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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 5 (August 1, 1935)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 29 — Samuel Butler, Canterbury Sheepfarmer And Great Satirical Writer

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 29
Samuel Butler, Canterbury Sheepfarmer And Great Satirical Writer.

Although Samuel Butler, the centenary of whose birth falls this year, lived for barely five years in New Zealand, we are justified in claiming him as one of our great fellow-colonists. He was a pioneer for the short period he spent in the South Island; he took up a wild block of sheep country in the interior of Canterbury and became a hard-working pastoralist, living the roughest of lives in a far-back region. That part of his career was a strange contrast to his literary and artistic activities in England in his later life. But it was New Zealand that made him famous, or rather gave him something of the inspiration and all of the dramatic setting for his great romance “Erewhon.”

Samuel Butler (Born 4th December, 1835; died 18th June, 1902).

Samuel Butler
(Born 4th December, 1835; died 18th June, 1902).

Far up the valley of the snow-fed Rangitata River, growling down in many streams over its two-mile wide shingle bed, is the historic sheep station which the young litterateur turned squatter named Mesopotamia long before the world of letters discovered in him a genius; and rising broken range beyond range to the ultimate peaks of the Southern Alps is the mighty anteroom of “Erewhon.” Samuel Butler did not come to this Canterbury tussock land seeking “local colour” for a romance. He came prepared to make his living as a sheep-farmer; he toiled in that part to such effect that he made money and sold out well after only four years of pastoral effort, in which he took a hand in everything, from bullock-team driving to shearing and dipping, with intervals of exploring the back country for new sheep land. The wonder and enchantment of those lonely places, the solitudes full of promise and menace, the strange glory and the perils of Alpland became part of him. The landscape, the sights and sounds of the high country, gave him delight and naturally and without strained search influenced his thoughts and writings.

Butler the Rebel.

It has been written of Butler that his whole habit of mind could have been expressed in the words, “Let the truth be published though the heavens fall.” It was partly this spirit of eager, fierce desire to speak the truth that was in him that brought him to New Zealand in the first place. The young man rebelled against the smug conventions and hypocrisies of the English life which surrounded him and half-smothered him. We are given his opinions of English clerical life, and the oppressive atmosphere of his father's home in his great novel—an even greater than “Erewhon”—“The Way of All Flesh,” which was not published until after his death.

In the Glass Case.

The late Mr. Justice Alpers, in his book “Cheerful Yesterdays,” told a story that indicated the disapproval with which “The Way of All Flesh” was regarded in some quarters, even in New Zealand, when it first appeared, in 1903. Alpers, being a great admirer of Butler's writings, sent a copy of “The Way of All Flesh,” with other books, to the Christchurch Public Library. It was kept under a glass, in a locked case, where the public could not get it. It is hard to understand at this time of day exactly why it should have shocked the civic censors. Literature has whizzed far past that stage; Butler's most satirical pages would not give even Church people a shock to-day.

“The Way of All Flesh” is delightful to read for its structure and expression and its inimitable description of the English life of nearly a century ago that he found so stifling.

“Erewhon,” “Alps and Sanctuaries,” “Erewhon Revisited,” and Samuel Butler's other works form a library of vast refreshment, stimulating to thought; books of wisdom and truth, with a delicious impish humour that will manifest itself in spite of all Butler's effort to be serious. The truth would always out; and the greatest truths are often expressed in a whimsical wit.

Butler's New Zealand Life.

But there is a special interest for us this centenary year in some of Butler's earliest writings, his letters and articles contained in “A First Year in the Canterbury Settlement.” Here he describes his voyage to New Zealand, his travels about raw new Canterbury and his experiences on an up-country sheep run of his own. It is rather curious to find that these writings include a page 22 kind of guide to young settlers; some chapters could have been entitled “All About Sheep—What the New Chum Should Know,” and could have been issued by the Department of Agriculture—had there been such an office of the State seventy years ago—as a booklet for “The Man on the Land.” Butler at this time, in his vigorous young manhood, was full of enthusiasm for the free and simple life, and he found more than enough of both in his four years of rough pastoral work, and his exploration of new grazing country for his flocks.

Arrival in the New Land.

There was much of incident and humour in the twenty-four-year old Butler's description of the sailing voyage to the land of promise at the other end of the world. This passage from “A First Year in the Canterbury Settlement,” gives us a picture of the first sight of the beautiful hills of Akaroa and the quite dramatic night-arrival in Lyttelton Harbour after the long passage round the globe:—

“… A light wind sprang up in the night, and on Thursday we sighted Banks Peninsula. Again the wind fell tantalisingly light, but we kept drawing slowly towards land. In the beautiful sunset sky, crimson and gold, blue, silver and purple, exquisite and tranquillising, lay ridge behind ridge, outline behind outline, sunlight behind shadow, shadow behind sunlight, gully and serrated ravine. Hot puffs of wind kept coming from the land and there were several fires burning…. Presently we saw a light ahead from a ship: we drew slowly near, and as we passed you might have heard a pin drop. ‘What ship is that?’ said a strange voice.—‘The Roman Emperor,’ said the captain. ‘Are you all well?’

