To what extent has the history of New Zealand's European colonisation and settlement been written as a history of 'superior selection', chosen people or 'the best immigrants'?

Term Paper 2002 9 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography




Defining ‘better immigrants’

William Pember Reeves: The Long White Cloud. Ao Tea Roa

Keith Sinclair: A History of New Zealand

W. H. Oliver: The Story of New Zealand

The Oxford History of New Zealand

James Belich: Making Peoples




Edward Gibbon Wakefield has been a controversial figure in the historiography of New Zealand. Once deified,[1] present historians widely disregard him today.[2] This apparent change in the perception of Wakefield’s theory of ‘systematic colonisation’ and the impact of his New Zealand Company on the quality of immigrants shall be examined in this essay. I have chosen to take five general New Zealand Histories into account, which cover the time span of almost a century. The aim will not be to find any history that has contributed to the myth of the better immigrants,[3] but to examine how a widely spread range of the most regarded concise histories of New Zealand have reflected on this issue.

Defining ‘better immigrants’

In A Letter from Sydney, first published in 1829, Wakefield writes in the introduction that ‘the labouring classes’ as well as ‘a large proportion … of the highest families’ ought to emigrate to form ‘a mixture of all classes of society’[4] in the colonies. Yet he has a society of noble character in mind, from which he clearly rules out convicts and for which he favours eager labourers to create a flourishing economy with opportunities that are unknown in the mother land.[5] It should be noted here that all historians regarded for this essay agree that Wakefield sought a certain, better proportion of immigrants, but no exact agreement exists about the actual composition of this better proportion.[6]

William Pember Reeves: The Long White Cloud. Ao Tea Roa

This book has been categorised quite differently by two acknowledged historians. Whereas Keith Pickens decided that Reeves was a representative of the Englishness paradigm,[7] Erik Olssen writes that Reeves was the first to create a counterpole to the Englishness paradigm by studying New Zealand for its own sake.[8] Concentrating on Reeves’ utterances about Wakefield, it is very obvious how much he makes a hero of him and glorifies his work. He praises Wakefield’s theory as highly successful, and as soon he admits mistakes in it, he marginalizes them.[9] In his brief account on the immigrants, the obedience to the ‘myths of settlement’[10] is evident, for he presents Wakefield’s theory in a way that the reader will perceive as reality.[11] He claims that the ‘colonies were to be civilised communities’ with ‘men of capital and intellect’,[12] but gives no evidence for this. In the work, no further opinions can be found about the quality of the settlers, neither in the chapter about the gold-rush nor the one about the Vogel immigrants.

Instead a look at the poem at the beginning of the book is valuable, which is a hymn to the equal society of New Zealand, where labourers who are keen to cultivate the land work very hard to be master of servants one day.[13]

Altogether, Reeves writes a history of great gentlemen, in which ideas are promoted; this way of history writing results in a lack of reflection on society. To him, Wakefield is a heroic ‘founder’,[14] whose work has donated the colony a decent portion of immigrants.

Keith Sinclair: A History of New Zealand

A very different picture can be seen in Sinclair’s widely respected work, that was published half a century later. It was in this time that historians destroyed the reputation of Wakefield and the New Zealand Company.[15]

Sinclair’s argument lies fully in this stream of his time. He disparages Wakefield’s personality as much as his work. He runs Wakefield down by arguing that much in his career could be connected with biographical facts,[16] after which he lists the least flattering events in Wakefield’s life, and attributes a ‘perverse and unstable character’ to the coloniser.[17]


[1] James Belich, Making Peoples, Auckland/London/New York, 1996, p.122.

[2] ibid., p.279.

[3] If that was the task, it would be easy to follow the titles listed in Keith Pickens, ‘The writing of New Zealand history: a Kuhnian perspective’, Historical studies, Vol.17, no.68, 1977, p.384, footnote 1.

[4] E. G. Wakefield, ‘A Letter from Sydney’ (1829), in M. F. Lloyd Prichard (ed.), The Collected Works of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Auckland, 1969, p.100.

[5] ibid. , pp.105-7. For a concise overview of Wakefield’s economic and social plans for systematic colonisation, see John E. Martin, ‘‘A Small Nation on the move’: Wakefield’s Theory of Colonisation and the Relationship between State and Labour in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, in The Friends of the Turnbull Library, Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream, Wellington, 1997, pp.108-12.

[6] Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, London, 1959, p.60 describes the envisaged immigrants as Wakefield theorises them in ‘A Letter from Sydney’ . Jeanine Graham, ‘Settler Society’, in W. H. Oliver (ed.), The Oxford History of New Zealand, Wellington, 1981, p.114 defines two social groups as desired by the New Zealand Company, but those differ again from the two groups outlined by John E. Martin, ‘A Small Nation on the move’, p.110.

[7] Keith Pickens, ‘The writing of New Zealand history’, p.384

[8] Erik Olssen, ‘Where to from here? Reflections on the twentieth-century historiography of nineteenth-century New Zealand’, NZJH, Vol.26, no.1, 1992

[9] William Pember Reeves, The Long White Cloud. Ao Tea Roa, London, 1898, 4th edition, 1950, p.138

[10] James Belich, Making Peoples, p.313

[11] W. P. Reeves, The Long White Cloud, p.137

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid., p.15f.

[14] ibid., p.136

[15] Keith Pickens, ‘The Writing of New Zealand History’; p.384f., Erik Olssen, ‘Where to from here?’, p.58.

[16] Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, p.61.

[17] ibid.


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Victoria University of Wellington – Department of History
Zealand European Social History



Title: To what extent has the history of New Zealand's European colonisation and settlement been written as a history of 'superior selection', chosen people or 'the best immigrants'?