If Europeans living in New Zealand in the 19th century had been asked their nationality, most would have said ‘British’. All, except those born in non-British countries, were legally British subjects. Any sense of being a New Zealander necessarily existed within this broader identity.
To be ‘British’ emphasised the importance of heredity. Indeed, New Zealand settlers believed that because they had been chosen by the New Zealand Company, they were superior to the convict stock across the Tasman Sea in Australia. At the end of the 19th century racial ideas became stronger as the new science of genetics emerged. European New Zealanders generally considered themselves members of the Anglo-Saxon, even Caucasian race. They were committed to maintaining an Anglo-Saxon society, and took legislative action to keep non-white immigrants out of the country in the 1880s and 1890s. Even continental Europeans such as Dalmatians were not considered desirable, and their right to dig the kauri gumfields was restricted.
People living in Great Britain were distinguished by regional cultures, dialects and even languages. The Scots and Irish were different from the English, and even within England there were noticeable variations – for example between the Cornish and Liverpudlians.
However, in New Zealand these distinctions faded as people intermarried and cultures mixed. An amalgamated Britishness appeared. The New Zealand politician William Pember Reeves claimed that New Zealanders were British ‘in a sense in which the inhabitants of the British Islands scarcely are.’ 1 After one generation in New Zealand the Irish and Gaelic languages disappeared, and a more generalised loyalty to Britain developed. School pupils learnt about the heroes of Britain and read British literature. Most of this was in fact English culture, although certain Scottish writers like Walter Scott had their place. Even the Irish, who followed the fortunes of their homeland politically, played the English game of rugby football. The sense of being Britons was a necessary prelude to becoming New Zealanders.