Auckland Museum

Zealandia – mother of the nation?

The kiwi may be our national symbol today, but when, emblem-wise, it was still a downy chick, New Zealand had quite a different figurehead.

Written by       Photographed by Kennedy Warne

When the venerable Dame Whina Cooper died earlier this year, much was made of her status as “te whaea o te motu,” the mother of the nation. But perhaps another personage could lay claim to this august title—someone who has played an even greater part in our quest for national identity.

Her name is Zealandia, and she has enjoyed a long and often distin­guished career. A direct link to both Mother Britain and the ancient world, she brought a sense of history and classical respectability to the young colony during its formative years. But she was a woman of those times, and during the 20th century her star has declined. After more than a century of service, she may be heading for retirement.

During the 1993 Women’s Suf­frage Centennial Zealandia was ig­nored. This was hardly surprising since, although unmistakably fe­male, Zealandia was scarcely an ad­vocate for women’s causes. Rather, she tended to be a pliant instrument in the hands of a male-dominated society. Many of her duties were blindly patriotic—and eminently forgettable. Yet despite the fact that her legacy may be no more than a few official symbols and statues, her connections ran much deeper. She reflected the subconscious yearn­ings of a young nation for credibility and status, and therefore provides a different perspective on our social history.

So who was she? A goddess fig­ure? A classical heroine? A puppet of the patriarchy? Or just an ephem­eral cartoon? Her origins, and at least one of her parents, are reason­ably well known: she is a curious mixture of ancient Britain, Greek mythology and a few other influ­ences besides.

Etymologically speaking, she is Dutch, a product of Abel Tasman’s rediscovery of Aotearoa in 1642. The land was called Nieuw Zeeland after a maritime province in the Netherlands, but by the time Cap­tain James Cook claimed it for King George III of Great Britain in 1769 it was known as New Zealand. How­ever, it would be almost another century before European colonisa­tion provided the conditions neces­sary for the emergence of its alle­gorical namesake.

The derivative “Zealandia” had its solo debut in an 1857 book title, New Zealand or Zealandia, The Britain of the South Seas—a guide for emigrants written by an enthusi­astic advocate for colonial life. The concept of Zealandia as a scenic southern land more beauteous than Britain herself was born, resulting in an outpouring of patriotic verse.

Antipodean poet Mary Sinclair marked the Queen’s birthday in 1879 with a description of her adopted land as “Excelsior Zealandia,” the “Brighter Britain of the South.”

In 1889, a collection of verse with the Boys’ Own-sounding title of The Pirate Chief and the Mummy’s Com­plaint with Various Zealandian Po­ems included “Zea-landia Our Home” and “Hail, Zealandia! Hail!” William Skey, the poet responsible, threatened a further collection which would include “Zealandia; Or Paradise Regained” and “Rule, Zealandia,” but, mercifully perhaps, it never materialised.

The undoubted classic of this un­fortunate genre was Wilhelmina Sherrif Elliot’s book of verse, From Zealandia. Wilhelmina showed no restraint. A typical verse of “Beauti­ful Zealandia!” (sung to the tune of “Maryland! My Maryland!”) gushes: “Within thy dim cathedral aisles More exquisite than marble piles, Enraptured tuis chant their psalms, And mokos chime in holy calms, While peace supernal showers its balms: Beautiful Zealandia!”

A feature of such verse was its frequent reference to the ancient world. Zealandia was thus “encrowned with Flora’s starry sheen,” and her fiords were “elysian gleams.” She was “Preserved for that superior race, Which prophets long fore­told.” Adam, Laz­arus, Neptune and Je­rusalem also gained a mention. Zealandia may have been young and a world apart, but her poets insisted on giving her a classi­cal context.

