Repackaging the foreign, Giselle Byrnes

Caught Mapping: The Life and Times of New Zealand’s Early Land Surveyors 
Janet Holm
Hazard Press, $49.99,
ISBN 1877270865

In 1849, less than a decade after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and the assertion of British sovereignty over New Zealand, Edward Gibbon Wakefield – the notorious land speculator, coloniser and sometime abductor of heiresses – reflected on the significance of language in colonisation. “Names of places, too, should be changed,” he advised, “[for] they make part of the moral atmosphere of a country.”

Renaming the land was an important part of the colonising process; a practice that Maori had, for generations, employed in wars of inter-tribal conquest and subjugation. But Wakefield’s comment also hinted at something more than simply redrawing the map of New Zealand: his vision implied an entire re-imagining of the environment, a wholesale transformation of the “foreign” repackaged into the “familiar”. This is where the process of land surveying – the measuring, marking, naming and mapping of land – was crucial in affirming British authority.

Land surveying was, in historical terms, a method of quantifying and confirming new and existing property rights. During the 19th century, land surveying proved particularly effective as a useful tool of empire: it was employed to delineate new physical boundaries and impose these on landscapes both real and imagined. Land surveying was therefore essential in the British colonisation of New Zealand.

The first surveyors, employed by the Crown or the New Zealand Company, were among the advance guard of colonisers; their task was to (quite literally) extend the frontiers of the new settler society. For many Maori communities, land surveyors were often the first Pakeha with whom they came into contact, conferring on surveyors the ambivalent roles of cultural mediator and coloniser. Land surveying was nonetheless a popular occupation and many young men seeking work and adventure (in equal measure) found work as surveyors; indeed, up until 1876, no formal training or qualifications were required.

Land surveying was also of immense commercial and political significance to the Crown. It was vital in the process of wresting land from Maori, most especially in the operations of the Native Land Court, where from 1865 land surveyors were relied upon to determine specific parcels of land and so facilitate the transition from customary tenure to individualised Crown-granted title. As the Waitangi Tribunal has documented, a great deal of Maori land was subsequently forfeited for unpaid survey charges.

Given the importance of land surveying in New Zealand’s history, it is surprising how little attention historians have paid to the work of surveyors. In general, the existing critical literature tends to fall into one of two sub-genres. The first might be best described as an overly romanticised interpretation that tends to focus on the experiences and hardships of individual land surveyors, while at the same time marginalising (or simply ignoring) the wider implications of land surveying.

This version, in celebrating the theme of “triumph over adversity”, endorses what historians have termed a “transition narrative”: a progressive account that charts the shifts from fledgling colony through to nationhood and maturity, where the physical transformation of the landscape is seen through a lens of inevitability. According to this view, indigenous landscapes are written over rather than written about; in other words “history” begins in 1840. C A Lawn’s limited edition manuscript The Pioneer Land Surveyors of New Zealand (1977) and Nola Easdale’s Kairuri: The Measurer of Land (1988) typify this interpretation.

The second category is more sceptical, less celebratory, and includes works which attempt to understand land surveying within broader economic and political imperatives. Consequently, these texts demonstrate an awareness of the colonial dynamic, Maori resistance to land surveying and its wider political implications. These works eschew themes of progress and development and opt instead for a much broader perspective.

Brad Patterson’s meticulous doctoral thesis on surveys in the lower North Island from 1840 to 1876, and Tracey Anderson’s recent master’s thesis on Fred Mace and surveying in the King Country from 1876 to 1921 are excellent examples of a more cautious and careful re-reading of colonial land surveying. Janet Holm’s cleverly titled, but slightly misleading, Caught Mapping: The Life and Times of New Zealand’s Early Surveyors, falls squarely into the first of these two categories. While the book is lavishly produced, with a large format, attractive layout and beautiful reproduction of images, aside from the entertaining biographical sketches, it offers little to those wanting to understand land surveying in its historical, social, cultural and political contexts.

The chief fault of Holm’s book is that it fails to locate the story of land surveying within the larger paradigm of colonisation. Put simply, the history of surveying in New Zealand cannot be understood without reference to prior Maori authority over the land. How else can we explain the highly contested nature of land surveying? The early surveyors were not, as many colonial boosters suggested, working in empty and uninhabited landscapes: on the contrary, the land was already known, named and occupied by Maori. Moreover, the Treaty of Waitangi itself recognised that Maori had a proprietary interest in the land, article two being essentially a confirmation of native title rights guaranteed under British common law.

Caught Mapping is organised in two parts. The first comprises a series of biographical sketches, re-telling the life and times of a handful of surveyors including Edward Jollie, Henry and Edward Sealy, Robert Bain and John Rochfort. The second half is arranged geographically; specifically, it considers various attempts at forging transport routes from the east to the west coast of the South Island in search of gold during the 1860s. The book draws on an extensive range of published and unpublished source materials. However, the surveyors who feature here either wrote extensively about their experiences (Rochfort) or are well-represented in existing records (Jollie); the many surveyors who did not leave such rich pickings or who did not (or could not) commit their thoughts to paper are doomed to invisibility. This is not a criticism of the book under review, but a reflection on the fragmentary nature of the documentary survey archive.

One might also take issue with the reference to “early surveyors” in the title of the book. Surely the experiences of Noel Broderick, who worked from the 1880s through to 1931, were vastly different from those of, say, Edward Jollie and John Rochfort, who were active in the 1840s and 1850s respectively? The other striking feature of this book is its strong South Island, and particularly Canterbury, bias. Perhaps this might partially explain the relative invisibility of Maori, given their larger concentration in the North Island.

Christchurch-based historian Janet Holm is a keen tramper and environmentalist and her appreciation for the outdoors is clearly evident in this book. Caught Mapping is written not necessarily for other academics, but for those who want to learn about the men who laid out towns and settlements and fearlessly crossed rugged landscapes in the name of progress. The book succeeds in humanising the land surveyors; by offering glimpses into their private lives and the women who made their adventuring possible, we glean a little more about their own vulnerability and human frailty.

The land surveyors have not been forgotten: they have left their legacy in the design of towns and cities and in the names of streets, rivers, mountains and other geographical features around New Zealand. But were they to know that the cost of realising this vision was to unsettle and effectively dispossess its Maori owners? The answer to this question is surely a matter for ongoing debate.


Giselle Byrnes teaches history at Victoria University of Wellington. Her Boundary Markers: Land Surveying and the Colonisation of New Zealand was published in 2001.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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