Professor Rod Edmond, Emeritus Professor of the University of Kent
18th March 2011
Routes South: reflections on 19th century migration from Britain to New Zealand and its aftermath
This talk consists of thoughts and gleanings from a book provisionally titled Routes South: History in Miniature that I am currently completing. In it I take two of my great-grandparents, Charles Murray from St Fergus on the north-east coast of Scotland and Catherine McLeod of Ullapool from the north-west coast of Scotland, and follow their footsteps as they travel south in the mid and late nineteenth century. Charles Murray, the son of a small tenant farmer, went to Aberdeen University, Free Church College and became a missionary in what was then the New Hebrides, establishing a mission in the north of the island of Ambrym in the mid-1880s. He fell out with the local chief, his mission was placed under tabu, and Charles suffered a mental and physical breakdown. Departing the island he was shipwrecked before reaching New Zealand at the end of 1887, where he was later a parish minister in Presbyterian churches in Carteton, Fielding, Christchurch and Matawhero, and a prominent campaigning pacifist.
Catherine McLeod was the youngest child of an impoverished crofting family, born in 1848 at the time of the potato famine that devastated the Western Highlands and Islands as well as Ireland. This precipitated the last wave of the Clearances, the process whereby Highland estate owners rid themselves of tenants who couldn’t pay their rent so they could lease their land to incoming sheep farmers who would. In 1853 Catherine’s family and others from around Ullapool sailed to Tasmania, settling in the West Tamar region inland from Launceston. She married James Edmond in 1872 and they moved to Melbourne. Her first child was born in 1873 and by 1890 she had given birth in steady succession to a baker’s dozen. The first nine survived, the next three died in infancy, and the thirteenth was my grandfather Charles Edmond. When Catherine died in 1905 of ‘pulmonary tuberculosis and exhaustion’, Charles was sent to Auckland to live with his eldest sister.
In the last year or so I have visited the places where Charles and Catherine lived and worked, exploring local records and wider histories, and tracing the journeys they made from Scotland to the Pacific. This was not just to understand the particular experience of two of my forbears but also the representative value I sensed their histories possessed. Both narratives promised to capture in heightened form many of the defining features of the nineteenth-century experience of displacement, migration, settlement, and the fractured relation of settler colonists to their place of departure. Or I thought they did. The question at the heart of my project is whether their stories have anything other than individual significance.
My focus has been the details and particulars of their emigration: their reasons for going, how they managed it, the passage out, how they negotiated the new world in which they arrived, the relation between where they came from and where they migrated to, the new kinds of identity they forged, their relation (if any) to their former homeland. In scope and scale, therefore, it is the polar opposite of James Belich’s most recent book, Replenishing the Earth: the Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld. An immodest comparison might be with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance. De Waal, however, writes with the assurance of knowing that his forbears – wealthy Jewish bankers who numbered many of the leading writers and artists of Paris and Vienna among their acquaintance, who survived the First World War but fled Europe or died in the second – were people of great distinction who experienced the worst of Europe’s twentieth century history. My own ancestors possess no such distinction and suffered nothing as traumatic or epoch-defining as de Waal’s.
Displacement and migration, unsettlement and re-settlement were the common experience of my nineteenth-century forbears. All but one of my lines of descent derived from Scotland. The non-Scottish line was Cornish and the earliest to arrive in New Zealand, Trevarthens, from near Truro, who landed at Port Nicholson (now Wellington) in 1840, just two months after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. All these forbears were working people – crofters, tenant farmers, carpenters – and they were all from the Celtic fringe of Britain, people of marginal identity from a metropolitan point-of-view who were to acquire the uncertain and ambiguous status of colonial identity.
Departure and Passage
Let me follow the McLeods for a while. Their croft at Ardmair, just north of Ullapool, was one of fourteen squeezed into a narrow strip of land between the shore and barren hillside behind. Half-a-dozen ruined crofts still litter this space. There Catherine lived with her parents, two older siblings and two half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage, in a croft of drystone walls, a thatched roof and earthen floor. During winter it also housed their two cows. Cattle helped warm the croft and the light and heat from the human end of the house also benefitted the animals. The annual rent was something between £2 and £4. Their strip of land would have been planted in potatoes, which provided crofting families with half to three-quarters of their food. This staple diet was supplemented by herring fishing, shellfish gathered from the shore, meal mixed with blood taken from the cattle to make a sort of cake, nettles and native herbs. At least half the potato crop failed between 1847 and 1850, and again in 1852 and 1854, herring fishing was in the doldrums during these years and cattle prices had slumped as well. Times were very hard.
