Like promoters of immigration, colonial politicians and governments encouraged New Zealand’s development as primarily a rural society.
Provincial governments had schemes to assist people onto the land. Auckland gave land grants to immigrants and military settlers, other provinces offered land on liberal terms such as low prices or deferred payments. The central government took a lead in acquiring land from Māori to sell or lease to European farmers, and encouraged the expansion of agriculture by developing roads and railways into rural areas.
The major assumption of government in colonial New Zealand was that the colony’s economic and social future was in farming. By comparison, education was not given such importance.
The priority of agriculture was reflected in the creation of a ‘country quota’, which required rural electorates to have fewer people than urban ones, giving them a higher proportion of representatives in Parliament. The country quota was introduced in 1881 and remained, with some changes, until 1945.
Not everyone was in favour of the country quota. One urban representative described the 1889 bill that increased the quota to 28% (making urban electorates 28% larger in terms of population than rural ones) as: ‘A Bill to give a Large Increase of Representation to Land, to Cattle and to Sheep’ 1
It was suggested there were practical reasons for the quota, such as that it was more difficult to cast a vote in isolated rural areas, making it easier for city people to exercise political influence. But there was also a powerful belief in the essential rural character of New Zealand. The country districts, it was said, paid the national debt and made New Zealand what it was. ‘The backbone of this colony is in the country’ said Harry Atkinson. 2
Conversely, towns were seen to be places where people were influenced by fads and popular opinion, and there was much rhetoric about the horrors of British and European cities with their misery, degradation, vice and squalor.
Despite the importance of farming to New Zealand’s evolving identity, there was surprisingly little colonial writing or painting about it. Most of the painting focused on the more romantic wild mountains and bush. Pastoral scenes of sheep, cows or fields of golden grains were not common.
Much non-fiction writing was also about the exploration of wilder regions, but there were a few classic accounts of establishing farms. Lady Barker’s Station life in New Zealand lyrically described living on a North Canterbury station in the 1860s. Arriving at a Canterbury farm house she wrote: ‘I found myself saying constantly, in a sort of ecstasy, “How I wish they could see this in England!”’ 3 In describing the process of successfully establishing a farm and garden in the wilderness, she reinforced the image of rural New Zealand as a wonderful place for people to establish a family. She emphasised the role of women in bringing refinement and culture to the new world.
Two memoirs by settlers in inland Canterbury in the 1850s and 1860s – Samuel Butler‘s A first year in Canterbury settlement and Laurence Kennaway’s Crusts – focused more on the hardships of high country farming. Butler observed that farming was as much about making money as an enjoyment of nature, and penned the much-quoted comment that in New Zealand, ‘A mountain … is only beautiful if it has good grass on it’. 4
Novels and poetry
Fiction that portrayed farming life included one of New Zealand’s first novels, Isabella Aylmer’s Distant homes (1862). One of the best was George Chamier’s Philosopher Dick (1891), set on a large station in Canterbury. The novel presented a new rural stereotype – instead of romanticising family farmers, he described the crude world of the single men living in men’s quarters. They worked hard, played hard and fought hard.
Following Australian examples, there was also some poetry that mythologised such characters. David McKee Wright’s Station ballads and other verses paid a nostalgic tribute to swaggers, shearers and boundary riders – men who went on drunken sprees and told yarns in ‘the rude talk of rough men’. 5 The rural image of crude frontier masculinity would become stronger in later years.