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The Boy Colonists

V. Nineteenth-Century Context: from the Motherland to Distant Lands

V. Nineteenth-Century Context: from the Motherland to Distant Lands

Throughout the nineteenth century, travel to New Zealand was becoming more frequent, alongside increasing British colonial development (Carr 71). The character of Ernest within The Boy Colonists is one of many young British hopefuls who were pursuing these new developments; as travel became both cheaper and easier, “a great many steamer passengers simply came to see for themselves what the prospects were, and to go around the world because they could” (Wevers Country of Writing 133). Elwell illustrates clearly from the beginning of his tale that Ernest, like these passengers, fancied “that when once set afloat in the world, and free to act on his own impulses, he should soon carve his way to fortune and honour”, independent of his home (E. Elwell 3). The ease of travel by 1859 meant that he could pursue these fancies and make his way to New Zealand to begin life as a settler.

Britain’s desire to cultivate colonies overseas was primarily affected by the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the inspiration to travel to more remote areas of the globe was instigated by “the popularity of pastoral poetry that evoked pictures of the countryside paradise the revolution was thought to have done away with” (Evans 19). Britain was circulating images of a ‘promised land’ for those wishing to escape the industrial centre and create a simpler life, and anything beyond the borders of Europe was depicted as exotic and fantastical. Ernest himself is described as having “a very bright view” of New Zealand “and the world outside his home” which motivated his travels and played into the general excitement the public was feeling about foreign shores (E. Elwell 3). Helen Bones, in her work A Book is a Book All the World Over, neatly summarises how this exoticism linked to public curiosity of colonial life:

The history of the exoticisation of elements of colonial life and experience began as soon as Europeans began to explore far-flung parts of the world and brought back tales of curious lands and strange peoples. This cult of the exotic was tied up with the tropes of European Romanticism, modified in the nineteenth century... Curiosity about colonial life ‘did not necessarily translate into an appreciation of what was original and unconventional in the literary work coming from different parts of the Empire, but it did represent an opening that [colonial writers] could attempt to exploit’ (Bones 873).

Bones explains the cycle of travel and report: the more information about the colonies that fed back to the homeland, the more interested the public became in their daily lives and discoveries. This in turn created an opportunity for the settlers to report back even more of their findings in further corners of these countries.

Colonists were thus drawn specifically to New Zealand because it was a perfect example of such a curious land: a “wonderland of the new, a terra incognita of tremendous possibilities” yet to be discovered (Wevers, Country of Writing 3). Far away from the English metropolis, living in such an environmentally rich country was an opportunity for colonists to “escape the environmental constraints of a resource-poor and environmentally-depleted Europe” (Ballantyne 13). Yet one of New Zealand’s more stranger appeals was that it was considered to be a “Better Britain”: an ideal country for colonial exploration because it was far enough away geographically, but not so unfamiliar or foreign as to deter potential travellers (Wagner 2). Elwell occasionally touches on this transferred Britishness from the mother country into the New Zealand colonies throughout Ernest’s involvements with his various hosts - particularly ‘Mr. and Mrs. P.’, as they are addressed throughout the book. Ernest notes how these settlers maintain the same schedules and habits as they had done in Britain, albeit in worse conditions now than before. They nonetheless still “take tea” together at table, uphold religious practise to the best of their abilities and maintain lingering ideas of the class system (E. Elwell 31).

However, while individuals like Ernest may have been motivated by their private desires to ‘make a living’ overseas, their travel and work in the settler countries was part of the bigger colonialism scheme that saw Britain’s reach permeate the Commonwealth. The appeal of the settler life was seen through the lens of “imperial potentiality” – that is, the travellers’ and colonists’ assessment of the “land and resources” at their disposal within the framework of “an imagined imperial future” (Ballantyne 12). These new countries became extensions of Britain to use or develop in the name of the Crown. Of course, discussing the implications and connotations behind these ideas – and of New Zealand colonialism in general – is worthy of an entirely separate introduction all on its own, so intense and deep is the subject. While it is not the focus of Elwell’s text, it is necessary to at least momentarily address it in order to contextualise some of Ernest’s relationships and interactions on the sheep stations. Particularly when Ernest is discovering more of New Zealand’s history, and the “vast different between the Maories [sic] of the North and those of the South”, the country’s tribal history is brought to the foreground (E. Elwell 20). While Ernest himself does not experience any personal ramifications of the tension between settlers and Māori, and only “takes notice” of the New Zealand Wars from a distance, he does find himself in conversations with various individuals who are staunchly opinionated about the fresh history of European migration (95). Thus, the ambition and implications of cultivating a ‘British’ colony go somewhat hand-in-hand with the life that Elwell paints for his audiences, as Ernest makes his way across the South Island.