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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1998

[1997 James Jenkins Lecture]

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This lecture is not a systematic discussion of the history of Nelson; nor is it a potted version of my book, Nelson: A Regional History. I thought it more useful to offer some thoughts on how our understanding of the history of New Zealand might be enhanced by paying some attention to the history of Nelson. I propose to reflect on this issue by considering some points of comparison and contrast between themes in Nelson history and some recent approaches in me academic writing of New Zealand history.

It is of course particularly appropriate that this discussion should take place in a lecture endowed by James Jenkins. As we know, Dr Jenkins spent his working life in Dunedin, where he was inspired by the considerable effort residents of that city had put into preserving the records of regional history. When he retired to Nelson, he and others were instrumental in the preservation of material to do with the history of Nelson, and he was a founder of the Nelson Historical Society in 1954. It is necessary to recall that this was at a time when New Zealand history was scarcely a fit subject for polite academic conversation.

If you take a standard history of nineteenth century New Zealand – that is, up to 1914 – a number of themes will appear:

  • • the contact period 1770–1830
  • • the pressure on Britain to annex, allegedly to prevent disorder
  • • the New Zealand Company's tidy and systematic prescription
  • • early bumbling by the first two governors, Hobson and Fitzroy
  • • salvation in the unlikely shape of Governor Grey
  • • sheepfarming on the East Coast of both islands
  • • the rise of the Kingitanga, or King Movement
  • • the wars of the 1860s in the North
  • • the goldrushes in the South
  • • Vogel's public works and immigration borrowing in the 1870s
  • • the Long Depression of the 1880s
  • • all leading speedily and for some, inevitably, to the beneficient populism of the Liberals, including land reform and labour legislation, and even the germ of the modem Welfare State, under Good King Dick.

Now I must admit that I structure my own stage one lectures more or less around this model. It is pretty much what appears in, say, Keith Sinclair's extraordinarily influential Pelican History of New Zealand, first published in 1959 and still in print. It is a model which has a far older lineage than that, being pretty much the same in William Pember Reeves' writing early in the century, and indeed in Alfred Saunders' two volume History of New Zealand, published in the 1890s.

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You will notice that it is a history which is thoroughly geographically skewed. Indeed in this model, Nelson might get a look-in under the New Zealand Company, but will receive little more attention than that. Sinclair, for instance, gives Nelson precisely three mentions in the index and the more recent Oxford History of New Zealand a few more (but not many). We have, therefore, a history of New Zealand in the nineteenth century which is based on the big cities, the far north, Canterbury and Otago, the West Coast, and Taranaki and Waikato – and only on parts of the history of those places.

Even the newest general history of New Zealand – the much praised Making Peoples by James Belich – although arguing with the interpretation of these questions, is still fundamentally organised around them. 1

I am well aware that I am not inventing a new approach in discussing how different New Zealand history looks if we pay some attention to Nelson. The importance of local history in understanding the history of New Zealand was forcefully made by Jim Gardner forty years ago, and a little later by W H Oliver. Oliver, especially, makes many of the same points which I do here and it is no coincidence that he had also been working on regional history, in his case that of Gisborne. 2

Other much more eminent historians than I have made the point that the model referred to above is a partial one. Erik Olssen has pointed out that the model reflects 'a central assumption of national history; that the nation's development was a single story best conceptualised in terms of uniform evolutionary progress'. 3 It is a model inevitably based on what scholars have researched, and in the small world of New Zealand history that has meant some big issues have not been systematically studied. The focus has for long been on Maori-Pakeha relations, on state-building, and on class conflict; and, Olssen says, there has been an assumption that one region was much the same as another.

So much for setting me question out. I propose to deal with it by reflecting on some of the themes in a couple of the most influential works of recent New Zealand history: one, as 1 mentioned, is James Belich's Making Peoples, and the other, which I will mention a little later, is the writings of the Victoria University historian, Miles Fairburn.

