Scottish emigrant letters from New Zealand

Screen-Shot-2015-10-11-at-16.13.21George MacDonald’s mother started writing to her son, who had emigrated to New Zealand, in 1885. That, commented his sister Margaret, who was also communicating with her brother, was a complete novelty in itself since their mother had never sent a letter before. The mother’s desire to maintain communication with her son helped her overcome the fear of writing. Yet she expressly noted that she did not want anyone to see her letters apart from the immediate addressee; perhaps she was embarrassed by her writing and poor grammar. The fact that Catherine MacDonald picked up a pen to write in the first place, however, is important not only because letters by female writers are rare, but because it gives even further weight to the letter’s role as the crucial medium of communication in the nineteenth-century migrant world.

Once the decision to leave had been made, the process of bidding farewell to friends and family began. The choice to emigrate to the Antipodes, hence the higher costs and longer duration of travel involved, made the prospect of reunion all the more unlikely. The near-certainty that leaving Scotland marked the final embrace weighed hard. The prevailing sentiments are expressed to the point by Robert Shennan when writing to his son John on his departure from Scotland:

Dear John you are going to leave me forever
To reside in a country that’s far far away
Where the measureless ocean between us will roar
And your voice in our worship assist me no more
I would mourn but I hope that by Providence led
You are going where you will be clothed and fed
And be more independent than what you could be
By remaining at home as a comfort to me
Though we meet not again in a family ring
To pray and to praise of Jehovah to sing
We can meet at the throne of our Father in heaven . . .

Robert found consolation in his beliefs, which allowed him to envisage the final reunion with his son in ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’. Such feelings of sadness and loss at the point of farewell were the motivation for some emigrants to try and convince relatives or friends to join them abroad. And indeed, family and kinship bonds were potent pull-factors. Moreover, personal correspondence was an important source of information, a crucial decision-making factor, particularly when it came to the choice of destination. Letters sent home transmitted unfiltered information on the destination country, including descriptions of the new life, opportunities, and, in some cases, failures. Migrants became an outpost for those who had stayed in Scotland; letters served as means of information dissemination, and a conduit for networks.

Not seldom, New Zealand was considered to outstrip other colonies, ‘one of the best British colonies to settle in and enjoy life’. Or, as another writer observed, it was ‘a fine healthy place not so warm as Australia nor so cold as Scotland’. Such positive descriptions were welcomed by family and friends, all being ‘weary very much to hear’ how those who had left were getting on. Hence direct enquiries by those left in Scotland often related to the standard of living, the society, and country, with initial letters in sequences being especially rich in descriptions of life in the colony. Combined with perceived changes in health, John Thomson happily attested that he ‘never was better than what I have been since I came here’, while John Dewar liked the country and was happy to report that he got the best food. Dewar was particularly struck, however, by the fact that the farmer he worked for dined with the servants and talked ‘the same as if he was one of ourselves’. In similar spirit, John Thomson wrote home that if working-class people in Scotland knew how working-class people were fed in New Zealand, ‘they would never rest at home’.

This unfamiliar air of freedom was one of the most striking changes noted by Scottish immigrants in New Zealand. Following ideals of egalitarianism that were deeply anchored in Scottish self-perception towards the end of the nineteenth century, upward mobility and progress quickly became key features of New Zealand life. There was an understanding, among many immigrants, that New Zealand was built to be a more equal society, with ideas of utopianism emerging as a result.Settlers identified social cohesion rather than division as a key infl uence in their new lives. Thus wrote J. F. Blackwood to his father, that it was one of the great comforts of a colonist that altho [sic] the life be a little rugged you have your own dwelling and piece of Ground a thing almost out of power of any working man in the home country. Blackwood went on to stress the important role of this new autonomy for his children: neither did they think about Scotland, nor did they have any inclination of going back ‘for they want for nothing’. New Zealand seemed to offer a much more flexible social order in which living independently was a real possibility.

The positive images of progress contrast starkly with the rugged life some migrants described. The settlers of the earlier period, and those pioneering the settlement of remote areas at later stages, faced difficult terrain, dense bush, and simple living conditions. As Bazil Thomson wrote to his sister, he and his two brothers were in good spirits, despite life being ‘rough and ready’. Yet what such accounts also reveal is the aptness of some migrants to fit in. In the case of the Thomson brothers, the fact that they had come out together, in 1879, may have played its part in helping them to adapt to the new circumstances, but they were also flexible. All three worked in a multitude of different jobs, including mustering sheep, cutting bush, and ploughing. Perhaps it was in view of the many changes and challenges that John happily asserted, when camping in the bush, that ‘we cook our own meals, which we manage wonderfully well . . . we got away raw chops, tea and sugar, we cooked our chops on flat stones and boiled our tea in a small pitcher’.  The brothers were proud of the ways in which they had managed the new challenges. They went with the flow of colonial life and understood the importance of adaptability.

Despite the significant flow of information and people, it was not always easy to maintain contact, especially during the early years when letters took months to reach Scotland or New Zealand respectively. Sometimes delays were simply the result of a letter sitting on someone’s desk for a few months. As much was true for Effi e MacDonald, who apologised profusely to her brother for the long delay in responding to one of his letters in 1902. With the postal service underdeveloped and the population highly transient in the early settlement years, however, many letters were lost altogether. Such losses invariably led to expressions of concern and anxiety at the absence of news from family and friends. The fact that Scots from many families were scattered across the globe provides another explanation for communication problems.

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