The Polynesians who arrived in New Zealand about 1300 came from societies where growing crops was important to their survival. In New Zealand, growing crops must have seemed more difficult, because the cool climate made it harder to grow imported plants and thick forest had to be cleared.
While Māori found alternative foods in the birds and plants of the forest, and fish and shellfish, they also cultivated kūmara (sweet potato), taro, uwhi (yam) and hue (bottle gourd), which they brought from Polynesia. They also brought the mythology associated with this cultivation.
The major god of agriculture was Rongo (or Rongomātāne), who was the protector of crops. He was also the god of peace. Symbols of Rongo such as tapu (sacred) stones were placed in the fields to promote fertility. Before kūmara planting began people chanted to Rongo; and at harvest time the first kūmara were buried as an offering to him.
The kō or digging stick was the main cultivation tool used, and the story of Rākaihautū, the explorer of the South Island, describes him digging out the lakes with his kō.
The first European visitors to New Zealand also brought mythologies about agriculture. Christian traditions spoke about the Garden of Eden, a paradise before the Fall, where fruit grew in abundance. Such ideas would have been part of the cultural background of James Cook’s artist, Sydney Parkinson, when he first looked at the New Zealand coast (near Tolaga Bay) in October 1769 and recorded: ‘The country about the bay is agreeable beyond description, and, with proper cultivation, might be rendered a kind of second Paradise.’ 1
Seeing the agriculture practised by Māori, Cook and his crew suggested the country had great potential as a site for European farming. Cook himself noted that ‘the face of the Country appear’d Green and pleasent, and the soil seem’d to be pretty rich and proper for Cultivation.’ 2 The scientist Joseph Banks considered the soil around Thames would make ‘ample returns of any European Vegetables sown in it.’ 3
As Great Britain became industrialised, Romantic ideas about the moral and physical superiority of rural life emerged. Cities were characterised as dirty, smoke-filled places, where disease was rife and mobs of unruly people roamed the streets. There was a desire to preserve rural innocence and beauty. Paintings like John Constable’s idyllic rural scenes became popular.
Some observers considered the country so wild that they compared it to ancient Britain, before it was ‘civilised’ by the Romans. Missionary Richard Taylor described New Zealand as being in ‘the fern age’. Charles Hursthouse thought that New Zealand was like ‘Caesar’s Britain’. If people could be shown that period, much English country ‘which we call beautiful, would vanish, to reveal the gloomy forest and repulsive rugged waste’. 4
Early travellers saw New Zealand as a land that could become like a beautiful English rural landscape. But, for this to happen, it had to be cultivated and transformed. Many found New Zealand’s untamed bush to be dark, savage and intimidating, and untended plains to be a dreary wilderness. Once grasses were planted and deciduous trees introduced, then the land would look more like an English meadowland.
The idealised ‘middle landscape’ – a cultivated rural landscape, which sat between the dirt and decadence of the European city and the fearful barbarism of the bush – became an essential part of New Zealand’s rural mythology.
In the 1840s the New Zealand Company and its offshoots brought out thousands of migrants from England and Scotland. These initiatives were driven by the ideas of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
Concerned at the effects that population growth, industry and large cities were having upon rural England, Wakefield wanted to create an ideal rural society in the new world. He suggested selling land at a ‘sufficient price’ – high enough to prevent the dispersal of population or private ownership of huge blocks of land, low enough to allow labourers to earn capital to purchase it. He envisaged a country of independent small farmers.
The New Zealand Company promoted emigration to New Zealand with images of prosperous fertile farms. The people it recruited were largely farm labourers or craft workers from rural England and Scotland.
Over the next half century this image of New Zealand was strengthened by immigration propaganda, advice books, and travellers’ accounts. Both provincial and central governments sent agents into rural areas of Britain and Ireland with glittering images of a new Arcadian paradise.