Belich devotes the first fifth of his book to the Maori before 1769, which is entirely proper but which I will not discuss. I would only note that if I had written that part I would have, perhaps, paid more attention to regional differences in Maori society, and would of course have used Nelson as a good example. Archaeologists like Aidan Challis have shown that the region was one where the sea was perhaps of first importance in providing the necessities of life, with forest, hunting and gathering perhaps next, supplemented by the extraordinary efforts put into kumara-growing. 4

For Belich, the making of New Zealand after 1790 – when Europeans began first to resort to these shores on a systematic basis – was through the relationships between these Europeans and the Maori with whom they dealt. I do not dispute that at all, but it is notable that the main locations where this happened – the far North and the far South – have been rather left out of the mainstream of historical writing.

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After the inauguration of formal British government, New Zealand history in the 1840s was dominated, for Belich, by two issues: the relationship with Maori, and the New Zealand Company.

Belich is at pains to stress the resilience and inventiveness of Maori culture – the creative response to European expansion – and he makes a significant contribution by doing so. There is a very important qualification to his treatment of this topic: it is based largely on North Island evidence. Indeed his use of the term Maori obscures more than it reveals, for he almost seems to imply that Ngapuhi, or Tainui, are all Maori. The other problem that I have with Belich's treatment of this issue is that in his distaste for 'victim history', in his eagerness to stress that Maori were often in control of the relationship with Europeans, he almost ignores the South Island where this 'creative response' was soon swamped. 5

Traditionally, one of the main themes in the history of nineteenth century New Zealand was the wars of the 1860s – usually portrayed until recently as a brave but ultimately futile resistance by Maori to settler greed – or, in older histories, as a brave but futile resistance to the inexorable march of civilisation. James Belich has cracked this model by highlighting the effectiveness of Maori military tactics and strategy and suggesting that in the end the settler victory was severely limited. Belich first made these points in his book The New Zealand Wars (1987), which made his name, and he deals with much the same thing in Making Peoples. Indeed his history of Maori New Zealand between 1840 and 1870 is largely organised around this theme.

This, however, does not help us in Nelson very much; Belich's approach ignores or understates other processes of colonisation and resistance.

Partly Nelson is unusual in not having been exposed to European activity before 1840. It was not a whaling or sealing base, nor was it a convenient harbour for shipping. The implications of this for Maori people in the region – both those who were displaced in the 1820s and those who displaced them – would be an interesting topic to investigate.

We know that European crops – not only potatoes but many others – were widely cultivated by Maori in the region by 1840. At West Whanganui, Riwai pressed the explorer Captain Moore to stay 'and bring as many white friends as I could on a return voyage', envisaging, perhaps, that a boatload of Pakeha would have their uses. We know, too, that Moore was attracted to one of Riwai's sisters, Paru, 'a fine-grown and agreeable girl of about 17', and he would later marry her according to Maori custom (and subsequently leave her). 6

While mentioning Moore and Paru, we should not forget that Moore's voyages are illustrative of New Zealand's location in a wider Pacific economy: Moore's ship, the Jewess, was skippered by a Wellington man, owned by a Sydney-Wellington partnership and had been built in Tahiti.

Belich – despite his dislike of victim history – makes the point in Making Peoples that the Maori population in the South Island was more or less quickly swamped by the European page 6economy. That process in Nelson is one area on which we need to know much more, and we can look forward both to the deliberations of the Waitangi Tribunal and to the appearance of Mitchells' work. Conversely, too, the dependence of the first settlers on Maori is often forgotten, as is the fact that a body of Maori opinion welcomed Pakeha settlement on some scale at least and hoped to benefit from it.

