New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s
Medieval to modern
Medieval to modern
In emigrating to New Zealand the settlers moved from a rapidly modernising world to a more primitive one. For many the move was a deliberate choice of an opportunity to continue in traditional ways rather than adapt to the changes which modernisation was bringing. Others however were seeking opportunities to apply modern techniques in a promising new environment. The colonial scene was inevitably involved in the world-wide tussle between traditional and modern ways. Traditional patterns, often reminiscent of medieval England, were common in the primitive conditions of the early settlement stages. To illustrate this let us draw on some of the features noted by Maurice Keen in his recent English Society in the Later Middle Ages 1348–1500.13
The parallels could be multiplied, but we will content ourselves with a final one from the area of demography. The rural worlds of both late medieval England and colonial New Zealand were living through the experience page 123 of a marked shift in the ratio of manpower to the land. The rural emigrants to New Zealand moved from a countryside where labour was plentiful and cheap to one where it was scarce and at a premium. The Black Death put medieval England through a similar experience—she finished the fourteenth century with perhaps 40 per cent less population than at the beginning. Keen's description of the economic and social consequences has strong parallels with settler New Zealand. ‘Labour was in demand, and after the mid-1370s the level of wages, in real terms, could no longer be held down…. In consequence, the late middle ages became a period of great mobility in the rural world’ (p. 70). ‘A marked shift in the agricultural world towards pasture farming, which … was less labour-intensive than tillage’ (p. 72). ‘The better-paid workers of the later middle ages expected a better diet, and ate more meat than their forebears' (p. 72). ‘There are significant indications that [the times] also saw new opportunities for women in work’ (p. 44). ‘In the records of the hustings court in the City of London we begin to hear, and quite frequently, of women, not necessarily unmarried, trading as femme sole, who in that capacity could sue and be sued, and could make valid business contracts' (p. 45). Colonial conditions similarly strengthened the position of New Zealand women in comparison with their homeland sisters.
So New Zealand of the 1880s was being shaped by a curious mix of traditional and modernising influences. Traditional societies are made up of small communities depending on word-of-mouth, face-to-face communication. Localism circumscribes both thought and behaviour. Modern societies are cosmopolitan with a wide range of communication and transport technologies. These encourage extensive commerce and the rise of large urban communities. The ‘village and globe’ pattern of settler New Zealand gave it an odd, facing-both-ways, traditional/modern stance. In traditional societies time passes in endless cycles of days, months and seasons; its movement is repetitive rather than progressive. In modern societies time is a scarce commodity, carefully measured, to be used in a continuous process of innovation. Again, as we have seen, both outlooks were well established in settler New Zealand. The social structures and politics of traditional societies rely on ascriptive hierarchy and deference whereas modern societies have a strong egalitarian flavour and authority is said to derive from the people and operate on their behalf, while social status is functional rather than ascriptive. Bureaucracies are a modern feature, permitting effective government across large geographical territories. A good example of a clash between traditional and modern outlooks is provided by the clash between mayor James Paul, and stationmaster Bass at New Plymouth on 8 January 1886. Conscious of his status in the age-old civic tradition, and of his authority as the acknowledged voice of the New Plymouth establishment, Paul responded to the page 124 news of the Midhirst crisis by engaging in face-to-face discussions with other leading citizens. This led to the strategy of a special train with volunteer firefighters. While that traditional figure, the bellman, went round the town rustling up volunteers, His Worship went to make his arrangements with that modern figure, die stationmaster. Bass firmly refused Paul's demand that he must have an engine at once. As a loyal bureaucrat, Bass insisted that the authority for such a decision did not lie in New Plymouth, and certainly not with a local figure outside the bureaucratic system. Paul's response that ‘an engine he would have, if he came down with a body of men to seize one’15 belonged to the old order of the hue and cry. Fortunately Oliver Samuel, the local MP, read the situation more realistically. Bass was not stealing New Plymouth's engine, it was not a local possession but belonged to a wider world. Samuel's telegram to the bureaucracy's masters in Wellington, shortcircuiting the bureaucracy's intricacies in the interests of the emergency, was an appropriate ‘modern’ response to the situation.
Oliver Samuel, 1849–1925