Like many New Zealanders, I know James Belich through his TV work – he’s a kind-of bearded version of Simon Schama, except in a more earthy coloured suit. Or perhaps he’s history’s David Bellamy. Either way, his grasp of detail amid the sweep of history is made more engaging because his content is so much more local.
His session at the New Zealand Post Readers and Writers Week filled more than half of the Embassy Theatre and his reading showed that his new work, Replenishing the earth, is centred on exploring settlement as it happened in New Zealand and comparing it to various examples of settlements around the world.
At its heart is the boom and bust rhythm of the massive migrations of settlers from 1793 to 1939. It laid the basis for the British and American economic wealth as the trade flow went back and forth and the Napoloeonic wars hamstrung expansion of other European powers.
The scope of Belich’s research is quite breathtaking – Argentina, Siberia, the US and Canada, South Africa and Australia. He said it was easy to laugh at the grandiose prophesies of the boom mentality, but at the time there was no set of limits. Chicago, for instance, went from a population of 50 to 1.1million in a single lifetime. A population could double in ten years – imagine Christchurch having a million people in 2020. Or New Zealand having eight million.
The idea that fortunes could be made and the endless plenty of nature would never subside drove a change in population and geography that had far further-reaching and longer-lasting implications than the imperialism of empire expansion. This idea was also discussed at Simon Schama’s Town Hall Talk when Schama said the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as the time when this kind of economics were given a reality check.
Whereas the empire needed indigenous populations, settlers were indifferent to them and chewed them up and spat them out. Belich brought it all to life with immense detail.
“Pigs were the sewerage system … the streets have no names … think of a shanty town building site full of anthills of humans.”
Interesting too was the role of technology – wind, water and wood technology was widely available and combined with mining and iron technology it “fused and merged” to help fuel the booms. The busts were big too – New Zealand on its own has 240 ghost towns, he said.
Belich said “getting under the skin of history”, in a similar way as historical novels, was where the fun lay for him; getting past the cardboard cutouts. His work was moving more toward historical analysis – turning other historians into unpaid research assistants.
Quotable quote: Historical scholars were less confident in their discipline than the public – “they keep stabbing the horse they’re riding”.