James Belich’s remarkable book “Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World” (2009) certainly challenged the conventional version of the early settlement of New Zealand. We had grown used to being labeled “colonizers” extending the powers and reach of the British Imperial Empire.
But Belich declared New Zealand was nobody’s “colony” but was settled by people determined to create a new world – a world of their own design and choosing. My father’s Irish forebears settled here in the late 1830s. My mother’s Welsh forebears arrived in the early 1900s. Both my parents were atheists and Fabian Socialists. I never heard either of them suggest their families were here to promote the interests of the Brittish Imperial Empire.
The 19th Century Settlers of the New World dreamed of owning their own land, and their own home, of freedom to ply their own trade, and to have free access to lakes, rivers, and beaches. “Jack is as Good as his Master” expressed their relief from the class system of the Old World.
Belich also argued that these New Worlds of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa were dominated by the English language because the Anglo settlers were better than most at living alongside settlers from other nations who shared their aspirations. The early Anglo-New Zealanders rubbed shoulders with French, Dutch, German, Danish settlers and even with Chinese, who generally shared the Settlers’ creed.
Naturally, these observations fell on receptive ears in New Zealand.
However, Belich also challenges the standard history that regards settlement of the New World as a continuation of the occupations by the empires of Egypt, Persia and Rome.
Those early Empires forcibly occupied their colonies and then plundered resources from the land, collected taxes and tributes from the people, and enslaved whole populations to meet the demands of their centres of Imperial Power.
The 19th Century Settlers, in sharp contrast, invented their export trades to fund their own “lifestyles” rather than sustain the aristocrats they left behind in the Old World.
New Zealanders invented refrigerated shipping to complete the infrastructure required to export meat to England. More recently our farmers were the first to domesticate deer.
Belich reminds us how deeply the culture of our early Settlers has shaped our attitudes and aspirations, and continues to do so.
Prior to the invention of the internal combustion engine, as much as one third of croplands was required to feed horses and draught animals. This required large amounts of land, adjacent to the city, for the growing of oats. Further peripheral land was required to fatten the livestock that had lost so much weight en route from remote farming areas.
How much of the present perceived need “to preserve peripheral land from urban sprawl” is driven by cultural memories of this recent history?
Our new generation of Smart Growth planners regard urban citizens as “units of production” or as passengers to pay for their rail. The dreams and aspirations of our Settlers’ culture count for nothing when our real duty is to implement the Planners’ utopian visions – which are totally disconnected from the aspirations of our forebears.
And this is where the clash of cultures is beginning to emerge.
The central planners of our cities, towns and countryside presume we “colonials” have no culture, and certainly any culture we may have is inferior to those of the sophisticates of Europe. And yet our Settlers’ culture has been formed by hordes of people who chose to escape from Europe to enjoy the green and promised lands of the New World.
This cultural clash will be clearly evident when the Auckland Council begins to debate their long-term plan for Auckland. Will Aucklanders be able to express their desire to pursue their personal dreams, and to chose to live and work how and where they prefer? Or will these key decisions in life be determined by “their betters” who are quite evidently convinced that “Jack is no longer as good as his Master”? Will future generations of Aucklanders have to learn, once again, to do as they are told, and service the demands of their rulers?
Fortunately, section 5 which sets out the purpose of the RMA, declares that people and communities are to be enabled “to provide for their social, economic and cultural well-being”, while managing adverse effects on the environment.
So where are the legal grounds to ignore our Settlers’ culture of the “long 19th Century” in favour of the European culture from which our forebears courageously chose to escape?
Down in the Tasman District, a new wave of Settlers is arriving, including refugees from Australia, the United States, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. They aspire to live the Settlers’ dream of self-determination, living within new “communes” driven by a contemporary focus on sustainability and related themes.
They now find they are facing eviction by the local council because its silly, and massively complex, planning rules do not allow more than one dwelling on a piece of rural land smaller than 12 ha, (R1) or 50ha (R20). So if you want to build a commune for your like-minded settlers you need 24 or 40 ha, per dwelling – which is unsustainable.
The council planning officer explained (on last week’s Sunday programme on Radio NZ)) that the Act requires that the Plan must protect “Rural Character” (even though the Act never mentions Rural Character), and must protect “productive” rural land from fragmentation. The Act says no such thing. Early MAF studies established there is no connection between lot size and productivity. One of these new “country communes” already has a business making high-value natural skin-care products and employs twelve people. Naturally, these sustainable communes aim to treat their own waste, generate their own power, and grow their own produce. But they are being given eviction notices for failing to comply with rules driven by Smart Growth dogma rather than by evidence.
This rigid thinking does nothing for our reputation as a “Clean Green Land”. One Council inspector claimed the composting toilets were a health risk, even though they are permitted in the City of London.
Will the next wave of Settlers be returning to the Old World?