The Maori population at 1840 must have been considerably larger man is often implied by the relative silence of the sources. Captain Moore was greeted at Riwaka by 20 canoes full of warriors: say 20 each, that is 400 fit men assembled at short notice. When Ngati Tama people established themselves at Hawaiki Pa, Whakapuaka, shortly before 1840, seven canoes brought them over from Parapara. At Hawaiki Pa they planted potato gardens and fruit trees as well as enjoying the fish and the birds. The early Pakeha settlers complained of the monotony of the diet, but with local Maori selling them potatoes, pumpkins, melons, cabbages and peaches it is hard to see how such a complaint was justified. 7

In 1846 Maori were responsible for most of the agriculture in the Motueka district, sending 15,000 bushels of wheat to the mill at Riwaka. Four years later, at Motueka, Maori had a thousand acres in wheat and 600 acres in other crops. This implies a considerable labour force, and we know mat about 400 people worked the harvest on me reserve at Whakarewa. 8

In simple terms, it seems that 'swamping' occurred partly by European settlement moving in ahead of conclusive negotiations with all those tribal groups who had rights to a given piece of land, partly by the impact appearing gradually rather than all at once, and partly by force of numbers. There were also occasional instances of intimidation, and straight breach of contract. This last arose from the fact that when most of the settlers' rural sections were put in what became Marlborough, the government – under George Grey – treated that as a reason not to allocate rural tenths in the Waimea region for the resident Maori. Thus Nelson Maori were immediately confined to much smaller reserves than they had intended or believed would be the case. 9

Grey further complicated matters by summarily removing 900 acres from the Motueka Tenths in 1853 for an Anglican school to provide 'religious, industrial, and English education of children of both races, and of children of other poor and destitute persons being inhabitants of islands in me Pacific Ocean'. From the start, Motueka Maori objected to this seizure of their farmland. Many politicians did so as well, noting that the Tenths were for the benefit of the tangata whenua and not of settlers, still less of people from elsewhere in the Pacific. Grey's high-handed paternalism at Whakarewa would return to haunt Nelson in the 1980s, but it was a serious immediate loss for the Maori.

The displacement of Maori by settler was, as Belich shows, often a very slow and bitterly contested process, but it was only North Island Maori who were in such a position as to delay things until the 1870s or 1880s. In the south, the process occurred much more quickly. Just as 'victim history' can be overdone, so can 'creative response'. Sometimes a creative response is not an option, in which case, however much Professor Belich may dislike the fact, one becomes to some extent a victim.

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Belich is at his best in his treatment of the relations between Maori and Pakeha. He is less effective, I think, on the practicalities of European settlement although his treatment of the myths of that settlement is useful. A principal myth of the British colonisation of New Zealand was that a new start could be made, a new and better Britain, which allowed 'progress without the price, paradise without the serpent, and Britain without me Irish'. 10 It is a Utopian prescription, the work of colonising crusaders, and you can certainly see the rhetoric of Nelson's manifest destiny in 1860s and 70s newspaper editorials.

The belief in Nelson's glorious future was shared by all sides; me argument was over what sort of glorious future it should be. Thus me Examiner believed 'if the city of Nelson is ever to rise in commercial greatness, it will be our mineral wealth which will bring this about'. 11 The Colonist, on the other hand, thought there was room in the provincial lands for 30,000 farms of 160 acres, so that 'men should multiply a great and free people'. 12

I made a lot in my book of the democratic movements of the 1850s. This was for a number of reasons. The history of the South Island in me 1850s has for long been dominated by Canterbury and Otago. In Canterbury the focus has been the establishment of the wool industry – and often on the great profits wool-growers could make and whether these pastoralists were a gentry or not. In Otago the emphasis is on the establishment of a small and godly Presbyterian community. Nelson was neither of those things; it was not as we know good country for large-scale sheep-farming, and Nelson Presbyterians complained vigorously in the 1840s about 'general indifference to religion, open profanation of the Sabbath, immorality of various kinds, especiallv drunkenness in its most obnoxious form'. 13

Whether or not the pastoralists did have it all their own way in Canterbury provincial politics is a question which needs re-examination. We do know that in Otago there was always a strong small-farmer lobby and I have stressed the vibrancy of artisan democracy in Nelson in the 1850s. 14

