From the Celtic fringe, Tony Simpson

To the Ends of the Earth
Neil Robinson
HarperCollins $39.95
ISBN 1 86950 265 5

Going Abroad
John MacGibbon
Ngaio Press $39.95
ISBN 0 473 04752 7

Chips off the Auld Rock
Susan Butterworth (with Graham Butterworth)
Shetland Society of Wellington $39.95
ISBN 0 473 046 73 3

To Tara Via Holyhead
Lyndon Fraser
Auckland University Press $39.95
ISBN 1 86940 163 8

About five years ago I was invited to speak to the annual conference of the Genealogical Society. To my astonishment I found myself addressing nearly four hundred delegates. I was even more surprised to be told that this group is one of New Zealand’s largest incorporated bodies, and numbers many thousands of members. Obviously Pakeha New Zealanders – and it was an almost entirely Pakeha gathering – have developed a thoroughgoing interest in their roots in recent years.

There are probably a number of reasons for this. People generally are interested in where they have come from, of course, and most Pakeha are now sufficiently far away from that point for it to no longer be known to them as a matter of course. An understandable curiosity leads them to try to find out, and the family tree is an obvious enough place to start. But that hardly explains why this widespread phenomenon has appeared just at this time. I put it down personally to the effect of the political events of the last decade and a half. These events have challenged many of the fundamental assumptions that Pakeha New Zealanders have about themselves and have led them to reassert the validity of those beliefs. This has taken a number of forms: the growing numbers attending Anzac Day dawn parades, for instance; or the desire to trace one’s own ancestors and to reaffirm the reasons which brought them to New Zealand as immigrants in the 19th century in particular.

Being New Zealand, this phenomenon was bound to be accompanied by the writing and publication of books. It’s one of the things we like to do in our culture, and it’s worthy of note that the historical publications group within Internal Affairs has announced that the exploration of this theme is to be the major project driving them for the next few years. But there’s also an interesting spin on the process. A number of the books which are starting to appear are not the products of either those funded to produce the official record or of the academy – although one of those reviewed here is from the latter source; but of those who have set out to write a rather more popular history, one presumably which eschews academic debate and controversy in favour of intrinsic interest and self-exploration.

What is also interesting about all four of these books is that they deal with immigration from the Celtic fringe rather than the mainstream. Although it’s impossible to say definitively, because the principal statistical records were destroyed about three decades ago, it seems fairly certain that the main contributor of immigrants to New Zealand in the 19th century was England This was particularly the case during the early 1870s which was the main period of mass immigration as has been superbly limned in Rollo Arnold’s The Farthest Promised Land. Nevertheless, the Irish, Scottish, and even Scandinavian and German contribution needs to be recognised, although in the end this may have made little impact on the final cultural outcome, other considerations such as the common motivations of the new settlers of whatever origin being of greater primary significance than the specific cultures from which they came. But these origins should not be discounted either, and three of the books reviewed here deal with those origins in different ways.

The first, To the Ends of the Earth, retells the story of the McLeod settlement at Waipu. Previous accounts of this peculiar religious community have included not only the usual narratives but a radio documentary by James McNeish and a novel by Fiona Kidman. The author of this narrative, Neil Robinson, a descendant of the Waipu settlers, has previously published a biography of the settlement leader Norman McLeod (in 1952). That McLeod was a fascinating character there is no doubt. One of the contributors to the McNeish documentary, asked to comment on the watchword of the settlement – “I stand here in awe of God and the Reverend Norman McLeod” – rather wryly remarked that if the order of these two august personages were reversed then that might be a more accurate statement of authorities.

But it is important to look beyond McLeod himself to what this episode contributed and continues to tell us about our culture. Two things, it seems to me. The first is to remind us that New Zealand as an immigrant destination was quite often a matter of happenstance. During the 1860s, for instance, many settlers came as gold-miners, never intending to stay, and found 30 or 40 years on that they had done so nevertheless. So with the settlement at Waipu which originated in the Highland clearances and established itself first in Nova Scotia in 1817. It was not until 30 years later that a major segment of this community, after an almost Herculean struggle to survive, decided that it would decamp as a body to New Zealand and start the process of establishment all over again. But secondly, the epic of the McLeod settlement is also a reminder of a darker strand in our culture: a spirit of intolerance grounded both in 19th-century evangelical Christianity, which drove many of our forebears in their search for explanations of what was happening to them during one of Europe’s most profound periods of change, and in an abiding need which brooked no dissenters, to work together to survive as a community in a new land. It is only now, towards the end of the 20th century, that we are getting this intolerance out of our system, as recent events concerning the so-called code of social responsibility or statues of the madonna draped in a condom show, we may have some way to go yet.

This book does not explore these implications, as it happens. Instead it is a personal exploration of the meaning of the life of the writer against the backdrop of the McLeod settlements in both countries, and is successful within those limitations, although only up to a point. Rather too much of the background is taken for granted. To get the best from this book the reader would have to be familiar with the main story already. But it is heartening to find a book which quite explicitly takes as its point of departure the relationship between lived individual experience and the broader pattern of events. This, as Edward Thompson remarks in his 1980 essay collection Writing by Candlelight, is where meaning in history is most likely to be encountered.