Charles Hursthouse suggested, tongue in cheek, that the humorist Thomas Hood, ‘probably had New Zealand in his eye when he wrote: “There is a land of pure delight / Where omelets grow on trees, / And roasted pigs come crying out, / Oh! eat me if you please.”’ 1
Among the books of advice for emigrants Charles Hursthouse’s were especially influential. He praised the fertility of the countryside and suggested that once New Zealand had been enriched by young oaks, green grass, daisies, buttercups and coveys of partridges, it would only lack ‘the charm of age’ to become ‘the Eden of the world’. 2
Travellers’ accounts added to the rural ideal. In the 1870s Alfred Simmons described ‘lazy, too-well fed herds of cattle browsing upon pasture lands, the green English grass growing well-nigh up to their haunches.’ 3 Christopher Holloway was even more lyrical: ‘the larks singing joyously over head, the sheep and cattle quietly grazing in the well fenced paddocks, and the jolly settler whistling behind his plough as he turned over fertile soil.’ 4 At least three different regions were described by travellers as the ‘garden of New Zealand’ – South Auckland, Nelson and Taranaki.
As a land of Arcadian abundance, New Zealand offered newcomers the hope of becoming independent landholders. Simmons described former farm labourers who now owned their own houses and gardens, and had access to land with cows and goats.
James Buller painted a picture that became a central myth of pioneering when he wrote that a hard-working settler could cut down trees and in a few years ‘make a smiling homestead out of his few acres of bush.’ 5
Hursthouse identified the rural New Zealand life with men, claiming that pioneering appealed to the masculine virtues. ‘The feeble-minded, the emasculate, the fastidious, the timid, do not emigrate … It is the strong and the bold who go forth to subdue the wilderness and conquer new lands.’ 6
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
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.
In the last years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, New Zealanders became increasingly urban.
In 1911 the census showed that for the first time more people lived in urban places (defined as those having more than 1,000 people) than on farms or in villages. The numbers of people living in communities of more than 10,000 rose from about 18% of the population in 1901 to over 41% in 1936. By then, the four main centres – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – had over a third of New Zealand’s population.
Many people were not happy about the urbanisation of New Zealand. There were fears that cities would introduce old-world problems such as overcrowding, squalor, disease and crime. There was a popular scare about larrikins (unruly youths) on city streets. In 1911 Attorney General S. G. Findlay lectured on ‘Urbanization as an agent of national decadence’.
To combat this, people took steps to preserve New Zealand’s rural identity. Despite evidence that growth in jobs was occurring among white-collar workers in cities, governments continued to encourage more people onto the land.
In the 20 years before the First World War, the state broke up large estates and purchased more Māori land to assist small farmers onto holdings. There was further investment in public works such as bridges, roads and railways to provide access to isolated rural areas. After the war, returned soldiers were settled onto the land, not always successfully.
In the 1920s there were moves to increase rural content in the school curriculum. Often communities held a holiday on the day of their local agricultural and pastoral show so that everyone, townies as well as farm people, could attend.
Those who lived in the city were encouraged to move to the suburbs where, with a fowl house and a vegetable garden, their quarter-acre sections would provide a miniature farm for city workers.
Government housing loans made no provision for tenement housing or multi-unit dwellings as in British cities. The nuclear family in a bungalow surrounded by plenty of sunlight and grass was the ideal.
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.
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
During the 30 years following the Second World War, New Zealand became overwhelmingly an urban society. Work on farms reduced as the use of machinery increased, and white collar and factory work expanded. Both Māori and Pākehā took part in urban drift, and new immigrants settled in the cities. By 1975, although farming still gained much of the country’s export earnings, only about one in eight New Zealanders with jobs were working in farming or mining – previously big employers.
Between 1951 and 1976 the population living in rural areas fell from about 27% of the population to just over 16%. More than half the population lived in communities of over 25,000 people. The main centres achieved big city status: Wellington and Christchurch had over 300,000, while the Auckland urban area was approaching 800,000.
Although people lived in cities, they did not congregate in the city centre. The 1950s and 1960s saw a continued expansion of suburbs, where people could keep alive the myth that they were really farmers at heart by growing their own vegetables in a backyard garden.
Despite the fact that the country was now largely urban, New Zealand’s rural mythology remained alive and well. Although New Zealand’s traditional farm exports had some difficulties from the mid-1960s, governments continued to provide subsidies and tax relief to encourage farm production. There was growing investment in education, but it was still assumed that farming was the backbone of the nation. In politics the long-serving prime ministers in these years, Sid Holland and Keith Holyoake, both claimed to be farmers.
