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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s


Before we discuss the open country settlers we must clarify some of our terms. The dominant figure of the 19th-century occupation of the open country was the ‘squatter’. This term reminds us of the Australian origins of the pastoral industry but as, unlike their Australian mentors, few of New Zealand's pastoralists helped themselves to unoccupied country by ‘squatting’ on it, we will prefer the term ‘runholder’. The runholders have had more than their fair share of attention both from contemporaries and from historians, so we will treat them more briefly than we have the less well recorded bush settlers. Stevan Eldred-Grigg's A Southern Gentry1 is a full and lively treatment of the rise of the runholders, their assumption of an elite role, and their enjoyment of an affluent lifestyle, in their main strongholds of the South Island. The term ‘gentry’ is apt, for these folk drew heavily on the traditions of the English rural gentry. But there are biases in Eldred-Grigg's treatment, particularly a monolithic emphasis on the runholders and an accompanying downgrading of those other significant occupiers of open country, the yeoman farmers. We need a term that distinguishes these yeomen from the bush yeomen of our last chapter. The term ‘open country yeomen’ is rather verbose, and the term ‘country yeomen’ can be confusing in that both bush and open country were ‘country’ as distinct from ‘town’. I will therefore adopt a term I have used elsewhere2 and call them ‘feldon yeomen’. We will examine the interaction of these feldon yeomen with the runholders, and of both with the bush settlements and the towns.