New Zealand and Australia: 150 Years Later

In Christchurch’s Cathedral Square a set of plaques commemorates four sailing ships that brought the first settlers to Lyttleton Harbor in 1850. The names of the settlers are flagged by their occupations: barber, farmer, baker, doctor. They came as part of a settlement scheme sponsored by the Church of England and masterminded by a man of doubtful character.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield had gained notoriety by marrying an heiress. She died in childbirth. Soon after, he abducted a second heiress, a schoolgirl named Ellen Turner. He was imprisoned in Newgate for his troubles. With time on his hands, he developed a theory of colonization. He argued that the best way to relieve Great Britain of its labor troubles was to transplant English workers to New Zealand. Doing so would raise the average wage of the workers who stayed behind while colonizing a new country with those who didn’t. He insisted that the price of land be set carefully, low enough that investors could buy it, high enough so that laborers could only covet it.

Once out of jail he convinced investors to finance four boatloads of Christchurch settlers. There would be class distinctions, of course, but the prospect of land ownership by industrial artisans willing to work their way up the social ladder was motivational bait enough. Today’s Christchurch projects Great Britain with a vengeance—from the boys’ school next to the museum with its common room straight out of Harry Potter and its quad straight out of an Oxford college to the houses with their neat front gardens lined with obedient flower beds, well-kept lawns and sturdy picket fences.

The settlers in New Zealand (and in Christchurch especially) are in striking contrast to those who settled Australia, a country founded by pickpockets, embezzlers, arsonists and kidnappers to relieve the pressure that massive imprisonment had made on depression era Albion. It was a cruel joke to send them to a place where there was no one to prey upon except one another.

The rivalry between Australia and New Zealand is a teasing and taunting rivalry, an endless source of jokes at one another’s expense. New Zealanders quip that only the finest citizens were allowed into Australia, each one vetted by a judge. Australians counter by saying that if you want to know how well a New Zealander can run a small business, give him a big one and wait awhile. The engine of this rivalry, I’m guessing, is that each nation is a tiny bit envious of the other’s origins. The New Zealanders would have welcomed a bit of larceny in their progenitors, the Australians a bit of respectability.

Some 150 years later look at the results. Both countries are great successes. There is nothing in New Zealand, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, to match the Sydney Opera House. On the other hand, there is nothing anywhere else in the world to match the social decency of New Zealand’s government. Health care is considered a right, not a privilege. Lawsuits arising from road accidents—that most error prone of human activities—are forbidden. Firearms are illegal. Education is free if your grades are good.

What is the take home for all this? Whether you know how to slaughter a sheep or garrote a toff, it doesn’t matter if you have been thrown into a frontier and told to live or else.

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