Parallel Broughtons

Unreliable Geographies by Aeneas McHaar

No. 9: Dunedin Streets, Otago Province, New Zealand
45º 52’ S, 170º 22’ E

Edward Wakefield’s mid-19th-century notion of ‘systematic colonisation’ was intended to fund the growth of balanced communities abroad.

As part of that process, settlers from as wide a cross-section of British society as possible were to emigrate together to recreate the Motherland in more favourable climes. George Rennie –the Scottish sculptor and Liberal MP for Ipswich – took up the cause of ‘class settlements’ in 1842, predicting: ‘We shall found a New Edinburgh at the Antipodes that shall one day rival the old.’

Rennie’s ambition was soon hijacked by Captain William Cargill (1784–1860): an Edinburgh-born veteran of the Napoleonic wars, sometime York Place wine merchant, bank manager, politically a ‘rabid provincialist’, and father (eventually) of 17 children by one long-suffering and inexhaustible wife. Cargill calculated that a combination of religious zeal (in the years immediately after the Disruption), and physical want (potato blight, Clearances) would drive volunteers towards his scheme. However, as will become clear, ‘his’ city – conceived out of national fractures to be coherent – would instead grow strangely and variously fragmented in its own right.

With the assistance of Cargill’s co-visionary, the Rev. Thomas Burns (Robert Burns’ nephew), a Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland began assembling emigrants for whom the New Zealand Co. would make available 146,600 acres of land, to be divided into 2,400 properties at £2 per acre. By 1844 a suitable spot for the new city had been found on South Island’s Otago Peninsula. Here had been sporadic Maori settlement since 1100 AD, but those original pioneers’ descendants among the Chiefs (naïve or a parcel of rogues?) were bought off for £2,400 (less than 1% of the land’s value to the New Zealand Co.).

One Charles Kettle, then 25 years old and a recent enthusiastic visitor to Edinburgh, began surveying the site in 1846 and making plans. He was under orders to reproduce, as far as possible, the Edinburgh New Town’s blend of formal regularity, symmetry and proportion, and to relieve it through Romantic use of the area’s rugged topography. Despite including some extraordinarily steep streets, Kettle’s design would mostly be realised.

By now, the projected name of ‘New Edinburgh’ had been dropped on the grounds that there were far too many ‘New’ Thises and Thats around the globe already (New South Wales, New York, New Zealand). Instead, the Celtic name for Scotland’s capital was adopted. Kettle, though, spurned such resurrections and, in a bid to ram home the source of his inspiration, chose contemporary Edinburgh placenames for Dunedin’s first thoroughfares.

Given the scheme’s church backers in Scotland, there was general consternation when, in April 1848, once the last of the initial 343 settlers had arrived, it was discovered that the majority had no affiliation whatsoever to the Free Kirk. Worse, many were English. Scots at home, it seems, had either preferred the fleshpots of Nova Scotia, or were unwilling to face the delights of 111 days at sea with fellow members of the Free Kirk. (Burns indeed ran one of the emigrant ships as a ‘virtual floating theocracy’.)

With admirable practicality, the newly arrived New Zealanders now set about building suitable temporary accommodation. In one ‘barrack’ were housed the ‘Old Identity’ (Scots), bitterly divided among themselves between those of the Free Kirk and orthodox Presbyterians (soon referred to as the ‘Little Enemy’). In the other resided the sizeable English minority.

Cargill, although married to an Englishwoman, could not abide Anglicans because he associated them with Episcopalians whom he considered tainted by Jacobitism.

Religious sectarianism was not the only divisive force. Cargill, who became Otago’s first Superintendent, was in addition to being anti-English and bigoted, shamelessly nepotistic and a snob. As well as appointing members of his own sizeable family to all the new city’s plum jobs, he publicly despised the lower orders, especially those who had the misfortune to be both poor and partial to alcohol. He was also temperamentally opposed to risk-taking entrepreneurs, and erred so far on the side of caution as to be positively obstructive. He brooked no criticism, effectively closing the critical Otago News and replacing it with the uncritical and Free Kirk-friendly Otago Witness. Cargill was furthermore inflexible, long inhibiting pastoralists by his refusal to reduce the price of land in case it should encourage property speculation. Nevertheless, he is remembered as an effective autocrat.

After Cargill’s death, such traditional antagonisms were briefly put aside during the 1860s when the discovery of gold resulted in a population boom. Scots and English communities of all faiths and classes swiftly united in offering traditional Edinburgh welcomes to the ‘New Iniquity’ of Germans, Irish, French, Italians and Jews arriving en masse: in a nutshell, ‘Ye’ll have had yer nuggets, then?’ These early manifestations of racial and spatial intolerance were later extended by everyone – including ‘sweated’ slum-dwelling Chinese – to the ‘Assyrians’: Lebanese refugees fleeing religious persecution in the 1890s.

A combination of rapid population growth, cheap labour, good building stone, internationally mobile Scottish architects and plentiful gold resulted in Dunedin’s blossoming over the next 30 years. Spectacular churches and public buildings sprang up, as did New Zealand’s first university, arts and medical schools. Around this period, too, was founded the world’s longest lasting tram system (1881–1957), an organisation so successful in its time that its profits paid for what is still the largest town hall in the country.

Today, now that  it is comfortably settled as a post-industrial, southern-hemisphere Victorian and Edwardian heritage zone and university city, Dunedin in the 21st century seems to have outgrown the crassest expressions of class hatred and racism. However, it still enjoys a reputation for internal dispute: locals regularly and furiously lock horns in the letter columns of the local Press. This may reflect an ingrained appetite for schism, but some have hazarded that it owes something also to the elements. Dunedin’s inner city, ringed by mountains, does not enjoy the same climate as the rest of the city or its suburbs inland, and even supposedly unitary weather areas within its bounds are subdivided by elevation. For much of the year there is therefore every reason for Dunedians to empathise with, resent or sneer at those closest to them.

At the time of writing (2010), over half of Dunedin’s streetnames are of Scottish (particularly Edinburgh) origin. A study of its street map throws up many familiar-sounding places in unfamiliar constellations. From an ersatz Broughton perspective, of particular interest are: Albany St, Bellevue St, Bonnington St, the Botanical Garden, Broughton St, Claremont St, Cumberland St, Dryden St, Dundas St, Forth St, George St, Green St, Hart St, Heriot Row, Leith Walk, Logie St, London St, McDonald Rd, Northumberland St, Water of Leith, Queen St, Rodney St, Union St, and York Place among others.

The effect is like viewing one’s own home, blind drunk, through a kaleidoscope. Being well used to such sensations, McHaar will return to Dunedin in future unreliable geographies.