Travels in Maoriland, 1907-1999, Mark Williams

Travels in Maoriland, 1907-1999

Sir Harold Beauchamp was wealthy enough in 1903 to send his daughters to college in London. The experience made his most difficult and gifted daughter, Kathleen, reluctant to return to colonial Wellington and act out the expected role as advertisement for her father’s worldly success. Sir Harold, who by 1907 would be Chairman of the Board of the Bank of New Zealand, intended by giving his daughter an expensive education to place her securely at the apex of the colony’s social life. The effect was to consolidate in her mind a sense of superior distance not only from the life of the colony but also from the “Trade” atmosphere of her family where, Kathleen complained in her notebook, the butcher’s orders were openly discussed.

From 1906 to 1908 Kathleen was forced to endure family life in Wellington. It was a period in which she identified passionately with Oscar Wilde, plotted her return to London, and wrote symbolist vignettes, not unlike the epiphanies the young James Joyce had begun writing in Dublin a few years earlier. It was also a period in which she entered into the life of the colony, attending dances and parties, having dangerous flirtations, and embarking on a camping expedition into the heart of wild New Zealand.

In 1907 Mansfield was taken on a tour as far as Rotorua.  Tourist travel in the Rotorua region was well-established by the early 1900s: Cook’s Tours were available in the 1880s, and the “Thermal Springs Country” was widely advertised. Kathleen’s party took an arduous route through the Urewera country into this familiar terrain. Kathleen herself was much more impressed by her travels through the “utter backblocks” than she was by the tourist destinations of New Zealand’s Thermal Wonderland.

Kathleen’s response to wild New Zealand was mixed. She enthused in her notebooks about those Maori most removed from civilisation, wrote highly coloured descriptions of sunsets, and enjoyed bathing with other women “in their nakeds”. A tourist, she clearly saw herself as a cut above the dusty crowds at Whakarewarewa. Kathleen was a maiden of “Maoriland” (the turn-of-the-century school of colonial nationalist writing), but she did not display the rapturous Maoriland enthusiasm for romantic scenes of natural beauty (nor for chaste maidenhood). She was preoccupied at this period of her life with cultivating a literary style modelled on Oscar Wilde and preparing herself for the sophisticated life of an artist in London. Nevertheless, Maoriland worked its way more deeply into her consciousness than she cared to acknowledge.

Despite her indifference to the New Zealand writing of her period, Kathleen did give some thought to the problem of colonial writing. At one point in the notebooks, she throws off a remark so obviously imitative of Wilde’s paradoxes that its local and practical application is easily overlooked: “When NZ is more artificial she will give birth to an artist who can treat her natural beauties adequately.” In emphasising the artificial over the natural, Kathleen was obviously setting herself apart from Maoriland writing. She was also, however, offering serious advice to colonial writers, at that time busily looking for distinctive features – natural and mythological – around which to fashion a New Zealand literature.

What did Kathleen mean by the “artificial”? It is tempting to assume that she was simply yearning for a sophisticated sense of style, unavailable in the colony. Yet her purpose in recommending more artifice to colonial artists was to encourage not escape from New Zealand but a more conscious approach to representing its physical beauties.

That Kathleen was concerned with the question of a national literature is indicated by a possible source of her witty paradox in one by Wilde himself: “It is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life we call nationality.” In other words, a national literature is to be produced not by faithful imitation of local realities but by establishing differences from other existing literatures. Such differences are generated not by rejecting the stylistic habits of other nations but by knowing them thoroughly. By “artificial”, then, Kathleen seems to have intended something more than mere stylishness. She meant that if the natural beauties which New Zealand so lavishly overproduced were to be reflected adequately in a national literature, the New Zealand artist had to be equipped with a broad and sophisticated knowledge of literary styles. She was acknowledging that conventions shape what we see when we look at any natural scene.


More than 90 years after Kathleen’s Urewera camping trip the New Zealand Tourism Board hired M & C Saatchi to devise a strategy to market New Zealand. The result was a campaign under the caption “100% Pure”, with a tiny image of New Zealand substituted for the oblique bar of the percentage sign. The campaign is modern in that it addresses a global market with a single consistent message and employs new technologies. Yet the content and the shaping ideology of the campaign return unerringly to themes established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially the “natural wonderland” view of New Zealand (“100% Pure Old Geysers”, as the campaign booklet elegantly puts it).

