Writers and royals, adventurers and celebrities, locals and visitors have had different takes on Aotearoa New Zealand. Redmer Yska and Listener writers look through the archives.
“They were so generous as to tell us they would come and attack us in the morning.”
Cook finds the locals extremely obliging when he drops anchor at a place he would name Mercury Bay, November 5, 1769.
“I have always found them of a brave, noble, open and benevolent disposition, but they are a people that will never put up with an insult if they have an opportunity to resent it.”
His assessment some years later of the Māori character.
“When that first ship came to Whitianga I was afraid of the goblins in her and would not go near the ship till some of our warriors had been on board … the supreme leader talked to us boys … his appearance was noble, and hence we children liked him and he gave a nail to me.”
Te Horeta aka Te Taniwha, account of meeting James Cook in 1769.
“We were all full of hope and anxiety to see what had been represented to us as a sort of earthly paradise … I was doomed to witness those very beings who were cheering and shouting as they left the land of their nativity, cast – as it were – upon a barren, dreary and inhospitable shore.”
New settler Alexander Marjoribanks, Port Nicholson, 1840.
“The countenances of all the males were rubbed with the red kokowai that had been powdered fine and mixed with oil … Many had also enriched the crimson stains with broad bands of blue earth (parakawahia) that encircled the eyes like spectacles …”
Trader Joel Polack, Hokianga, 1830s.
“I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found at Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive.”
Naturalist Charles Darwin, December 1835.
“Before we came to an anchor in Ship Cove we descried a canoe … [It was] a small and frail vessel, and contained eight men. They were clothed in coarse mats, and some of them were painted with red ochre … they lashed their canoe to the main-chain, and jumping on deck with the greatest confidence, shook hands with us, and then squatted down.”
Naturalist Ernest Dieffenbach, Fiordland, 1839.
“… truly the early settlers in a new colony do become extraordinary beings, somewhat, I imagine, of the Kentucky style, half horse, half alligator, with a touch of earthquake …”
Diarist Sarah Mathew, Auckland, 1841.
“One of the few un-English and imperfectly civilised habits here is that they seldom dress for dinner.”
Lord Lyttelton, 1867.
“I felt it to be desirable to keep so far as might be an atmosphere of polish among the young men … people so easily sank in those days into rude habits and rough demeanour … So we assembled in evening attire … and made ourselves agreeable according to our lights and behaved ‘pretty’ …”
Sarah Selwyn, Anglican bishop’s wife, 1892.
“It was Junior England all the way to Christchurch.”
American writer Mark Twain, 1895.
“… the New Zealanders are an easy-going race, moral but gay, lacking in puritan pugnacity, with perhaps just a suspicion of the Polynesian!”
Social reformer Beatrice Webb, 1898.
“At Invercargill, I felt exactly as I might have felt on getting out of a railway in some small English town, and by the time I had reached the inn, and gone through the customary battle as to bedrooms, a tub of cold water, and supper, all the feeling of mystery was gone.”
English novelist Anthony Trollope, 1873.
“We anchored opposite the town, or rather the straggling village of Auckland, which at first sight has by no means a prepossessing appearance; an effect that is unluckily confirmed on a closer inspection.”
W Tyrone Power, soldier, 1846.
“Wellington remains in the memory as imperial only in the manner of artificial dressiness in everything. Your numerous gentlemen wearing long-faced hats, kid gloves and other fashionable attire … You bear away the palm of supremacy at the metropolis for leeches, drones and parasites, feeding on the public revenue.”
The Evening Post quotes a visitor, 1870.
“The beach is awful. You look out to sea and then turn around … and everybody’s rubbish is dumped on the sand.”
Quote by Christie about the beach at Hokitika – which has, she said, “the most lovely view of the Southern Alps and Mt Cook in the distance – really beautiful”.
“I still think New Zealand the most beautiful country I have ever seen. Its scenery is extraordinary … Everywhere the beauty of the countryside is astonishing.”
“Drove out [from Nelson to Motueka] in a big omnibus car, that takes four in each seat. We were quite comfortable to start with, but picked up anybody of local importance we happened to meet on the road until the whole car was jammed like sardines. The old jest of ‘It is unlucky to ride 13 in a car’ would apply quite seriously to the average New Zealand four-seater. They have a passion for loading up.”
“We were in Wellington on a perfect day; something which, I gathered from its inhabitants, seldom happened … I have never seen anything in my life as beautiful as Wellington harbour. Sydney is nothing to it. Great mountains all round coming down to the water’s edge – the far-off ones with snow on them. Blue sky and deep blue water and Wellington itself nestling on the side of the mountain.”
“I thought it an uncommonly pleasant place, although it smells like Hades.”
