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Educating New Zealand


This was, in brief, the educational background of the early settlers in New Zealand. Before we can trace the development of these educational ideas in the new colony, it is necessary to know how far the colonists themselves could be said to represent the different strata of British social life. Edward Gibbon Wakefield laid it down as one of the fundamental principles of his scheme of colonisation that 'emigrants should not be convicts but judiciously selected young free settlers in equal proportion of the sexes, and a vertical section or slice of English society from highest to lowest.' It is hard to see how anyone could seriously have expected to set up such a complete cross-section in a colony that had, after all, very little to offer to the more prosperous members of either the upper or the middle classes. A few adventurous and restless souls might come from any class attracted by the very things that would deter the majority of their social peers; a handful of educated idealists, eager to try out theories in a land unhampered, as they thought, by outgrown traditions, might be tempted to emigrate; but there is no conceivable reason why the bulk of well-settled nobility or prosperous merchants and page 19manufacturers should have felt any desire to leave a land where they were successful for a distant colony that could offer them only the novel possibility of failure.

In actual fact the Wakefield colonists were far from being a faithful representation of the English social hierarchy. There were men with noble and distinguished names amongst the organisers of the New Zealand Company, but they were interested in encouraging others to emigrate and, for the most part, had no intention of ever seeing the colony themselves. A few younger sons of what would have been called 'good' families certainly did come out to New Zealand anxious either to multiply rapidly their all-too-small patrimonies or to find an independence and distinction which their unfortunate position in the family denied them in Britain. Many of them were men of university training and members of one or other of the learned professions, and their education and general background enabled them to play a part in the life of the young colony out of all proportion to their numbers or even to the capital at their command.

The majority of the land purchasers were not men of large capital. Nelson provides a somewhat extreme example. William Fox, when defending in 1849 the Company's action in sending such a surplus of labour to the settlement that many labourers were brought to the verge of starvation, complained that 'it would not have been unreasonable to expect that the resi-page 20dent land-purchasers would possess an average capital of £1,000 apiece. Their number was above seventy [actually there were 315 buyers of the 442 Nelson properties, but the great majority of these were absentee owners], which would have given a fund for the immediate employment of labour of £70,000. It is a fact, however, that no such amount of capital was in the hands of the landowners. Instead of there being an average of £1000 apiece, that sum seems to have been nearer the maximum, with at most one or two exceptions; while well-authenticated instances have been mentioned of the owners of whole allotments of 201 acres arriving in the Colony with less than £100 of capital, and that in the case of parties unacquainted with agricultural pursuits, and unaccustomed, and unfit by previous habits, to put their own hand to the plough or spade.'

It is impossible to generalise on the motives that drove such men to emigrate. 'Kappa' (John Ward), writing in 1842, more than hints that it was the desire to get out of England rather than the desire to come to New Zealand that provided the driving force: 'Surely when we consider the growing necessities of the middle classes in Great Britain and the desire rapidly springing up to escape from them, it may very fairly be calculated that a constant supply of purchasers will be found who can command £300 and enough more gradually to bring the land into cultivation.' Certain it is that for the majority there page 21was no Utopian idea of founding a classless state: as far as the structure of society was concerned, the new colony should be forever England. 'Kappa' is explicit on the point: 'The number and respectability of the settlers gone out, now going and preparing to go in the course of a year or two,—the amount of capital subscribed . . . all combine to secure the progress of this settlement [Nelson] in the national order of society as it is found in England—composed of a graduation of classes, with full security for the rights and privileges of each. And this order is more likely to exist where property is kept together in a moderate state of division, rather than frittered away into minute subdivisions.'*

The Wakefield scheme of land purchase achieved, if it did not exactly aim at, the maintenance of class distinctions. The idea was to purchase land as cheaply as possible from the Maoris and then sell it at a high price, ranging from £1 to £3 an acre in the different settlements, so that the labourer should not be able, without working for many years for wages, to become himself a landowner. Part of the purchase money was to be devoted to paying the fares of the purchaser and his family to New Zealand, and the residue was to be used to give free steerage passages to male labourers and artisans and female dressmakers, seamstresses, and domestic servants. A steady supply of cheap and willing labour was thus to be page 22ensured, and the New Zealand landowner was to be spared the unhappy experience of some Australian 'squatters' who had imported labourers only to find that they were more interested in taking up cheap land themselves than in working for low wages.

Anyone who knows the distressing conditions of the agricultural labourers and many of the town workers in Britain in the 'hungry forties' of last century would not think of looking further for the motives of the working class immigrants in coming to New Zealand. At the same time, it was probably the more enterprising of the artisans and labourers who made the venture, and the New Zealand Company did make some effort to secure workers who had not been a charge upon the parish, so that the poorest of the poor did not generally find their way out to New Zealand. There seems to have been little difficulty in securing sufficient working class immigrants and the appalling conditions in some of the settlements in the early years were due to the Company's having brought out far more workers than the existing capital could provide with employment.

Summarising, one might say that although the English social spectrum was very much contracted in New Zealand there was not a corresponding lessening of the social distinctions made. The land purchasers tended for some time to remain a class apart and the working classes accepted the orthodox social divisions even though as individuals they saw, page 23after the hard times of the earliest years, some chance of bettering their own positions. There was no proletariat in the modern sense, no organised self-conscious working class, but rather, to use again the modern jargon, a petty bourgeoisie whose members were primarily interested in 'getting on' within the accepted social structure. We shall see what profound effects this attitude of mind has had upon the education system of New Zealand.