The cost of their emigration was advanced to the McLeods by the Highland and Island Emigration Society – a government-supported agency set up in 1851 to send impoverished Highland families to Australia – and by their laird. Catherine’s father Murdo signed a promissory note pledging him to repay £121/14/5d, the cost of fares and sundries. I am pleased to report that not a penny was ever repaid.
They left Ullapool in October 1853 together with 68 other tenants of the Coigach estate. The Inverness Advertiser described the emigrants gathering in the Free Church school-room on the morning of their departure, and the tears that accompanied the concluding prayer and singing. There are many moving accounts of the departure of emigrant ships from the Highlands and Islands, from Johnson and Boswell in the 18th century to Ian Crichton Smith’s 1968 novel Consider the Lillies. The view is usually from the shore but in this case we also have an account from the boat that makes clear the resentment felt by those who were leaving. It is from the Coigach estate-manager who accompanied the emigrants to Liverpool:
They were in very bad spirits. I never had a more disagreeable trip in my life, there was no pleasing them and when they were seasick they thought I could command the boat to return. At parting I got the greatest insolence and abuse from some of them. Several of them were most anxious to return home, I am certain if I had not been with them, that one half of them would not have come this length.
The Sir Allan McNab cleared Liverpool at the end of October and reached Hobart ninety-nine days later. It carried about 300 emigrants in total, including forty young unmarried Irish women. Their presence led to what was described as ‘a hostile feeling, of a National character, between the Scotch and Irish women.’ A partition was erected on the passenger deck to keep them apart and several of the Highland men were made temporary policemen and given truncheons to help keep order. The Surgeon Superintendent on the ship concluded:
I consider it very undesirable to put any considerable number of Highlanders and Irish in the same ship – the least religious event tending to cause disturbance among them.
Let me shift the focus to my maternal great-great-grandfather, Andrew Mercer, one of the founding emigrants of the Otago settlement. A cabinet-maker from Dunfermline, he arrived at the new settlement on the Philip Laing in April 1848. Six weeks later he wrote home to his father describing the qualities that were necessary to prosper in this new world:
‘Here, as at home, there is a great deal of spirits consumed, but steadiness is requisite in every quarter of the world, no matter what place it may be, an (sic) none should leave home, as I have often thought, with the idea that he will get gold for the lifting, and an intention to act the gentleman; they must come with bodily strength, if granted them, and willingness to exercise it. No cloth-merchant or clerk need come out here with the intention of doing no other thing than standing at the back of a counter, or sitting at a desk; they must be able to use other instruments than scissors or pens. Nor must they come with the intention of sporting jewellery or good clothes, but must come out steady and ready to do what is going, unless they have plenty of means to carry the gentleman out. All must work hard to get on. I have never wrought so hard in my life as what I have done since I came here, but I hope to be repaid for it yet … I am determined to make my own of this place, and I would be quite happy here if I had only my father, mother and friends out beside me.’
Andrew Mercer first lived out, and then fell foul of, the Puritan values of steadiness and family expressed in this letter. He married Jessie Munro from Leith on New Year’s Eve 1849 in a double wedding ceremony with Jessie’s sister who married a man named Healey. Andrew farmed at Romahapa (south of Dunedin) before moving back to Dunedin and setting up as a grocer and merchant. He became a city councillor, a JP and was Mayor of the city 1873-4. Jessie was killed in a fall from a trap in 1886 after which Andrew got together with the now widowed Mrs Healey, his wife’s sister.
This was scandalous and possibly illegal. Marrying ones dead wife’s sister had been illegal in Scotland since 1567 and in England since 1835. Marriage between certain degrees of consanguinity and certain degrees of affinity has often been run together under the prohibition of incest, and whether or not Andrew Mercer and Mrs Healey were legally prevented from marrying their relationship would have been disgraceful in the moral climate of Dunedin at the time. The fact that they had been involved in a double wedding, the first of its kind in the new settlement, would have added to the censure. They ran off to Australia where they parted, Andrew Mercer returning to Dunedin where there is a record of him living alone in a boarding house in the 1890s. His term as mayor was omitted from the documentation of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Otago settlement in 1898, and the connection with Mrs Healey was never mentioned in my family. When my brother Murray once wrote to our grandmother asking about it her reply began: ‘We have never spoken about this …’
What happened to the McLeod family on arrival in Tasmania? The first thing to note is that the McNab passenger lists and the hiring lists compiled in Hobart reveal that this emigration had been carefully planned. A group of McLeods and McKenzies from just north of Ullapool travelled together and were employed on arrival by a cluster of inter-connected landowners. Catherine’s mother Margaret was at the heart of these arrangements. Her first husband was a McKenzie, and his brother, his wife and his sister were in the cabin next to the McLeods on their passage south. On arrival Murdo McLeod and family were hired by a man named Stronach, which was Margaret’s unmarried name. Other McKenzies in adjacent cabins were hired by neighbouring landowners of Stronach. All this suggests extensive prearrangement. Stronach’s readiness to receive Margaret’s family had opened up the prospect of secure employment and better living conditions for some of her former in-laws. A small group of farmers around Launceston had then been alerted by Stronach to the impending arrival of an extended family network of immigrants from Ullapool. In other words, it was a small-scale communal emigration.
