In search of Arcadia?

Thomas Cole’s The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1834

A series of articles were recently published on Environment and Nature in New Zealand, all drawn from essays written between 1989 and 2000 by students in history at the University of Otago. 

A prominent theme in the essays covering the colonial period is the disconnect between the expectations of immigrants and the reality of what they found, particularly in respect to the environment.It is suggested that many came in search of some Arcadian ideal promised by the New Zealand Company administrators and entrepreneurs. Neil Clayton concludes his essay Settlers, politicians and scientists: Environmental anxiety in a New Zealand colony in this way:

In something less than three decades Otago folk, like many other New Zealand colonists, found themselves at some remove from the Utopian ideals they had brought with them in 1848, of a close knit community for individual betterment, improving agriculture and, as true covenanters, an orderly place, shaped to the purpose of an enlightened people.

This made me wonder, to what extent were immigrants really in search of a Antipodean Arcadia, and to what extent were they simply in search of a new life, with better opportunities than the ones they had in England, Scotland, Ireland, or wherever they came from. Perhaps the idea that New Zealand represented (or had the potential to represent) some Utopian ideal was regarded with the same healthy cynicism as marketing hype such as the “New Zealand – 100% pure” slogan is today.

Certainly in the Manawatu, the subject of my research over the last few years, I can see little evidence that people came to the region to settle in the expectation that they would find utopia – rather, the aspiration that motivated many was simply to own land, something that they would be unlikely to achieve in their homeland. Nevertheless, this was a government-sponsored immigration programme rather than a New Zealand Company one (the NZC had by this time collapsed), and the marketing was perhaps a little more modest and less prone to hype by this time.

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