To sell a nation, or rather the idea of a nation. To increase the flow of people and capital from the Motherland. This was the intent of Progressive New Zealand, a book commissioned by the Dominion Advisory Council to Christchurch publisher Andrews, Baty and Co. ahead of the Empire Exhibition held in London in 1924.
Call it imperial modernism: a faith in the capacity to engineer progress not solely via the rational application of the soundest principles of government and enterprise – which alone would be insufficient – but also by virtue of the nation’s belonging to the most advanced civilization on Earth. New Zealand becomes therefore the mirror of the Motherland, that ‘Brighter Britain of the South’ onto which the prospective colonist and the imperial administrator could project ideas of renewal both personal and collective.
By analogy with later state-sponsored efforts we have encountered before, the book – and this post – could have been entitled This Is New Zealand, British Empire Edition, since, like the Asian Edition and the American Edition produced six decades later by Sheffield House, Progressive New Zealand is a national text tailored to a foreign audience, speaking to, pleading to an Other against which the national character is to be defined. But what is unique to this earlier text is that the majority of the New Zealand population at the time was in fact of British descent, including a large proportion of first generation immigrants. Here the branding of New Zealand for the benefit and as a function of the intended British audience doubles therefore as the strengthening and deepening of the roots of the colonisers.
What the exercise requires first of all is that the very notion of indigeneity be suppressed, and so Progressive New Zealand – all 244 pages of it – makes almost no mention of Māori. A single two-page section is devoted specifically to the nation’s first inhabitants, but with the chief purpose of dismissing the existence of a native problem.
New Zealand is, perhaps, the only country in the world where settlement has been achieved by Europeans on land previously held by non-European people without the making of a racial problem as a perpetual worry for the new regime.In this section the authors inform us that the ultimate outcome of colonisation was ‘not to make life harder for the Maoris [sic] but much easier,’ and practically in the same breath that the indigenous population had dwindled at the time of print to a mere 55,000 souls, ‘including half-castes’.
Those, at any rate, aren’t who we are, for the continuing purpose of colonisation is to promote ‘growth in the white population of New Zealand’, more specifically the sturdy mix of Britons who in the space of a mere eight decades forged the new nation after the likeness of the old. And this is where New Zealand stands in 1924, at a sort of bucolic colonial crossroads: pristine, vastly under-developed yet rich with opportunities for the prospective settler, predominantly in the area of farming. A country that had yet to be wholly parcelled out, whose vast unoccupied territories and seemingly unlimited prospects of urban growth were offered as the opportunity to draw Britain from scratch, a chance of a do-over. Thus the contradiction in the book between a tentative outline of the traits and states of mind of what would later go by the name of Pākehā culture, on the one hand, and the never quite suppressed desire to outdo the British at being British, on the other. After all, the authors remind us, didn’t Edward Prince of Wales, upon visiting the nation in 1921, have this to say:
New Zealand is one of the greatest monuments of British civilization in the world, and I have felt from end to end of the Dominion that there is nowhere a British people more set in British traditions, or more true to British form.
The political and economic proposition to the Motherland, put simply, was as follows: greater economic investment in the country – in the form of loans and mutual commercial undertakings – would enable the Dominion to continue to absorb new settlers and provide a relief valve for British unemployment. Visually, the relationship looked something like this:
The curious alliance of the lion and the kiwi, as captured in the full-page advertisement for shipping firm H.D. Robertson & Polson. The lion is powerful, assured. The kiwi ruffled but rugged, as befits the contemporary military iconography from which the metonymical association with the country and its inhabitants derives. The martial connotations aren’t casual, for one of the points of national pride most assiduously remarked in the book are the feats of the New Zealand military in defence of the empire, the precursor to the responsible global citizen role that is reprised to this day. Then as much as now, this was parlayed directly into international loans and trade agreements around the negotiating tables. It’s what cemented the country’s role within a strategic alliance whose economic and military objectives were tightly aligned.
Once you had sold the idea of the nation, you had to sell the nation, and New Zealand at this time marketed itself as an exporter of primary products and importer of the nearly all raw materials and manufactured goods not directly connected with agriculture. A country that couldn’t quite afford to mine its own coal and found it cheaper to buy it overseas. A country that, most of all, sought to import people. ‘To every man of intelligence who is blessed with health and is energetic, success should be certain,’ read the message to the publisher of the Minister of Labour. Women domestics (so long as they undertook not to get married for at least one year) and young labourers were also in demand. Another key attraction and selling point, to the entrepreneur and the investor alike, came in the form of ‘liberal provisions for industrial peace’, meaning the strike-preventing measures included in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. This is 1924, remember: fears of workers thinking revolutionary thoughts were decidedly more than academic. And perhaps it is symptomatic that the section on industrial relations is illustrated by the photograph of a luncheon and social room without any workers in it.
This was New Zealand at the threshold of progress: a nation ruled by land-owners and farmers, with a subaltern and disciplined manufacturing sector. It chose therefore to imagine a road to modernity that didn’t depend on the acceleration of industry, but rather on becoming an even bigger and more efficient farm, on being an even larger exporter of butter, cheese, frozen lamb, wool (‘the clothing of civilisation’), as if this prosperity would then translate back into progress of its own accord, obeying an unwritten and frictionless law of capital. The liberal use of statistics throughout the book – a hallmark of the genre – conceals in this instance the missing design so often lamented by WB Sutch: the inability to think of present New Zealand and future New Zealand as something other than the Empire’s farm; the unwillingness to change that economic proposition, therefore to imagine what progress might look like, other than ‘more of this’.
Nearly a century on, there isn’t much of a discursive space left in which to even form the phrase ‘progressive New Zealand’ anymore and so the book becomes also the catalogue of a lost vocabulary. ‘New Zealand’s flourishing gelatine industry is a very good example of the modern process of winning wealth from waste,’ say the authors, and you catch a glimpse of what it must have felt like to conceive of the land in those terms, as a source of unlimited and self-renewing bounty. Other wonderful details in the text – such as the fact that out of the first New Zealand shipment of eggs to Britain, in 1923, only two out of 547,680 turned out to be broken – sound improbably, comically hopeful, because the mastery of logistical problems is no longer something to be greatly impressed by or to build a sense of collective pride around.
I’m not suggesting we should feel any great longing for those simpler times, merely noting again how books of this kind expose our own myths of nationhood and narratives of aspiration and achievement, as well as horizons that are in several respects just as narrow as they were back then. The challenge, as always, is to write a new book.
L.S. Fanning (ed.). Progressive New Zealand: an authentic, comprehensive illustrated work of reference on all aspects of national life of New Zealand. Prepared and produced by arrangement with the Dominion Advisory Council for British Empire Exhibition, London, 1924. Christchurch: Andrews, Baty & Co., 1924.
Big, big thanks to Sam F for sending me a copy of the book. Also, it occurs to me that regular early-in-the-week visitors may not be aware of Harvest Bird’s recent resumption of service. Allow me to rectify.
Finally, the piece on the internet as a technology of surveillance I wrote for The New Inquiry Magazine’s Spies issue is now up on the site. You should still subscribe to the magazine though.