Nowhere is the 1999 campaign more redolent of late colonial themes than in the image on the cover of the promotion booklet in which an old man with full facial tattoos hongis a young girl. The meaning of hongi is explained on the inside page, just as such exotic cultural terms and practices were in the old Maoriland brochures. Images of the hongi and moko were the stock-in-trade of Maoriland postcards from the first decade of this century. In fact, the moko on the cover of the Tourism Board’s magazine is more spurious than the self-consciously staged images of cloaked and weapon-bearing warriors beloved of the Maoriland period. The Tourism Board’s moko was applied, seemingly with a felt-tip pen, to a model located in South Auckland. Particularly significant is the representation of the old man as part of a traditional culture; on the inside cover pages he wears a splendid feather cloak, as though Maori at the end of the 20th century are still not essentially a modern people.

The sources of this traditionalist view of Maori are to be found in the period when Mansfield travelled through the Ureweras, and when settler culture was discovering its interest in fashioning an image of New Zealand both modern and pleasingly archaic. Crucial in this construction of Maori people as nobly traditional was the period after the Wars, and particularly after the achievement of a relative properity in the 1890s and 1900s. Once the threat of Maori militarism had been removed and a confident sense of modernisation achieved, “Old New Zealand” could be safely made nostalgic and marketed as an essential feature of the country’s scenic attractions. At the 1906-7 New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch, while the dynamism and material achievements of European settlement were celebrated with displays of agricultural technologies and products, Maori were represented as a traditional people, frozen in the attitudes of pre-Contact life. A model pa was constructed in which Maori were instructed to wear traditional costume and perform in the old style.

Dean MacCannell in Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers (1992) writes that “tourism is not just an aggregate of merely commercial activities; it is also an ideological framing of history, nature, and tradition; a framing that has the power to reshape culture and nature to its own needs.” Tourist images have not merely reflected but have actively shaped New Zealand nature and culture by focusing on sublime and largely unpeopled rural scenes or on images of Maori in the attitudes of their ancient way of life.

The Edenic and pastoral imagery of New Zealand originally fashioned by the New Zealand Company to attract settlers also established a set of values around which a powerful version of national identity came to be constructed in the Maoriland period. In this first conscious effort to formulate a New Zealand identity, images of Maori nobility were conscripted, just as the traditional world they represented was being consigned to the romantic past. Similarly, images of sublime landscape figured prominently in Maoriland art precisely at the point when the effects of deforestation were becoming most dramatically evident. Geoff Park observes in Nga Uruora that “[b]etween 1909 and 1916 the national remains of kahikatea more than halved.” This is the world Kathleen Beauchamp described approaching the Ureweras in 1907: “Everywhere on the hills great masses of charred logs – looking for all the world like strange fantastic beasts …. And now & again the silver tree trunks, like a skeleton army, invade the hills.”

Yet throughout the Maoriland period, while forests were being exported, railways laid, agricultural technologies introduced, a romantic version of New Zealand was actively being cultivated to attract tourists and to consolidate settler identity. The Ephemera Collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library holds brochures, postcards and posters associated with tourist activity and promotion going back to the late 1880s. By that time, material seeking to entice tourists to New Zealand stressed the beauty of the scenery and exotic Maori culture. A brochure from around 1890 offers this advice: “At Waitomo … there are remarkable limestone caves. The decree of Kubla Khan is almost realised, –
‘Where Alph …’”.

Postcards from the early 20th century feature studied Maori poses: a Maori Princess, a scene of native mediation. Even where Maori are not depicted in traditional dress, there are invariably traditional associations. A 1908 postcard shows “Maoris Cooking at Whakarewarewa”, colourfully enacting ancient life in European dress. (Of Whaka, Kathleen wrote in her notebook: “ugly suburban houses, ugly streets, old shaking buses, crowds of the veiled tourists”.)


Almost a century separates Mansfield’s departure from Wellington and the “100% Pure New Zealand” campaign, yet it is not the young colonial writer but the Tourism Board which looks dated and unsophisticated. Mansfield exhibited a range of attitudes towards New Zealand from loathing to the confession of “a perfect passion”. What she generally avoided in representing New Zealand to foreign readers was romantic stereotypes of natural wonders, scenic beauties and exotic Maori. When she did set about writing “colonial” stories, she moderated the presentation of nature with deliberate artifice. Her famous story “The Woman at the Store” is less a transcription of a brief meeting recounted in her Urewera diary than a conscious exercise in the “horse and saddle” school.

