I was last in Christchurch in January 2009, staying a few days to finalise some research for my book Old South. An arts festival was on; the city was alive with entertainers, crowds – people from all walks of life. The stone buildings of the centre city were fabulous – historic, redolent of the colonial-style Englishness around which the city once styled itself.
All gone now, of course. And that’s sad – sad for the people, sad for history, sad for New Zealand.
Christchurch was established at the turn of the 1850s for the Canterbury Association’s ideal church settlement. It was there – as opposed to the Wairarapa or Hawke’s Bay – for political reasons, the best compromise after a bloody battle of words between the British government, New Zealand Governor, New Zealand Company and the hopeful Canterbury Association who hoped to establish an Anglican church colony. They could as easily have been in the Wairarapa or Hawke’s Bay if the arguments had played out that way.
All did not go as planned in Canterbury; the Association was short of both colonists and money. As early as June 1850, Edward Gibbon Wakefield bemoaned the ‘episcopacy of Canterbury’, which was ‘as I feared it would be; the church settlement is, to a great extent, lost in the island see.’ The idealistic, hopeful, evangelistic crusaders of the Canterbury Association were too late, crushed by penury, their world overtaken by pastoralism.
Christchurch never did grow as the devout church community that was intended. But grow it did – becoming centre of a vigorous district and one of New Zealand’s main centres. And nobody suspected that it had a tectonic time-bomb lurking beneath it.
The quake of 22 February was the most lethal natural disaster to strike New Zealand in 80 years. As I write this, the precise toll has yet to be determined. It will not be low.
One thing seems certain; the quake is a profound human tragedy, and for all the difficulties faced in the past, the city’s greatest challenge is before it now. And I have little doubt, knowing the history of the city and of Kiwis in general, that this challenge will be met.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011