what great gloom / Stands in a land of settlers / With never a soul at home
— Curnow, 1941
To write from an island is to write towards water. Water which dislocates and drowns, welters and stills. Oceans which, as opposed to the land, are characterised as spaces of movement and circularity, the orbital motion of waves engaging in an alternative temporality which floats up and down, back and forth. Water carries life with it; throws life against the rocks of the shore only to burrow quietly down into the soft earth, waiting to push back toward the light.
As put by W. H. Auden, the sea is
that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged and into which, unless saved by the efforts of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse.
According to Auden, the ship-as-metaphor is only employed in times of peril. When society is ‘normal’, the chosen image is one of a Garden – ‘That is where people want and ought to be’. Islands have long been constructed as garden paradises – Edenic oases planted amidst shapeless oceans. The task of locating Eden on earth became a holy grail of colonial exploration, the machinations of which worked through the projection of paradisiacal imaginaries onto the tropical islands of the southern hemisphere.
The islands of New Zealand were no exception to these projections. New Zealand was imagined as a land of natural abundance and luxuriant fertility; a trope utilised extensively to promote emigration following the declaration of British sovereignty over the islands in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Many settlers found the rich descriptions of Elysian fields and wild peach groves misleading. The landscape to them appeared alien and unfamiliar. Unnatural.
It is indeed a gloomy country without flowers or fruits or birds or insects. I cannot but fancy it accursed for flowers appear to me as the symbols and signs of the beneficence of the Deity seeming to be solely created for the gratification of his creatures. No wonder that the natives of these islands are a savage ferocious race; their country possesses not any of those refining gratifications of sense which tend so materially to soften and ameliorate the heart and manners.
— Sarah Mathew, Journal, Kororareka, 2 May 1840
When a seed is buried, ambition is planted. Gardening is political. It magics alternate worlds into being, asserting both presence and future as the earth is transformed. As roots twist downwards and buds push up the ground is colonised. Imported seeds, bulbs, and tubers release the potential held within their fibrous jackets, their shoots emerge into a foreign land under an foreign sky. Dahlias, daffodils, daisies: agents of colonial government.
Within a year of formal colonisation in New Zealand, settlers began to establish horticultural societies and organise exhibitions where members could bring their best garden produce to be shown. In the early days of settlement, colonists were highly dependent on Māori agriculture for basic food provisioning. Garden-making in the 1840s thus understandably focused on vegetable growing, intended at depriving Māori producers of their economic power. In the 1842 show of the Wellington Horticultural Society, however – alongside prizes for carrots, cauliflowers and kohlrabi – were awards for best seedling geranium, best bouquet of flowers, and best dahlias. Indeed, an ‘extra prize’ for dahlias was won by a Dr Featherston, credited as being among the first to introduce the flower to the colony (New Zealand Gazette, 1842).
Flowers, as suggested in Sarah Mathew’s diary above, were emblems of civilisation in nineteenth-century Britain. Indicative of attention to health, comfort, and ‘all other parts of civilised life’, the ‘gay garden with its neat flower borders [helped] forward very efficiently the great work of civilisation in the far-off land of the Southern Hemisphere’ (Twining, 1890: 14, 1858: 130). Land cultivation, since the theorisations of Locke, has long been seen as a necessary precursor to civilisation. Flower cultivation goes one step further in signalling a visible progression beyond mere subsistence farming. The encouragement of floriculture amongst the Māori and working-class settlers was central to the colonial project in the Antipodes, working to construct a common material culture and recreate the gardening habits of the British metropole – a distinctly English ‘civilised’ cultural routine.
Gardens require care and attention. They are the ultimate tool of self-help - in order to make plants flourish, you must look ahead into the future, plan and discipline, work hard. Plants, if properly committed to, are a long-term prospect, constituting a sustained influence on the life of the cultivator. The promotion of gardening becomes a means of exercising control over the everyday lives of those who garden, as well as the private domestic spaces they inhabit.
Hiding at the bottom of the show report from the 1842 Wellington Horticultural Society, there is one last entry: ‘Native prize – 6 largest potatoes: - E Keti, pah Pipiteah’. A pah – or pā – refers to a Māori settlement, Pipiteah being located on the shores of Wellington Harbour – a pā left abandoned by the 1890s as a result of European encroachment and dispossession. Whilst E Keti does not appear again in show reports, prizes offered to ‘natives’ increased until 1846 when not only potatoes feature, but also melons, pumpkins, marrows and wheat. There were over seventy ‘native’ competitors that year, a fact apparently ‘entirely attributable to the force of example, and the civilising influence of the settlers’ (New Zealand Spectator, 1846).