Mansfield maintained a distance from both the traditionalist nostalgias and the energetic modernity of her society, and out of the tensions in her position developed a form of modernism that we are only beginning to understand. As the daughter of a wealthy merchant, she was implicated in modernisation, yet embarrassed about the sources of the wealth that enabled her to live in England. She steadfastly refused to be identified with the writing styles of “young New Zealand”, but once in England successfully marketed a stylised version of the outback genre.

Mansfield did not become a “modernist” by leaving a provincial society for a modern one. All the conditions of modernity were present in the world she abandoned in 1908. By the 1880s the first generation of settlement had disappeared, and the immediate memories of landing, contact, wars had dissipated. A consciousness of history was appearing at the point where its most dramatic period of making was moving into the past. By 1912 in Blanche Baughan’s Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven we find not only an increase in the range and modernity of the influences which could be drawn on, but also a new sense of how modern and fast-changing New Zealand had become. New Zealand was already the modern world, so that old settler world was now observed from a distance; it appeared in nostalgic and threatened pockets, as in Celtic Twilight writing. The romantic impulses of colonial writing, then, indicate not dependence – a failure to observe local realities – but a surplus of modernity in the immediate world.

Kathleen kept her distance from Maoriland enthusiasms for both the modern and the archaic, not because she was indifferent to her country but because the models by which it was seeking to invent itself seemed to her inadequate to the job of making herself into an artist. Rather like Joyce, she left her native land only to return to it again and again in her writing. As Joyce refused to represent Ireland in terms of the Celtic Revival, so Mansfield refused (except parodically) to represent New Zealand in terms of Maoriland, especially its romantic and nostalgic aspects. Her New Zealand is everywhere touched by the processes that have made it modern.


In June 1997 a painting was stolen from the Department of Conservation Centre in the Urewera National Park. “Urewera Mural” by Colin McCahon was a tribute to the Tuhoe people who inhabited the Urewera district, a tribe with a long history of resisting European intrusion. The events surrounding this action were richly embroidered with literary, cultural and historical associations, as is the painting itself. The arresting officer, Detective Inspector Bell, was the grandson of one of the police officers who, in 1916, arrested Rua Kenana on dubious charges. On her Urewera camping trip, Kathleen Beauchamp had seen followers of the prophet at Te Whaiti. She recorded seeing “a follower of Rua with long Fijian hair and side combs, a most beautiful girl of 15, she is married to the patriarch.”

Kathleen would no doubt have been baffled rather than enthused by Rua. She was, after all, a member of her race and class and not immune to its prejudices and blindnesses. But she might have felt some sympathy for Rua’s political descendants, engaged in a struggle against the limiting naturalism of the legacy of Maoriland. The stealing of the painting was directed against a conservation ideal which strips agency from Tuhoe, turns them into ecological markers, and makes their preserved world marketable.

The theft and the various ventures into the art world by activist Tame Iti would seem to argue that, if the Ureweras are to become a kind of romantic West of Ireland, then Tuhoe want to have a stake in the presentation and marketing. But there are risks in marketing that otherness, whether as art or as Whakarewarewa-style tourist experience. Displays of what MacCannell calls “more or less ‘ethnologised’ everyday life” are precisely what Mansfield objected to in Rotorua. The trick will be to protect that part of the Ureweras to which Kathleen Beauchamp responded so curiously (Maori land) and prevent it becoming the Rotorua she disliked so thoroughly (Maoriland).

Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck closes with a scene in Burgundy where a group of New Zealand tourists visit the wine country. They know something about wine; what else they know we never learn. This is not a book about New Zealand, its identity, its natural beauties nor its stolid negotiations of a colonial past. It is a book about the ways in which the imagination constructs the world, the ways in which artifice makes what we experience seem real. “Beefy, tanned, expansive”, Knox’s tourists perhaps recall Sir Harold Beauchamp. If so, Knox has transfigured the confident practical New Zealand he represents, just as she has the romantic-nationalist fallacy of Maoriland: that the artist owes more to geography than to art.

Mark Williams teaches in the Department of English at the University of Canterbury.

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