The ‘New Zealander’ contemplates the ruins of London

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859) was a British historian, writer and politician. In 1840 he wrote: “And she [meaning the Catholic Church – see below] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.”

Gustave Dore New ZealanderAnd 32 years later, the book, “London: A pilgrimage” (Blenchard Jerrold) illustrated by Gustave Dore, included as the last of its 180 images that of “the New Zealander” perched on Thames rock sketching the ruins of London. He is regarding the ruins of an earlier civilisation just as an English noble might have done on his ‘grand tour’.

The grand tour was a ‘rite of passage’ for young wealthy Englishmen, particularly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to tour parts of Europe to finish off their education. The ruins of Rome and Greece (and occasionally further afield in Asia) were often the target of the tour. This is exemplified in Johann Tischbein’s painting of ‘Goethe in the Roman Campagna’ (1786-7). (This painting was shown at Te Papa in Wellington a few years ago in European Masters: 19th-20th century art from the Städel Museum, and came to mind when I looked at Dore’s ‘New Zealander’.)

Goethe  Books on grand tour & ruins

The grand tour and ruins viewing are topics that have interested me for several years and I have a few books about them. For lovers of trivia, Rose Macaulay (1881 –1958) who wrote the Pleasure of Ruins was a direct descendant of T B Macaulay. However, I want to talk about Macaulay’s so-called “New Zealander”. A little while ago I came across a paper from a nineteenth century New Zealander, William Colenso, which was read to the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute in 1882 and published in 1883. Entitled A Few Remarks on the Hackneyed Quotation of “Macaulay’s New Zealander”, it is available online.  In 1840 Macaulay most likely would have been thinking of a Maori “New Zealander”, as organised European settlement of New Zealand was only beginning in that year.

It is clear from Colenso’s title that he is somewhat irked by ‘Macaulay’s New Zealander’. This was not the first time he had written about it – he wrote about it 15 years earlier; he says he had hoped the quoting of it would die out, or at least writers would query the origin of it. He was prompted to make his 1882 remarks because Professor Hutton’s opening Address for 1882, given at Canterbury College, University of New Zealand, referred to: “As individuals have a limited period of existence, so also must it be with nations. This is the leading idea in Lord Macaulay’s celebrated New Zealander sitting on the ruins of London Bridge.”

Colenso then goes on to show that the idea was used a lot earlier than Macaulay, although even Macaulay used it on at least three occasions.

The first of Macaulay’s references occurs in his review of Mitford’s History of Greece (written in 1824), where, writing of “the gift of Athens to man,” he says:

although her freedom and her power have for more than twenty centuries been annihilated, her intellectual Empire is imperishable. And when those who have rivalled her greatness shall have shared her fate; when civilization and knowledge shall have fixed their abode in distant continents; when the sceptre shall have passed away from England; when, perhaps, travellers from distant regions shall in vain labour to decipher on some mouldering pedestal the name of our proudest chief; shall hear savage hymns chaunted to some misshapen idol over the ruined dome of our proudest temple; and shall see a single naked fisherman wash his nets in the river of the ten thousand masts; her influence and her glory will still survive— fresh in eternal youth —immortal. [My emphasis]

The idea is in here, but it is more general. Macaulay’s second use occurs in his review of Mill’s Essay on Government, (written in 1829):

The civilized part of the world has now nothing to fear from the hostility of savage nations.—But is it possible that in the bosom of civilization itself may be engendered the malady which shall destroy it?—Is it possible that, in two or three hundred years, a few lean half-naked fishermen, may divide with owls and foxes the ruins of the greatest European cities,—may wash their nets amidst the relics of her gigantic docks, and build their huts out of the capitals of her stately cathedrals.—

Again, we have the same idea, but still “in the rough”, as Colenso put it. “The third is the more particular, the worked-up and finished simile of the artistic New Zealander, of which the literary world has heard so much.” This occurs in his review of Ranke’s History of the Popes, (written in 1840) where Macaulay, writing of the Roman Catholic Church, says:

She (the Roman-Catholic Church) may still exist in undiminished vigour, when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Pauls.

Colenso went on to say that he had found this simile, or idea, both in its rough and in its more finished state, in no less than five authors of note who preceded Macaulay; four English and one French.

