Grow wheat not potatoes. Not much has changed. Imprecise yet still accurate.

Maori  Messenger 1851

Issue after issue of the Maori Messenger extolled the virtues of wheat compared with the longer-standing crop of potatoes. Its messages, which combined imperatives from the Bible, the ‘laws’ of Political Economy, and the demands of the colony, insisted that wheat would not only make Maori materially wealthy, but enrich them morally and spiritually. An item addressed ‘to the Maories of New Zealand’ and sub-headed ‘a few words of political economy’, contains a number of frequently repeated themes. Beginning with an explanation of the laws of Progress, including the idea that to be inactive was to retrograde and that to retrograde was to perish, readers were exhorted to ‘emulate the Pakeha [European] in the honest, industrious pursuit of wealth’ and to note that it was not enough to grow potatoes for their own consumption but to:

Become agriculturists in the true sense of the word. GROW WHEAT. You will thus become rich, and, with the precepts of your Missionaries and friends to guide you, you will also become happy. Bread, from the earliest ages, has been the staff of life. The most distinguished nations of the earth have always, from time immemorial, cultivated wheat as their principal article of food. Heathens deified corn. Christians regard it as a blessing only second to Revelation. Potatoes have only been known by civilised nations for about three hundred years. … Experience has taught us that from its exclusive use as food an infinite variety of social evils will always spring.

The ideological basis behind the ardent promotion of wheat growing and flourmill construction during the 1840s and early 1850s68 was to be underscored by European prescribers’ refusal to change tack when the market collapsed in 1855.69 Factors leading to this state of affairs had been predicted by Charles Terry in 1842 in response to suggestions that New Zealand might become the granary of Australia. He correctly noted that ‘the prices of wheat and flour, fluctuate considerably in [Australia]’ and that New Zealand producers would face fierce competition from South America and Tasmania.70 When that slump eventually occurred, Maori were chastised for not understanding market forces, for withholding supplies in hopes of obtaining ‘famine prices’, or for their ‘childishness’ and ‘lack of manly forethought’ in abandoning wheat cultivation when prices fell.71

A more comprehensive lesson in political economy was offered in an 1851 translation to Maori of Bishop Whately’s Easy Lessons on Money Matters. 72 Like most settlers, missionaries, and administrators, Whately argued that to ensure the proper cultivation of land, it had to be private property. References to the Bible and ‘half-savage’ Tartars, supported his contention that a nomadic lifestyle and insecurity of tenure made cultivation unthinkable ‘when another might reap the harvest’.73


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