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

18 — The Settler Society

page 278

The Settler Society

We have now viewed this colonial world from a variety of perspectives and pursued many trails in our search for understanding. In concluding we will reflect briefly on our journey, attempting a succinct assessment of what the settlers had achieved by the mid 1880s, and an appraisal of our own attempt to understand and depict their world. Our approach has been to maintain a fairly sharp focus on this dominant settler element in the colonial community at one point in time. This has meant that we have almost completely ignored such competing worlds as those of the Maori and the miner. This approach has been in line with a comment by Lawrence Stone on what the historian can learn from anthropology:

… it has taught us how a whole social system and set of values can be brilliantly illuminated by the searchlight method of recording in elaborate detail a single event, provided that it is very carefully set in its total context and very carefully analyzed for its cultural meaning.1

We have not, of course, achieved such a sharp focus as this because the fires we have worked from were an untidy scatter of events for which we can by no means claim to have had access to a record of ‘elaborate detail’. Nor have we succeeded in setting them in their total context.

For, as Fernand Braudel reminds us:

With its diffuse and all-embracing reality, of which we are sometimes as little aware of as the air we breathe, society wraps us round, penetrates and directs our entire lives….

… For practical purposes of course, this totality has to be split up into smaller sets for convenience of observation. Otherwise, how could such a mass of material be handled? …

… Ideally—but this is impossible—one would try to present the whole panorama on the same plane and in a single movement. In practice, I can only recommend that when making our divisions we try to keep an overall vision in mind: this is bound to loom up here and there in the argument and will always tend to reintroduce unity, warning against false assumptions that society is a simple matter….2

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Having, one hopes, achieved something approaching this overall vision, one faces the task of imparting it to one's readers.

It is at this point that the historian of a settler society meets with some special problems. For reasons which we must discuss the setders of whom he writes had a very inadequate overall vision of their own world; and his modern readers also lack the kind of deep awareness of their country's past which citizens of Old World societies possess. We might express the problems succinctly by saying that while their Old World contemporaries enshrined their story as it unfolded, the settlers gave only an ephemeral expression to the colonial story. The historian addressing an Old World community about its past starts with the advantage of addressing a deep tacit awareness of that past created by its enshrined traditions. In contrast the historian of a settler community is conscious that to a large extent he is speaking into a void. To succeed he must set about constructing a contrived awareness of the colonial past of which he writes.

Victorian England enshrined its lived experience with a depth of understanding that has seldom been equalled. Painters, novelists, essayists, cartoonists, poets, architects, critics, orators, reviewers, historians and others combined to leave a record by which their world continues to live for any earnest seeker. Merely listing a few of the novelists provides a quick reminder of the power and variety of the enshrinement: Brontë, Dickens, Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, Gaskell, Meredith, Eliot, Hardy. In contrast contemporary books about colonial New Zealand were largely those of the emigration agent or of the overseas visitor, practical works, dealing mainly with the surface of things, and designed more for informing an Old World audience than for deepening the self-understanding of colonials. So the mind of settler New Zealand was nourished much more by the enshrined experience of a shear zone vital homeland than by the ephemeral creations of colonial hands reactivation at and imaginations. If he was not a reader of the emerging literary classics, the settler still had his memories of the homeland, or those passed on to him by his parents, the nursery rhymes, the popular songs, the school readers, the current music hall favourites, the working class fiction, and the English illustrated weeklies, to remind him of ‘Home’. The childhood memories of New Zealand-born Alan Mulgan (1881–1962) show how powerfully this land a world away could reach out to feed a colonial's imagination and win his deep affection. It was when the Home mail arrived that his New Zealand rural home ‘hummed with excitement’.

There were letters from innumerable relatives in the ‘Old Country.’ … Then the papers! What a scramble there was for them. The young people fought for The Boys' Own, and I regret to say that among the girls themselves The Girls' Own was much less popular. Most sought after, however, were the big page 280 illustrateds—the Graphic and Illustrated London News, with their fascinating pictures of the Great World.3

For Mulgan, as for many of his contemporaries, the raw colonial world was quite overwhelmed by its distant rival.

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

So the rich word ‘home’ was one of divided connotations for the colonist. In many ways the English language which he spoke conveyed to him that he did not altogether belong where he was now living, for it was filled with reminders of the Old World's history and geography. Thus as he browsed through his Brett's Colonists' Guide the names of his stock breeds took him on a memory tour of the world he had left: Lincoln, Leicester, Cotswold, Shropshire and Romney Marsh sheep, Clydesdale horses, Berkshire pigs, Hereford, Ayrshire and Jersey cattle, Aylesbury ducks. Before this continual, pervasive reinforcement of the familiar and traditional, the indigenous aspects of the colonial scene were made to seem shallow and foreign. ‘Instead of the discordant and ridiculous note of the tui, we should have the melody of the thrush and the blackbird’, a correspondent wrote in 1870 to the Wanganui Weekly Herald, in recommending a revitalising of the local Acclimatisation Society.5

