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The Farthest Promised Land — English Villagers, New Zealand Immigrants of the 1870s

16 The Farthest Promised Land

page 354

16 The Farthest Promised Land

IF HE IS to fashion a satisfying reconstruction of the past, the social historian must gain some grip on the intangibles of the mind, and give some account of the hopes and dreams of the people of whom he writes. He will, of course, find that these hopes and dreams were subject to the flux and eddies of change, and that the ideal promised lands of past imagination flickered and shifted, while the fullness of the desired reality forever escaped the grasp.

We have seen how the Revolt of the Field began with a vision of the remaking of rural England in terms largely of an idealised past in which the labourer received a due reward for his toil, the land was more fairly shared among the people, and a deep spirit of community suffused the whole of life. We have seen how this vision quickly shattered in the face of social and economic realities, and how successfully the emigration agents were then able to move in with their rosy pictures of an alternative promised land in the virgin countryside beyond the seas. We have followed the great exodus of English villagers to the most distant of the British colonies, and traced something of their fortunes in the new land. Inevitably their dreams of a better world were shaped by their place in time and space; by memories of the landscapes and communities from which they had come; by the reshaping of those memories as diverse influences played upon them from the land of their birth; and by the unfolding experiences of the new land and the new community.

As we have seen, there had in many cases been hunger, frustration, anger and bitterness in the circumstances of their going. Many had been convinced that they were leaving a land of bondage and want for a land of freedom and plenty. But inevitably the new land was found to have unexpected lacks, limitations and disappointments; and inevitably also, there came nostalgia and longing for the scenes of childhood and youth, and for qualities of the old land whose value was only truly realised after experience of their absence in the new. Commonly, it would seem, the bitter memories faded, while the nature of the continuing links with the old world kept alive and enriched a consciousness of the positive values of the world they had left. England was referred to as the ‘Old Country’ and as ‘Home’, and these expressions carried rich connotations of love and longing. In comparison with the Old Country, the colony was sensed to be somehow fragmentary and incomplete. Some comments by the twentieth century English poet, T. S. Eliot, are pertinent at this point. Referring to ountries such as New Zealand which derive from migrations from the Old World, he writes:

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They have transplanted themselves according to some social, religious, economic or political determination, or some peculiar mixture f these. There has therefore been something in the removements analagous in nature to religious schism. The people have taken with them only a part of the total culture in which, so long as they remained at home, they participated. The culture which develops on the new soil must therefore be bafflingly alike and different from the parent culture …1

As we have been concerned only with the last of New Zealand's four founding decades, this ‘schismatic’ incompleteness of colonial life cannot be fully explored here, but clearly in its ‘village’ and labouring class bias the immigration of the 1870s was a continuing pattern already well established.2 The sense of social lack and the hunger for a lost completeness of culture, which arose from this sectional nature of immigration, were significant forces in the colonial transmutation of the dream of the promised land, and must be taken into account along with those more obvious factors which have been to the forefront throughout this study: the freedom from the entail of the past, and the opportunities for a fresh start provided by the bounty of virgin land. It was largely this sense of cultural and social lack which turned the hearts and minds of the colonists so strongly back towards the Old Country. It is therefore important that we consider in a little detail what effect the timing of this migration had on the continuing links between the emigrants and the hearthland.

The migration flow of the 1870s coincided with a rapid further extension of popular education in both colony and hearthland, leading shortly to almost universal literacy. In 1876 New Zealand was linked by cable with the Old World. In the 1880s steam began to replace sail on New Zealand's trade routes to Britain. The immigrants desired to draw on the resources of the Old Country, and these propitious developments encouraged them to do so. Not only did the colony receive a steady flow of letters, journals and books from Britain, but also throughout the lifetimes of the 1870s immigrants, practically every colonial newspaper and journal would have been rich in news and comments from the homeland. At school their children wrestled daily with the very same textbooks as were being used by their English counterparts — books produced in England, with English children mainly in mind. I hold in my hand as I write a Longmans Standard 5 Reader which was used by a New Zealand school girl in the 1890s. It consists mainly of extracts from English literature, with a roll-call of authors that includes Bunyan, Burns, Byron, Defoe, Dickens, Herbert, Lamb, Macaulay, Milton, Scott, Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth, as s a number of minor writers. The fare of cultural club and theatre, of hurch and Sunday school, of home and community recreation, drew almost qually heavily on ‘Home’ materials, so that the imaginations of colonists of all ages were nourished continually with evocations of the ‘Old Country’. When Vogel told the British tenant farmers that New Zealand was ‘another part of their own country’,3 he was merely putting into words what a majority of New Zealanders felt.

