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  • Genesis 1:28 and the Languages of Colonial Improvement in Victorian New Zealand
  • Tony Ballantyne (bio)

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

kjv Gen. 1:28

The Bible was the single most important cultural text in colonial New Zealand. While a substantial body of scholarship has recognized the significance of the Bible for the development of Maori Christianity and in particular the Old Testament for Maori prophetic leaders, historians of New Zealand have generally underplayed the significance of the Bible in colonial intellectual, economic, and political argument (Lineham 5–26; Elsmore 62–71). But in the wake of John Stenhouse’s critique of the reductive materialist readings of colonial culture, a growing body of work has explored the centrality of Christian institutions, identities, and ideas in colonial life (Stenhouse, “God’s Own Silence” 52; Stenhouse, Christianity 1–14; Clarke 23–39; Harper 134–38).

Even though a significant number of colonists, especially working men, had little formal connection with denominational routines, the Bible furnished a powerful set of images, narratives, and proscriptions that inflected the colony’s social and political order. In the colony, as in Britain, “the Bible was a key semiotic element in Victorian culture”: it was a rich resource that could be deployed for a wide variety of ends, religious and secular (Carroll 51n13).

Genesis 1:28 was one passage of Scripture that was frequently mobilized in the colonial public sphere. At one level, this is hardly surprising: Jeremy Cohen has demonstrated the centrality of this verse in shaping both Jewish and Christian thought into the medieval period, and Peter Harrison has underlined its centrality in the making of early modern European religious and intellectual world views (Cohen 14–29; Harrison, “Having Dominion” 18). In an imperial context, where ideas of improvement were central to both the ideology and practice of colonization, Genesis 1:28 took on a particular salience as colonists vigorously contested the current state of things and offered competing and conflicting visions of the future. Again, this is not surprising given that Richard Drayton has demonstrated that Genesis and the Edenic ideal were powerful touchstones for a long tradition of British imperial visionaries who developed justifications for expropriating the land, resources, and liberty of non-European peoples (1–25).

Yet the particular importance of Genesis 1:28 has received limited attention from historians of New Zealand. James Belich’s recent Replenishing the Earth, which [End Page 9] places New Zealand at the centre of a powerful rereading of the connections between colonization and the rise of British and American economic power during the nineteenth century, is no exception even though the monograph’s title is drawn from this verse. Belich notes that Thomas Arnold drew upon this Biblical passage in a prize-winning 1815 essay at Oxford that fiercely criticized opponents of emigration. He observes that this text articulated “the creed of a new colonizing crusade,” yet he offers no significant analysis of the verse itself or its utility for Victorian thinkers (Belich 148). In the end, Belich assimilates this Biblical injunction into a generalized picture of what he terms the “settler boom mentality” (200–05).

James Beattie and John Stenhouse have provided the best treatment of the colonial cultural context within which Genesis 1:28 gained so much purchase. They note that Christianity undergirded much colonial environmental thought and discerned traditions of “stewardship” (particularly pertaining to animal welfare) and a more developmentalist “dominion theology” that emerged in the colony (Beattie and Stenhouse 428–35). This argument draws upon Harrison’s work on the connections between Christian traditions of stewardship and dominion in the wake of the Reformation (Harrison, “Having Dominion” 18). Earlier patristic and medieval commentaries tended to see references to human dominion in Genesis as allegorical and symbolic statements that actually enjoined the faithful to exercise self-control over their “natural” and “beastly” fallen selves (Cohen 22, 86). But, as Harrison demonstrates, from the seventeenth century, Genesis was understood to authorize human dominion over nature and Genesis 2’s narrative of...


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