Coming from elsewhere, Paul Goldsmith 

The Immigrants
Tony Simpson
Godwit, $34.95, ISBN 0 908877 94 3

Most, if not all, people born in New Zealand have at least one ancestor who arrived in this country during the last two centuries. There could scarcely be a process more fundamental to New Zealand’s history than immigration. Tony Simpson’s chosen period, 1830-90, was the most dramatic, altering irrevocably the genetic and ethnic makeup of these islands’ human population.

At the individual level, the topic is often as tricky as it is rewarding. One of my ancestors, Charles George Goldsmith, turned up on the East Coast mysteriously in the mid-1840s. Local legend has it he was Jewish, although he was christened in an Anglican church. He had been born in Liverpool in 1822 and had spent some time on boats about South America. I have no idea why he came here. In 1847 he married a local wahine, Kararaina, and they settled on a 17-acre block he obtained, dubiously it appears, at Huiatoa, near Gisborne. He had several wives, Maori and European, and five generations later I’m related to half the East Coast.

Among the nineteenth century immigrants there would have been thousands of radically different stories as well as the many shared experiences. It makes writing a general overview history an unenviable task. Simpson wisely limits himself to immigrants from Britain between 1830 and 1890 but still the possible questions are daunting: who actually came here, where exactly did they come from, why did they leave their homes and what attitudes did they bring, how many were poor, how many wealthy, how did they get here, where did they settle, how did they set themselves up?

Those hoping for a detailed statistical analysis indicating, for example, how many immigrants under the “40-acre scheme” during the 1860s were farm folk from the southern counties or people with a bit of money from Scotland, will have to wait a bit longer. It’s not that kind of book.

Simpson has taken a broad sweep while relying mainly on his ingestion of a selection of previous studies; the result is perfectly readable and interesting but also somewhat general. He notes that in 1972 the Department of Statistics, which had been patiently collecting raw data on original birthplaces of the population since 1857, destroyed all of the nineteenth-century returned questionnaires, in “a breathtaking exercise in official vandalism”. One wonders whether, if they were still available, Simpson would have leapt at the chance to sift through them. There is hope, incidentally, for a study that will attempt to address the particulars of immigration. An Historical Branch project with funding from the Foundation of Research, Science and Technology, which historians Jock Phillips, Kerry Taylor, Terry Hearn and others have been working on, promises much for the future.

Simpson’s favourite aspect appears to be the journey out. Throughout The Immigrants at roughly 20-year intervals in the narrative we get lively accounts of the perils, inconveniences and indignities of long-distance sea travel in the nineteenth century. It is engaging reading. An eyewitness account of the chaos at England’s docks captures the moment:

… servants are running hither and thither, and in their embarrassment, hindering rather than assisting their masters … whilst the half-distracted passengers are almost ludicrously endeavouring in the midst of the unaccustomed tumult to get their furniture and luggage securely stowed in their little cabins, as though in anticipation of the immediate presence of the dreaded sea sickness. (pp76-7)

Simpson appears to take a macabre delight in recounting the nastier aspects of the trip: brackish water, putrid pork, boats swarming with vermin, people going mad with the “Blue Devils”, a surgeon who created an uproar by insisting that he conduct post-mortems on steerage passengers who died along the way. Oh and the storms! As one passenger put it, “had a ver ruf day the sea running mountans high, the ship realing to and frow like a drunkin man”. (p136) The book is at its best with these contemporary accounts. It should be noted, however, that vermin did not always hold sway: a traveller on the “Matilda Wattenbach” in 1862 wrote that “rat hunts were always merry occasions”. It was generally the rat which came to a sticky end.1

The Immigrants is admirably illustrated with quality black-and-white prints which serve as a launching pad for the wandering imagination. An etching of a cadaverous woman doing needlework in a rundown room has always given me the creeps since I first saw it at university. (p126) But, to be picky, I cannot understand why publishers publish books with such glossy paper. The reader must constantly twist and turn in the chair to avoid the glare off the page if light strikes it at the wrong angle.

Simpson balances his story sensibly, moving frequently between conditions in Britain (England mainly), the trip out and developments in New Zealand. It is helpful, for instance, to be informed about the decline in wheat prices in England from the 1850s and the effect that had on English agricultural labour. The main problem I had, however, was that the pieces on England were very general and the links between them and migrants were barely demonstrated.

The work on England has the musty air of 1960s historiography. Simpson leans on the work of the great socialist historians of decades past: E P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and the like. Hobsbawm, now 80, a communist and unrepentant advocate of the Soviet system, wrote recently: “Much of my life, probably most of my conscious life, was devoted to a hope which has been plainly disappointed and to a cause which has plainly failed: the communism initiated by the October Revolution. But there is nothing which can sharpen the historian’s mind like defeat.”2 This is all very well, but it is unforgiveable for a book drawing heavily on secondary material like Simpson’s to have such a stale historiographical base. When Simpson occasionally refers to “recent” historians it is usually to works of the 1980s like H Newby’s Country Life.