“‘All well.’ Then the captain asked, ‘Has the Robert Small arrived?’ ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘nor yet the Burmah.’ You may imagine what I felt. Then a rocket was sent up, and the pilot came on board.”

Mention of the ship Burmah carries a tragic tale of the sea. Butler was to have sailed from London in the Burmah, in fact his berth was chosen and the passage money paid. But at the last moment some alterations had to be made, in order to make room for some stock which were being sent out to the Canterbury Settlement. The space left for the accommodation of the passengers being thus curtailed, and the comfort of the voyage seeming likely to be diminished, young Butler, providentially, was induced to change his ship, and a few weeks later secured a berth in the Roman Emperor. The Burmah was long looked for at Lyttelton, until all hope for her had to be given up. She never reached her destination; she vanished from human ken with all hands.

Lyttelton 75 Years Ago.

Butler's first impressions of the new land are racily given in his diary entry describing Lyttelton:—“January 27, 1860.—Oh, the heat! the clear transparent atmosphere, and the dust! How shall I describe everything—the little townlet, for I cannot call it town, nestling beneath the bare hills that we had been looking at so longingly all the morning—the scattered wooden boxes of houses, with rugged roads of scrubby ground between them—the huge wide-leaved flax with its now seedy stem, sometimes 15 or 16 feet high, luxuriant and tropical-looking—the healthy clear-complexioned men, shaggy bearded, rowdy-hatted, and independent, pictures of rude health and strength—the stores, supplying all heterogeneous commodities—the mountains, rising right behind the harbour to a height of over a thousand feet—the varied outline of the harbour now smooth and sleeping. Ah me! pleasant sight and fresh to sea-stricken eyes. The hot air, too, was very welcome after our long chill. We dined at the table d'hote at the Mitre—so foreign and yet so English—its windows open to the ground, looking upon the lovely harbour. Hither came more of the shaggy clear-complexioned men with the rowdy hats; looked at them with awe and befitting respect. Much grieved to find beer sixpence a glass. This was indeed serious, and was one of the first intimations which we received that we were in a land where money flies like wild-fire.”

The New Chum's First Camp.

Butler did not lose much time in Christchurch when he crossed the Port Hills to the town that was to become the City of the Plains. He went exploring the country for sheep-farm country, with a settler who had a run beyond the Malvern Hills. Everything was new and wonderful to the young Englishman. He described a night in camp with his friend, in the valley of a tributary of the Rakaia River: “On one of these flats, just on the edge of the bush and at the very foot of the mountains, we lit a fire as soon as it was dusk, and tethering our horses, boiled our tea and supped. The night was warm and quiet, the silence only interrupted by the occasional sharp cry of a wood-hen, and the rushing of the river, whilst the ruddy glow of the fire, the sombre forest, and the immediate foreground of our saddles and blankets, formed a picture to me new and rather impressive. Probably after another year or two I shall regard camping out as the nuisance it really is instead of writing about sombre forests and so forth. Well, well, that night I thought it very fine, and so in good truth it was. Our saddles were our pillows, and we strapped our blankets round us by saddle-straps, and my companion (I believe) slept very soundly; for my part the scene was altogether too novel to allow me to sleep. I kept looking up and seeing the stars just as I was going off to sleep, and that woke me again; I had also under-estimated the amount of blankets which I should require, and it was not long before the romance of the situation wore off, and a rather chilly reality occupied its place; moreover, the flat was stony, and I was not knowing enough to have selected a spot which gave a hollow for the hipbone. My great object, however, was to conceal my conditions from my companion, for never was a freshman at Cambridge more anxious to be mistaken for a third-year man than I was anxious to become an old chum, as the colonial dialect calls a settler—thereby proving my new-chumship most satisfactorily.”

The Run on the Rangitata.

But many long rides over rough country and many nights in the open soon made quite a seasoned colonial of the young settler. He made a trip up the Waimakariri Valley by himself, but found no country there worth taking up.

Then in April, 1860, he and a companion found and selected “a small piece of country” in the valley of the snow-fed Rangitata. In May, seeking more land, they travelled north and went up the Hurunui River to its source and looked down from the dividing range on to the western forests. But there was no suitable land for sheep in that direction, so they returned to the Rangitata and fixed their primitive homestead there.