Eventually, limited documentary evidence of Māori involvement in floriculture emerges, some flower shows being run exclusively for Māori communities, such as that at the Kaiapoi Pā:
Happily for our Maori neighbours, the days of summary proceedings with war clubs…are past, and their superfluous energies are now better employed in the more peaceful art of raising flowers
— The Star, 1887
In Motueka in 1881, Mr. Huta Pamariki Paaka won first prize for his well-grown display of fuchsias in pots, a fact ‘worthy of note’ due to his status as a descendent of ‘one of the ‘native owners of the soil’’ (The Colonist, 1881).
In the minds of British colonists, these pots of fuchsias stood watch over the homes of the Māori , their elegant droplet petals elevating the hearts and minds of the natives by giving them a newfound appreciation for beauty. Beauty as defined and delimited by one cultural tradition, assumed to be universal and thus natural. Natural, that is, if one is human. To ‘humanise’ was used synonymously with ‘civilise’ in nineteenth-century gardening literature in outlining the aims of working-class floricultural movements. In the context of white working-class families in London slums, this ‘humanising’ intent was certainly pernicious, but when tied to the non-white bodies of the ‘savages’ faced in the colonies, it was literal and deadly. The humanity of indigenous Antipodeans was doubted in such a way as to provoke a ‘crisis of humanism’ in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, central to the subsequent construction of biological hierarchies of race and white supremacy (Anderson, 2007).
The Māori appreciation of an ornamental flower was thus an indicator of their status as a human, capable of civilisation. It was not only the people, however, but also the landscape that was in need of civilising. As remarked by settler Jane Williams in 1871, ‘the country is of course improved by the numerous English settlers’ and their ‘many pretty little homesteads’, typically surrounded by sweetbriar hedges and flower patches of clove pinks and white moss roses. Flowers made the land legible to European settlers, a reassuring presence redolent of a home left behind.
But their presence spoke also of dislocation, of distance. That gloom hanging in Curnow’s land of settlers with ‘never a soul at home’. Colonists, especially women, set about creating what they hoped would become home using plant material brought or sent from Britain – cuttings and seeds which provided olfactory remembrances of places and people (Fairburn, 1989). Gardens became nostalgic temples of memories, each plant imbued with entwining sentiments of past and future, growing confusedly in and out of place. New Zealand poet Ursula Bethell’s 1929 From a Garden in the Antipodes speaks to this divided floral loyalty –
I must pass you by, primroses,
The sight of you here under the apple-tree has too sweet a sting,
So like, so unlike the sight of you in an English orchard in spring.
You should not be here, primroses, yet must I have you here
To look up at us with your patient smile in the strange spring
of the year –
Not current coin, primroses, but a foreign token
The sight of a familiar English flower in a New Zealand garden was at once comforting and jarring, its identity impossible to locate. For Bethell, the primrose was a cipher for her own sense of dislocation, of dwelling in, but not truly belonging to, a new land. The colonial flower garden thus became a means of mediating between a displaced history and personal, hopeful, future; a space within which a person’s place in the world could be grown and understood (Morris, 2008).
Flowers are elusive. Unlike animals, or even a favourite houseplant, whose individuality and permanence wins the affection of its keeper, garden flowers are ephemeral. They come and go with the seasons, no perennial flower being materially quite the same as the year before. This material instability gives them the unique ability to conjure up powerful feelings of attachment and nostalgia wherever they spring up. Great distances are shrunk as a common material - vegetal - culture is cultivated across the seas.
Whilst the utility of privileging London as the all-important colonial metropole around which the British imperial project revolved has been challenged by historians preferring a more networked approach to empire, learned societies within the British capital were venerated by many as establishing international standards in all manner of disciplines. London’s horticultural societies – from the Royal Horticultural Society to the more specialised National Chrysanthemum Society – did much to standardise British floriculture throughout the empire. Their flower shows were reported on extensively in Antipodean newspapers and periodicals, with guidance on precisely what should constitute a flower worthy of a show prize. Whilst New Zealand horticulturalists had their own shows in which to compete, there was a sense of regret that their blooms could never stand in comparison to those grown in the British metropole.
