Wild colonial boys
Men of rough habits made up the great majority of Europeans in New Zealand before 1840. All-male crews on the explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in 1769 were followed by whalers, sealers, adventurers and traders, for whom New Zealand promised profit, experience and danger. Ex-convicts Charlotte Badger and Catharine Hagerty were two of the few women in this group, living in the Bay of Islands for some months in 1806, in the care of local Māori.
Hard and dangerous work at sea, where men relied on each other’s skills for survival as well as their livelihood, was often followed by binges in port towns. A boisterous drinking and swearing culture thrived in Kororāreka (modern-day Russell) in the 1830s. The same culture appeared in other places, as timber felling, digging for gold, 'breaking in' the land, farming, and soldiering in the 1860s wars brought more men than women to New Zealand.
A model of ordered family life was also planted early and became influential. Protestant missionaries from 1814 and New Zealand Company settlers from the 1840s brought with them an ideal of Christian marriage and family in which wives respected and obeyed husbands, and children their parents. Families were to be built around divisions of responsibility based on age and sex. Girls and women looked after children and housework, while boys and men took on farm and outdoor work.
Too many men?
Greater numbers of European women arrived in New Zealand with the New Zealand Company settlements from the 1840s, but they remained a minority. At the time, people described the problem of a society with too many men and too few women as one lacking social comfort. Women were in short supply as marriage partners, as servants, and as a ‘civilising’ presence.
Some areas, like the goldfields of Otago and the West Coast in the 1860s, or the remote districts where men mined, felled the bush and fished, were largely male. Towns and more closely settled districts had much more equal male and female populations from an early stage and sometimes even had more women than men.
Trying to even up the numbers
Subsidised passages from Britain were offered to induce single women ‘of good character’ to emigrate. Numbers taking up such offers were always less than hoped for as colonial life held little appeal for labouring-class women in Britain. It was 1911 before the census showed roughly equal numbers of males and females in the non-Māori population.
Making herself useful
Life was demanding in colonial New Zealand, and some middle-class English women were delighted with this. ‘I am so proud at finding how easy it is to be independent,' Jane Maria Richmond wrote in 1853. 'When my pantry shelves are scrubbed, and it contains ... a round of boiled beef, a roast leg of pork, a rhubarb pie, 15 large loaves and 8 pounds of fresh butter ready for Sunday and the bush party, I feel as self-satisfied and proud as a mortal can. A little while since I shd have thought it necessary to have somebody to prepare all these things for me, now I can do it for myself.'1
Women’s work as wives and mothers can be seen in the very rapid growth in the Pākehā population from the 1840s to the 1880s. Large families were the norm, with averages of six and more children per couple.
Men contemplating emigration to New Zealand were advised that a wife would be of greater value to them than a plough in securing their success as colonists. A ‘useful’ partner in the form of a woman who could bake, cook, sew, handle a mangle and produce a brood of children was crucial to the family and the colonial economy. Women also worked as servants, shop staff and teachers, and in family businesses. On farms they were often responsible for hens and the care of orphaned lambs, and did the lighter work in the home garden.
While women largely worked as mothers and homemakers, men made tools, milled flour, brewed beer, shod horses, ran businesses, built houses, shops, ships and factories, made furniture, farmed, drove carts, and carried cargo and passengers on the many ships that circled New Zealand’s coast. Government of every kind – local road boards, provincial assemblies, and from 1876 a national Parliament – was men’s business.