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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World


As in most New Zealand rural districts, busy Kaponga folk, working under the pressure of anniversary deadlines, have made some useful starts in sketching their local story. But lacking time, space, and easy access to research resources, they have left much untold and many conundrums unresolved. Unlike them, we have had the luxuries of working without deadlines, of easy access to major research libraries and archives, and of taking ample space to cover a more limited time period. This, we believe, has enabled us to provide the local audience with a deepened understanding of their settlement's origins and early development.

Our purpose has been much wider than this. The American historian Allan Nevins was surely going too far when he asserted that the only good local history is that written for a national or international audience.1 But it would be a strange New Zealander whose heart was not warmed by Nevins's contention that

The greatest book yet written in New Zealand, Herbert Guthrie-Smith's Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921), and one of the greatest books of its kind in the world, is the history of a single sheep station … it can be read with fascination by anyone from Scandinavia to Argentina—for it speaks to universal experience, experience with land, climate, beast, bird, markets, labor, and the general human lot.2

Nevins challenges the local historian to transcend the local while exploiting ‘the one great central vein of interest which other types of history lack’: the ability to come close to the plain human being and deal with ‘commingled characters and environment’.3 Tutira has been one of the inspirations underlying this present work, though its purpose and origin are very different.

Put simply, that origin is as the third element in a trilogy, carrying forward the story begun in my Farthest Promised Land and New Zealand's Burning. Like them, Settler Kaponga sees our settler story as (in the words of our subtitle) that of ‘a frontier fragment of the Western world’. The two earlier works each ranged widely through space, at the expense of being restricted to quite a limited period of time. Together they cover only a decade and a half. Settler Kaponga, by concentrating on one small world, is able to carry the story onwards through three and a half decades. But it page 12 retains breadth by seeing its characters not only as local residents but also as folk with deep roots in one corner or another of the Old World, vitally linked by commerce to that world, and constantly responding to the tides and eddies of Old World influence on all aspects of their lives

I take full responsibility as author for the text, structure and interpretation of the work, but I have asked that my wife Betty be acknowledged on the title page as my assistant. She has given most valuable help in a number of ways. Kaponga-born (1924), she grew up on a Palmer Road farm and had her primary schooling at Kaponga School. Therefore many of the folk in the text were known to her in their later life. Her local knowledge and contacts have been invaluable. While I was researching and writing New Zealand's Burning she carried through a massive collection of data for Settler Kaponga, first combing all the extant files of the Hawera Star for the period, and then searching more widely. She then worked over this material to create a invaluable biographical index, Kaponga People, 1881– c.1920. Copies of this will be made available to Taranaki folk and the wider world of research scholars by being lodged in appropriate libraries. Finally, she has been a most useful critic of my writing, testing it for accuracy, balance and clarity.