The settlers' world, then, was inadequately realised and recorded by its makers. For the modern New Zealander the problem of grasping it in the imagination is increased by the fact that it was a rapidly changing world. As our account has shown, New Zealand of the mid 1880s was a jumble of communities at all stages of development and modernisation. Our two-part approach in this book has been aimed at first giving the reader something of an overall vision. Working mainly from what the settlers intended as ephemeral records of their experience we have endeavoured to construct an awareness of a varied, interacting, living community. Only after we have presented the holistic narrative of Part I have we moved on to the analytical ‘divisions’ of our Part II. And we have done so by way of the integrating network of patterns outlined in Chapter 10. Our divisions are aimed at filling what we believe to be crucial gaps in the portrayal of our colonial story. To focus on these we have had to omit much that is of importance to a rounded picture. Several significant aspects of settler life we have dealt with elsewhere, from much the same viewpoint as in the present study—school and church, for example.6 Others that seemed to cry out for treatment we have reluctantly excluded for the sake of a manageable book. One such is page 281 holidays and recreation. The summer's fires cut across a welter of horse races, athletic sports, regattas, excursions by land and sea, cricket matches and picnics. For as Edward Wakefield explained at length, ‘The colonists of New Zealand are a holiday-making people.’ After listing the many days universally or widely recognised as holidays, he proceeded:

But over and above these recognised holidays it is the common practice for a day or two more to be taken at Christmas, at New Year, and at Easter, so as to make an unbroken holiday of two, three or four days, including a Sunday. At these times the great mass of the people give themselves wholly to amusement.7

This passing reference at least puts this dimension in the record. Like various other unexamined dimensions, I believe its significance can be greatly enriched by the context established in this study.

We must now put in sharp perspective the more striking features of this settlers' world of the mid 1880s, before briefly assessing its achievements and shortcomings. If I had to epitomise in one pithy statement the most significant trend, I would say it was the emerging triumph of the yeoman ideal. Partible inheritance, economic pressures, official policy and the nudging of public opinion were transforming former bastions of the sheep kings into yeoman country. On the bush frontiers new yeoman realms were being hewn from the wild. So the most outstanding feature of this rural world was the rapid expansion of its yeoman domains, with thousands of new recruits pressing into them. A clear ‘farming ladder’ had been created so that the enterprising landless labourer could work his way up to become the freeholder of a substantial mixed farm. Driving all this was a deep rural myth. The best treatment of the Old World origins and New Zealand development of this yeoman myth of a rural Arcadia is Miles Fairburn's article ‘The Rural Myth and the New Urban Frontier’,8 which shows the potency of this myth in urban as well as rural New Zealand. With its deep roots in both the British and the European past, the Arcadian vision possessed a strong moral and economic appeal, which found expression in such terms as ‘honest toil’, ‘family life’, ‘taming the wilderness’, ‘sturdy independence’, ‘fruit of the soil’. Let us bring this down to the more mundane realities of the colony of the 1880s, and ask ourselves what it was that many even among the already well-housed and well-fed townsmen were searching for when they launched into yeoman careers. Essentially they were after a prestige and a way of life which had been given a lasting aura by the English gentry. It was the owning of freehold acres and hence styling oneself ‘esquire’; it was being seen in possession of fine saddle and harness horses; it was having grounds about one's house, perhaps not just a garden, but also a drive, and the beginnings of a park; it was joining in prestigious country sports and recreations—hunting, page 282 shooting, fishing, horse-racing; it was being a man of property, able to launch one's own children on a similar career, and provide comfortably for one's old age. In broad terms, it was the way of life to which so many of the tenant farmers of Victorian England had successfully aspired, but with the added bonus of the sturdy independence of the freehold. We have already seen many of the positive achievements of this New Zealand yeoman world. Here I wish to expand briefly on two aspects which have been impressed upon me by a wide reading in the sources but to which I have not yet given their due weight: the quality of family and community life, and the strong element of altruism in these communities.

I have read most of the hundreds of letters written by rural children to Uncle Ned of the New Zealand Farmer in the 1880s. Coming from all parts of yeoman New Zealand, these letters have left me with the abiding impression of family life built around a deep and often versatile involvement in a cluster of practical projects: the development of the family, the home, the kitchen garden, flower garden, orchard, poultry yard, dairy, hives, crops, flocks and herds. These projects are broken down to give each family member the feel of sharing in the ownership, work and management, while yet drawing support from the rest of the team. There is both sharing and friendly rivalry with neighbouring families. Much of the work is fun, but the family also has plenty of fun which is not work. From a broader range of sources it is clear that this family life of the yeoman countryside was lived out in a friendly world with a gregarious flavour. Most settlers thought nothing of walking or riding long distances to get together. Much conviviality was built into the occasions of agricultural life and rural development—government land sales, stock sales, clearing sales, ploughing matches, agricultural and horticultural shows, working bees, market days, and openings of local amenities. Family weddings, funerals, housewarmings and farewells were almost invariably community occasions. In the more mature settlement areas there was a wide range of largely self-help community entertainment. ‘What are the amusements?’ writes Arthur Clayden, early in the 1880s. ‘Many and varied. Colonists believe in play.’9 The records tell of Penny Readings, debates, dances, mock parliaments, amateur dramatics, hunting and shooting parties, concerts, mutual improvement societies, school, church, temperance and family picnics, revivalist camp meetings, and even, for some country folk, railway and steamer excursions.

