Whose rivers are more pleasant? New Zealand vs England

Avon River, Christchurch
A “pleasant” river, complete with punts: Avon River through Christchurch

Reading Andrew McRae’s paper “Fluvial Nation: rivers, mobility and poetry in Early Modern England”, I was struck by its opening statement.

In 1665, the speaker of the House of Commons, addressing the King and Parliament reflected that: “Cosmosgraphers do agree that this Island is incomparably furnished with pleasant Rivers, like Veins in the Natural Body, which conveys the Blood into all the Parts, whereby the whole is nourished, and made useful.”

Apart from wondering why cosmographers would be commenting on rivers (I thought they described the cosmos rather than geological features of the earth?), this prompted me to wonder if New Zealand’s rivers have ever been described as “pleasant”. Given the formidable barrier they posed to transportation and communication, and their predominance as a cause of death in the early years of New Zealand’s early settlement, I suspect the answer is: rarely.

As it happens, the settlers did apply this epithet to one river in Otago, on the east coast part-way between Dunedin and Oamaru. It is likely to have earned this name by virtue of the fact that, in contrast to the many mountain and glacier-fed fast-flowing rivers of this region, it was only a relatively short river with its source is in hills near the coast, and was quite “tame” and slow-moving in comparison to its more fierce fluvial cousins.

While there are few other “Pleasant Rivers” in New Zealand, I would hazard to hypothesize that it was the rivers that most resembled the rivers that English immigrants were familiar with that were renamed after English Rivers. The Avon River in Christchurch and the Thames River (now Waihou) in Waikato are examples. (The shallow and barely rippling Avon River would prove challenging to drown yourself in, and still has English-style punts as tourist attractions, and the Thames River, first “discovered” (and named) by Captain Cook, was one of the more navigable rivers in New Zealand – up to 32 kilometres upriver.)

Which brings me to the what the analogy of “veins in the natural body” conveying “blood into all the parts” was referring to in the quote above. As McRae explains, this was describing the important function of rivers in conveying human traffic and merchandise, both in their natural and manipulated forms (eg, through channeling and canal-building). This was not a role that New Zealand rivers fulfilled to any great extent, perhaps also contributing to their “not so pleasant”-ness. But this will have to be a discussion for another time.

And thank you to the Twitter environmental history community for recommending this article. Now, back to my reading…



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