Murdo, together with Margaret and their five children (soon to become six), was hired as a farm labourer at ‘£60 per 12 months with keep’ on land at McRae’s Hills, west of Launceston, where the Norfolk Plains ends in the Great Western Tiers. They disappear from sight until the early mid-1860s when a number of the migrant families who’d arrived on the McNab regrouped in the West Tamar region north of Westbury, at Winkleigh. These families – McLeods, McKenzies, Campbells, Stewarts – had saved enough money for a deposit on waste land left over from the Tasmanian land-feast of the 1830s. For the next couple of decades these families laboured to clear this densely timbered and overgrown land and build roads to link them to Beaconsfield and Launceston, their nearest markets.
This regrouping of the McNab emigrants repeated in miniature the voyage they had made from Scotland to Tasmania. Over a dozen years or so these families had left a crofting community on a large Highland estate and voyaged south to become first, wage labourers and then small freeholders in a distant colony. The idea of community they had grown up with had somehow survived and taken on new forms. I’m reminded in this of the Waipu settlement near Whangarei, whose leader Norman McLeod and many of his followers came from around Ullapool. They had migrated first to Pictou on the north coast of Nova Scotia, then to St Ann’s on Cape Breton Island, and finally, via Adelaide, to settle in Waipu in the 1850s. This was a community of Free Church Gaelic-speaking crofters and fishers whose language and religion enabled them to transplant and perpetuate the culture they derived from. A similar world is evoked in the stories of Alistair MacLeod (collected in Islands, 2002) set on Cape Breton which capture the persistence of Gaelic culture on the Canadian Atlantic seaboard.
The McNab families at Winkleigh were sufficiently isolated and homogeneous for their culture of origin to have persisted for a while but I don’t think it lasted much beyond the first generation. Catherine’s parents would have been predominantly Gaelic-speaking with some English (and therefore only marginally part of Belich’s commanding ‘Anglo-World’). In Tasmania this order of precedence would slowly have been reversed. English would have become Catherine’s language of choice and after her marriage and the move to Melbourne she would have had little use for Gaelic. Her husband was from Stirling and would not have been a Gaelic speaker.
In thinking about settlement and acclimatisation I’ve tried to imagine the fit, or otherwise, between the place of departure and arrival. As Naipaul puts it in The Enigma of Arrival: ‘I saw what I saw very clearly. But I didn’t know what I was looking at. I had nothing to fit it into.’ For Andrew Mercer arriving in Otago, there was a pre-designed fit. This was a Free Church settlement intended to reproduce a Scottish Presbyterian community at the other end of the world. Dunedin comes from Dun Eideann, the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, and the original surveyor was instructed to reproduce the characteristics of that city. In the event the resemblance went well beyond architecture, as my great-great grandfather eventually discovered. Until his disgrace, however, he would have felt at home.
The Trevarthans from Cornwall settled in Auckland and continued the family trade of carpentry, joinery and boat-building down into the twentieth century. The climate and landscape of Cornwall and Auckland are similar and this would have eased the melding of one place into another. Acclimatisation in all its senses should not have been too difficult. One of my reasons for deciding to concentrate on Charles Murray and Catherine McLeod was that for them the shock of arrival must have been far greater. Charles Murray’s journey from the cold shoulder of Scotland to a remote Pacific island is central to my book but slips the thrust of this talk which is to do with settler colonies. But the displacement experienced by the McLeods was in its way as dramatic. The coastline around Ullapool is rugged and bare of trees. The West Tamar region of Tasmania is flat, inland and heavily timbered, and it took many years of felling before the land they purchased became productive. The term ‘clearance’ acquired a very different meaning in their new home. And looking at Catherine’s own life, in the space of 30 years between 1850 and 1880, she moved from a peasant existence in the Scottish Highlands that had changed little over several hundred years, to a pioneer life in the backblocks of a young colony, to petit-bourgeois domesticity in a suburb of Melbourne, a fast-growing city in one of the major colonies of the Empire.
