While surveying in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1859, the German geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter claimed to have heard a proverb, purportedly Māori in orgin, that went as follows:

“View of Kauri Gully, Northcote, Auckland,” ca. 1910, photographed by William A. Price. Wellington, New Zealand: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-000407-G.

As clover killed the fern, and the European dog the Maori dog; as the Maori rat was destroyed by the Pakeha rat, so our people also will be gradually supplanted and exterminated by the Europeans. 

No such wholesale destruction transpired, of course. On the contrary, as the Ngāti Mutunga anthropologist Te Rangihiroa (also known as Peter Buck) pointed out decades later,

the present generation [of Māori] refuses to comply with the picturesque but illogical simile of following the way of the vanished Maori rat and the extinct Maori dog. They do not appear to belong to the same class of mammal. The native fern does not seem to be tamely giving way to the European clover. In this respect the Maori has more in common with the flora than with the fauna.

Hochstetter’s concern to record (or invent) the ominous proverb in the first place, together with its axiomatic status in later colonial writings, convey a great deal about the expectations that accompanied Europeans on their travels. Such imagery laid much of the ideological groundwork for colonialist projects centered on resource extraction, rationalization of lands, and violent replacement of first peoples with European settlers. Yet, as Te Rangihiroa’s response indicates, it also helped to establish criteria of indigenous survival and resistance. From Hochstetter to the present, these tensions reverberate in colonial circumstances globally, even as they testify to the inextricable nature of cultural and ecological transformations.

Written by Dr. Geoff Bil, The Clover and the Fern explores these and related themes, ranging across environmental, imperial, indigenous and botanical history, as well as the history of science and medicine more generally. Drawing on archival and secondary research, together with the author’s own experiences, it seeks to bridge these histories with the ever-unfolding colonial and ecological present.