Tom Brooking: A finely textured study

New Zealand’s Burning: The Settlers’ World In The Mid 1880s
Rollo Arnold
Victoria University Press, 1994, $34.95

Ask around the New Zealand historical profession who are the proven historians’ historians, that is, those whose research is consistently dependable and whose judgments are sure over the long haul and four names will probably appear on most lists: Russell Stone, Keith Sorrenson, Jim Gardner and Rollo Arnold. All are modest men inclined to hand the accolades to more flamboyant and well-known practitioners but their contribution is equally important.

All four are also inclined not to rate themselves as stylists in comparison with the pungency of the late Sir Keith Sinclair, the elegance of W H Oliver, the grace of Judith Binney and Ann Parsonson or the sheer exuberance of Jamie Belich. Yet they all write with rare clarity and precision, leaven their prose with a gentle wit and are as much masters of the deft turn of phrase as they are of their craft. They, too, are always a pleasure to read. So I was delighted to discover Rollo Arnold had enriched our neglected rural history by publishing a sequel to his excellent study of the assisted immigrants of the 1870s The Farthest Promised Land.

New Zealand’s Burning is as major a contribution to New Zealand historiography and to the thin literature on our rural past as the earlier book. This time Arnold writes about the experiences of bush settlers of the Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay areas in the 1880s, using the horrific bush fires of January 1886 as a way of viewing the lost world of bush farming. Then, after reliving that terrifying month, Arnold sets about systematically reconstructing that little‑studied world.

He first sketches in the patterns of a world that was transitional between traditional and modern by emphasising that its rhythms were still dictated by nature rather than machine. He also develops his earlier ideas on the conflict between the “gentry” and “yeoman” ideals of society. Eventually the “yeomen”, who shared the more equal American view of social order, would triumph over the hierarchical vision of the big landholders because their hefty numerical supremacy ensured them success at the ballot box.

First, though, they had to survive a harsh environment and difficult economic times. Their small farms had to be established before they could become involved in a wider range of political activity. Arnold also stresses that the experience of yeomen in the “arden” (bush) and “feldon” (open country suited to cropping) differed considerably. Yet during the 1870s these isolated people became linked back to the wider world once the international telegram promoted the development of lively local newspapers which kept them in touch with the latest farming developments and challenged the traditional approaches that they brought with them from Britain; so the “village” became linked to the “globe”. The communities which emerged were traditional in that they were small and personal yet modern in that they shared a cosmopolitan and extrovert view on the wider world with its market opportunities and useful technologies. The altruism of small, supportive communities based on the biblical moralism of nonconformity combined with the individualism of an emergent capitalism to produce a unique “yeoman” society.

Arnold then traces the harvest of the virgin forest by yeomen families in a manner that had not occurred in England for centuries. By drawing on the work of Mick Reed who has demonstrated that small peasant style farmers did not disappear from nineteenth‑century Britain as the tripartite system of tenant farming reached its zenith, he is able to establish many continuities with that earlier British, and sometimes Danish, experience. Roads and railways proved critical to this harvest and it was little wonder that the provision of such infrastructure shaped politics so completely in the region under examination at this time.

Arnold moves on to examine the progress of farming, noting more continuities with English practice than any other historian and traces the growth of small towns built to service this farming activity. A chapter on “sinews” or transport follows which concentrates on coastal shipping. Arnold argues that general histories have placed too much emphasis on export activity and claims that more than three quarters of economic activity was involved with serving the local market. Exports only really came to dominate this particular world from the late 1890s.

Investigation of the “nerves” of this social organism provides a logical follow-on and is perhaps the most innovative chapter in the book. Small‑town newspapers were the nerves of these communities before the telephone and radio and kept the settlers in touch with happenings throughout New Zealand and the world. Extraordinarily careful and exhaustive reading of the small papers of the region by Arnold and his wife Betty reveals that they are a very rich source on every aspect of community life from farming methods to meetings of clubs and societies. Solid evidence of vital communities can be found in their pages which are often not recorded in statistical measures.

