Story: Creative and intellectual expatriates

Page 5. Attitudes to expatriation

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New Zealand ‘legends’

Expatriates who have achieved fame are revered by New Zealanders. Many national heroes – Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Rutherford and Frances Hodgkins, for instance – left New Zealand permanently in their youth. Websites such as NZ Edge, with its lists of New Zealand expatriate ‘legends’, echo the celebratory view.

Desperate definitions

The tendency to hero-worship high-achieving expatriates has led to the ‘claiming’ of people who were born in New Zealand but moved to another country when still children – lexicographer Eric Partridge and country music star Keith Urban are two examples.

Luke-warm welcome

However, many high achievers have not been welcomed back from overseas. In the 1930s returning scholars seeking government employment had to start at the bottom, alongside staff years their junior. One Rhodes scholar of that time, Percy Minns, returned to England after trying fruitlessly for six months to obtain a public service post in New Zealand. Even in universities there was insufficient stimulus for brilliant scholars: in 1982 Dan Davin wrote that 40 years previously the New Zealand soil ‘was fertile in talent but not adequate to nourish that talent when fully matured.’1

Rejection of new ideas

Lack of understanding of complex or obscure research or avant-garde art was dispiriting. During her lifetime Frances Hodgkins’s modern paintings aroused little enthusiasm in New Zealand. When works by her were displayed in Christchurch in 1948, the year after her death, the Canterbury Society of Arts refused to purchase any, and after subscribers bought one – ‘Pleasure garden’ – the city council declined it for their collections.

In exile

Jack Bennett, an Aucklander who became professor of medieval and renaissance English at Cambridge University, said ‘The reason so few of us returned in the Thirties, is that there was nothing to return to’.2 Nevertheless he pined for New Zealand, especially the Coromandel coast, all his life, saying once ‘I have never stopped longing to return’.3

Narrow attitudes

Before the 1960s New Zealand’s prevailing conservatism and puritanism encouraged expatriation. Brian Sutton-Smith’s decision to move to America in the early 1950s was influenced partly by the pettiness of educational authorities, who demanded that he remove from his PhD dissertation on children’s play in New Zealand some of the outrageous children’s jokes and rhymes he had collected.

Undervaluing artists

The low monetary value New Zealanders put on creativity was also a sore point: turning down an opportunity to lecture in Wellington in 1968, Len Lye wrote ‘The stipend … is not worth it … If people are mean on the art stuff in NZ, like they were when I left the place, they’d better begin to learn that it’s not good enough. The place is marvellous, of course, and that’s why we’re making a visit; but I’m not educating anybody.’4


All these factors led some expatriates to distance themselves from New Zealand. Having lived in England for 10 years, in 1943 scholar and writer John Mulgan declined to join the New Zealand Division and return to New Zealand. He explained, ‘I thought about it a lot and decided against it, for I do not think I am a New Zealander any longer. I can talk with them and live with them more easily than I can with the English, but I am not one of them any longer.’5

Remembering New Zealand

However, many expatriates continued to see themselves as New Zealanders, taking an interest in New Zealand politics, supporting sports teams, and yearning for the bush and beaches. In the view of DNA scientist Maurice Wilkins, New Zealand was ‘a paradise’, where the opportunities for exploration and discovery helped produce artists and intellectuals who could confidently take on the world.

  1. Quoted in James McNeish, Dance of the peacocks: New Zealanders in exile in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-tung. Auckland: Vintage, 2003, p. 362. Back
  2. Quoted in Dance of the peacocks, p. 270. Back
  3. Quoted in Dance of the peacocks, p. 385. Back
  4. Quoted in Jill Trevelyan, Peter McLeavey: the life and times of a New Zealand art dealer. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2013, p. 86. Back
  5. Quoted in Dance of the peacocks, p. 242 Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative and intellectual expatriates - Attitudes to expatriation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014