The first is Horace Walpole, “the eminent virtuoso of Strawberry Hill notoriety, and the author of the celebrated Letters.” (See my post on the collector and collected for more on Horace Walpole, where I also mention Macaulay’s 1833 review.)

In a published letter of Walpole’s to Mason, written in 1744, he says: “At last some curious traveller from Lima, will visit England, and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s, like the Editions of Baalbec and Palmyra.” Colenso notes that Macaulay wrote a “slashingly trenchant review of Walpole’s Letters in 1833”, so it is most likely he would have known of this reference.

The second is by the equally celebrated Frenchman Volney, who travelled in the East (Egypt and Syria) in 1784, and wrote his work, called the Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. While musing among the ruins of those ancient cities he says:

What are become of so many productions of the hand of man? Where are those ramparts of Nineveh, those walls of Babylon, those palaces of Persepolis, those temples of Balbec and of Jerusalem? … Alas! I have traversed this desolate country, I have visited the places that were the theatre of so much splendour, and I have beheld nothing but solitude and desertion! Thus reflecting, that if the places before me had once exhibited this animated picture; who, said I to myself, can assure me that the present desolation will not one day be the lot of our own country? Who knows but that hereafter some traveller like myself will sit down upon the banks of the Seine, the Thames, or the Zuyder Zee, where now, in the tumult of enjoyment, the heart and the eyes are too slow to take in the multitude of sensations; who knows but he will sit down solitary amid silent ruins, and weep a people inurned, and their greatness changed into an empty name?

The third is by a British poet, Henry Kirke White (1785-1806), who, in his poem entitled ‘Time’, says:

Where now is Britain? where her laurell’d names,
Her palaces and halls? Dash’d in the dust.

Even as the savage sits upon the stone
That marks where stood her capitals, and hears
The bittern booming in the weeds, he shrinks
From the dismaying solitude.

The fourth is by another celebrated British poet, Percy B. Shelley, in his Dedication to Peter Bell, Shelley says:

In the firm expectation, that when London shall be an habitation of bitterns, when St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; and when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream, some Transatlantic commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now unimagined system of criticism the respective merits of the Bells and the Fudges, and their historians.

The fifth and the one where New Zealand is used, is found in the preface to the English edition of La Billardiere’s celebrated Voyage to the Pacific in search of the missing La Perouse[1]; undertaken in 1791-1794; and a translation of the work published in London in 1800. The writer says:

…we are tempted to add a consideration which has often occurred to our minds, in contemplating the probable issue of that zeal for discovering and corresponding with distant regions, which has long animated the maritime powers of Europe…. whether, as has hitherto generally happened, the advantages of civilisation may not, in the progress of events, be transferred from the Europeans, who have but too little prized them, to those remote countries which they have been so diligently exploring? If so, the period may arrive, when New Zealand may produce her Lockes, her Newtons, and her Montesquieus; and when great nations in the immediate region of New Holland, may send their navigators, philosophers, and antiquaries, to contemplate the ruins of ancient London and Paris, and to trace the languid remains of the arts and sciences in this quarter of the globe. Who can tell, whether the rudiments of some great future empire may not already exist at Botany Bay?

Colenso reminds his listeners that these works must surely have been known to Lord Macaulay, “for they were among the chiefest and most notable books of his early days; and that he was an extensive reader his works clearly show.”

Assuming Colenso found all these references himself, clearly he, too, must have been an extensive reader – and writer. The Colenso Project  is being undertaken at Victoria University to digitise all Colenso’s works in a searchable form. (Read more by clicking the link). I also have a book about Colenso: Gazing with a trained eye: fifteen aspects of William Colenso, eds Eloise Wallace, Ian St George & Peter Wells, MTG Hawke’s Bay, 2013; but perhaps I’ll leave that for another post!

While searching the internet on this topic I came across a reference to what looks like a good exhibition (but unfortunately, too late, it was in 2002!) at the Hocken Library in Dunedin called Unpacking Ruins:

Otago Uni exhibition on ruins

Here are just two screen shots of some of the items that were in the exhibition.

The New Zealander 1  Meditation on ruins


[1] Colenso’s footnote: More properly, this French Expedition of two frigates (Recherche and Esperance), was commanded by General D’Entrecasteaux; M. J. J. Labillardiere being the Naturalist on board, who wrote the account of the Voyage.


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