It is interesting that this point still seems to be a new one. Dr Sutch made something of it in his historical writings 15 but neither Sinclair nor Belich have brought out the real extent of democratic politics in Nelson. John Perry Robinson, as I suggested, had a firm vision of small property ownership and of what we would call direct democracy:

Local self-government makes freemen always to do folk-right among each other…. [It] brings law and folk-right and the exercise of all political functions, home to every man's door, speedily, frequently, and costlessly… Local self-government unites all classes and interests in one effort for the common weal, making every proposition to be freely and fairly discussed before all, and to be determined only after such discussion… 16

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We know that Robinson was bitterly opposed by the propertied clique, known as the Supper Party – or, more viciously, as Alfred Saunders notes, the Forty Thieves. 17 David Monro, their chieftain, grumbled:

Are we to say with the Yankees that the people are the sole source and fountain of power: or are we to follow the English plan which recognises the existence of another source of power, and in its practical working gives weight to intelligence and property, and does not only count heads. 18

I have suggested a number of times that out of these controversies arose a real contribution to the evolution of democracy in New Zealand. This point perhaps needs making, for it is often implied that democratic politics emerged, almost as it were by immaculate conception, in the late 1880s. Certainly Keith Sinclair wrote that there was 'no popular radical movement' in New Zealand before 1890 19 – a view scarcely disputed since, except by Tony Simpson in his recent book The Immigrants. Even if Nelson was alone in experiencing such an intensity of democratic feeling – and I remain to be convinced that it was – the contribution is still important.

Robinson's vision of a society of small producers and direct democracy was very much a reaction to agricultural enclosure and industrialisation, and it relied on ancient myths of the free-born Englishman. Thirty five years ago the great English communist historian E P Thompson, in his monumental Making of the English Working Class, wrote that 'the greater part of the world is still undergoing problems of industrialisation, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution'. Thompson went on, 'Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won'. 20 I don't want to exaggerate Nelson's importance, but it is clear that these lost causes were being re-fought in Nelson in the 1850s, with perhaps a little more success than attended the exertions of the Chartists and their predecessors in England.

Indeed if I can stay with Thompson for a moment – he is after all regarded by most social historians as one of the greatest practitioners of the century – he has also written on eighteenth century popular culture, using the concept of a moral economy. 21 Moral economy is an ethical view, a view based on mutual obligation and interdependence, and Thompson suggests that the moral economy was the dominant consideration for the common people of England. Some historians have almost implied that a similar state of affairs existed in nineteenth century New Zealand.

This is very much a contrast to the view advanced during the 1980s by Miles Fairburn of Victoria University. Fairburn is insistent that in nineteenth century New Zealand:

social organisation… was gravely deficient Community structures were few and weak and me forces of social isolation were many and powerful. Bondlessness was central to colonial life… The deficient framework of association produced appalling social problems of a predictable kind – loneliness, drunkenness, violence… This was all reinforced by a pattern of thin and dispersed settlement, poor communications, page 9pork barrel politics, limited opportunities for organised leisure, and disproportionately large number of jobs which were inherently impermanent. 22

I want to spend a little time on this because Fairbum's work has exercised the minds of academic historians to a considerable extent. Fairburn has been much saluted in the profession for providing a radical new way to look at nineteenth century settler society. He has also been heavily criticised by some, including most notably Rollo Arnold, himself a product of the Waimea County. Arnold, in an article and in a book, has done much to highlight the informal bonds which connected people even in remote communities. 23 In his article he made much use of a Golden Bay diary, kept by a farm boy in 1869, Peter Packham; if I may say so, the Burrell diary which struck me so much supports Arnold's argument even more.

