Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pers: Would you like to be a pioneer?

How would you like to go where few have gone before? My great great grandmother Frances Shayle George wrote an article about her experiences when she and her family first settled in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1850. This was a mere 12 years after the settlement was established.
She wrote a piece that sounded fresh, exciting - which it would have been, compared to the lives in England that many escaped. She described “a day such as only shines upon the South Seas”, a “magnificent harbour”; the air is “pure and balmy”, the children are “chubby and clean”.
The emphases throughout provide an unspoken contrast with her homeland: dirty and smelly, crowded and claustrophobic, grey and cold.
That’s fair enough, the contrast was quite real for the many who migrated. But there were countervailing burdens, only some of which she mentioned.
First, the journey. All she said was that it was a weary journey, and the sight of land was welcome. But how she described the primitive state of her first dinner in new lodging - a farce, yet the most thoroughly-enjoyed meal of her life. Must have been soo grateful to get off the ship.
I’ve been inside the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour. It’s really quite small. I guess the Sir Edward Paget, as a passenger ship, would have been bigger, but on the basis of what I’ve seen, four months aboard a cramped, swaying sailing ship must have been particularly claustrophobic. And they had a baby with them.

And when they got there: it was a “rude” home and “work, and work hard” for someone “accustomed to pass my time as I pleased”. It was a single sealed road; winter mud up to the axles of carts; “gloomy and solitary grandeur”, and a great scarcity of any hallmarks of culture that couldn’t be locally made.
I suspect they had no idea what they were in for. Despite the bright and pleasantness of a new land, I suspect they longed for modern civilisation after a while, and at times they must have really clung to the vestiges they could muster. As with a lot of people, she named a later house after the place she grew up (Clifton), and must have had a real yearning at times.

Still, she wrote a very attractive description, one that had Charles Dickens (who published the article) expressing a desire to travel to New Zealand. Propaganda it was; she was openly encouraging labourers, farmers, capitalists to come, to help build up a critical mass – as much as anything so that she could feel more at home. She appealed in particular to people who were not “doing well in the old country” – this must be the prime audience: why else would you make such a long and hazardous journey, leaving your world behind? I’m sure most settlers didn’t know what they were in for. Yet there was that brightness, that adventure, and the prospect of making something, with hard work.

I wander the streets of my area, and periodically come across a house that must have stood magnificent in its day. But the land around it has been chopped up, sold off, so the house itself looks out of place, hemmed in so closely all around. Civilisation has a way of creeping up and swallowing, rendering mundane what once must have been so impressive; what once must have been worked so hard for.

I’m a city boy. I like the amenities of a large city. The adventure, the open space and climate are still to be had – if you go far enough from the city. But we don’t, do we? Never far enough that we can’t get home.

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