So the book picks up on all the bêtes noires of Hobsbawm and others, however slender the relevance to New Zealand immigration. We get lengthy accounts of the plight of handloom weavers, of Captain Swing and the Luddites, popular protest and outcast London. After a ghoulish description of ramshackle, unhealthy and overcrowded slum conditions of the English cities, Simpson admits that “these depressed social groups were not generally those from whom emigrants, particularly to the antipodes, were drawn”. (p155) A lengthy account of chartism is linked to the story by a statement that “many of those who came to New Zealand as steerage passengers in this period would have come into contact with the chartist movement in Britain…” (p96) Some probably did and the movement’s effects would be interesting to trace — but it is scarcely demonstrated.

There is an exception. In this case the historical legwork has been done by Rollo Arnold in his 1981 account of Vogel’s immigration schemes, The Farthest Promised Land. Simpson describes the plight of English agricultural labourers with his usual flair, noting the Royal Commission on Housing of 1885 was “replete with instances of rotting thatch dropping unimaginable filth on the heads of those sleeping beneath it”. (p161) Underlying market changes, inflamed by poor harvests in the early 1870s and a host of other factors led to the “revolt of the field”, which Simpson describes as “a great collective, existential cry of despair by rural labourers at the intolerable nature of their situation”.

Here at last we get a link with actual New Zealand immigration. Vogel and Featherston forged a connection with one of the rural union leaders, Joseph Arch, and together they made a concerted effort to encourage depressed agricultural labourers to look to New Zealand. The November 1873 editorial of the Labourers’ Union Chronicle began: “Not a farm labourer in England but should rush from the old doomed country to such a paradise as New Zealand… Away, then, farm labourers, away!” (p179)

It is acknowledged that as an historical overview, Simpson’s work can’t hope to rival the detail of Rollo Arnold’s or that laboriously retrieved from the past by Charlotte Macdonald in her impressive and focused study of single women settlers, A Woman of Good Character, 1990. But The Immigrants breadth of vision is deceptive: it has a broad time span but seems only interested in the English poor. It does not attempt to show a range of different types of English immigrant, while the Irish receive two pages and I can’t recall the mention of Scotland at all.

The topic of immigration is potentially boundless. Simpson has chosen to focus on squalor and class squabbles on the high seas down the Atlantic and across the Southern Ocean, together with general accounts of the English context from which some of them came. The Immigrants tells us about the lives of servants on their arrival in New Zealand and the development of unions. It would be churlish to say there are enormous gaps — the study must be manageable, although perhaps a less sweeping title would have been more appropriate. Simpson apparently didn’t see it in his brief to talk about those immigrants who quickly settled on their own land and “bettered” themselves.

A whole world of issues arises from the history of immigrants in the first five years, say, of their arrival in New Zealand. How did so many of them gain parcels of land? There were a myriad schemes and incentives, while others brought money with them or made it on arrival. How did they co-exist with the Maori population? Many, particularly early on, married Maori and took over their land; they fought in places, lived harmoniously together in others. This is one area where detailed research is being done that could be quarried profitably.

Simpson argues at one point that they “saw themselves as immigrants going to something, rather than emigrants leaving something’. (p207) What kind of world were they going to? He concludes they were going to a place where they hoped to recreate the “moral economy”. To his credit, Simpson outlines his purpose at the start. He finds the point of history in what it tells us about today, in its social utility, in the steps it takes towards the accomplishment of moral purposes in the world. Presumably, then, the final chapter, which curiously launches into praise for the birth of the welfare state and interventionist government, is meant as an inspirational call for the country to return to its “egalitarian” roots.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing; but it seems to me that a lot has changed since the hey-day of Thompson and Hobsbawm, let alone W B Sutch, with whom Simpson seems more at home. A generation nurtured on Rogernomics seems on the whole less sure about the boldest claims of the interventionist and benevolent state, less starry-eyed and romantic about New Zealand as a social laboratory.

Simpson acknowledges that the desire to better oneself was attested by almost all contemporary accounts as the reason for emigration to this part of the world. (p130) Of course, there always has been and always will be huge variation in opinion about how this might best be done.

Paul Goldsmith is a ministerial press secretary, working four floors above Tony Simpson’s Alliance’office. He has recently written a biography John Banks (reviewed in the June issue) and worked for a while at the Waitangi Tribunal before that. 

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more