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“To Fill This Void Land”: Acclimatisation as Mnemonic Device in Victorian New Zealand

Sally J. Morgan


The New Zealand landscape has been irrevocably changed and shaped through the intervention of British colonisation. The same stubborn refusal of New Zealand’s nineteenth-century British settlers to wear clothes that suited the climate, to have anything other than a northern hemisphere Christmas, or to orient their houses towards the warm north rather than the cold south, produced, for a period in its history, a faux Britain at odds with the reality of Aotearoa and its established Māori occupation and culture. This construction of “home” was a tenuous facsimile, full of dishevelled chrysanthemums struggling to keep their composure in their overheated garden bed, next to the monstrously large lavender and the rampant nasturtiums. This was a consciously invented mimetic landscape, aspiring to Englishness but ultimately failing. In attempting to maintain the myth of the “Britain of the South”, these settlers created a fragile collection of embodied nostalgia in the form of introduced flora, fauna, landscapes, and practices. This article argues that in their attempt to “fill this void land”, the British ancestors of many modern New Zealanders created a landscape disrupted by the plaintive, domestic familiarity of another place, a distant, lost home. It also contends that these intrusions, that were originally wrought in the name of memory, of home, of patriotism, are largely invisible in those terms to their descendents, modern New Zealanders. The traces of memory of another home are still there, but can only be read as originally intended by those familiar with the original referents; recent immigrants from the British Isles, exiles who find the unexpected familiarity of elements this foreign landscape an unsettling and poignant “container of memory”.