This conjunction is explored on a more straightforward level by John MacGibbon’s Going Abroad, a book without pretensions but a great deal to recommend it, which maps the story of one family, the MacGibbons, and their emigration to Otago and Southland from Glasgow in the mid-19th century. If that was all, then the book would not perhaps be of great interest, but it is a good deal more because its author understands and grapples with the fact that this is an archetypal story. In the motivations of those who chose to come to New Zealand in that period and over the next three decades, we can find the origins of most of what has happened since, particularly in our public and political lives. This book takes those motivations as its fulcrum, and the result is a fascinating and detailed picture of what drove many or even most of our forebears in coming here – the desire to escape the anxieties and insecurities of Britain for better chances elsewhere.

It is a commonplace to say that if we want to know where we are, then knowing where we have been is crucial, but it is also a commonplace worth reasserting from time to time, and this book reasserts it with considerable skill. If history is the study of the present illuminated then MacGibbon has passed the test. If you want to know what brought your ancestors here, and have time to read only one of these books, then this is the one.

Chips off the Auld Rock is less sure on that score, although it would be unfair to criticise it for failing to achieve an object which may not have been its primary intention. It too is an unadorned tale which seeks to tell the story of the emigrant/immigrant relationship between the people of the Shetland Islands and New Zealand. Although I suppose one should not be startled by such things, it still came as a shock to me to learn that in the 1870s fully one eighth of the Shetlands population was compelled by harsh circumstances – a famine arising from the simultaneous failure of both the fishing and the potato crop combined with a land clearance and “improvement” scheme on the part of absentee landlords – to leave and find a place elsewhere. It’s a common enough story but still one is interested to know why these people chose New Zealand. They seem to have come first in ones and twos, but as with so many others it was the Vogel immigration schemes of the 1870s, coinciding with the famine and land clearances, which brought them here in numbers. And as with their brethren and sisters further south in England, once the bridgehead was established, chain migration – family member following family member – saw to the rest. This too is an archetypal story and one which fills a gap in our knowledge of who we are and how we have become so. It should, in those circumstances, come as little surprise to the reader to learn that Robert Stout was one of the first Shetlanders to emigrate here, and that the current leader of the Labour Party comes from that same stock. A political culture once forged is a hardy thing and has deep foundations.

What impresses about all three of these books is that they are attempting to address the experience of their readers, to deliver that shock of recognition of ownership of the tale which we have come to expect in fiction but is less usually associated with the writing of history in general, and social history in particular. Reading my way through the three, I was able to say with certainty that the people to whose voices I was listening were people who were demonstrably my forerunners, with whose hopes and fears I could identify, and whose contribution to the sort of New Zealand in which I grew up and in which most New Zealanders continue to aspire to live was apparent in their actions and articulations.

Achieving that identification with the past has always seemed to me to be the one big thing which justifies the writing of its history within any society. But it is also an objective I have often felt has been ignored by those we charge officially and professionally with writing our history. Indeed, I am sometimes puzzled as to why some writers, particularly in the academic sphere are writing our history at all. In their work the shock of recognition fails me. I feel instead that I am a spectator to something which does not concern me.

Lyndon Fraser’s To Tara Via Holyhead is, it seems to me, an illustration of that sense of apartness from the ordinary concerns of our community. His book is the academic odd-man-out and in some ways provides an object lesson to writers in this field in how they can all too easily lose their way if they lose touch with their own society. His topic is potentially a fascinating one, an exploration of the lives and experience of Irish Catholic immigrants to Christchurch in the 19th century. Speaking as one who grew up as a Proddy-dog in that city in the post-war period, I can vouch for the authentic flavour of the raw material he is drawing on in his account.

But unfortunately, this authenticity is all but buried under a theoretical superstructure which is neither necessary nor integral to the recounting of the story. This has been one of the less fortunate consequences of the tendency of our younger historians to look to the United States for their history writing models over the last decade in particular. Somehow it isn’t a proper history, apparently, unless there is an elaborate imposed intellectual framework to carry the meaning. In point of fact it is the events themselves which carry the meanings implicit in any historical narrative. These meanings should emerge naturally from the explication of the source material and the manner of its arrangement.

That this is not allowed to happen when the material makes it clear that it might have in this instance, is not only because of an imposed and unnecessary framework. It is also, I fear, the result of a prose style which sacrifices clarity to pretension. What, I wondered, was meant by an announced intention “to integrate prosopographical study and genealogical investigation into a problem-oriented approach that apprehends the complex interplay between structural conditions and personal agency?” And what are we to make of Fraser’s conclusion that what the Irish Catholics of Christchurch achieved “was less a triumph of atomisation than the continued reassertion of communal values and social relationships?” A good effort and still well worth the reading, but almost spoiled by an intrusive over-intellectualisation.

These books, it strikes me, are the first signs of an approaching avalanche of works on our immigrant experience. Whether we are going to be any the wiser at the end of it all remains to be seen. But we can certainly expect to be better informed about who we are and how and why we began to make ourselves what we have become.

Tony Simpson is a researcher for the Alliance Party, and the author of The Immigrants, published in 1997.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category