The farming life remained central to the nation’s identity. When in 1953 Queen Elizabeth II visited New Zealand her guidebook told her that ‘the dominion is essentially a farming country’. The pioneers had transformed ‘a waste of fern, bush and swamp’ into ‘the rich productive area it is today’. 1
The old idea that New Zealand was a rural paradise was picked up by the British press during the royal tour of 1953. Patrick O’Donovan of the Observer 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
Her itinerary took her by train past the productive farms of Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki; she twice saw champion shearer Godfrey Bowen shearing sheep; she visited two agricultural shows, a dairy factory and Wattie’s cannery, but not a single museum or art gallery. Urban culture was seen as not worth showing off.
The continued success of the nation’s rugby team was explained by the players’ rural origins. There was frequent use of a ‘land-to-man’ metaphor, which suggested that the All Black forwards were like the tough country they farmed. The most famous All Black of the age, Colin Meads, was described by his biographer ‘as an ordinary bloke with a farm to work, sheep to shear, land to be cleared, a cow to milk.’ 3 For a nation that was rapidly becoming urban, the All Blacks were a reassurance about the nation’s rural identity.
In the cultural sphere, rural myths flourished. Peter McIntyre and Colin Wheeler produced well-received paintings and books about sheep stations. The New Zealand publisher A. H. & A. W. Reed reported that two of their three best-selling authors in the 1960s wrote about rural settings. Mona Anderson’s A river rules my life described the experiences of a farmer’s wife on a Canterbury high country station. Peter Newton’s Wayleggo, about mustering, was also set in the Canterbury high country.
In the New Zealand Listener, Oliver Duff’s regular column ‘Shepherd’s calendar’, which told of his daily encounters with rural people and animals, proved popular. Also popular were rural-focused radio programmes by John Gordon and Jim Henderson (Open country). Frank Anthony’s Me and Gus tales, ignored in the 1920s, were read to acclaim on the radio and reprinted as a book. The long-running television show Country calendar began in 1966.
The popularity of comically exaggerated versions of rural life suggests that the rural myth was becoming more a literary image for urban people than a social reality.
Since 1975 there has been little change in the proportion of New Zealanders living in rural areas – it has stabilised at about 14%.
During this period, farm industries suffered tough economic conditions as prices fell, and Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community reduced a traditional market. From 1984 the extensive subsidies that government had given agriculture were removed, and many farm communities lost incomes and confidence.
At the same time there was a discovery of urban culture in New Zealand. Museums, art galleries, cafés, restaurants and night life boomed. People began to move from the suburbs into inner-city apartments.
In the early 2000s the new heroes were no longer farm types like Colin Meads, but film-makers such as Peter Jackson, with sophisticated technical skills. Even All Black heroes like Dan Carter were now promoting slick urban fashions.
As urban New Zealanders became more confident about their own culture they began to laugh affectionately at the old rural myths. In the 1970s comedian John Clarke presented Fred Dagg, a caricatured farmer who always wore a black singlet and gumboots. Murray Ball’s cartoon strip Footrot Flats, about Wal, another black-singleted farmer, and his dog, was very popular. New Zealanders now tended to chuckle at farming types, rather than aspiring to follow them.
In the face of the new economic and cultural realities, country people began to focus on urban tastes. There was a growth of homestays and farm walks, with the country being seen as an exotic location for city people to relax in. As new products such as wines and olives appeared, city people were attracted into the country for wine-tasting and good organic food. Some urban people even moved to the country, drawn by lifestyle farms, which aim to combine hobby farming with plenty of exercise and beautiful views.
Country towns began to promote themselves with events like fairs or food festivals. They also put up large icons to brand themselves, appealing to city people used to advertising symbols.
Such developments transformed the rural ideal from that of the family farm into a playground for city folks. Although the farm economy was being transformed by technology, science and business acumen, a re-positioning of the farming ideal in such terms was still in the future.
Fairburn, Miles. The ideal society and its enemies: the foundations of modern New Zealand society, 1850–1900. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989.
Fairburn, Miles. ‘The rural myth and the new urban frontier: an approach to New Zealand social history, 1870–1940.’ New Zealand Journal of History 9, no. 1 (April 1975): 3–21.
Jim Henderson’s Open Country. Auckland: Heinemann, 1982.
Phillips, Jock. A man’s country? The image of the Pakeha male, a history. Auckland: Penguin Books, 1996.
Woodhouse, A. E., ed. New Zealand farm and station verse, 1850–1950. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1950.