sussing out the story, part one.

An island—‘tis of climate mild,

Uncultivated once and wild,

But peopled now and doated o’er

With cottage homes from shore to shore,

Whose owners till the fertile fields,

And live on what their labour yields . . .

– Francis Knowles, “A Dream,” written in 1851 upon arrival in New Zealand.

Easter weekend, I visited the Canterbury Museum for the second time in a week with Arron, his girlfriend Georgie, and the Smith family – one visit more than necessary (and dare I say, healthy?) in any given week. As we browsed through the first exhibit, dedicated to the Maoris in the same way that US museums begins with the Native Americans, Mr Smith says, “This is what you get when you don’t have a history.”

Of course, there could be a lot of truth found in his statement – when set against other countries and former empires of the world, New Zealand is only just learning how to walk, a mere infant in the face of China, Egypt, Rome, places whose existence predates New Zealand by several millenniums. Sure it doesn’t have the history and culture you’ll find in every major European city – places that gave birth to artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, politicians, all whose works and thoughts have outlived them by centuries – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a story. Even the websites of companies barely a few years old have sections dedicated to their history or “our story.” Nothing is without a history.

And so I’ve set out on the task of learning the (hi)story of New Zealand – or, as they’d say in Kiwi-speak, “sussing it out,” which Princeton’s WordNet search defines as “to examine so as to determine accuracy, quality, or condition,” or in the not-so-academic jargon of Wiktionary, “to work (something) out” or “to determine (something).” And thus it is fitting that I’ve begun my year here in Christchurch, where the story of modern New Zealand begins. I had my first hint of this on my last day in London. That particular Monday, there was an unexplainably ridiculous traffic jam, bus after double-decker bus crawling at two kilometers an hour. I can only take so much and so was soon walking briskly through central London, past Trafalgar Square and down Parliament Street towards Westminster Abbey. Right past the Square, though, a bronze plaque on the side of a building caught my attention. I regrettably didn’t write down its exact text at the time, but it was something along the lines of: “Here in 1848, the Canterbury Association met for the first time to begin the planning and settling of the Province of Canterbury in New Zealand.”

I’m not gonna lie, it was a cool moment. My last day in London, my next destination New Zealand – quite the hand-over, if such things happen in other times in life besides changing jobs. I was changing lives, cultures, experiences, and it was a gratifying discovery. It gave me a sense of closure about my time in England and got me thinking of myself as a pilgrim of sorts, about to make the same journey hundreds did a century and a half earlier – only my flight would oh-so-thankfully hack four months off the length of their original voyage.

There were two important organizations crucial to the development of modern New Zealand, the New Zealand Association and the Canterbury Association, each led by an important figure – Edward Gibbons Wakefield and John Robert Godley, respectively. Like I mentioned, the Canterbury Association was formed in 1848 and even received the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury (now we can all guess where the name of the province came from…). Although he actually only lived in New Zealand for about two and a half years, Godley is credited as the “Founder of Canterbury,” with a  statue in Cathedral Square to prove it – life-size replicas of stone and bronze have a way of solidifying these things. His travels early on in life throughout Ireland and North America were a huge influence on the ideas he formed about how to settle colonies – with a great amount of forethought, planning, and order – and subsequently rule them – with the least amount of interference from the Motherland as possible. It has also been said of Wakefield that he looked to the newly arriving pilgrims for a “late chance to properly implement his theories of planned colonization.” It is clear that the new settlement is something that was given a lot of thought beforehand. Theories? Really?! These people meant business.

The story of colonization in America is fraught with mistaken destinations and chance encounters, people who thought they were somewhere they weren’t, like Columbus, who could’ve sworn he’d reached the Indies, or the Mayflower pilgrims, blown so far off-course by storms that they gave up and settled in Cape Cod, hundreds of miles away from their original aim of Virginia. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for New Zealand. I’m immediately impressed by the organization of the whole affair. All 600 or so of the first pilgrims arrived where they fully intended to, in Lyttleton Harbour, and had Godley and other leaders waiting with plans in hand.

On the 16th of December 1850, the first four ships arrived: the Randolph, the Cressy, Sir George Seymour, and the Charlotte Jane. I have to wonder if young Kiwis grow up learning these names by rote much like their US counterparts learn the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria; the Mayflower; and the Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed (okay, even I had to look those last three up).

In my investigations along the path to enlightenment, I also came across Philip Temple’s Christchurch: A City and Its People. While largely a collection of photographs from the 1970s, there were several sections of text from Temple I found tremendously relevant. At the start of his book, he describes Christchurch as “a place where the threads of an older heritage and the patterns of colonial enterprise have formed an open and affluent society which – though it does not match the breadth and space of its landscape – gives the freedom and opportunity to achieve.” Before arriving in Christchurch, I was told it retains its English roots the most out of any city in the country. I couldn’t imagine a more interesting combination: a city settled by Englishmen in the raw natural elements of New Zealand. What would it look like? How would it be? It’s a colonist’s perfect brain-teaser or joke: “What do you get when you cross orderly English settlers with a country of awe-inspiring beauty at the bottom of the world?”

Reading on, I am struck by the fundamental difference in motivations between settling America and New Zealand. Growing up, I’d always learned about the religious freedom the early pilgrims and Puritans longed for in the New World. They’d had enough of persecution and trying to “purify” the Church of England on their own – it was time to go it alone. The young colonies of the United States were fertile soil for basically any denomination other than Anglican: Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians. New states were even formed around a particular one, like Pennsylvania and its Quaker founder, William Penn, or Maryland, a state that began as a safe haven for Catholics. 

What I find fascinating in the original settlement of New Zealand is that its proponents and purveyors desired nothing more than to continue the traditions of the Church of England in their new land. As Temple writes of young Canterbury, “With a million acres or two, a harbour and light loamy land, there was scope enough for those of duty, God and class in England to pursue their ideal of planting a society that would cling more closely to the old authority and style of the Anglican Church.” While American pilgrims broke trends and severed ties, early Kiwis couldn’t have clung more tightly to the land they left, always striving towards the Anglican ideal.

It’s like Temple says: “Of all New Zealand, Christchurch and Canterbury display a sense of permanence and place. The land was tractable, climate even, natives non-existent…The landscape was redrawn or at least firmly put in its place…where the land was too wet it was drained; too dry and it was watered; too windy and it was sheltered by belts of foreign trees; to distant and it was joined to town with roads like dusty rulers. When it was all finished it was almost a European landscape, quite tidy and uniform so that, like England, it seemed to have been under man’s hand for centuries. The city too was planted and preened, studded with borrowed Gothic piles, architectural symbols of age and heritage. Though the transformation was not complete, the image has always been of a community with instincts for order and history.”

So while there may not be pyramids for exploring or ruins for ruining, New Zealand’s early bonds with Mother England lend its brief history a depth and richness that you could say make it wise beyond its years. 

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1 Comment

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One response to “sussing out the story, part one.

  1. Janell Rardon

    WIse beyond its years. Just like you, ay? I love the "sussing out the story." Brilliant. Definitely a chapter title. IT seems God is calling you forth from the CITY OF ORDER, doesn't it? He must have something mighty special waiting in the next phase of this journey. Keep writing, dear daughter of mine! I am so proud of you. xoxoxoo

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