Less English than the English, Tony Simpson

Settlers: New Zealand Immigrants From England, Ireland and Scotland 1800 to 1945 
Jock Phillips and Terry Hearn 
Auckland University Press, $39.99, 
ISBN 9781869404017 

Over the next few years, our official historians have announced, they will concentrate attention on our immigrant past. This is odd not because it is going to happen but because it has not happened before. This is the world’s most immigrant-oriented society. Everyone who lives here, including the tangata whenua, is either from somewhere else or is descended from someone who came here in the last thousand years. Obviously that fact has a fundamental impact on who we are.  We should have been writing about it and discussing it. Better late than never, I daresay, and this book is a welcome early step in that process.

It proceeds at two levels. The first is a comprehensive statistical analysis of where our immigrants have come from, more particularly since the early 1840s. At the same time, however, it gives muscle to these bare bones by recounting the anecdotal immigrant experiences of selected, and more or less typical, immigrants. It’s a fruitful approach; numbers can only take you so far, and it’s important to be always conscious that these were real people doing significant things in their individual lives. Anecdotal evidence underlines that.

One of the immediate outcomes of the statistical tabulations of where people came from (including some detailed information by English county), where they came to, what age groups they covered, what religious denomination they professed, and, an interesting twist this, where they ended up (based on death certificate information), is the explosion of a number of myths that have grown up over the decades. Notably, we are not “more English than the English”. The case is fairly well made that upwards of a half of our immigrants have been from the “Celtic fringe”.  It would make just as much sense to say that we are more Scottish than the Scots, but for some reason no-one seems to have thought to express our ancestry that way. It would be interesting to explore why, although this book does not.

Nor is Canterbury particularly English. Hawke’s Bay, Napier and the Wairarapa have as great or greater claim to this in particular periods, and during the 20th century the overwhelming candidate for the description “more English that the English” was actually Auckland. The West Coast of the South Island isn’t overwhelmingly Irish by descent either, although the myths would have us believe so.

Within the limitations of the figures they are working with, which the authors themselves accept as not absolutely reliable, what this book gives us is a very complete picture of some of the categories into which those who came here fall. But once they go beyond that into what they call “the legacy” they are on rather shakier ground. By “the legacy” they mean an explanation of the more enduring characteristics of New Zealanders that might be found in the facts of immigration and settlement they have tabulated. To be fair, they themselves speak of this as “the dangerous but fascinating world of speculation”, and I would be the last to condemn any historian for entering it; on the contrary, it’s part of the fun, or even, some might say, the purpose of writing history – to speculate on the meaning of things. But doing so in the absence of clear evidence to back up assertions can lead people astray.

For example, I too would anticipate, as the authors quite explicitly state, that those who arrive young are more likely to adapt quickly to their new society, and the relative youth of our immigrant population in the 19th century must have played a part in that. But they go on to suggest that the older groups that are more characteristic of the 20th century helped perpetuate links with the old world. These are slippery categories – what, for example, is “adaptation”, and from what to what? But, more to the point, where is the evidence that this was so in a New Zealand context? The authors adduce none.

The same fault also leads to the occasional solecism. An attribution of cultural Englishness to rabbits and trout would come as something of a surprise to the trout, I should imagine, as well as infuriating every Scottish or Irish angler who happened to read it. On the other hand, whether anyone would be prepared to claim cultural paternity of the rabbit is unlikely; Mark Twain has some sharp and entertaining things to say on that subject in Following the Equator.

Nor, I should think, does the claim that the “upper class English” introduced horse racing in the 1840s bear too much examination. There were horses here being enthusiastically raced before then, as my own family history bears out (on my father’s side, an ancestor came here very early on to buy remounts for the East India Company cavalry). I think too that, despite the authors saying not, there were denominational cemeteries from the earliest days; one famous Wellington controversy over who could be buried in Bolton Street actually got as far as the Privy Council.

But mostly the points, even if speculative, are well made and ring true. This particularly applies to the material concerning religious denomination. The high level of those professing Methodism who arrived in the later 19th century, for example, almost certainly contributed a radical strand to our political culture, more particularly to the debates surrounding temperance and the pacifist opposition to compulsory military training in the period running up to WWI. The same can probably be said of the quite deliberate attempts to weed out Roman Catholics from among immigrant recruits under some schemes, their denigration in certain sectors of the population, and the (partially contrived) uproar over allegations of “treason” following the Easter Uprising in 1916.  Even into the 1950s, anti-Catholic prejudice was rife and publicly expressed, and probably flowed in part from the immigrant experience.

The authors are also on fairly safe ground in attributing some of our key political shibboleths to the origins of our 19th century immigrants. In particular, they instance an abhorrence of anything that smells of the Poor Law, an ambition to own one’s own home on its own plot and land, and the privileging of the rural over the urban. In those instances, of course, they have the ground-breaking work of Rollo Arnold, which they acknowledge, to draw upon. They also make the valid point that many 19th century immigrants were from rural areas and therefore expected to earn their living in varying ways, depending on the season. That made them adaptable, and willing to turn their hand to new tasks.

In that connection, one point the authors could have made, although they don’t, is that an immigrant population is self-selecting from among those inherently unwilling to put up with whatever it was – usually a lack of prospects rather than outright poverty – that led them onto the hazardous and uncertain path to emigration in the first place.  You had to be a fairly adventurous and outgoing soul to make that leap. And immigrant societies don’t have some of the things that are ready-made givens in the old world. You have to match and make do, and that creates a particular ethos.

Over the next decade or so, if the ambitions at work within our official historical establishment come to fruition – and there is no reason to suppose they will not, notwithstanding that governments come and go – we can look forward to a great many more publications exploring what it means to live in the world’s most immigrant-oriented society. I must say that I’m looking forward to it, and this book is a pretty fair start.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 


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