While poets pro­moted Zealandia as a visual wonderland in the South Pacific, other colonial inter­preters sought a sym­bol with which to personify their new home. Cartoonists initiated the search, resulting in the ap­pearance of Zea­landia the woman In 1865, Punch in Canterbury depicted a sturdy female dealing to a hapless Maori, her flailing whip triumphing over a tomahawk. This was the Pakeha response to the “rebellious” Pai­Marire (Hau Hau) followers. The for­midable punisher, in classical gown and sandals, represents the indig­nant European New Zealander, and no doubt Justice as well. From the Pakeha point of view, these prob­ably amounted to the same thing.

But this was a young, inexperi­enced and as yet unnamed Zealandia, so her partisan indiscre­tion was perhaps excusable. Before long she would be acting for all New Zealanders.

In the 1880s, campaigning began in earnest for women’s right to vote, and there were increasing opportu­nities for symbolic figures, usually broad-bosomed types in classical clothing. Eventually, New Zealand became the first sovereign state in the world to give women the vote, in spite of disruptive tactics by Premier Richard “King Dick” Seddon. But all was apparently forgiven when a grateful Miss Zealandia wished Mr Seddon a happy new year for 1895 That a frontier society should uti­lise an other-worldly female figure may not be surprising in view of its links with Britain. Many settlers had only recently left the realm of Bri­tannia, the obvious model, mentor and mother of the South Pacific’s Zealandia.

Britannia was the Roman name for southern Britain, and as the per­sonification of that country first ap­peared on a coin in about A.D. 120. Seated on a rock, with a spear and shield, she may have been inspired by the Roman goddess Minerva, but she had even earlier origins in the Greeks’ pantheon of gods, especially Athena and Zeus who, with hel­mets, spears and shields, made fre­quent appearances on coins and vase paintings from about 300 s.c.

The modern version of Britannia dates from a representation on a coin in 1672, when she had assumed Neptune’s control of the sea, reflect­ing Britain’s new naval prowess. (She may also be able to claim more colourful origins—her face and form were apparently modelled on the mistress of Charles II.)

Britannia still makes her mark on money in her homeland (specifi­cally the 50p coin and a series of four gold “Britannias”), and circulated on imperial coinage in New Zealand until 1933, when we in­troduced designs of our own.

She reached the zenith of her power and influence during the reign of Queen    Victoria, when she began ap­pearing on postage stamps of the young Queen’s colonies, thereby endorsing the authority of the motherland. Her popularity was also bolstered by the Vic­torian curiosity for ancient Britain

As one of the smallest, youngest and most distant members of the Em­pire, New Zealand was keen to prove its worthiness. The cli­mate here proved most conducive to British influence, particularly a symbolic female following in Britan­nia’s footsteps. And so the mother figure stepped out of the postage stamp and into a more prominent role in society.

Zealandia’s career received early support from an unlikely source: the labour movement. Workers’ inter­ests were overseen by females re­cruited from antiquity. Liberty and Justice were popular subjects, the former inspiring the creation of one of the largest female representations in the world: the statue at the entrance to New York Harbour. In 19th century New Zealand, Art, Industry, Justice and Truth, in female form, kept company with male workers and their tools of trade on a Building Trades Union certificate from 1860.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Zea­landia was threatened from across the Tasman. There was talk of a fed­eration of Australian states to include their small neighbour to the east, but Zealandia re­sisted. By re­taining her identity outside the Commonwealth of Australia. she was about to find other opportunities at home. Zealandia celebrated the new century on January 1, 1901, by leading her country where none had gone before. New Zealand pioneered the introduction of universal penny

postage (a penny to post a half-ounce letter anywhere within New Zealand or the Empire), and Zea­landia featured promi­nently. The Brit­ish stamp designers had been asked to fur­nish a female figure symbolic of New Zea­land, but the results were, at first, not appreciated.

claimed that far from being an obvi­ous New Zealander, the resulting woman could have been “symbolic” anywhere. Others thought she looked more like a teacher delivering a lesson, perhaps on geography or shipping. Nevertheless, the stamp sold in unprecedented numbers, and in 1901 it qualified New Zea­landers as the world’s greatest letter writers, with some 62 per head per annum

When the Commonwealth of Australia was granted its first coat of arms in 1908, it selected a shield flanked by a kangaroo and emu. Three years later, New Zealand graduated from colony to dominion and required a coat of arms of its own. A national competition was held, and suggestions included vari­ous pairings of Pakeha soldiers and farmers, Maori warriors and maid­ens, moas, Britannia and Zealandia. For the position above the shield, kiwis, crowns and lions seemed the popular choice.