The Burrell family – Edward, Emily and their four children – lived and farmed a bush section at Dovedale, where Edward was also the schoolteacher. The diary, covering several years either side of 1880, describes a life which not only gives evidence of strong communities but was positively pre-industrial in its cashlessness. On many occasions neighbours who had done work for the Burrells were paid with hop-poles. One neighbour was paid in poles for a ton of potatoes. It is necessary to note that most of the poles were cut from manuka by the Burrell children. 24

There were even a number of agreements where Edward Burrell sold parts of his land to neighbours and was paid partly in cash and partly in work. In 1880 Edward Burrell agreed to sell 30 acres to John Mears for 90 Pounds. Mears was to pay 10 Pounds in cash and the rest over five or six years, in money or labour as he chose. If he paid in labour, he was to work 26 weeks of the year, calculated at 10 shillings a week. Thus Mears would get some land, and Burrell would have labour to clear and develop his bush sections. 25

These non-cash contracts were accompanied by more familiar forms of mutual aid. With no way of preserving meat at home except salting it, fresh meat was best obtained in small quantities. A whole sheep was simply too large for a single household; farming families in effect took it in turns to keep one another supplied. When one farmer killed a sheep, other families would get quarters. Often neighbours gave surplus fruit to each other. 26 Nor was all work done for a return. Joseph Best filled the office of grave-digger. Edward Burrell noted having spent a day helping a neighbour harvesting oats; knowing he could make himself useful, Burrell had just dropped in, and the favour was often returned. 27

While the solidity and respectability of nineteenth century backblocks life has often been exaggerated, evidence like the Burrell diaries must cause one seriously to question Fairburn's view of frontier chaos. Indeed such evidence directly contradicts Fairburn's statements that there was little 'reciprocity… sustained or continuous economic cooperation before 1890'. 28

The archetype of frontier chaos is the goldfield. It is worth reminding ourselves, of course, that the Nelson region saw New Zealand's first major gold-rush and there is perhaps a stereotype of goldminers as extremely rough characters – acknowledging little law, settling page 10disputes with their fists, and blowing all their money on booze and women. Indeed Fairburn suggests that goldfields were a likely source of interpersonal violence, one of his classic symptoms of 'frontier chaos'. He goes on to note, however, some 'constraints on chaos', among them 'repressive government action', exhibited on the goldfields in wardens' courts. 29

Now, I don't want to sanitise the history of goldfields – that would make them far less interesting apart from anything else – and I look forward to Mike Johnston's continuing work on the Nelson goldfields. But it is vital to realise mat goldfields were self-policing communities to a considerable extent.

Within a few weeks of the start of the Aorere rush, in February 1857, a group of miners asked William Lightband to draft regulations, which were then agreed to. Lightband had spent time on me Victorian goldfields, where an unsympathetic, ignorant and undemocratic government had imposed severe regulations on the goldminers and provoked insurrection at the Eureka Stockade. In May 1857, when there were about 1000 miners in Golden Bay, they again met and agreed on further regulations for staking and working claims.

The central government set the licence fee but did little else in the first couple of years. When it did pass a Goldfields Act, in 1858, it provided for administration by a warden elected by miners – hardly the repressive state. The machinery of this Act was not applied to Golden Bay until late in 1859. The diggings were thus obliged to be a largely self-supporting society, but there is little sense of Fairburn's frontier chaos where, perhaps, we might most expect to find it. 30

I have said enough, I hope, to show that the history of New Zealand looks somewhat different from Nelson. Where James Belich stresses me encounter between Maori and Pakeha as the crucial element in nineteenth century New Zealand, this encounter was in Nelson soon resolved on the newcomers' terms. Where Belich stresses the myths of Pakeha settlement, we need to look in some detail at the reality of establishing and expanding the settlements which were so optimistically conceived.

Where Miles Fairburn stresses isolation and frontier chaos, we have evidence from Nelson goldfields and backblocks farms of societies which were relatively orderly and self-regulating, at least to a significant degree.

Thus, in historical terms, it seems plain enough that Nelson is a region which seriously weakens attempts to impose generalisations on the history of nineteenth century New Zealand. It is also plain that we need much more regional history to fill out our understanding of the nineteenth century in New Zealand.