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

A Personal Odyssey

A Personal Odyssey

At about the time Kaponga's first settlers swagged in, another young man, my paternal grandfather Richard Arnold, crossed the hills from the Waimea plains to begin carving a farm from Nelson's bush frontier. After a childhood and youth in the bush burn landscape that resulted from his endeavours I began my first extended experience of a wider world as a tertiary student in Christchurch at the age of 17. My university studies in the literature and history of Britain and Europe were an enriching experience, but they left me dissatisfied in that they made little connection with my bush frontier origins. I was vaguely conscious that thinking on this subject was beginning in our nascent university geography departments. It was, however, very much an awareness of an untold story of major achievements, and of great difficulties lying in the way of identifying these settlers and grasping what their experiences had been. From 1949 to 1965 my career path took me to the southern North Island, the region whose settler history had been most dominated by forest clearing. Years in Napier, Stratford and Palmerston North convinced me that there was indeed a glaring gap in the telling of our settlement story—the bush frontier experience. An enriching academic year as a history research student at the University of Melbourne in 1951 gave me the skills to contribute towards filling this gap. For years I awaited the opportunity.

In 1965 I joined the staff of Victoria University of Wellington and here I was soon able to undertake my PhD thesis, ‘The opening of the Great Bush, 1869–1881: a social history of the bush settlements of Taranaki, Hawke's Bay and Wellington’. Having grappled with the first decade of the main assault on the North Island bush my appetite was whetted for a deeper understanding of settler origins. Fortuitously a sabbatical leave in 1972 enabled me to delve deeply into English sources for the backgrounds of our English village immigrants of the great ‘Vogel’ inflow, resulting in my major 1981 book, The Farthest Promised Land: English Villagers, New Zealand Immigrants of the 1870s. I then followed the fortunes of these settlers page 19
William and Sarah Swadling, July 1904

William and Sarah Swadling, July 1904

through the ensuing decades, leading to my 1994 book New Zealand's Burning: The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s. While both books tackled the total New Zealand settler world of their periods, they gave special attention to the first two decades of the main assault on the lowland bush.

The interpretative bases of these two books contained several implicit challenges which led to the present work. Firstly if, as I maintain, colonial life indeed had three main aspects, town, country and bush, it is the bush that still sadly lacks in range and depth of treatment. Secondly, I have advanced ‘the village and the globe’ as a major interpretative pattern, contending that ‘This settler community was essentially a village world, but a village world that was responding to ideas and influences that were global in the scope of their origins.’3 If this was indeed so, I should be able to write a local history that is at once enriched by the concept and in turn enriches it. Both books also contain various other concepts that call for testing at the local level and, equally important, following down through the decades beyond the restricted periods of the first two books. Settler Kaponga is my response to these challenges, and a further step in my odyssey in search of understanding of the world of my personal origins.

But why Kaponga? My earlier writings have covered a range of the bush settlements originating in the 1870s. These were mainly founded on what quickly developed into important communication routes, some on railway lines from the start, others soon reached by the railway. Many later settlements did not enjoy this important advantage and it seemed appropriate to choose one such venture of the 1880s, see how its founding developed in the harder times of that decade, and follow it through the career span of page 20 the pioneer generation. Taranaki was the most active bush frontier of the 1880s and the peopling of the Waimate Plains the major settlement project of the decade. What clinched the choice of locality was that my wife, Betty, was Kaponga born and bred, her grandparents Joseph and Elizabeth Turner having in 1913 taken a farm on lower Palmer Road that was to remain in the family until 1994. This gave me a natural interest, many useful contacts and a knowledgeable and active helper.