Story: Intellectuals

Page 1. Colonial absence of intellectuals

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What is an intellectual?

The intellectual was essentially a person whose achievements in one sphere of learning or creativity provided the basis for a general authority, a capacity to interpret the world on a range of subjects to a wider public. This required a certain independence of income or an occupation that encouraged creative thinking, so that the person was free to critique the world around them.

Colonial conditions

Colonial conditions were not conducive to this social type. The life of the mind was sometimes a vocation, but it was rarely a profession. There was too much else to do, it was often said: once the land had been ‘broken in’, roads and houses built, and forms of government appropriate to a new society set in place, only then could citizens turn to art and culture.

The art of pioneering

The conflict of culture and pioneering was famously described in a dialogue imagined by politician William Pember Reeves in 1904:

‘No Art?’ Who serve an art more great
Than we, rough architects of State
With the old Earth at Strife?
‘No colour?’ On the silent waste
In pigments not to be effaced,
We paint the hues of life.1

Cultural infrastructure

In Britain many of the hubs of intellectual debate and even research were privately organised and funded. The infrastructure of intellectual life in 19th-century New Zealand, by contrast, was largely organised by the state. Larger New Zealand towns began to establish public libraries, art galleries and museums, which made existing art and knowledge available to citizens. They did not generally yield new knowledge or provide writers and artists with opportunities to produce new work. Municipal governments with tight budgets did not take an expansive or liberal view of their cultural patronage. Public provision often depended on private philanthropy. The country’s two most important libraries, the Hocken and the Turnbull, were both founded by wealthy book collectors.


The public university colleges that were established in the major cities – Otago in 1869, Canterbury in 1873, Auckland in 1883 and Victoria in 1897– brought in a cadre of academics, many of them graduates of English and Scottish universities. A professor was often an important public figure in a colonial town, called upon to address local clubs and societies on a wide range of subjects. Expertise in a specialised field could license a broader authority.

Too outspoken

William Steadman Aldis, who became professor of mathematics at Auckland University College in 1884, was an outspoken advocate for many social causes, including women’s suffrage. He made many enemies, not least the New Zealand Herald and the college council, which dismissed him in 1893. Another academic who paid for his public views was Alexander Bickerton, chemistry professor at Canterbury College. He took public stands on socialism, the jingoism of the South African War and companionate marriage. He too lost his college job in 1902.

However, most of the new universities’ academics made little contribution to scholarship or public life. The universities were primarily teaching institutions, not research ones, and professors could not find time for sustained writing or responsible interventions in public debate.

Isolated individuals

In the absence of institutional bases for intellectuals, isolated individuals played that role in colonial New Zealand. Samuel Butler, a short-term settler and later utopian novelist, wrote about Charles Darwin for the Christchurch Press from his frontier farm in the Canterbury high country.

Some politicians, having developed a following in public life, contributed on other matters and in other literary forms. They included George Grey, a keen naturalist and scholar of Māori culture; Alfred Domett, who wrote a massive epic poem about a British adventurer and a Maori ‘princess’, Ranolf and Amohia (1872); and Julius Vogel, author of a utopian novel, Anno Domini 2000 (1889).

William Pember Reeves, another politician and poet, wrote a famous poem suggesting that nation-building and the life of the mind were incompatible. He went to London in 1896 as agent-general, discovered the intellectual circle of the Fabians and never returned.

  1. William Pember Reeves, ‘A colonist in his garden.’ In The Penguin book of New Zealand verse, edited by Allen Curnow. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1960, p. 100. Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Hilliard, 'Intellectuals - Colonial absence of intellectuals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Chris Hilliard, published 22 Oct 2014