The element of altruism was implicit in the widespread self-help of these communities. There was much to encourage the sacrifice of self-interest to the common good. In the absence of professionals and specialists, any settler with medical, midwifery, veterinary, mechanical or other skills found ample opportunity and encouragement to put them at the disposal of the community. As we saw repeatedly in the story of the summer's many fires, a page 283 settler whose home or possessions were in danger could expect his neighbours to rally to his aid, unasked and without concern for the risks. In the case of individual disaster, he could expect to see a subscription list in his aid initiated and supported in his community. The range of roles demanded by the local government system also called for the disinterested services of many busy settlers. Altruism found further expression in the design and use of the settlers' houses and other buildings. We have some good examples of this, from H.E. Johnson's reminiscences of the early days of Cardiff.

My father [William Johnson] was well educated and, while waiting for our first timber house to be built, he was asked to teach the thirty children who were in the district…. When our timber home, which took a year to build out of pit-sawn timber, was completed, my mother gave up our dining-room as a school-room and the first permanent teacher, Mr D.J. Williams, used to board with us during the week and ride back to Patea at the weekends…. Our neighbours were the Marchants, a well-known Cardiff family. They built a large cow-shed with a loft above and here, about once a fortnight, fifteen or twenty settlers would gather for parties and dances. Candles were put around the walls and we danced to the music of a concertina. Lancers, games, Quadrilles, waltzes and D'Alberts were the favourites.10

But there were also shortcomings in this yeoman world. The deepest of these became apparent only with the passage of time, and so can only be adequately discussed in a context outside the scope of this study. We will therefore treat them only very briefly. From the standpoint of the 1990s the most obvious deficiencies of this yeoman world were the way in which its hunger for land caused it to ride roughshod over Maori rights and over ecological considerations. It would probably be true to say that the bulk of the colony's yeoman stock of the 1880s were quite unconscious of being implicated in the agreements of the Treaty of Waitangi. They, or their parents, had come to New Zealand subsequent to the treaty, and neither before nor after their emigration had they been made aware of the treaty or its terms. In this respect their ‘village and globe’ outlook was defective. It gave them no knowledge of what they should have been made aware of as New Zealanders. As their ‘global’ outlook picked up a wealth of valuable agricultural knowledge from worldwide sources, it also picked up American, South African and Australian attitudes to indigenous peoples and related them unthinkingly to the New Zealand context. Meanwhile, in their village context Maori concerns and rights were seldom a matter of thought or discussion. On both Maori and ecological issues there were some voices expressing a corrective to the common outlook, but at no point did a leadership appear to focus these concerns and to address the issue of reshaping public opinion. Graeme Wynn has shown how conservationist arguments were put page 284 before the New Zealand public from the 1860s onwards,11 but rural New Zealand largely ignored them, to its long term loss.

Coming to preeminence in the closing decades of the 19th century, the yeoman ideology dominated New Zealand life for much of the twentieth century. Its concerns became the central issues of the country's economy. It provided a string of yeoman prime ministers from Harry Atkinson to Jim Bolger. Yet in the writing of New Zealand history, the yeoman world has been largely ‘the other side of the hill’. The ‘Red Feds’ have been put firmly into the story, but the role played by the yeomen in their downfall remains virtually unexamined. We know of the exploits of the Anzacs but we have done little to trace their quality back to the yeoman world where most of them were shaped. We have a solid row of in-depth studies of the politics and politicians of the left, but much less on the rurally based conservatism that, abetted by the country quota, held the reins of office over the longer haul. We have shown a much broader interest in how our industrial workers organised than in how our farmers did. Yet of all that goes to make the New Zealand community what it is today more had its origins in the settlers' world than anywhere else.

Our bias, then, has been towards history rooted in the New Zealand soil. To counter existing biases, we have been rather more concerned with the more than three quarters of the gross national product that was consumed within the colony, and rather less with that aimed at the export markets. We are, of course, aware that New Zealand could not have advanced as a modernising society without its large overseas trade, and its manufactured imports. We have also been striving towards a total view of that which was of significance to rural New Zealand. Where there were yawning gaps in the treatment of issues vital to this rural world we have filled them as best we could for the interim. Thus since yeoman New Zealand only makes full sense when seen in the context of the massive work performed by coastal shipping we have given our tentative conclusions on this topic, while waiting hopefully for definitive work to appear from other hands.

Inevitably there are ways in which we take the experiences of these settler colonials more seriously than they took them themselves. Their sense of identity owed much less to this land than does ours. The bread and wine at the heart of their communion with their past was drawn from the richly enshrined culture of the hearthland that they still called ‘home’. But what they saw as the raw, low, inglorious experience of their provincial lives is now our past, the rock from which we have been hewn. If we are to know ourselves deeply we must see their world with a wholeness and clarity which they did not seek. If we are to have a worthwhile communion with our past its bread and wine must include the blood, sweat and tears that were once their little-venerated present.