At the end of the 19th century a stronger sense of a New Zealand people, albeit as part of the British people, emerged. A number of factors assisted this:
- The proportion of non-Māori people who had been born in the country increased. The census of 1886 showed that this group formed the majority.
- Improved communications – railways and telegraph, and the highly mobile character of the population strengthened awareness of similarities across the country.
- Compulsory schooling from 1877 and the spread of newspapers helped shape a common culture.
- A succession of overseas visitors and commentators such as Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope commented on local characteristics and showed New Zealanders how others perceived them.
It took a long time for New Zealand-born people to achieve influence in their own country. The first to become a member of Parliament was John Sheehan in 1872, and in the 36 years from 1854 to 1890, only 39 of 449 MPs were born in New Zealand. This included a significant number of Māori.
In the 1890s a New Zealand Natives Association was established ‘to create a feeling of patriotism and nationality’ among the New Zealand-born community. 1 It attracted 2,500 members, but did not have the impact of similar associations in Australia.
The period also saw the publication of several journals with nationalist manifestos such as Zealandia (1889) and New Zealand Illustrated (1899), and a considerable output of poems and novels. These often explored the influence of the landscape and the bush on the national psyche. But the literary movement also petered out in the new century.
The sense of a distinctive New Zealand people was intensified by circumstances that catapulted New Zealand into the world, and forced its people to compare themselves with others.
The first event was the arrival of a reforming Liberal government in 1890. Their new laws in effect proclaimed a set of values which had emerged within the new society.
The policies of this government had roots in the propaganda fed to immigrants in the 1870s. To attract settlers from Britain and Europe, recruiting agents promised a new world of material abundance and relative class equality, where the grasping landlord and the exploitative factory owner had no place. The depression of the 1880s brought these promises into question. Huge land holdings, unemployment, sweatshops and strikes appeared.
The Liberals set out to restore the migrant dream. They broke up great estates, enacted factory legislation, introduced industrial conciliation and arbitration, and brought in pensions for old people. At the same time they introduced votes for women, making New Zealand the first country to do so. This in part reflected a recognition that in the New World, women had to take on a wider range of responsibilities.
‘God’s own country’
Such measures attracted political observers such as Henry Demarest Lloyd from Chicago, Beatrice and Sidney Webb from Britain, and André Siegfried from France. The new laws and outsiders’ comments made evident New Zealanders’ distinctive characteristics. Visitors had long noted that in New Zealand ‘every man is not only as good as his neighbour, but a great deal better’. 2 Now the egalitarian ethos became accepted as part of the New Zealander’s identity. Some, especially Siegfried, noted how pragmatic and free of ideology the reforms were. New Zealand came to be seen as ‘the social laboratory of the world’.
Presiding over the government was a loud-talking nationalist, Richard Seddon, who was proud to lecture others on the virtues of his country even while not comfortable with changes such as female suffrage. Seddon was British by birth and always saw himself and his country as British, but ‘better British’ – without the perils that came with cities and extremes of wealth. New Zealand was in his words (also adopted by Australia) ‘God’s own country’.