SAC #36: The Construction of the Grasslands in “Newest England”: New Zealand 1850s-1920s



Thursday, 24 May 2007, 4:30- 6:00pm (please note late start time)


Seminar Room, Centre for Innovation, 87 St. David St.


Tom Brooking, History Department, University of Otago


This paper analyses how British settlers after 1850 converted about 18 million acres of forest, tussock and swamp into pasture lands using ?English grasses?, thereby creating what the American progressive journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd described as ?newest England? when he visited in 1899. The creation of these ?carpets? of rye grass, cocksfoot, white and red clover, larger in extent than in England itself, has long been taken for granted, rather than acknowledged as a remarkable example of imperial environmental transformation. How did British settlers achieve such a rapid engineering of nature, and what drove the reconstruction of an ancient environment that had never before carried ruminants or any large based mammals? The project on which the paper is based this seeks to combine older style agricultural history with a more broadly conceived and interdisciplinary environmental history.

The paper will seek to critique simplistic centre periphery explanations of New Zealand?s development as the grassland farming specialist of the British Empire; counter the thesis that gentlemanly capitalists based in London drove its grassland construction when colonial farmers, capitalists and agricultural scientists played a more dynamic role than their British counterparts; discuss methods employed by farmers, seed merchants and the state to trial and develop a narrow suite of grasses and grass mixtures; underscore the importance of ideology, especially the yeoman ideal and its privileging of the family farm; emphasise the significance of New Zealand?s lack of minerals and the consequent failure to develop alternative economic strategies to explain the development of a virtual grass monoculture; and highlight the role played by key individuals in promoting the hegemony of grassland utopia.

About the Speaker

Tom Brooking is Professor of History at the University of Otago. He and his co-author on this paper, Eric Pawson, Professor of Geography Unviersity of Canterbury, co-edited Environmental Histories of New Zealand (Oxford, 2002). Tom is a founding member of the Sustainable Agriculture Research Cluster.


Julia Haggerty