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, Volcanic Plateau, 1934.
“One gets the impression that young people as a group are not only less accepted and admired than in the United States, but that they are also actively disliked by many adults.”
Fulbright scholar David Ausubel, 1957.
“Once back in their homeland, Kupe was asked many questions about the land of the long white cloud. And so the stories of discovery and adventure were shared with the people of Hawaiki – stories of giant trees, mountain ranges, rivers full of fish and greenstone, and forests full of birds, some standing taller than a man …”
Wiremu Grace, Kupe’s Travels Around Aotearoa.
“Class hatred … is very rare in New Zealand, where the working man has retained a certain curious innate admiration for money and for the man who lives in the grand style.”
French academic André Siegfried, 1914.
“It is a rotten way of seeing a fine country … Returned soldiers & shrieking people & school children are all that I shall remember. The balls and other functions were even less appealing. Half the men are overflowing with Scotch … and the women get on my nerves & none of them can dance for nuts …”
Prince of Wales, NZ Tour, 1920.
“My room has a window overlooking what appears to be a precipice. There is certainly no light out there. The moon came out, a tiny scythe unable to brighten the night. It looks just as lost and lonesome as I.”
Colombo Plan student Trinh Khanh Tuoc, Wellington, 1961.
“Nice, too, at Waitomo, to find the Queen’s head on the bedroom doorknob as a reminder that she slept here one New Year’s Eve.”
Columnist Susan Graham, 1962.
“I was reflecting on how shocking it was that 123 years after the Treaty of Waitangi, there was not one Māori in the room. I think this is a reflection on your society.”
Governor-General Bernard Fergusson, 1963.
“It got a bit rough in New Zealand; a big clump of my hair had gone, and I don’t mean just a bit. I was halfway on the ground. They put three or four police on for 3000 or 4000 kids and refused to put any more on.”
Beatle John Lennon on tour security in Auckland, 1964.
“It was then, in 1953, that we really visited New Zealand for the first time … the greenest land I have ever seen …”
US President Richard Nixon, 1969.
“Auckland began as the sweepings of Sydney. Even now it has many of the characteristics of an Australia for beginners … essentially a main street surrounded by thirty square miles of rectangular boxes …”
Author Austin Mitchell in The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise 1972.
“We ate sandwiches and scones (with jam and cream) and drank cold milk laced with whisky. This is a particularly good drink late at night, but there is nothing wrong with it about 1.20pm on a warm day.”
English novelist and playwright JB Priestley, Queenstown, 1973.
“Back in Christchurch, I sat in my hotel room, staring at my feet. I watched a New Zealand version of This Is Your Life, paying tribute to a middle-aged Māori singer, and when the man wept openly at seeing his family traipse into the studio, I became so depressed I drank most of the minibar.”
US travel writer Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania, 1992.
“… every person, when he or she is young, dreams of finding some enchanted place, of beautiful mountains and breathtaking coastline and clear lakes and amazing wildlife, and most people give up on it because they never get to New Zealand.”
US President Bill Clinton, Auckland, 1999.
“People would be speaking Elvish in the van, dressed as Sam or Frodo.”
Tour operator Melissa Heath on Lord of the Rings tourism, 2012.
“Wellington is the coolest little capital in the world.”
Lonely Planet Guide, 2013.
“… the whole atmosphere seems impregnated with perfumes; sweets are borne upon the wings of every gale …”
Missionary William Yate, Bay of Islands, 1830s.
“During my stay at this place, one of the heaviest hail showers fell that I have ever witnessed … one half (laterally) of each stone was composed of clear, and the other half of clouded, ice. The oldest natives spoke of only remembering one such shower.”
Missionary and botanist William Colenso, 1841, near Lake Waikaremoana.
“The high winds that prevail in that country are certainly a great drawback, and Cook’s Straits in particular are exposed to them … This inconvenience, however, is more than compensated [for] by the extraordinary salubrity which it produces … a surgeon … could scarcely discover either man, woman or child, with any disease about them …”
New settler Alexander Marjoribanks, Wellington, 1845.
“The warm water covered my body with an exquisite varnish … as smooth as velvet … I felt like the most polished person in the world.”
Politician William Fox at Orakei-Korako thermal baths, 1874.
“The dullest intellect quickens into awe and reverence amidst volcanoes and boiling springs and the mighty forces of nature.”
British historian James Froude, 1886.
“We can sit in our house and see the mountains with the tops all covered with snow, although they are about 60 miles off.”
English immigrant Mary Robinson, Temuka, 1874.
“It was a glorious day, the sky that intense blue which has no equal, and under the bright sun and the wonderfully clear air the colouring of mountain, sea and forest was almost too vivid in its intensity.”