He was bent on becoming a sheep-farmer, and he became a pioneer in earnest, roughing it in the great lonely land, facing peril often in the crossing of the swift snow-rivers. He bought some more land, adjoining the original selection. He went to Christchurch to procure stores, plough and harrows, all manner of tools and utensils, doors and windows for a hut, seeds, flour, tea, sugar, and all the hundred things necessary in establishing a home in the wilds. He had a bullock-team of six, and a dray, and he turned bullock-driver, with a mate, taking his team through the gorges of the Ashburton and across a roadless land, a long journey with many adventures in the river crossings.

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The run stocked with sheep, Butler became the perfect shepherd, determined to make his fortune. He certainly went about the business thoroughly, and many pages in his “First Year in the Canterbury Settlement” are taken up with a discussion of the problems of sheepfarming and useful hints for new settlers. He grazed and shore sheep for four years and prospered at it.

In a letter to the famous Charles Darwin—whose “Origin of Species” delighted him as soon as he saw it in New Zealand, he said (writing from London in 1865, soon after he returned to England) that he would probably return to the Colony in three or four years. He had sold out his run and stock, thinking that prices were going to fall, which they had since done. In England—what a complete change-about from the toil of a wild-country sheep run!—he turned art student again. It was his old love; it was because his father disapproved of his art studies that he came out to New Zealand in the first place. But the turns and twists of destiny kept him in England and Europe; he never again saw the hills of Banks Peninsula or heard the rushing of the great snow-rivers of the Canterbury Plains.

Butler's Friend, John Baker.

Anything that will add to our knowledge of Butler's life in New Zealand and throw light on some of the sources of his inspiration is a welcome discovery. In a recently published book of reminiscences, the life of John H. Baker, a pioneer surveyor in the South Island who was a contemporary and friend of Butler, there is a chapter which narrates some exploring expeditions in which the two young adventurers penetrated hitherto unknown Alpine regions, and described episodes and scenes that clearly helped to shape the story of “Erewhon,” or at any rate its introduction and setting. In this book, “A Surveyor in New Zealand, 1857–1896,” a diary is drawn upon for the incidents of this association. The story is far too brief; one feels that there should have been a whole book in it, the camp talks, the long horseback journeys, the perils and narrow escapes of those expeditions, rather than one chapter, or portion of a chapter.

Butler had been established at Mesopotamia several months when John Baker, the 19-year-old surveyor—who had just completed his cadetship in the profession—arrived at the sheep station on the Rangitata, for an expedition into the higher country to the west. This was at Butler's invitation; he had met Baker in Christchurch early in his first year in New Zealand. It was on Christmas Eve, 1860, that Baker rode in and the next day three young pioneers sat down to a Christmas dinner in the homestead hut; the third member of the party was Cook, Butler's station manager.

On December 29 the explorers set out from Mesopotamia, with a packhorse carrying tent and camp gear and food, and rode up the southern branch of the Rangitata, now known as the Have-lock. The object of the trip was to discover new unoccupied land for sheep-runs; foresighted young Baker did not intend to depend on surveying work alone for his future. They found the pass at the head of the branch impracticable as a route, and returned to Mesopotamia. On the way back to where they had left their horses they had an adventure which might easily have proved fatal to both. Crossing the swift river on foot, they were both swept off their feet, and were washed down a rapid. They struggled out of the icy torrent, tramped down to their camp, put on dry clothes, boiled the billy, and slept on their fern couches as serenely as if such experiences were everyday matters.

After a week's rest at Mesopotamia, the two explorers set out again for the high country with their horses and camp gear. They followed up one branch of the Rangitata, but finding no available pass at the head of it they rode up the Lawrence branch as far as there was any feed for the horses and then camped.

In “Erewhon” there is more than one vivid passage exactly descriptive of those camp nights on the banks of snow-fed rivers.

Leaving their horses tethered in a sheltered patch of grass, they made up their swags of blankets and provisions, and carrying the necessary billy and pannikins, they started off on foot—for the higher mystery land.

About mid-day a fierce storm burst on them. They sheltered from the fury of wind and rain in the lee of a great rock, where they lashed one of their blankets to their two “glacier poles” (they had no ice-axes) and stuck it up against the boulder to form a sloping shelter. In this precarious bivouac they spent all that night and next day and night. Butler, as Baker narrated told his friend stories of his college days, of his quarrels with his father, his thirst for liberty of thought and action and his final determination to come out to New Zealand.

When the weather cleared the two friends were able to move on. They climbed up into the snow and reached the saddle of the pass for which they were making. But instead of a sight of the western land they found themselves looking down on what was evidently the Rakaia river valley; they could recognise the hills beyond it. Then across the Rakaia head they noticed a quite low pass leading evidently to the West Coast, but to reach it they would have to make an entirely new expedition. Accordingly they returned to Mesopotamia, and a ride of two days from Butler's hut saw the surveyor back in Christchurch.

