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


The settler New Zealand that flared into flames over December 1885 and January 1886, in the closing weeks of a long drought, was at an interesting stage of development. Behind lay several decades of rapidly changing, ephemeral experience, of episodes of newcomer interaction with virgin environments. In rapid succession there had been the sealing and whaling incursions on the virgin coasts and coastal waters, the missionary enclaves on the virgin Maori field, the settlement schemes and immigration drives to occupy the virgin lands, the New Zealand Wars to which these gave rise, and the gold rushes to the virgin alluvial gravels. But by the mid 1880s the colony was moving past the virgin phase. I believe that we need, but do not yet have, a comprehensive overview of what it was that emerged from these founding years. This book aims to provide such a comprehensive overview; a summing up of the nature and quality of what had been achieved by what had gone before; an essential baseline for a deepening of our understanding of what came after.

The common people who were flushed out of anonymity by that summer's fires were the first generation to relate to many institutions and arrangements that went to make up the enduring agenda of generations to come; county councils and education boards, government railways and country quotas, hospital boards and school committees, main trunks and a national civil police force. Many of the creations of the 1875–85 decade were starting on a century of slow evolution, not to be faced with major restructuring or disbandment until the closing years of the following century. Our aim is to see how they were making their way in their pristine years, and to get some understanding of the minds of those who first shaped and used them. We have deliberately endeavoured to see the settlers on their own terms and not to look at them from the false perspective of some other society's agenda. Because their most basic preoccupation was the shaping of a new agrarian countryside we have deliberately put country before town. Because our concern is with the new world they were shaping we have concentrated on how they related to and served each other, with less regard for what they were offering to the outside world. Beef for the Greymouth coal miners and bread for the Kaipara timber workers is therefore as important page 11 to us as wool for the distant Bradford mills.

We have placed our settlers for the most part where their everyday life was lived, between the shoreline and the bush line rather than between Wellington and Westminster. Usually they filled their lungs with air redolent of the long leagues of the Tasman and the Pacific, but each year the reeking haze of the burning season set eyes smarting and nostrils tingling. By entering our story through the fires we have been able to put the bush where it belongs, as an important element in the colonists' consciousness, both as a major factor in their economy and as a feature unique to their islands, one of the aspects of New Zealand's individuality. We might, however, have entered by way of their other boundary, the shoreline and the coastal seas. One would have to search far among the Old World hearthlands and the new settler societies to find countries for whose stories mastery of the coastal seas was of equal importance—perhaps only Norway and Newfoundland would qualify. Had we begun our story with one of the great storms that periodically surge across our island world we could have put other players on the centre stage of drama and danger: the crews of the little Kaipara ketches and schooners caught heavily loaded with kauri as they plied the long haul to Lyttelton and Port Chalmers; or those of the West Coast colliers, caught coming in to find the Greymouth and Westport bars closed, and having to fight out the long storm days in their bucking lightly loaded broad-bottomed vessels. We will not be able to include this particular personal element, but we will move to redress the long neglect of the coasters' role in the development of our island world. In this and many other ways this book endeavours to find the patterns of history somewhere close to the bones of our settler story.