Challenging beginning for the Norwegian Immigrants in New Zealand

Val Burr, author of the book "Mosquitoes & Sawdust. A history of Scandinavians in early Palmerston North & surrounding districts."

– When I visited in 2002 Norway and then saw the thin wooden street light poles, I realized what shock it had been for the Norwegian emigrants to see the giant trees they had to cut down in New Zealand before they could cultivate the land.

It’s historian Valerie A. Burr that is saying this. She resides in Palmerston North, but has Norwegian heritage with roots in Vestre Aker and South-Odal. She is the author of the book “Mosquitoes & Sawdust. A history of Scandinavians in early Palmerston North & surrounding districts.”

When she worked on the book, she was surprised to read about Scandinavians relationship with the Germans during the First World War. It let to her writing her master’s degree thesis on the relationship between German and Scandinavian immigrants on Somes Island in New Zealand.

Looked at their appearance

– How did the people in New Zealand view the newcomers from Scandinavia?

– I can point to an article in a newspaper where it was written “they obviously have a very foreign appearance, they do not look particularly intelligent, but since they are in good health and have good physique, they will no doubt be useful settlers in some of the districts. ”

And the Norwegians got their properties in the forest areas, says Valerie, which normally uses only Val. The Danes, however were not as skilled workers in forestry, but did well as farmers.

– The Scandinavian immigrants came to conditions worse than they had thought. They did not get enough work and many starved, as well as battling both epidemics and forest fires.

Did they have it worse than other immigrants?

– No, others experienced about the same. The economic depression of the 1880s was severe, but the people did not starve to the point were they died. But it was difficult for them as social welfare programs did not exist during this time.

Known Sawmill Owners

– Did any of the Norwegians do well for themselves?

– Yes, especially Johan Richter, Jacob Nannestad and Frits Jenssen, who ran the big sawmill and mill. Jensen became the mayor of Palmerston North.

Had to preach in English

– Edvard Nielsen worked as a young Methodist Preacher in Odal before in 1872 he emigrated to New Zealand. He became a famous and revered pastor. But in 1893, the Methodist Church, decided that their ministers would no longer preach in Norwegian, but in English. It led Edvard Nielsen to move away from the Norwegian heartland of Norsewood on the North Island, where so many from Odalen and Glåmdalen settled.

How do you view the decision to only preach in English?

– It hit severely the seniors who do not speak English. However, it is clear that it benefited the young people that had already learned to speak English in the schools. So to keep the young, it was a wise decision. But the German settlers, which were in larger numbers than the Scandinavians, continued to hold church services in German until World War I. Then it became forbidden to speak German.

Language Lost

– It seems as though many of the Norwegian descendants are very concerned about their roots. Are there any areas where they still speak Norwegian on a daily basis?

– No, but some small groups still try to preserve the language in the cities. I heard from someone who worked at the cafe in Dannevirke, which is about a thirty minute drive south of Norsewood, that they often meet Danish tourists that are there to try to find people who can still speaks Danish, says Val A. Burr.

(Written 2010)

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