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


page 113

Specific events and unique experiences are of the essence of history. For a past community to become real to us we need some good stories about it. And, as novelist Elizabeth Bowen reminds us, ‘the good story is a succession of effective Nows'.1 To be effective a ‘Now’ must be reasonably rich in the seemingly trivial specifics that enable us to recreate past scenes in the mind's eye. Besides providing imaginative entry into the past, the ‘Nows’ of Part One have several virtues for the social historian. They have thrust into the spotlight a range of characters whose lives were usually anonymous and unrecorded. They have depicted something of the intricate context of those lives. But in giving a ‘feel’ of the past through stories of particular persons in specific circumstances one avoids disrupting the flow with extensive probings into meaning and significance. One also sketches in contexts without adequately explaining the many changes that time has brought.

Part Two probes and discusses the structures and patterns of the New Zealand settler society whose general character has become apparent in Part One. We proceed with several advantages. Our dissection follows our having viewed this society as a functioning whole, as country and town, rich and poor, wrestled with the common problem of disaster by fire. We can point to Part One for pertinent illustrations of the patterns under discussion without having to disrupt our argument with the details of the stories. Part Two is deliberately labelled an ‘anatomy’ to convey the picture of an arrangement of interacting systems. Practising historians know that history is not one thing, but many things. To settle for one structure or pattern as the answer to understanding this settler society would lead to writing a good deal of reductionist nonsense. Since Part Two is not primarily concerned with the fires, but with the society in which they occurred, we will draw freely on further evidence from other contexts. However we will be concerned throughout with New Zealand society at this particular point in its history—where it had come from, how it was functioning, and where it thought it was going. The discussion should repeatedly illuminate the narrative of Part One, but it will often range beyond the agenda provided by Part One.

The choice of patterns has emerged from working with the source page 114 materials, and is, of course, a matter of professional judgment. They include the shared meanings about reality which provided the framework of knowledge by which this past society functioned. They also include insights which have emerged from historians' reflections on the meaning of the past—patterns which have become clear in retrospect, but which were seen only dimly, or not at all, by contemporaries. The patterns chosen do not make up a system of discrete and independent categories; rather they are an untidy, overlapping series. If the buzzing confusion of lived reality is not sifted and categorised its significances escape our grasp, but too tidy a system crushes it into false shapes as we grasp it.

The stories of the fires will further help us in two particular ways. The emergency situations forced immediate responses from the settlers under the glare of colonial publicity—responses which help us to grasp their characters and hierarchies of values. The same publicity showed how the fires cut across the settlers' plans and programmes, giving us invaluable information on their life objectives, and on their strategies for coping with problems and making progress towards the ends they were seeking. From Chapter 11 on we will turn our attention to selected areas of colonial experience, and examine the settlers operating as agents within the structures sketched in by our patterns.