Something that each of these families shared, however, was the unlikelihood of returning to where they’d departed from. Single men were more mobile, disappearing to the Victoria goldfields in the early 1850s, often moving between colonies, visiting home if they had the means or could work their passage. Families, though, stayed put. When Catherine’s family said goodbye to her aging grandparents, Alex and Barbara McLeod, everyone would have known it was for the last time.
Except that is in time of war. Catherine’s son Charles Edmond, my grandfather, was in France and Germany during the First World War. His brother-in-law, Alf Trevarthen, was in the trenches and wrote this description of the experience to his brother Bert in February 1917.
I am writing this from the billet where I have been for 3 days, for a bit of a spell, after coming out of the trenches. I cannot tell you how long I was in the line or anything that we were doing, except to say … that things were weird, wild & wonderful & rotten. I have often heard it said that one gets used to shells & bombs but have not seen anyone yet who seems quite at home when they are coming over hot & strong. You hear a scream before they get over, but cannot tell where they will land & you crouch down behind any cover you can get & should it be a dud you should hear the relieved cry of “Dud”. The Boshes (sic) have all sorts of things they send over, one is called “Minnie Waifers”, this is how you say it, I don’t know how they spell it, you can see it coming & when it hits you think the end of the world has come & it leaves a hole in the ground big enough to bury a cart & horse in … Well it is still very cold here & the ground is frozen as hard as rock for a depth of about 2 feet. The bread freezes hard now you will find it hard to believe this, but it is a fact … Anything that would shorten the end, so that we could get out of this land of ice & frost would be very welcome … How is everything at home, the last letter I got was pretty recent & things seemed all right by that (Feb 1st I think I got it). If the £10 I posted home arrived dont be afraid to cut it up if there is any shortage at all & if mother wants anything let her have it … There is not much to write about now so I will finish up hoping you & all at home are well & wishing you “Bon Chance” which is French for good luck & about the extent of my French. Remember me to all.
I remain Yours truly,
Eleven days after writing this he was killed in action. Bert would have received his brother’s letter several months after learning of his death. New Zealand mobilised 120,000 people, mainly men, during the First World War; 18,000 of these were killed. Shipments of frozen meat from New Zealand to Britain had begun in 1882. Shipments of live meat across the world to the human abattoirs of Europe were a feature of New Zealand’s twentieth-century history. An imperial centre that was unable to provide for its poorest could nevertheless depend on these same people for its defence.
Charles Murray was a pacifist. On the evidence of his Ambrym diary, his greatest success as a missionary was establishing peace between two warring villages. He was prominent in opposing the military build-up before the First World War, and as convenor of the NZ Presbyterian Committee on International Peace, wrote to all the Reformed Churches of the Empire and to the German Lutheran Church urging their support for peace. One of the leaders of the German Lutheran Church was Chaplain to the Kaiser. Charles’s letter to him was returned marked unbekannt (unknown); you’d have thought someone knew where the Kaiser lived. After war broke out Charles spoke at open-air meetings against New Zealand’s involvement, and on one occasion was rescued from an angry crowd outside a pub by the police. When conscription was introduced he became Chaplain to conscientious objectors interned on Ripapa Island in Lyttleton harbour.
When my father left on the troopship Aquatania for the Middle East in August 1941 his mother, Alf Trevarthen’s sister, tied a large white sheet to the outside of their house by Wellington Heads at Seatoun. No doubt she was remembering her brother as well as blessing her son. In 1967, having been called up to train for the army at a time when New Zealand was fighting in Vietnam, I registered as a conscientious objector and went before a tribunal. I have no memory at the time of sharing a position with my great-grandfather. I knew little about him and my objection was based less on religious grounds than on Dylan’s ‘Masters of War.’ But looking back now, I’m glad that I joined him in resisting outward migration in the cause of war.
Travel and Identity
New Zealand doesn’t have an indigenous population; we are all migrants. As John Pocock has remarked, Maori are as much tangata waka (people of the ship) as tangata whenua (people of the land). This is also true of Pakeha. The history of New Zealand and the Pacific has been shaped by voyaging, something illuminated by Nicholas Thomas’s recent Islanders: the Pacific in the Age of Empire. And this voyaging has become two-way, or more accurately, a process of repeated crossings.
