There was widespread mythologising of the rural pioneer. Statues were put up to commemorate pioneers, political speeches harked back to pioneers, and there were many biographies and autobiographies which elevated their role in turning the bush into productive farmland. In his memoirs, W. K. Howitt described the pioneers as ‘the finest men on earth’ 1.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about pioneer worship. The Manawatu Evening Standard wrote in 1911: ‘In these days “the early days” are just a little overdone, and the rather intolerant youth of the twentieth century grows impatient at the mention of the deeds of the pioneer.’ 2
Not that the women were ignored – the 1940 centennial year saw the publication of two collections of women’s pioneering memories. Brave days was published by the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union, and Tales of pioneer women was collected by the Women’s Institutes and dedicated ‘to the memory of the gallant pioneer wives and mothers who … made possible the colonisation of New Zealand’.
The centennial film, One hundred crowded years, was dedicated to ‘[T]he pioneers of New Zealand’ and included footage of pioneers cutting down the bush for farms.
Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station is a notable autobiographical volume from the first half of the 20th century. Guthrie-Smith had no romantic illusions about pioneering, and he was fully aware of the impact of farming on the indigenous landscape. By documenting in remarkable detail the transformation of both the land and himself, his book became a larger metaphor for the New Zealand experience.
In the early 20th century there were a few painters of rural scenes, such as Sydney Thompson and Archibald Nicoll, whose landscapes were romantically dotted with haystacks.
Edith Searle Grossmann’s novel The heart of the bush (1910) told of a New Zealand family farmer’s triumph in love over his rival, a sophisticated Englishman. In the 1920s Taranaki farmer Frank Anthony wrote Me and Gus, containing crudely humorous yarns about the misadventures of two backblocks mates. These stories achieved little popularity at the time, perhaps because they challenged heroic images of farming life.
Also debunking the myth of the traditional family farm was Denis Glover’s famous poem ‘The magpies’, in which a young couple’s dreams of an ideal farm end with the wife dying, the farmer going ‘light in the head’, and the farm lost to the mortgage corporation.
More characteristic were poems such as Eileen Duggan’s ‘The farming nation’ (1933):
I am glad that New Zealand lives by cattle.
I am glad that my country musters sheep.
There is honesty in woolsheds and in cow-bails,
And a working farmer earns his bit of sleep. 3
Duggan’s theme of the honesty of farmers picked up an idea shared by others who saw the city as the home of shysters.
Rugby and war
To keep alive the pioneering spirit of adaptability and physical prowess in an urbanising society, games and physical exercise were encouraged in schools. It was also a factor in the promotion of military training in the early 20th century.
When the 1905 All Blacks achieved phenomenal success on their tour of England the agent general, William Pember Reeves, explained it in terms of a bracing climate and a lack of large crowded cities. The programme for the 1924 All Blacks in Britain introduced the team: ‘As showing the zeal which infuses the blood of the sons of the southern cross, the players frequently ride miles on horseback, fording rivers, and crossing mountains, to play in the backblocks rugby match.’ 4
The same interpretation was placed on the success of New Zealand’s soldiers overseas. Those who fought in the South African War were called ‘Rough Riders’ and it was believed they had been at home in the saddle since childhood. The heroes of the First World War were seen as ‘the sturdy sons of the old pioneers who marched off to Gallipoli in the spirit of the fathers’. 5 In the Second World War the curt dismissal by Adolf Hitler of New Zealand soldiers as mere country lads was turned into a term of pride in a 1941 film – called ‘Country lads’. The achievement of Charles Upham, who was twice awarded the Victoria Cross, was explained in terms of his previous life as a shepherd and musterer in the Canterbury high country, where ‘men have to match the ruggedness of nature with their own ruggedness of physique and temperament.’ 6