The “Kingdom of Taranaki” – is there truth behind the epithet?

I have often heard the region of Taranaki referred to as the “Kingdom of Taranaki”, owing to the fierce independence displayed by its long-time residents – particularly farmers, and particularly in relation to property rights. While the epithet is used facetiously, it is often underpinned by a sense of admiration for this feisty independence. But is there a reality to this perceived feistiness, and if so, is there some historical reason for it?

According to Tom Brooking’s essay in the recently published “Making Our Place – exploring land-use tensions in Aotearoa New Zealand”, the answer to both these questions is “yes”.

In his fascinating essay, “Beyond the orderly appearance of productive rural land”, Tom Brooking outlines how immigration to New Zealand during the 19th century was dominated by agricultural laborers from England, Ireland and Scotland, determined to be free of the inequities of insecure land tenure, game laws and the oppression of landlords and the established church, dating back many centuries.

Brookings documents how, by the 1800s, the bulk of freehold land in England was owned by 600 families in “great estates”. Tenant farmers had nothing more than leases on the land that they farmed, which meant a high level of insecurity for many. This inequity and lack of security became the source of long-running tensions between landlords and tenants. Causing additional tension was the barring of the landless from forested areas – traditionally the source of “wild foods”, which played an important role in supplementing the diets of the tenant farmer or peasant. However, from the 1500s onwards, these areas had increasingly became set aside for the exclusive use and enjoyment of the landlord, and heavily defended by game-keepers. These tensions sporadically erupted into mass disorder; for example in the riots of 1830s, involving the burning of grain ricks and hay stacks, and then again in the 1870s, when large numbers of agricultural labourers attempted to join the new Agricultural Labourers’ Union, and were “locked out” by landowners.

Similar tensions played out in Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland, the inequity culminated in tragedy of colossal proportions in the 1840s, when between one and two million people died after a blight affected the potatoes on which the populace had become heavily dependent. After the famine, tenant farmers fought hard, both through direct action and by affecting political change, to improve the security of land tenure. However, this turbulent history of dispossession and gross inequity was the impetus behind mass migration of many others, including to New Zealand.

In Scotland, the “clearances” of the Highlands of tenant farmers to farm sheep sparked protest from the late 1700s, continuing for almost a century, and led to some legislative change improving tenures of small holders. However, the standard of living did not change significantly, and large-scale emigration was encouraged (often subsidised by landowners) to ease rural over-population. Some Highlanders also ventured to New Zealand, and even if not directly affected by the clearances, immigrants were determined to ensure that they would not suffer the such abuses of landowner powers again.

A large proportion of the settlers in New Zealand were agricultural labourers, farmers, farmers’ sons and people from rural backgrounds, desperate to own and farm their own land. About half came from England, a fifth from Scotland and a fifth again from Ireland. These immigrants settled throughout New Zealand, but were heavily concentrated in the Taranaki and the Hawkes Bay regions in particular.

So, when a farmer from the “Kingdom of Taranaki” – or indeed, the Hawkes Bay – protests against a government policy or other intervention that he sees as impinging on his “property rights”, it should perhaps be understood as more than sheer stubbornness or parochialism. It could be that even though the contemporary New Zealander  is unaware of the forces of history that have shaped them, this fierce determination to retain rights over one’s land dates back many centuries, and should be understood against this backdrop of inequity and insecurity.

See also: An egalitarian paradise – hunting in New Zealand; Dividing the landscape: production vs scenery; The ultimate paradox?; Were the Scottish really greener?

For a review of “Making our Place”, see Beattie’s Book Blog.

Photo top: Farmers’ carts outside the Midhirst Co-operative Dairy Company, Midhirst, photographed ca 1900 by James McAllister of Stratford. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID: 1/1-009396-G. Above right: One of a series of statues along the Liffey River in Dublin (Photo by Dale Zak). To see the others in the series, click here.

2 thoughts on “The “Kingdom of Taranaki” – is there truth behind the epithet?

  1. Paul Knight August 28, 2011 / 6:11 pm

    That’s great work Catherine! Ancestors of ours, the Peards were involved in these land ownership issues in Ireland and migrated to Australia. Found a Peard here in Levin.

  2. Anonymous March 11, 2012 / 1:52 am

    I must say, that the article mentions such gross inequity and the powerless tenanted farmers in the former motherland. This type of injustice must of been hard on these poor farmers. I wonder how Maori ended up landless in the Kingdom of Taranaki? How does a people who had ownership of the entire country end up with 1% of land? and yet the government still insist on taking it today and placing such strict laws? it is no wonder, that the majority of Taranaki Maori are economically disadvantage. I would say that’s straight up stealing? Well i’m English so I guess my countryman had a part to play in it. The Kingdom of Taranaki its got a nice ring to it, I did hear, that one of the last of the old world Taranaki Puhi-(Princess) died at age 93, landless,penniless but not childless that for sure 17 children she had.This Puhi was the only daughter of a High Cheif, who was also adopted into another Taranaki highchiefs family to strengthen blood ties. It’s funny, Aristocracy exist in the world, for this family, they must feel like Russian aristocratic exiles in there own country. Lets hope the future is brighter for them

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