A shadowy part of the country’s history, Paul Moon

From Alba to Aotearoa: Profiling New Zealand’s Scots Migrants 1840-1920
Rebecca Lenihan
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877578793

Migration, Ethnicity, and Madness: New Zealand, 1860-1910
Angela McCarthy
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781927322000

The 12th century; 1642; 1769. These are the great punctuation points in the so-called “discovery” of New Zealand – so-called because, in the case of the latter two dates, the claim of discovering a territory already occupied by humans is a culturally presumptuous one. However, it is beneath the canopy of the grand narratives of discoveries by civilisations and empires that the individual acts of entanglement occur between migrants and their destinations. This is where small groups, or even individual immigrants, reach a location that is usually little-known to them and grapple in numerous ways with issues of cultural and ethnic identity. It is also from where, like all “discoverers”, the genesis of their origin and arrival myths can be traced.

From Alba to Albion focuses specifically on Scottish arrivals to New Zealand over an 80-year period from 1840. Its author, Rebecca Lenihan, makes clear early on that part of the book’s purpose is to act as a corrective to the typical bundling of Scots into part of British migration at this time. In significant ways, the experience of Scots is distinct from their migratory counterparts in England and, as this work progresses, Lenihan fleshes out these differences in a systematic, rigorous and balanced manner, never succumbing to the temptation to overemphasise the case of Scottish uniqueness simply to prop up her argument.

Lenihan then takes this scrutiny further, refusing even to treat Scotland itself as an amorphous source of migrants. Instead, she thoroughly dissects the nation into various constituent geographical and social units, which she then carefully overlays with a useful discussion about how internal migration in Scotland both preceded and, in some cases, precipitated people leaving for New Zealand. And, for added clarity – in this and many other parts of the book – tables and diagrams are included to summarise in statistical form some of the migratory movements being described.

Surprisingly, while denominational allegiance is touched on occasionally, it is a dimension of Scottish migration that, perhaps, could have been expanded on in this book, particularly because of the dominance of Presbyterianism among these migrants in this era, and because of its pronounced nexus with social life in settlements such as Dunedin. In addition, some consideration could have been given to the role of the Great Disruption of 1843 – a schism in the Presbyterian Church which had dramatic effects on Scottish society as well as denominational affiliation.

Lenihan is at her best with her careful subdivision of Scottish migrants into categories, including gender, age, skills, occupation, mobility and various other groupings. The analysis is detailed, the methodology clearly explained, and each chapter concludes with a useful summary of the significance of the preceding material. However, for those with an aversion to dense statistical scrutiny, From Alba to Albion is more than redeemed by the skilful manner in which Lenihan braids this material with often revealing representative examples from individuals who were part of this labyrinthine pattern of migration.

Take, for example, 18-year-old Angus Cameron, from the Bracadale on the Isle of Skye, who arrived in New Zealand in December 1840 with his mother and two sisters. Lenihan traces the course of his life from agricultural labourer in Scotland to roadbuilder in Wellington, a surveyor in Port Chalmers, and then stints as shepherd, stockman, policeman, farmer, postmaster and shop-owner, and supplements this work history with personal episodes of Cameron’s life. This is a reasonably representative example of the range of work so many Scottish migrants were prepared to put their hands to and, as Lenihan elaborates on this account, the social and financial dimensions of Cameron’s life in New Zealand are fleshed out as part of a broader piece in the jigsaw of Scottish migration to the country in this period.

Throughout the book, Lenihan is able to offer the reader sequences of vignettes of people and circumstances like this. This is only possible as a result of her diligent trawl through a wide range of sources, including unpublished diaries and family histories, which otherwise would have been unlikely to enter the public domain. It is through such cases that we are given glimpses not only of individual lives, but also often of how huddled Scottish communities in New Zealand supported each other, and frequently became even more closely knitted through intermarriage, shared work or worship, and in so many other ways.

From Alba to Albion concludes with 72 pages of appendices, which offer a rich seam of material for those who are keen to explore certain categories of migrants in more depth, including topics such as family connections, settlement patterns, and the make-up of the datasets used by the author.

Studies on Scottish migration to New Zealand are relatively plentiful, but the beauty of From Alba to Albion lies in the almost forensic precision with which the author analyses the intricate make-up of these migrants in the period under review. The impression that comes into view as the book progresses is of a group of migrants united by country of origin, but in many other respects much more diverse than is popularly imagined.

Migration, Ethnicity, and Madness at first glance seems to present an odd marriage between migration and mental illness. However, what Angela McCarthy achieves here is a masterly and deeply insightful study which synthesises the experiences of migrants to New Zealand between 1860 and 1910, and their encounters with the nation’s “lunatic asylums” (as they were known). It is an exhaustively researched book, with a carefully constructed architecture that enables McCarthy both to assemble new approaches to exploring the themes she sets as the foundation of the work, and to fashion existing scholarship to serve her exploration of a mosaic of ideas, methodologies, and a comprehensive body of primary material.

Like Lenihan, McCarthy identifies the deficiencies of studies which portray migrants as a generic category, particularly because of the consequent marginalisation of individual ethnicities and cultures that this usually results in. Delineating the constituent ethnic groups among migrants in manifestations of “madness” in this era is significant in McCarthy’s study, because it provides part of the context for their subsequent diagnosis and institutionalisation. Another contextual element is the transnational and therefore transcultural experience of migrants, and how the process of reconstituting families and communities in a new country sometimes played a role in migrant admissions to lunatic asylums.

The cases examined in Migration, Ethnicity, and Madness encompass the 50-year era that lies on the cusp of modern (20th-century) psychiatry. The advances in diagnoses were still slight at this time and, as McCarthy illustrates in a number of instances, admissions to asylums were sometimes made on bases that now appear, at best, tenuous.

One of the most damning, though expected aspects of this intersection of migration and madness in this period is the role of racism in influencing doctors in asylums when assessing migrant patients. Often, the pseudo-science of the late 19th century, in which various ethnic and national groups were believed to possess certain personality traits, was combined with even lazier stereotypes about certain nationalities. Among the numerous examples McCarthy cites is one which occurred at the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (whose medical superintendent from 1889 to 1921 was the Plunket Society founder, Truby King). An elderly Scottish patient was experiencing visions of “spirits”, “fairies”, and “demons” which were frightening him. King determined that, because the man was “an old Highlander such superstition is not altogether unnatural”. The colour of someone’s hair or skin, and their stature and physiognomy, were often determinants in the assessments of patients in many asylums, and reflected both popular prejudices of the time, and the training among medical staff in these institutions. It is unsurprising, given the English origins of most of the employees of these asylums, that English patients received little psychiatric assessment on the basis of their ethnicity.

McCarthy’s case for the consideration of the distinct origins of migrants, and their community and family environments, as important factors in their subsequent experiences in lunatic asylums, is not only lucidly argued, but makes an important contribution to our understanding of this tributary of New Zealand’s health and migrant histories. In the course of this meticulous study, McCarthy also makes valuable advances in the historiography of 19th-century madness more generally, and consequently illuminates brilliantly what has sometimes been seen as a shadowy part of the country’s history.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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