Forgotten people, Tom Brooking

In/visible Sight: The Mixed-Descent Families of Southern New Zealand
Angela Wanhalla
Bridget Williams Books, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877242434

Golden Prospects: Chinese on the West Coast of New Zealand
Julia Bradshaw
West Coast Historical and Mechanical Institute
ISBN 9780473155469

Doing Well and Doing Good: Ross and Glendining: Scottish Enterprise in New Zealand
S R H Jones
Otago University Press, $49.95.
ISBN 8781877372742

These three well-written and attractively produced books make a useful contribution to New Zealand historiography, which enriches our scholarship by recovering important but largely forgotten parts of our history.

Converting a PhD thesis produced for a specialist academic purpose into a book that will appeal to a wide audience of “intelligent lay readers” is a fiendishly difficult exercise. In the case of In/visible Sight, however, publisher and writer have succeeded admirably. Angela Wanhalla’s important findings on the mixed-descent families of southern New Zealand, particularly those of the Taieri district from which she descends, are now readily available to all.

This is a handsome production, the photographs alone justifying the purchase price. Crisp maps also locate the reader in these special but seldom visited places. Wanhalla tells an emotionally affecting story in clear, clean prose not unlike that of others working at the cutting edge of New Zealand race-relations history, such as Judith Binney, Ann Parsonson and Anne Salmond. As a result her book is mercifully free of the jargon that mars much of the anthropological and sociological work her topic area forces her to traverse.

She makes it clear that Kai Tahu in the south, just like Ngai Tahu in Canterbury, soon became marginalised and invisible because they intermarried early and, there being little of the trade, exchange and prostitution witnessed in the deep-sea whaling centres of the Bay of Islands, appeared little different from the mainstream “white” settler community. The southern mixed-descent families, like those around Christchurch studied by Parsonson, experienced economic as well as social marginalisation. These supposedly “white” outsiders did not fit the dominant Scottish- or English-oriented narratives that have so dominated the writing of Otago and Canterbury history, in particular, and the South Island in general.  So these communities soon became forgotten and invisible. Yet they were distinctive, with a culture all their own.

Wanhalla’s argument that invisibility equates to marginalisation in every sense – economic, social and cultural – is convincing, and supports work by scholars such as Harry Evison, Bill Dacker and Parsonson on the virtual disappearance of Ngai Tahu from Canterbury history, until a major advancement of the Waitangi Tribunal claim from the late 1980s forced a rethink.

Equally excitingly, it opens up possibilities of comparative research with similar mixed-descent communities elsewhere in the British Commonwealth – particularly Canada. Her work on what she calls “intimate histories” also challenges head-on the misleading claim still made in some general histories that most intermarriage during the contact period occurred in the Bay of Islands. This “misinformation”, which so distorted the author’s childhood understanding of her own family and community history, has been swept away by  methodical research, passionate argument, and photographs that have restored visibility to people forgotten for at least two generations.

Julia Bradshaw’s Golden Prospects focuses on a better remembered group that, despite being largely absent from the West Coast of today, assumed a distinctive appearance. Hers has similar strengths to Wanhalla’s book in that it is well written, thoroughly researched and attractively produced by the West Coast Mechanical and Historical Society.

Although she dedicates it to all those Chinese whose stories will never be known, Bradshaw has managed to assemble a remarkable number of fascinating photographs of both individuals and groups of Chinese. Given that they never numbered more than about 1700 at their peak in 1883, and that many either returned to China or moved to other parts of New Zealand, this is a considerable achievement. Maps also make it clear that the West Coast Chinese miners mainly came from the same part of China around Guangdong province, especially from Pon Yu county. Although the Otago Chinese also came from southern China, they migrated from a wider range of provinces. In tracing these migrants and revealing so much about their sojourn on the West Coast, Bradshaw has usefully supplemented the outstanding pioneering work of Dr Jim Ng on the Chinese gold miners of Otago.

According to her, the majority made enough money reworking the claims of European miners by sluicing, which often involved spectacular engineering feats, to return to their villages and families. Those who failed to find gold or other employment, however, could not afford the fare home or face the disgrace of not improving their family’s lot. So they stayed on and sometimes died in this remote province.

A few succeeded as storekeepers, fruiterers, laundry men and boarding-house keepers, like their peers in Otago, Victoria and California. Most were hard-working and law-abiding, although a tiny minority were criminals. Generally their culture, based on Confucian teaching and ancestor worship, proved resilient, and most showed little interest in the mighty effort made by missionaries to convert them to Christianity. Those few who did convert usually gained greater community acceptance and respectability.

