Monday, December 15, 2014

Mike Butler: A new look at the old pioneers

The word “pioneer” describes a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area. The term was widely used in 19th century accounts of the settlement of New Zealand. However, the “we were here first” brigade in the treaty industry tend to use the word “colonizer”, bringing with it the negative connotation of subjugation.

A new book titled Voyages of the Pioneers to New Zealand 1839-85, by historian John McLean, has a new look at how those early pioneers spent up to five months in dirty, smelly, leaky ships traveling 26,000km to start a new life of unimagined hardships building the New Zealand that we know today.

As a former Navy man, McLean has an affinity with ships and all things nautical. Moreover, he has visited many of the locations described in the book so can offer the insight of one who has stood on the ground and breathed the air.

This easy-to-read 272-page book, that includes 25 illustrations (many in colour) and a large map showing ocean currents and trade winds, assembles diary accounts into 50 short chapters that lay out all steps of a migrant’s journey.

Chapter headings include: Getting to the ships, the last suppers, getting on board, captains, sailors, vermin, berths, cleanliness – or lack thereof, the tropics, crossing the line, shipboard activities, children, fish, animals on board, food and water, quarrels, fire, accidents, the Cape of Good Hope, God and religion, ships’ doctors, the Roaring Forties, and arriving at Wellington, New Plymouth, Nelson, Dunedin, Lyttelton, Napier, and Auckland.

McLean explains that there were two categories of pioneers – colonists and emigrants.

Colonists paid their way, traveled cabin class, and dined sumptuously. Colonists who came in the New Zealand Company scheme on the first six ships to Wellington in 1840 bought a land order for ₤100 that entitled them to one town acre and 100 country acres.

Emigrants were the working poor who had a free trip, traveled steerage class, dined better than they did on the slums of old England but nowhere near as well as the colonists, and were to provide labour for the colonists.

The social distinction between colonists and emigrants continued in New Zealand until the 1914-18 war, when the equality of sacrifice in the trenches brought a demand for equality of social recognition.

The scale of that migration should not be underestimated. In 1840 around 2000 settlers lived in New Zealand yet by 1881 there were 470,000 settlers here, vastly outnumbering the Maori population of 46,000.

On a personal note, the name of the ship Montmorency in the chapter on Napier rang a few bells. My Mum told me about the wreck of the Montmorency as I grew up in Napier, and one can still see pieces of old steel drums on the shore near the old “Perfume Point” sewage outlet adjoining the strip of million dollar houses on Harding Rd.

McLean described the fire that destroyed it in late March 1867. The blazing ship was towed nearer shore then sunk; the 1931 earthquake exposed its remains.

One of the numerous interesting piece of trivia in the book explains the name of Gravesend, the area of London that emigrant ships departed from. The area was thus named for an imaginary line that demarcated the part of the Thames River where corpses could be dumped from where such burials were not permitted.

McLean concludes that “the challenge today is not of a long a dangerous sea voyage or a dense, primeval forest to fell but of seeing through the blandishments and lies of false prophets – be they revisionist historians, petty nationalists, the shallow and air-headed ‘flag changers’ or devious politicians and judges who are in the business of taking away our long-held and inherited rights for nefarious purposes”.

Voyages of the Pioneers to New Zealand 1839-85 retails for $40 including postage within New Zealand and is available from


paul scott said...

Sounds good : I want to pay the one hundred pounds to Wellington , no wait on make that somewhere else in the North Island; and I have an entitlement to one town acre and 100 country acres.
To land and stay at wellington, give me two hundred acres; Wellington is,it is an awful place.

Denis Hampton said...

I grinned at the expression "the shallow and air-headed flag-changers". I hope that John Key sees this!