Painter Ellis Rowan, Napier, 1890s.
“I remember asking for an omelette, and then stopping the waitress – everything goes wrong in New Zealand – and saying very clearly, ‘With three eggs’. And then I got a three-egg omelette with three fried eggs on top. You know how some things are more obscene than you’d anticipate; well, a fried egg on an omelette when you cut it is absolutely unwatchable.”
Comedian John Cleese on a New Zealand tour, 1977.
“Large quantities of preserved fruit and jam of excellent quality are made there … to invalids suffering from slow chronic consumption, chronic bronchitis, rheumatism, and from senile decay, Nelson offers a delicious and restful climate.”
Author John Murray Moore, 1890.
“Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart.”
British author Rudyard Kipling on Auckland, 1891.
“There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque – it frightens – as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.”
Writer Katherine Mansfield, 1911.
“Each of her streets is closed with shining Alps.”
Professor of English Arnold Wall on Christchurch, 1930s.
“People in spotless white were playing tennis with spotless white balls, and other expensively dressed, untroubled-looking people were strolling about or eating strawberries and cream out of glass dishes … it just did not seem plausible to me that such security was to be found upon Earth …”
British author Anna Kavan, 1941.
“Invercargill is the arsehole of the world.”
Rolling Stones, 1966.
“I miss the warmth of my faraway friends and I am homesick for darkness and burial in snow; I want to do away with the ever open-eyed sun and light [of New Zealand].”
Author Janet Frame, 1970.
“The happy taughtness of my Jacket excites in me a gratitude to do some justice to this good Dusky Sound before I take my final departure from it.”
Charles Clerke, aboard Cook’s Endeavour, after gorging on fish, seal, and wild fowl, 1773.
“A splendid feast followed: 200 kits of boiled potatoes and kumaras, five pigs skewered like birds and baked whole, eight or ten pots full of white-bait, and three calabashes of pigeons and tui stewed in their own fat were brought in by a long train of slaves, and piled up in the centre of the square.”
Jerningham Wakefield, Tokaanu, 1840.
“NZ is my home country beyond any possible mistake … I’d like to be home, in the back-yard among the black-eyed Susans, or in the front garden with the hose sprinkling – it’ll be autumn now, and Wilton’s Creek soft and smelling of wild mint and burning gorse.”
Poet Robin Hyde, Shanghai, 1938.
“But you ought to see my father’s woolshed.”
Comment attributed to a visiting New Zealander, Westminster Abbey, 1930s.
‘‘… I watched her peel potatoes, then clean and wash them, and place them all over the bottom of a large camp oven; she then placed some lumps of fat rancid pork over and between the potatoes, upon which she fixed a monster eel coiled up … it was not quite dead for I saw it move …”
Colonist and politician Charles Carter, Wairarapa, 1850s.
“[Kiwi] have an earthy flavour … like a piece of pork boiled in an old coffin …”
Charles “Mr Explorer” Douglas, Westland, 1896.
“In all these patches of bush, the kiekie grew thickly, and in the summer and autumn season, the Muaupoko fed full on the succulent tawhara [flowers] therein produced. They were their orchards, and they preserved them accordingly. The tawhara was a toothsome sweet in a land where sweets were few.”
Settler Rod McDonald, Shannon, 1895.
“It’s really a miserable hole [Imperial Hotel, Whanganui]: no electric light & the hotel boilers elected to burst before dinner so no baths and a vewy [sic] nasty dinner.”
Prince of Wales, NZ Tour, 1920.
“At dinner I was introduced to a native dish, toheroa soup. They are used either fresh or from tins, and the soup is quite delicious … oysters from Stewart Island are the biggest I have ever seen … served in a sauce, with fillet of beef.”
English author Lady Angela St Clair-Erskine, Wellington, 1930.
“[My meal of cooked mutton] appeared to have been killed by a bomb and the fragments of its carcass incinerated in the resulting fire.”
Author Eric Linklater, 1951.
“Oh for dear old New Zealand again. You can’t think how sick I am of it all … I know Julie would look after me, and instead of the cold hard ground to lie on, I would have a nice bed.”
Trooper Theodore Laugesen, Waikato Mounted Rifles, France, 1916, 10 days before his death.
“I can smell the mint sauce on their breath.”
Dutch migrant on New Zealanders, 1950s.
“You have no idea what a pleasure it is to be reminded of you and the reasonableness of Wellington in the ulcerous and capricious atmosphere of this outpost.”
Diplomat Frank Corner, NZ Legation, Washington, 1948.
“It will be nice when it’s finished.”
A comment, variously attributed but unattested, made by a visitor who was asked what he thought of New Zealand.
This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.