This, for European New Zealanders in particular, has often raised questions of identity. What is the source of the national culture? What does it mean to derive from two places 12,000 miles apart (surely a uniquely long distance between the front line and home front in time of war)? For many New Zealand writers in the twentieth century – Mansfield, Hyde, Mulgan, Davin, Frame – it was necessary to escape home and country in order to breathe and write, even if after having escaped their best writing was about the place they had left. Janet Frame seems pivotal here. In her novel The Edge of the Alphabet (1962), and her autobiographical rewriting of the experience of arriving in London in The Envoy from Mirror City (1985), the migrant or traveller is on a quest for identity. However the place arrived at bears so little relation to the place expected that relocation becomes dislocation. Both works are an antipodean vision of the unreal city, and another of Frame’s novels from that period, The Adaptable Man (1965), extends this vision of absurdity to the English countryside, the locus classicus of both English culture and the English novel. But this rejection of ‘home’, in the colonial sense of that term, doesn’t result in a defiantly national assertion of identity either. Instead, Frame offers the liberating and subversive formulation that ‘everyone comes from the other side of the world’ (The Edge of the Alphabet).
Genealogy and family history is commonly a hobby of those middle-aged or older who have the time to pursue it and fear they are losing the time in which to do it. It is a particular obsession of those living in Britain’s former settler colonies thousands of miles away from their ancestral point of origin. Migration normally involved the breaking of family ties. Although the so-called white settler colonies were frequently described as offspring growing slowly towards the cultural maturity that would earn them subordinate independence within the greater family of empire, for many migrant families it was more as if they had been orphaned. This loss of connection with an ancestral past has led to a desire for its recovery in post-colonial times. Tracing one’s family line back to some ancestral location is more than a hobby for many Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders of British descent.
There are other reasons, less specific to post-colonial cultures, for uncovering one’s line. Family history ambiguously resists time by excavating the past. In raising and confronting the dead, it simultaneously lengthens one’s temporal perspective and brings the past closer. The encounter with the remnants and traces of one’s own family origins in records, letters, the oral history that is part of all families, and perhaps most of all in the locations where one’s forbears lived and died is both material and ghostly. The researcher meets a past that is physically though incompletely present but also tantalisingly and nostalgically absent. Alison Light has described the online discovery of one’s ancestors as a ‘happily mournful activity’ and this is even more the case with the discovery of family records, tombstones and dwellings.
Yet the individual pursuit of a family past through travel and archival research is a paradoxically solitary activity, a lonely quest for affiliation even if the current members of one’s family have an interest in the findings. The most arresting moments on my travels in pursuit of the dead have been at once solitary and shared. The people of Vanuatu, where Charles Murray was a missionary, believe that their ancestors don’t vanish after death but continue to hover around. This I came to realise was a vivid way of understanding the pursuit of family history. When I discovered the Murray family gravestone in St Fergus Kirkyard on the edge of the North Sea, and when I located the ruined crofts at Ardmair, facing the Atlantic, where the MacLeod family had lived in the middle of the nineteenth century, my companions were the ghosts of my forbears who inhabited these sites.
There is yet a further paradox. The family lines which trace our past and tell us who we are, giving us as we believe our identity, are the most arbitrary of determinants when compared to the companions and friends we choose once we have become ourselves. We seem to value the accidents of the past more highly than the conscious choices of our existential selves. I think this must be to do with a feeling that grows stronger with aging that the conscious choices we have made are so conditioned by the families from which we derive, not just in terms of our DNA, but in terms of the social history of our forbears. But is this really the case, or does family history simply provide a story whose arbitrary shape affords the illusion of meaning and comfort to those whose own histories have come to require it?
The kind of history in miniature (‘critical genealogy’ if you like) I’m attempting is a dialogue between determinism and contingency. On the one hand: those lines of descent that look so definitive in the charts drawn by genealogists; Hardy’s ‘family face’ that ‘live(s) on / Projecting trait and trace / Through time to times anon / And leaping from place to place/ Over oblivion’ (‘Heredity’); all the lore and traditions of our inheritance. On the other: the arbitrariness of the decisions and accidents that produce the charts, the faces, the habits and values. I myself am the result of a blind-date arranged in time of war. The ‘determined contingency’ of the blind-date catches the nub of it.
Nevertheless, as I footstepped my great-grandparents I found that constructing a narrative of my family history that connected past with present and place with place was for me an act of resettlement, a way of better acclimatising to a life that has reversed the migration of my ancestors.