for Te Manawa ever since.