Drawing-room stories, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

Old South: Life and Times in the Nineteenth-century Mainland
Matthew Wright
Penguin Books, $50.00,
ISBN 9780143006510

Old South is a work that should be a welcome newcomer to the growing list of leading titles in New Zealand history. The book surveys some of the social changes in the South Island up to and during the 19th century. In the author’s own words it aims to “paint a broad-brush picture of southern Pakeha culture as it unfolded across the mid-nineteenth century”. Hmm, cliché and mixed metaphor. The writing never gets any better. Old South is not a book to be read for the sake of sharp, fresh or vital style.

Yet the South Island certainly needs its own history. As indeed does the North Island. As indeed do the regions and provinces. All readers with even a passing interest in New Zealand’s past will be well aware that, until the very end of the 19th century, the history of these islands was very much a history of regions and provinces often connected with one another only tenuously. “New Zealand” was a geographical expression, and, as the name of a colony, a statement of intent, but not a social or imaginative reality.

How can we make sense of the history of the largest of the islands? A Southern Gentry, first published nearly 30 years ago, was my own attempt. No other book followed to tackle the topic. Old South is sorely needed.

The basic layout of the book is chronological. Wright, unlike many other historians, does not dwell greatly on pre-European life but blends his discussion of prehistory, in the shape of Polynesian settlement and its evolution into Maori tribal society, with an opening discussion about geological plates and erosion of soil. The two bits together make up what is essentially a “non-historical” part of the book.

I don’t mean to imply that Wright thinks the lives of the Polynesian settlers and their Maori descendants unimportant, but it is curious that he seems wholly uninterested in subjecting them to the same level of analysis (particularly economic analysis) to which he treats their Pakeha successors. Nor does he link anything they did to a broader hypothesis. The several centuries of settlement and then settled life in Te Wai Pounamu before the coming of Cook seem to have no meaning beyond warming up the reader rather aimlessly in readiness for the coming of the Pakeha.

The settlers and tribes people seemed swayed by processes outside any historical understanding. It’s a curiously cold approach in which starvation and warfare among Maori is treated with as little sympathy as a pair of tectonic plates grinding against one another.

Maori drop off the page pretty quickly when Europeans show up, which is something that North Island readers may find jarring. One of the main things that made settlement play out in the South Island so differently from in the North Island is that the indigenous people were outnumbered very swiftly. Wright seems to have little tolerance for the school of historiography that treats interaction between colonist and colonised as the chief strand in the history of New Zealand. Indeed, in some footnotes later in the book, he quite strongly (although always politely) critiques recent studies that take this view too far. He has a compelling case for seeing Maori as only marginal characters in the story of the colonial South Island.

The central weakness of Old South, however, is that Wright offers no new thesis about the meaning of the many events in southern Pakeha history crammed into his book. An entirely new take on the history of the whole country might seem too taxing for a text of only moderate length, admittedly, but couldn’t we hope that the writer might at least offer a theory for the South Island?

Wright orients southern history not towards the South Island but towards a national (or, to be more accurate, proto-national) history. He talks about a very old and rather thin theory that New Zealand societies during the colonial period were essentially egalitarian and drew their values chiefly from the middle class. The South Island is viewed largely as a case study of only moderate explanatory power. Wright shows no feel for the mainland as a distinctive island, a land in its own right, let alone a distinctive society. The island instead is treated simply as a hunk of “New Zealand”.

Old South is mostly a dry recounting of facts. A factual recounting, no matter how dry, will always have some virtue when the facts are interesting, as they often were during the early decades of white settlement of the South Island. I challenge anybody to read the stories of sex workers, whalers, explorers and gold diggers without feeling drawn into drama. The matter-of-fact mode of writing need not be held against Wright. On the contrary, his willingness to allow his sources to speak for themselves is definitely a strong point.

Strong points, however, can easily become sticking points. Old South works too desultorily at unpacking meanings behind the spoken or written words of the day. Nor does the author work hard to track down new texts. For every story that comes from the streets, the stores and the fields, four or five come straight from drawing rooms, studies, offices – from the scribblings of the educated. Wright has focused, in other words, on the elites.

The southern elites certainly leave a lot more material for a historian to work with than the working people and the folk of the middling class, whom they shunted about the Pacific. Wright’s focus on such usual suspects as the Wakefields, the Cargills and (perhaps most annoyingly) Samuel Butler seems to be motivated less by a need to work with what sources we have and more by a belief that those people truly mattered. Not only that they mattered in the sense that their actions had important effects, which is a plausible though not compelling hypothesis, but that they mattered as personalities – that we can, after prolonged leafing through every marginalia or shopping list written by Cargill, divine exactly what it was he intended when he made this or that decision and thus can come away with an enhanced understanding of exactly what went on in Otago.

This is essentially the “great man” theory of history without the “greatness”. If we are to impute to the lay leader, and later elected superintendent, of a province such personal agency that the minutiae of his views about the Trinity or Christian education are legitimate topics for protracted discussion, we might almost wonder why we are reading history books in the first place.

A query, too, about the subtitle of the book: Life and Times in the Nineteenth-century Mainland. Why the choice of such an archly archaic construction as “life and times”? Why not “social history”? Why, too, does Wright claim to be writing about the 19th century yet dwell mostly on the foundation years of the white settlements? He skips with breathtaking lightness over the late 19th century, when the southern population was much greater, and southern society much larger and more complex. The subtitle of Old South should really be something like Life And Times of Some of the Southern Middle Class in the Mid-19th Century, Together with Stray Observations About Others, and Other Years of the Century.


Stevan Eldred-Grigg is a Wellington writer. 


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