The winning design contained Zealandia, bearing the new national flag, and a Maori chief. In heraldic terminology, the supporter on the left was “a female figure proper vested Argent supporting in the Dex­ter hand a Flagstaff proper, hoisted thereon the Ensign of the Dominion of New Zealand.” This remains the official description of Zealandia, al­though her appearance has some­what altered. For 45 years she posed on a bed of golden curlicues until they were replaced by fronds of fern in 1956. She was also given a mod­ern hairstyle and gown and a more manageable flag to hold. But more significantly, she and her fellow supporter turned to acknowledge one another. Previously their gazes had been strictly divergent.

Soon after the coat of arms was adopted, it became the model for a set of postage stamps which illustrator, painter and teacher Harry Linley Richardson began designing in 1915. This revenue series did not appear until 1931, but certain of the stamps remained in use until 1989. Here Zealandia and her colleague proved a little more bicultural than on the earlier official arms, gazing straight ahead rather than snubbing one another (below right). This long-serving design was also notable for Richardson’s bold variation on the national flag.

Thanks to the coat of arms, Zealandia had become an official figurehead, perhaps not unlike those that traditionally guided ships. Her name was given to a warship built for the Royal Navy in 1904, while a variation, the steamer Zealandic, plied our ports about the same time.

But Zealandia’s greatest guidance was given during wartime. As her country rallied to the Empire’s call  for assistance, she played the part of morale booster, reminding citizens of their patriotic duties. She also be­gan to appear alongside homegrown symbols. The weekly Free Lance newspaper used such icons as Mt. Egmont (Taranaki), a pair of cabbage trees and, prophetically, a kiwi. In a few years’ time that bird would be­come the undisputed—though unof­ficial—national symbol of New Zea­land.

At one stage, Zealandia was sug­gested as an alternative name for the country, along with such other con­tenders as Maoriland and Fernland. At least these alternatives did have local flavour, which is more than can be said for such earlier sugges­tions as Austral-Britain, South-Brit­ain and Britannia itself.

In the early 1900s, New Zealand had a feast of national symbols to choose from. One cartoonist who demonstrated the range of options was “Blo” (William Blomfield) of the Observer. During his lengthy ca­reer he employed such national representatives as a rural lad, a boy scout, Zealandia and a pair of indigenous flightless birds, in various combinations.

For sporting applications in the early 1900s, the moa was favoured, but was steadily overtaken by its smaller cousin. Whereas in 1908 the visiting American fleet was welcomed to Auckland by our extinct avian giant, in 1925 the Yankee sailors were greeted by the kiwi, accompanied by a Maori woman (opposite page).

In a rare mother and daughter ap­pearance, Zealandia and Britannia featured together on a certificate of thanks which the Empire gave to those New Zealanders fortunate enough to return from World War I. Britannia in full regalia, complete with lions and a vanquished eagle, watches while the loyal soldier writes his country’s name into the roll of honour. Surrounding this tableau is a rich panorama of symbol­ism incorporating clematis, Maori carvings, some obligatory scenery and, in the national coat of arms, a

Zealandia was not limited to ap­pearances in print. At least two stat­ues of her exist, in Palmerston and Waimate, where she honors soldiers who gave their lives in the Boer War. In both cases, her national pride is expressed with one armupraised in triumph and the other holding a wreath. The First World War resulted in a number of female figures on memo­rials, but no Zealandia, and when the time came to honour the dead of the next war, a new approach was evident. A few traditional memori­als were erected, or names were simply added to existing structures, but public amenities were the popular choice. This utilitarian stand gave the country new halls and swim­ming pools, but provided no further opportunities for Zealandia.

