Story: New Zealand identity

Page 2. The land

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Māori and the land

Land has always been central to New Zealanders’ identity. Māori believed that Papatūānuku, the earth mother, was the origin of all life. People were born from the land and returned to the land. The word for land (whenua) was also the word for placenta. Tribes typically assert their identity in relation to their mountains and rivers.

Pioneering the land

British navigator James Cook’s three voyages of exploration established a view of New Zealand as a fertile place which could become a site of prosperous European-style agriculture. Sydney Parkinson, the artist on Cook’s first voyage, believed that the East Coast ‘with proper cultivation, might be rendered a kind of second Paradise’1. Such images were reinforced by 19th-century immigration propaganda designed to attract landless rural labourers to the new country. They were promised a land with a benign climate and productive soil for growing crops.

Southern Eden

In 1954 Patrick O’Donovan of the English Observer, who was in New Zealand for the royal tour of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, wrote that New Zealand was ‘like one of those fat and promised lands that restless men have always believed to lie on the other side of the hills. It is green and seamed with ranks of trees.’2 The Queen herself was told that ‘a waste of fern, bush and swamp’ had become ‘the rich, productive area it is today’.3

From the early 20th century this rural ideal was strengthened by the idea that men and women who worked on New Zealand farms had strength and do-it-yourself ingenuity, in contrast to the decadent and physically inept populations in older countries. The hard work of the New Zealand pioneers was valued for having turned bush into productive farm land. Even in the early 2000s – although 85% of New Zealanders lived in urban areas – many still thought of themselves as part of a largely rural or agricultural nation.

Pure New Zealand

While some early European visitors to New Zealand thought that its natural scenery had romantic features, for a long time Pākehā saw the bush as monotonous and frightening. However, at the end of the 19th century New Zealand sought to attract foreign tourists. The Department of Tourist and Health Resorts was established in 1901 and promoted a view of New Zealand as ‘the most wonderful Scenic paradise in the World – unequalled Fjords, Awe-Inspiring Geysers’.4 The areas of the southern lakes and the ‘hot lakes’ around Rotorua were especially praised.

During the 20th century New Zealand’s golden beaches became symbols of natural beauty, and as areas of indigenous forest became smaller there was a movement to preserve the bush as essential to New Zealand’s distinctiveness. ‘The most beautiful country in the world’ became part of New Zealand’s self-image. The campaign to save Lake Manapōuri from being raised for hydroelectric power production in the early 1970s was a significant moment in the evolution of this view.

In the early 2000s New Zealand’s wild landscapes were promoted through calendars, glossy picture books and travel advertising. Tourism New Zealand featured a ‘100% Pure’ campaign which suggested a world of unpolluted lakes and rivers and pristine forests. Environmental campaigners frequently pointed out that the country’s record in areas such as water and air pollution was not as ‘clean and green’ as many New Zealanders liked to believe.

The Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 and the replacement Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011, legislating as a consequence of Māori claims to the foreshore and seabed, provoked political debate. In part, this was because the legislation touched the strong and often emotional connection that New Zealanders, Māori and Pākehā, had with the land, beaches and the ocean.

  1. Sydney Parkinson, journal, 23 October 1769. (last accessed 1 November 2011). Back
  2. Evening Post, 4 February 1954. Back
  3. A tour of New Zealand by Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, 1953–1954. Wellington: Secretary for Internal Affairs, 1953. Back
  4. Quoted in Lydia Wevers, Country of writing: travel writing and New Zealand, 1809–1900. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002, p. 182. Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona Barker, 'New Zealand identity - The land', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Fiona Barker, published 20 Jun 2012