Story: Non-fiction

Page 3. Settlement

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War stories

Non-fiction writers have documented how New Zealand changed from a cross-cultural frontier into a settled region dominated by Pākehā. Colonists needed land, and Māori resistance to its sale is the subject of Octavius Hadfield’s One of England’s little wars (1860) and John Gorst’s The Maori king (1864). Later, the wars themselves were interestingly described by James Cowan in The adventures of Kimble Bent (1911), the story of a deserter who preferred to fight for the Māori, and his two-volume study, The New Zealand wars (1922–1923). A prolific journalist, Cowan aimed to bring the romance of the American West to the New Zealand past, but his work also shows a comparative historical understanding drawn from his American models.

Practical concerns

Samuel Butler’s A first year in Canterbury settlement (1863) is typical of many pioneering narratives in being even more concerned with markets than with the perils of fording wild rivers or breaking in farmland. ‘People here are busy making money’, he writes, and stories such as one about his race against a rival squatter to reach the land registry first reinforce the comment. 1 Butler observes the practical orientation found everywhere in the new colony. ‘I am forgetting myself into admiring a mountain which is of no use for sheep,’ he remarks drily. 2

In Station life in New Zealand (1870) Lady Mary Anne Barker similarly finds a self-deprecating comedy in the collision of genteel assumptions and the realities of hill-country farming. Like Butler she is surprised by the egalitarian economy – the opposite of Britain’s – where the cost of labour is high, yet almost anyone can aspire to own land. She particularly enjoys the freedom from gender norms in this new society, but is less happy with social mobility among servants.

Buller’s birds

Walter Buller believed native species were doomed to extinction; the best a nature lover could do was conserve examples. A surviving chick from his kiwi hunt was given prussic acid: ‘I sacrificed his little life on the altar of science and made a pretty cabinet specimen of the skin’.3

Flora and fauna

The loss of native bush and wetlands, and the restocking of the land with alien plants and animals was accompanied by misgivings as well as a confidence in the values of progress. Walter Buller’s A history of the birds of New Zealand (1888) demonstrates the extent to which these apparently contradictory values could coexist. Buller sincerely describes the beauties of nature, yet on a ‘kiwi hunt’ in the King Country, he uses dogs to drag the birds from their burrows. Those not spoiled in their jaws are rated fine specimens for stuffing and mounting.

Māori life

Assimilation of Māori into the larger culture seemed inevitable to many settlers, and Buller’s natural history project had numerous parallels in works designed to record the passing of an ancient way of life.

Māori legends in George Grey’s compilation Polynesian mythology (1855) became for many readers the authorised versions. Around the turn of the century Percy Smith and other members of the Polynesian Society began compiling books of tribal history and traditions. The most notable of these is Elsdon Best’s Tuhoe: the children of the mist (1925). Narrated at times in a grand bardic manner, the work, based on first-hand Māori accounts, constitutes an extraordinary bicultural performance.

Pākehā identity

By the mid-1880s a majority of the population were New Zealand-born. Anything that was uniquely New Zealand had a special value, and it seemed possible that Pākehā had become a distinct people too, with a scenery as well as a history of their own. In Studies in New Zealand scenery (1916), a radiant piece of travel writing, poet Blanche Baughan describes a journey by canoe up the Whanganui River that takes her deep into the heart of nature and culminates in a visit to a marae. For Baughan, nature and Māori went hand in hand, and helped facilitate the discovery of Pākehā identity.

William Pember Reeves in The long white cloud: Ao Tea Roa (1898, rev. 1924) tells how a modern progressive state, with some of the most advanced social legislation in the world, came into existence. This is not like other contemporary works of confident boosterism. Reeves appreciates irony; he deflates large reputations with acerbic barbs; perhaps only another expatriate, J. G. A. Pocock, matches him as a master of historical prose.

Footnotes:
  1. Samuel Butler, A first year in Canterbury settlement. London: Longman, 1863, pp. 51. Back
  2. A first year in Canterbury settlement, p. 70. Back
  3. Walter Buller, ‘The kiwi hunt.’ In The writing of New Zealand, edited by Alex Calder. Auckland: Reed, 1993, p. 74. Back
How to cite this page:

Alex Calder, 'Non-fiction - Settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/non-fiction/page-3 (accessed 29 April 2017)

Story by Alex Calder, published 22 Oct 2014