If Britannia was at her peak dur­ing the late 1800s, Zealandia’s finest hour came a generation later. As well as her official duties, she gained a wide range of commercial applications, from ice chests to coal ranges, and candles to collars. One brand of rolled oats (previous page) bore Zealandia’s name and image, and claimed to be as pure, fresh and wholesome as presumably she was herself. Every week her profile and trident circulated throughout town and country on the masthead of the pink-covered Auckland Weekly News. Beginning in 1863, and re­taining her on the cover for over 50 years, the Weekly News was one of the earliest users of the Zealandia image.

The completion of World War I duties marked the end of her golden age, and the period until 1940 offered only sporadic employment. The influence of her mother, Britan­nia, was now on the wane, and Queen Victoria was but a distant memory. Zealandia herself was becoming an anachronism—a figurehead without a function. After enduring a depression and a war, the country perhaps had less interest in allegory.

Even so, Zealandia was recruited to lead the nation into its second century of British settlement, and during the Centennial Exhibition celebrations, from November 1939 to May 1940, she adorned certificates of attendance, wearing a cling­ing gown and Southern Cross headscarf. Beyond the national flag, streaming out behind her, lay a rich panorama of icons of progress and representatives of native flora and fauna. Significantly, lurking at Zealandia’s feet was a national symbol on the rise, the kiwi.

This Pakeha Zealandia did not have the Centennial responsibilities entirely to herself: a promotional sticker enticing visitors to this pageant of progress showed a Maori woman in traditional dress . However, the Centennial’s official symbol contrasted the past with the present, and the culture of the Maori was firmly in the former category. “Progress” consisted of aircraft, cranes and high-rise buildings; more cultural concerns would have to wait 50 years for the next big party, the 1990 Sesquicentennial.In choosing a female figurehead, was New Zealand any different from other fledgling countries?

Across the Tasman, Britannia and classically clad females were put to similar uses as in New Zealand, but there was a major difference. From 1901, Australia had a Commonwealth of its own and saw itself less as a daughter of Britannia and more as a sister. Also, the country received a wider range of European settlers, and so Britannia may not have been such a potent influence. A symbolic female lost out to animal subjects on the national coat of arms, and neither do Australian trademarks provide such an allegorical figure. Perhaps Canada, where Britannia encountered Marianne, her French equivalent, offers a better comparison with New Zealand.

South of the Canadian border we find Columbia, with the unusual distinction of being a female symbol inspired by a male explorer. She and her lookalike Liberty have competed with such other symbols as Uncle Sam, the bald eagle, the Stars and  Stripes and the Capitol dome. Both Liberty and Columbia live on—the latter as the leading lady for Columbia Pictures.

Back home, Zealandia’s name lingers on a Catholic newspaper, a road in Albany and a street in Whangarei. Once she drew strength from a classical revival, and the obvious attraction a firm, fulsome mother figure had for a rugged pioneer society.

At that time, the idea of a woman in control was entirely hypothetical, and could only have enhanced the other-worldly nature of Zealandia. But a century later the metaphor became reality. With women holding cabinet portfolios, leading a political party and filling the post of Governor General, perhaps the need for an alle­gorical female has passed

Nevertheless, Zealandia retains her pose on the nation’s coat of arms. In 1966, one commentator suggested that this was her final appearance, albeit in a “cut down nightie,” and that the country no longer needed its classical caregiver.

She now faces a new threat in the form of republicanism, an idea that has recently gained momentum across the Tasman. If we were to go that way, our historic Britannic connection on the arms might need to be purged.

And what would be the implications of such a change? New Zealand has a rich heritage of symbols; they have changed as the society they represent has changed. Even Zealandia’s symbolic heir—the kiwi—has a doubtful future, the bird itself dealing with the prospect of disappearing from the mainland.

It is unlikely that our long-standing need for symbols has gone altogether; the forces of post colonialism and postmodernism may simply demand different imagery. Whatever shape it takes next, the symbol will surely provide a perspective on what is, symbolically speaking, our post-Zealandia age.

More by

More by Kennedy Warne