Arnold concludes by returning to the efforts to cope with the fires and isolates the leaders that emerged to fight them. He wraps up the book in a succinct final chapter on settler society. Resisting the temptation to engage in a full blown attack on Miles Fairburn’s “atomisation” thesis, Arnold opts instead to suggest that Fairburn’s depiction of world of “bondless” single men is a gross oversimplification. He emphasises that continuities with Britain helped overcome the sense of loneliness and made sense of the backbreaking and sometimes frightening endeavour, and stresses that the bush areas were harvested and then fanned by families rather than individuals. These families also got together on regular occasions for both work and leisure and really did help each other in the most practical of ways.

An examination of hundreds of letters written by children to the New Zealand Farmer convinces him that this world was one which held out hope and satisfaction to the rising generation at least and which was characterised by a strong sense of equal sharing of burdens. He notes, however, that although members of this society treated one another fairly and sometimes altruistically they ignored the rights of Maori and had no sense of conservation. These were the major shortcomings of this particular variant of settler society, shortcomings which produced long-term losses and costs barely considered in the 1880s. Yet it is these failings as well as their obvious achievements which have made us what we are. As Arnold concludes in using a metaphor which would have been immediately grasped by his subjects: “If we are to have a worthwhile communion with our past its bread and wine must include the blood, sweat and tears that were once their little-venerated present.”

The text throughout is enlivened and supported by superbly produced maps and diagrams from the forthcoming Historical Atlas which on the basis of this tasty sample promises to be a fascinating publication. Well‑chosen woodcuts and photographs also help make this into a most handsome book and Victoria University Press must be congratulated. Arnold has also responded to the charge that his earlier book failed to collate data together in a few simple tables by producing an abundance of tables to support his contentions. Overall this is an imaginatively conceived, assiduously researched, well written and handsomely produced book deserving of some kind of award.

But the very strengths that come from its concentration on a brief time period within a limited geographical area are also its major weaknesses. Although Arnold tries to overcome its narrow focus by utilising the insights of British rural historians it seems he has largely limited his dialogue within New Zealand to Wellington‑based historians. Work carried on at Otago, for example, including some of my own on farmer organisations, is ignored. Yet many South Island farmers were not so different from his “yeomen”, even if they farmed on the leasehold rather than the freehold. In fact, they joined forces with their northern brethren in supporting the Liberals and their land reform programme. Similarly our fiction contains useful insights on “bush” society further north than Taranaki which could have been drawn upon for internal comparisons. There is also now a rich North American literature on settler society which was more like our own than Britain or Australia.

Had the industrious Arnold considered this useful comparative source he may have handled the issue of gender better. This is not to say that he does not consider the role of women within both farming (or the dimension of production) and family life (the private world in which reproduction played a larger part), but rather that he could have paid more attention to this central part of settler life. Had he done so, his critique of Fairburn for ignoring women and family would have been more convincing. Given the Arnolds’ intimate knowledge of the sources, Rollo was ideally placed to write more on social as opposed to economic history and to make clearer the links between economic activity and social structure. I also am unconvinced that we can go on writing “pakeha” social history which ignores the ongoing interaction with Maori in areas such as Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay where most of this bush farming took place on land acquired from Maori in dubious fashion. Furthermore, as Arnold concedes, these farmers were heavily dependent on Maori labour for shearing and fencing.

Arnold also has a much higher estimation of the material available on pastoral farming in other – feldon – regions than some practitioners. We probably better understand bush settlement now thanks to Arnold’s two excellent books than we do other aspects of our rural past. What we need is many more such finely textured and sensitively nuanced studies “rooted in the soil”. Rollo Arnold has laid down a challenge to younger practitioners and shown how a combination of imagination, hard work in primary sources and judicious use of appropriate comparative material can help us reconstruct a world “lost” to a predominantly urban nation.

Tom Brooking is senior lecturer in history at the University of Otago.

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