New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s
Town, country and bush
Town, country and bush
Hawke's Bay might be taken as an exemplar of a typical New Zealand region of the 1880s. ‘Town’ was Napier, the region's port and capital, developed originally to service the squatters' ‘country’ stretching inland to the bush fringe along the Tukituki River, beyond which the second wave of settlement had begun to sweep in the 1870s, to create Henry Hill's ‘bush’. The railway linked the three aspects; any substantial occupation of the bush would have been impossible without it. The fragmented New Zealand railway ‘system’ of 1885–86 only makes sense when one grasps that it linked these three aspects of a scatter of regions all bearing more or less resemblance to this Hawke's Bay archetype. As much as anything else, it was this integrating of the reaches of virgin bush settlement into little ‘bush/country/town’ economic regions that gave the colony its distinctive character, in contrast to the British homeland, the mainland Australian colonies, and the United States. New Zealand of the mid eighties was more like an older Britain, before the pressure of population and the demands of the early stages of industrialisation had swept away the bulk of her forests, making her dependent on imports for 95 per cent or her needs in wood. There, stone, brick and plaster had long since supplanted wood as the main building materials, coal had become the main domestic fuel, and steel was coming into prominence in constructional engineering works of all kinds. In contrast most of the New Zealand settlers' houses were of wood, their main fuel for both domestic and industrial purposes was firewood, and their bridges, page 118 railway viaducts, culverts, warehouses and factories were fabricated mainly from wooden beams, poles and timbers. Timber shaped by the cooper, wheelwright, shingle-splitter, cartwright, ship builder and cabinet maker met a remarkable variety of the community's other needs. In its material fabric, the settlers' world was much less akin to the Britain from which most of them had come than to the eastern United States. They had inherited much from the American experience, from the backwoodsman's axe to the balloon-frame house. Yet in some respects the American settlement experience was the reverse of New Zealand's. America's settlement began in forested country, and it was nearly two centuries before the colonists began to occupy the extensive grasslands of the prairies. From the beginning the typical American frontiersman was a yeoman farmer. In contrast, the first extensive settlement of the New Zealand countryside was the squatter occupation of the grasslands, to be followed after about three decades by the main assault on the bush, and the accompanying rise to predominance of the yeoman farmer. Unlike North America with its one great region of forests and another of grassland, New Zealand had a series of small regions, each containing both forest and grassland, which in the later 19th century could be best developed by tying them together with a railway reaching in from a port town. A much closer contemporary parallel than either Britain or the United States was provided by France whose rural world still maintained a careful age-old regional balance between forest and arable.4 But even here industrialisation had been based on coal, and it had also replaced firewood as the main urban fuel.