John Earland, gardener to the Mayor of Wellington, was one individual who had devoted much time and attention to obtaining seeds from chrysanthemums in order to produce new varieties – a technique found to be almost impossible to perfect in England. How, though, could he show his skill and success to the esteemed British authorities on chrysanthemums at the national show in London?
By the 1890s, New Zealand had become one of the leading countries for the export of meat. Advances in refrigeration techniques allowed for frozen meat to embark on the three-to-five month voyage across the seas to Britain whilst retaining its freshness. Why not, then, try the same technique with plant matter?
Eight of Earland’s chrysanthemum blooms, mostly incurved Japanese varieties, were frozen in zinc cylinders, suspended in large blocks of ice. Having been packed in the freezing chamber of a meatpacking steamer, flowers frozen in April were shown at the September 1892 show of the National Chrysanthemum Society at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. Once the cylinders had thawed, cylindrical blocks of ice were released, revealing each flower in a perfect state of preservation, their natural colours retained. They were exhibited until the surrounding ice melted away and the flowers took on a sodden and frost-bitten appearance, earning Earland two first-class certificates, five commendations and a silver-gilt flora medal for his unique display.
After this point, there are several more reports of frozen flowers being sent by ship between England and the Antipodes – roses from Auckland, carnations and lilies from Wellington, chrysanthemums from Sydney. They were hailed as a potential new menace to British florists; if operations were scaled up, frozen bouquets would become the latest dining-table fashion, threatening British flower producers. Unsurprisingly, this never took on, but the icy blossoms made their mark.
Frozen food, meat or fish, may, though tasteless, keep fresh,
For an aeon or so without causing great wonder;
But flowers are much frailer and finer than flesh,
And to freeze them immortal makes fancy knock under.
It may front an ice-preserved beef-steak or kidney,
But think of iced lilies six months out from Sydney!
In this deliberately hyperbolic piece, Punch ponders the inspiration unleashed by the possibility of preserving flowers in ice, declaring that
Tinned dreams, pickled moonbeams and pemmican song,
Sound scarcely more funny, and hardly more wrong.
If British technology could take flowers – famously ephemeral objects – and preserve them for months on end as they lay in the holds of great ships and cool storage houses, for public show on the other side of the world, it could achieve anything. Pickling moonbeams was hardly a stretch too far.
These frozen flowers, some as wide as sunflowers encased in blocks of ice, muddied the waters between the impossible and the implausible. Incongruous temporalities of ice, ocean currents, and plants collided so that five-month old flowers could cross continents and appear ‘as if just cut’ in another land. Emblematic of imperial globalising intent, this manipulation of nature represented more than just a passing novelty. It speaks to the role of nonhuman nature in constituting the material bonds which tied the disparate territories of the British Empire together; to that symbolic High British Culture towards which all subjects should strive; to the aesthetics of empire – of beauty clouding violence. Empires of flowers concealing empires of dispossession and death.
- To write from an island is to write towards water. The sea, as ‘an open and ever-flowing reality’, writes Tongan author Epeli Hau’ofa, speaks to an oceanic identity which ‘transcends all forms of insularity’, our route to each other and the rest of the world. As New Zealand-born colonials began to outnumber migrants from around the 1880s, a distinctive sense of national identity began to grow. Oriented outward towards a globalising world, this emerging New Zealand joined the imperial archipelago of histories transplanted by voyages and generated by settlements, never quite ‘at home’.
Settlements grow by the planting of seeds give rise to garden identities – grounded and slow – held up in contrast to the ocean’s churn that washed them upon the shore. These garden identities existed in two worlds, one rooted as a local cipher, cultivating a perennial presence on stolen land, the other outwards facing, towards the sea and the high (horti)culture of empire. At one moment connected through the voyages of flowers silently suspended in great cylinders of ice, nestled amongst frozen meat, these two identities grew around one another, vying for sun. Their ambivalence as violent tools of civilisation, sweet reminders of English homesteads, and stark invocations of oceanic displacement, transformed the landscape into a multifarious melange of petal and leaf. Turning the soil to unearth these fibrous agents of empire can help new histories take root – gardening is political.
This essay was originally printed in FLIGHTS 2020.
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