A turning point
Until 1839 there were only about 2,000 immigrants in New Zealand; by 1852 there were about 28,000. The decisive moment for this remarkable change was 1840. In that year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. This established British authority in European eyes, and gave British immigrants legal rights as citizens. The treaty helped ensure that for the next century and beyond, most immigrants to New Zealand would come from the United Kingdom. It was also in 1840 that the first immigrants assisted by the New Zealand Company arrived. The company introduced long-term settlers directly from Britain, as opposed to those who travelled across the Tasman simply to harvest resources or souls.
The push to emigrate
In early 19th-century Britain conditions were such that millions set off for the New World in search of a better life. After the industrial and agricultural revolutions the population had increased from 16 million in 1801 to 26 million in 1841. However, in formerly rural areas, the enclosure of common lands deprived people of their livelihood, and the introduction of machinery reduced the demand for workers. Factory production of textiles replaced the old rural cottage industries.
There was distress in rural areas. In 1831 southern England saw riots as labourers took their axes to threshing machines. In the Scottish Highlands crofters were driven off their lands, and in Ireland the potato famine of the late 1840s brought a million to their deaths. Some fled to the city, but suffered overcrowding, disease and pollution. Others set off for new lands.
Initially New Zealand attracted few of these people. Almost none came from the Irish famine, and few arrived directly from the Highlands. The disincentives were still great – the long and expensive journey, competing attractions of closer, more settled areas such as the United States and Canada, New Zealand’s continuing reputation as a home of bloodthirsty cannibals, and its association with the convict settlements of Australia.
Not exactly paradise
In evaluating New Zealand’s advantages and prospects as a British colony, Charles Terry wrote in 1842:
‘The islands of New Zealand are uncultivated wastes either of mountains covered with dense forest, of plains and lowlands covered with high ferns, or of swamps and marshes covered with rush and flax without any open spots for pasturage, or of verdant downs and hills for sheep.’ 1
The New Zealand Company
The New Zealand Company overcame these barriers. Founded as a commercial operation designed for investors, it was also based on the widespread view that population growth – regarded as desirable – was related to food production, and that the solution to mass starvation was to export surplus population. Added to this belief were the ideas of the Englishman Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who developed theories about solving social distress. He argued that to make emigration to a colony ‘pay’, and to promote a ‘civilised’ society rather than a dispersed, barbaric settlement, land should be charged at ‘a sufficient price’. This would ensure that only some would be able to afford to buy land, and that landowners would have labourers to work for them.
In England, Edward Gibbon Wakefield spoke in glowing terms to a House of Commons committee in 1836:
‘Very near to Australia there is a country which all testimony concurs in describing as the fittest in the world for colonization, as the most beautiful country with the finest climate, and the most productive soil; I mean New Zealand.’ 2
Promoting New Zealand
Investors in the company were promised 100 acres (40.5 hectares) of farmland and one town acre; the initial 1,000 orders were snapped up in a month. But how to attract the labourers? To combat negative notions about New Zealand, the company used books, pamphlets and broadsheets to promote the country as ‘a Britain of the South’, a fertile land with a benign climate, free of starvation, class war and teeming cities.
Agents spread the good news around the rural areas of southern England and Scotland. As added inducement the company offered free passages to ‘mechanics, gardeners and agricultural labourers’. Some responded and the first ships arrived in Wellington from January 1840, Whanganui from September 1840, New Plymouth from November 1841, and Nelson from February 1842. Two offshoots of the company, the Otago Association and the Canterbury Association, brought people to Dunedin in 1848 and Christchurch in 1850.
New Zealand Company practices
The company’s promises were flights of fancy, only partially made good by dubious land purchases from Māori, one of which eventually led to violence on the Wairau in Marlborough. Wakefield’s neat plans did not work out – land titles were uncertain, there was a lack of useable land and no obvious way to generate income through exports, and there were too many absentee landowners (about three-quarters of those in the Nelson settlement).
By 1843 the new settlers were short of food and the company was virtually bankrupt. Two interventions by the British government saved it from total disaster. Yet the company began to organise large-scale migration to New Zealand. Advertising and propaganda attracted thousands of people over the next 100 years, and the main drawcard, the free or assisted passage, became hugely important. Company immigrants sent letters back home which encouraged others to come out over the years.
The influence of the company
Considering its dubious practices it is easy to disparage the New Zealand Company, but it had a remarkable impact on immigration to New Zealand. Of the 18,000 settlers who came directly from Britain between 1840 and 1852, about 14,000 were brought in by the company or its successors. As a result of the company’s policy, by 1852 the European population in New Zealand had reached some 28,000. The New Zealand Company established the outlines of immigration from Britain to New Zealand, setting in place the mechanisms and promotional pitch that were used by the provinces and the government in later years.