Over the Pass to Westland.

But the two young explorers were bent on another Alpine reconnaissance. page 24 They must see what lay beyond the Rakaia river head. So, on the last day of January, 1861, they rode out from the Mesopotamia home, taking with them the necessary packhorse. Crossing the broad and swift Rangitata, always a nasty river to ford, they passed Lake Heron, and in three days from Mesopotamia they reached the foot of the snow pass they had seen. This pass, though discovered by Butler and Baker, was afterwards called the Whitcombe Pass, after the surveyor who crossed it, and was drowned on the West Coast. The two mates were successful in reaching the summit of the pass, and they went down the other side until they were within about twenty miles of the West Coast.

No Land for Sheep-men.

But it was a hopeless country for sheep. The whole of the western slopes and the level land below were densely forested, a great surprise, and disappointment, to the men from the Eastern plain. Westland (that name had not then been coined for the new country) was clearly no place for a pastoralist. Gold had not then been discovered, the West was to the sheep-run men a useless wilderness.

So back the explorers came, deciding to be content with the eastern slopes of the great tussock land. On their way home they suffered a wetting in the flooded waters of a Rakaia head branch, in flood from the melting snows in the midsummer weather. They had noted down a description of the upper Rakaia country, and they applied to the Land Board in Christ-church for a lease of about 10,000 acres of it, though it was poor country for sheep. The lease was granted to them, but they never stocked the land, and so the claim lapsed.

So ended the exploration of the unknown country, a series of expeditions into the Alpine land on which Butler presently based so much of his descriptions in “Erewhon” and “Erewhon Revisited.”

Forty Years After.

There is a dramatic little sequel to the story of this comradeship in the rough and perilous lands of South New Zealand. Young Baker entered on exploration work in the Mackenzie Country and later about Lake Wanaka. He did not see Butler again, apparently, before the scholar-sheepfarmer returned to England. In 1902, after he had retired from official duty under the Lands and Survey Department, he and his wife and daughter made a tour of Europe. One evening in Rome, when they were at dinner in their hotel (as Baker related in his reminiscences), his daughter called his attention to an old gentleman sitting near the head of the table who looked, she said, “like a philosopher.” Baker did not recognise him at first, but he knew that the old man had been in his life at one time or another. Presently he took a seat next to the “philosopher,” whose voice he thought he knew, and he asked him if he had ever been in New Zealand.

“Oh, yes,” the other said, “about forty years ago I was there.”

“Then, perhaps,” said Baker, “you are Sam Butler?”

“By God!” exclaimed Butler, “you are John Baker.”

And then the two of them talked until after midnight. Baker and his family were leaving Rome in the morning, and the friends never met again. Butler was on his way to Sicily to complete a book, and he became ill there and died soon afterwards in England.

So ended too soon the reunion of the comrades who had shared when in the prime of their young vigorous lives the adventures and dangers and camp life incident to travel in a great lone land.

Butler's primitive homestead, a low squat “cob” cottage, with clay-compacted walls of rubble stone, was still standing at Mesopotamia a few years ago, and Professor Speight, of Canterbury University College, took an excellent photograph of it, and this is reproduced in the Baker autobiography. That type of dwelling is frequently seen in the backblocks of Canterbury and Otago, where timber was unprocurable in the pioneer days.

In the background are the sombre foothills of the Alps. Living there, with but one or two employees, in that
Samuel Butler's old Homestead at Mesopotamia, Upper Rangitata, Canterbury, New Zealand. (From a photograph by Professor Speight, Canterbury University College, in John Baker's book, “A Surveyor in New Zealand.”)

Samuel Butler's old Homestead at Mesopotamia, Upper Rangitata, Canterbury, New Zealand. (From a photograph by Professor Speight, Canterbury University College, in John Baker's book, “A Surveyor in New Zealand.”)

place of splendid desolation, Butler began his great satirical romance. Sheep were more important then than literature, but Butler's restless, searching mind must have some employment, and thus the strange and whimsical play of philosophy and humour found room to develop in an atmosphere of novelty and freedom.

“Erewhon,” with its blending of romance and a topsy-turvey outlook on sociological and political problems, is the most known and the most-quoted Butler book. But “The Way of All Flesh,” which appeared so much later—it was not published until the year after his death—is in my view the greatest of his books. Yet it should be read first, in order to understand something of the spirit of revolt against the accepted conventions and the smothering influence of the orthodox church atmosphere in which he had been reared. New Zealand did not hold him for many years; but he spent his happiest days here, and the character of the wide, free land in which he worked uplifted and liberated his spirit.