Despite being subject to hostility and, sometimes, physical violence, the Chinese tried hard to contribute to community life. Their spectacular fireworks displays at Chinese New Year and on other ceremonial occasions impressed the residents of towns like Stafford and Greymouth where they concentrated. They usually managed to transport the bones of their dead back to China, despite interference by over-zealous local officials.

Local politicians, including Seddon, harmed the prospects of Chinese miners by increasing the poll tax levied on them and by waging a constant rhetorical war against the “celestials”. He excluded elderly Chinese from the Old Age Pensions Act in 1898, which particularly hurt those Chinese miners who could no longer manage mining’s heavy work. His decision to criminalise opium smoking in 1900 was further grounds for harassing the Chinese.

The majority of miners and politicians shared his prejudices, and successive governments did not stop passing discriminatory legislation until the later 1930s.  Bradshaw supports Nigel Murphy’s argument that Seddon, like most West Coast and Left-leaning politicians, espoused such prejudices, hoping to forge united support for building a white man’s utopia by creating “communal enemy”.

Most Europeans judged the Chinese as “heathens”, while the Chinese condemned the Europeans as “barbarians”, so there was little intermarriage. European women who married Chinese were usually ostracised and the marriages often short-lived. One of Bradshaw’s remarkable discoveries is the number of large Chinese families, including wives, who lived for a time on the West Coast; a finding that counters the prevailing orthodoxy that Chinese here were largely single men.

Once the gold ran out, the Chinese who had not saved enough money to go home tended to move to other parts of New Zealand. As the West Coast Chinese disappeared, so luxuriant forest covered their industrious workings. Thanks to Bradshaw’s balanced and full account, the story of an extraordinarily resilient and distinctive group of migrants has been salvaged and the history of the West Coast greatly enriched.

British economic historian Steve Jones of the University of Dundee has written an illuminating study of one of Dunedin’s most successful business partnerships – Ross and Glendining – who based their enterprise on a combination of woollen milling and warehousing (or importing). Once again, Jones’s book, professionally produced by Otago University Press, is well written and mercifully free of the jargon and quantitative excess that afflicts much economic history.

A Caithness-born draper, John Ross, and another draper from Dumfries – Robert Glendining – set up as drapers and merchants in Dunedin in 1861. From 1865 onwards, they bought direct from Britain and shifted from the retail to the wholesale trade, before buying and upgrading in 1879 the existing woollen mill in the Kaikorai Valley. The firm diversified into sheep farming with moderate success, but a brief investment in the Shag Point coal mine proved much less successful. Despite the onset of a worldwide depression, innovative use of electricity helped the firm through the difficult 1880s, as did a switch to manufacturing worsted cloth from 1886.

The creative tension between the more expansionist Glendining and the cautious Ross drove the firm’s progress, especially once economic conditions improved in the early 1900s. The company also learned to adjust to the needs of a newly unionised work force over the 1890s.  A move into hosiery production, boot and hat manufacture and women’s clothing from 1907, and the erection of a second mill led to further expansion. Both founders made a major contribution as philanthropists.

But just as tangible gains were being made, the relationship between Ross and Glendining deteriorated.

The family partnership had been transformed into a public liability company in 1900 and this made it easier to streamline management once Glendining died in 1917. Ross had gradually assumed greater control. But Glendining’s son Bob’s drinking problems was a source of strain, and, despite benefiting from WWI-related prosperity, the company never quite regained the impetus of the early 1900s. All kinds of diversification failed to expand business, and United Empire Box bought the company in 1966. Even this enterprise failed to run the Roslyn mill profitably and it ceased production in 1981.

Ross and Glendining exemplified the success of hard-working, highly disciplined Scots throughout the British Empire. A combination of Free Church Presbyterian rectitude and a capacity for taking calculated risks earned the company solid profits for most of its 105-year existence. Both men made personal fortunes.

Jones shows that this kind of middle-sized industrial enterprise could flourish within the structures of Empire. Its success bears out W B Sutch’s argument that New Zealand could extend its economic base beyond farming by processing the raw products of New Zealand agriculture, so adding value to exports. Yet even this well-run and carefully managed enterprise failed to cope with the pressures created by the emergence of a globalised economy. Jones’s study also supports McAloon’s claim that Scots were over-represented among New Zealand’s successful manufacturers, partly because they brought appropriate skills with them, but also because of their hard work and astute financial management.

It might have been useful to have learned more about the experience of workers on the factory floor, but Jones is mainly interested in the business history side of the operation. Given recent developments in the New Zealand woollen industry, with Icebreaker moving off-shore to China, and the government and farmers pulling funding on wool research, this is a timely publication. It shows that, given the right combination of external circumstances, large-scale manufacturing can succeed in New Zealand. Whether those conditions will ever return is an open question.


Tom Brooking teaches history at the University of Otago.  


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