A new frame of reference, Tony Simpson

Frontier New Zealand: The Search for Eldorado 1800-1920
Duncan Mackay,
Harper Collins, $34.95


The besetting sin of historical writing is hindsightism.  That is to say, the creation of the illusion that because we have arrived at today’s destination then at some point we must have purposely set out to reach it, and that therefore an understanding of the past can be achieved in those terms. Thus, many of our past historians have written as though it were the sole purpose of the colonisation of these islands to create a certain type of welfare state or, more recently, to deliver, in spite of everything, justice to the Maori people.

But, as Miles Fairburn has reminded us not long ago, our arrival at a contemporary circumstance maybe no more than happenstance. Where we are is not an explanation of where we have been. Things are the other way around. Just because we are now a settled and ordered community does not mean that all or even most of our immigrant forebears came here as colonists. On the contrary, as Duncan Mackay relates, quite a lot of them came here as transients, to exploit what they could. Many of those who stayed and settled had never meant to. It just turned out that way, and then largely because they hadn’t succeeded in their object, which was to get rich.

Some of the figures he gives are rather startling. Within two years of their commencement in 1861, the Otago gold rushes had increased the population of the province from twelve to sixty thousand. In 1867 the West Coast population of thirty thousand accounted for twelve per cent of the population of the whole country. The men (they were mostly men) who came to mine for gold, as with their predecessors who came for sealskins and whale oil, and their successors whose El Eldorado was timber or kauri gum, were not expecting an easy time of it.  Just as well, because they didn’t get one. Thomas Rees, manager of the Bank of New Zealand in Greymouth cut his throat with a razor in 1866, after his respectable neighbours had disapproved of his irregular marital relationship and of the debt it had caused. My dear William, he wrote in a note to his brother, Through heavy expenses on the goldfields, my position has become embarassed to such an extent that to avoid anything unpleasant, I propose committing suicide. Your attached brother, T W Rees.

It was not a romantic life. Says Mackay, when the carter Patrick Coyle visited Louisa O’Brien, a Hokitika prostitute, he gave her two pounds and got into bed without taking his boots off. Her brothel-keeper later came into the room and stole 20 pounds from the pocket of the sleeping client, and then tried to blame it on Miss O’Brien when the police investigated the theft. These are the foundation myths of our society, not pilgrim dreams and the doings of cabin passengers on first ships.

It also left a residue. On the diggings we’re all on a level you know, sang the inimitable Thatcher, The poor man out here ain’t oppressed by the rich/ But dressed in blue shirts you can’t tell which is which. We wouldn’t be the egalitarian society we aspire to be if there hadn’t been so many like Patrick Coyle who wore their boots to bed as a matter of course.

It’s unlikely that this book will tell hardened readers of New Zealand social history anything new, and it does suffer from the odd carelessness (Gabriel Read gets rechristened Gilbert at one point). But the charming and refreshing thing about history is its capacity for appearing in new frames of reference. This book establishes one, and very readably too.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington writer and broadcaster.



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