Idealism and the southern cowboy spirit

17:00, Sep 12 2009
Prospecting on the West Coast.

HISTORY IS never boring. Take the settler-age South Island a world of broken dreams and failed Arcadian idealism, set against the raw cowboy world of gold and the social ambitions of the fleece.

It was an exciting time. The planned social utopia of 1840s Nelson gave way in just twenty years to the rugged tent cities of Otago's goldfields. New-rich pastoralists gave themselves airs in Canterbury, imitating Britain's elite.

That colonial past also explains a good deal about how today's New Zealand came to be including our quarter-acre section ideal. It was not an easy ride, though the fortunes of the south were more clear-cut than in the north, where issues were complicated by race relations.

Matthew Wright's Old South (Penguin, $50) explores the rise and fall of southern settler idealism in New Zealand, and the way it was supplanted by gold and the fleece.

A good deal of the south's early advantage can also be put down to one man: the jailbird, kidnapper and all-round rogue Edward Gibbon Wakefield. History has found it easy to condemn him as peddler of snake-oil socio-economics, an ideological jackdaw who did not invent his pet concepts of private-enterprise settlement where the poor would be kept down by market forces.

Such thinking was of its day. Britain was wearied by the Napoleonic wars and riven by industrial upheaval. Revolt bubbled just under the surface. Captains of industry, greedy for wealth and status, saw the poor not as a people to be helped, but a resource to be exploited. Nobody understood what was going on. This was before the time of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and in the heady years of the 1830s any two-bit theorist had apparent credence, Wakefield among them.

In these troubled times, the folk on the receiving end voted with their feet. This was Britain's great age of emigration. And what they wanted was simple enough: a secure roof and full bellies for themselves and their children. Wakefield hoped to exploit their need, envisaging a new society where market-driven land prices would keep the poor in their place, with vast profits for those with money. Himself and his fellow New Zealand Company directors particularly.


Settler-age New Zealand gained its shape on the back of Wakefield's vision, particularly the South Island. That "happy hunting ground of promiscuous adventurers", as it was once called, seemed ripe for Pakeha exploitation. Colonial Office objections based on Maori rights were dismissed by Company officials.

Of course it didn't work. By 1841, when Bryan Duppa sold the idea of a new settlement to Wakefield and his directors, Company efforts in New Zealand had already foundered. Wellington and the Hutt Valley had not developed as theorised. But to Duppa and his fellow idealists, this was because their theory had not been pushed hard enough. And so Nelson emerged on a vastly larger scale. Nothing went as intended. Politics pushed the settlement into the north of the South Island. And it did not take long for Nelson's society to burst out at the edges. Company officials, for all their cocksure belief that personal conviction could redefine reality, were forced to go along with it.

Wakefield began supporting other South Island colonial ventures, this time using religious zeal as the social glue. These were no more successful. William Cargill's late 1840s Presbyterian Dunedin was undermined by the local Anglican community, his "little enemy", as he put it. When the first settlers of John Godley's Anglican-based Canterbury Association reached Lyttelton harbour in 1851, they were met by a customs officer an "extremely vexatious" symbol of government. And the association was shortly bankrupt. Henry Sewell, upheld in Canterbury as one of the key founding figures, was, in practice, the receiver.

The frontier that unfolded from the 1850s, mostly on the back of new government land lease regulations, was very different from the arcadian ideal imagined by Wakefield and his successors. Pastoral estates spread across the south, their founders aping Britain's landed elite. Such airs and graces did not disguise they were really a supercharged middle-class, a bourgeoise who used their new-earned money to purchase status locally and back "home". Some, among them author Samuel Butler, departed for England as soon as they had it.

Their rise underscored a reality of the southern frontier, summed up by the Otago Witness in 1874. "There is ... no impassable barrier separating these gradations of gentility. There is a gate from the one to the other, and the open sesame is money . . ."

Such a lifestyle stood in contrast to the ruggedness of the goldfields and the rawness of the expanding frontier. This was New Zealand's cowboy era. Even the colonial towns resembled the American mid-west. Gold and wool buoyed a vigorous economy. By the mid-1860s this complex southern world of sharp deals, snobbery, rouseabouts, personality politics and middle-class hopes was seemingly paving the way for a bigger and better Britain.

It was a place where the laconic, understated "southern man" of twenty-first century beer commercials was notable by his absence, where blasting powder could be purchased over the counter in hardware stores, and where risk befriended business. A place where key deals were concluded with a wink, a nod, and a plunge into the abyss. Where the legends of New Zealand's Pakeha world were shaped.

In the 1880s it all came crashing down but that, as they say, is another story.

Matthew Wright's Old South (Penguin, $50) explores the rise and fall of southern settler idealism in New Zealand, and the way it was supplanted by gold and the fleece.

Sunday Star Times