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How this powerful interplay of influences worked out in terms of personal experience is aptly illustrated by the boyhood memories of the New Zealand writer Alan Mulgan. Born into an immigrant home in rural New Zealand in 1881, his Anglophile outlook is all the more striking in that he came of Ulster parentage. In his book Home, written in 1926 to tell of his first visit to the Old Country, he writes:

To a boy who had been born in New Zealand and had never been out of it, Ulster was a shadowy place. England and English things were always before my eyes, the English army, the English navy, English statesmen, English power throughout the world. I have no English blood in me that I ever heard of. Had I been brought up in a different atmosphere, I might have grown to manhood filled with the hatred of England which used to grow with such bitter luxuriance in the land that of all her territories, England most deeply wronged. As it was, I had some affection for the country of my parents, but infinitely more for England. It was a huge, mysterious, awful, sacred, and yet always lovable place, this England, a land of immemorial things, of shining heroes, of imperfectly understood but fascinating ritual, of marvellous romance, of world-embracing authority and prestige.4

The persistence, ever deepening, of a unified colonial-homeland consciousness in these distant South Pacific islands clearly owed a great deal to the recently developed mass literacy and modern means of transport and communication. Yet the consciousness that was thereby nourished had strong elements of the past in it — of Peter Laslett's ‘World we have lost’.5 After the 1870s, the English village labourer's deep love of the land faded markedly, and with it passed his idealised dream of an old-time brotherhood of yeomen living together in a closely knit, cooperative community. But it was this old dream that drew so many of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants; and an important part of the social history of New Zealand is concerned with how it was acclimatised to the new land, finding there a measure of realisation as a curious mixture of old emotions and new technology. Professor W. J. Keith has suggested that sometime in the 1880s there occurred in the English social consciousness an urban-rural dissociation of sensibility.6 If this is true, New Zealand received her foundation stock while town and country were still attuned to each other. Whatever the case, it is clear that this aspect of the social psychology of mid-Victorian Britain is of deep significance to the understanding of New Zealand's social history.

The source materials for this book, searched from the libraries and archives of both the old country and the new, have been acknowledged step by step as we have proceeded. But undergirding all, only occasionally overtly referred to, yet pervasive as a source of understanding, lie the writer's memories of the two countrysides, providing material for the reconstruction in the imagination of the past landscapes that were both the scene and the source of the dreams and hopes of the immigrant generation. A childhood among bush-burned hills of inland Nelson, half a life-time's experience in many other New Zealand districts, and a glorious spring, page 357 summer and autumn of sojourn in that other homeland of the New Zealand mind, the English countryside, must now be acknowledged as the sources of a tacit background of understanding throughout this study.

Henry and Frances Cox and family, Woodlands Road, Woodville, after 12 years in the colony, 1886

Henry and Frances Cox and family, Woodlands Road, Woodville, after 12 years in the colony, 1886

When one recreates in the imagination the colonial landscapes of the 1870s, it is not difficult to see that the settlers must have felt a sense both of welcome and of rebuff. The new land held some promise that it might be shaped into a new and better England, but it also displayed a disconcerting toughness and wildness, forboding a determined resistance to all efforts to mellow and tame. As settlement continued its advance across the uneven, cross-grained, craggy scramble of landscapes, it was forced into localised pockets, a circumstance which served to nurture the village outlook which so many of the immigrant stock brought with them. Yet, in ways which have yet to be fully explored, they were villages with a difference.

And so the new rural social order was shaped. The dream that had first been fashioned from the finer elements of the heritage of rural England was adapted to the realities of a raw and strange new land. But always, as the decades unfolded, there were haunting memories of a far and loved countryside to guide the eyes and hands of the immigrant settler. Even the colonial-born carried something of the vision in their minds, only to find, if fortunate enough in time to view its origins, that the reality was beyond all their imagining.

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Mrs Frances Cox, veteran of 40 years of colonial life

Mrs Frances Cox, veteran of 40 years of colonial life