Landmarks: Cumberland’s magnum opus?

Bill Howie[1]

This article aims to detail the inception and legacy of geographer Kenneth Cumberland’s magnum opus, his 1981 television series Landmarks. The initial inspiration for my research came as a result of the reactions exhibited by my students at St Peters College in Auckland when I showed them clips of the series from the ‘NZ On Screen’ website. The definition of ‘environmental history’ given on the Australia and New Zealand environmental history website ( is ‘the transformation of the natural world by human action and the consequences for both nature and people’. This correlates precisely with the aim of the series. The scholarly detail and encapsulation of a life’s work is included in a series which set the benchmark for New Zealand geographic documentary making. This article will detail who Cumberland was, what Landmarks was, and argue that simply labelling the whole series as ‘nostalgic’, needlessly consigns valuable scholarly work, which provides excellent material relating to how early European settlers crafted New Zealand, to the archives.

Who was Kenneth Brailey Cumberland?

Cumberland was a geographer and his working life was devoted to this discipline. He set a challenge to himself and to later geographers by suggesting that practising a discipline with two thousand years of history required a ‘rigorous discipline and satisfying philosophy’ (Cumberland 1956). Kenneth Cumberland was born in 1913 in Bradford, England and studied geography and the German language at Nottingham University before attaining a first class honours degree in geography at London University. His resulting fluency in German was a distinct advantage as over fifty percent of all geographic literature prior to 1939 was written in German. He was strongly influenced by the work of Richard Hartshorne, whose The Nature of Geography (1939) drew heavily upon German geography, and this book became Cumberland’s ‘vade-mecum’ (Pawson 2011). He immigrated to New Zealand in 1938 to become a geography lecturer at Canterbury University under the watchful eye of George Jobberns. He moved to Auckland University in 1946 as a senior lecturer and to establish the Department of Geography, holding the foundation chair from 1949 until his retirement in 1978. He possessed a keen appetite for passing on his knowledge through work with teacher training and a weekly radio broadcast for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) entitled ‘Looking at ourselves’.
Cumberland was a lecturer, academic, farmer, local body politician, geographical politician and public intellectual. The term ‘multiphrenia’ was used by Billig (1995) to describe the splitting of the individual into a multiplicity of self investments, and this could appropriately be applied to Cumberland. Subsequent to his death aged 97 in April 2011 there has been reflection upon his career and achievement. This has been documented in articles by Pawson (2011), Roche (2012), a session at the 2012 New Zealand Geographical Society (NZGS) Conference where this paper was originally presented, and in his memoirs Milestones and Landmarks. The purpose of this article is not to replicate existing material but to provide a background on how Landmarks encapsulated his life’s work. Cumberland himself, reflecting upon his forty years of geographical work in New Zealand, comments in the closing segment of the first programme that it has been ‘a most congenial task I’ve enjoyed, indeed I still savour every moment of it’ (Cumberland 1981) .

What was Landmarks?

Landmarks was a 10-part documentary series first screened on Television New Zealand (TVNZ) on 23rd August 1981, written and presented by Kenneth Cumberland. The title of each episode is detailed in Table 1, below. The series examined ‘human intrusion on the New Zealand landscape and how it has been transformed by the destructive and constructive urges of mankind’ (Cumberland 1981). Modelled on the 1972 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) series America, Landmarks was a rare New Zealand expression of public intellectualism through geography and attracted the largest viewing audience ever achieved by a local documentary series (Boyd-Bell 1985). George Andrews was the inspiration behind the series and filming started in late 1978. Cumberland was not the original choice of presenter, but as Andrews (2009) notes, ‘Ken looked believable and sounded good … We never looked back’. The series received a 1982 Feltex Award for ‘Best Television Documentary’ and Cumberland (1990) notes that ‘My major satisfaction rests on the fact that more than a million New Zealanders regularly watched Landmarks’.

Cumberland’s book, Landmarks: How New Zealanders Remade their Landscape, which was developed in conjunction with the series, was published by Reader’s Digest and sold 70,000 copies. The title of each chapter is also detailed in Table 1, below. The iconic nature of the series led Jeremy Wells to parody Cumberland’s presentation style and appearance in parts of the series The Unauthorised History of New Zealand (Baker, Barinas and Hill 2005), which introduced Landmarks to a new generation.

A teacher ‘kit set’, setting out detailed lesson plans and student activities for each episode, accompanied the initial series and was distributed to schools. A set of posters that teachers could display in classrooms was also provided (see Figure 1). The idea conveyed was that we need to know New Zealand from the land up, inviting the observer to imagine the mud being cleansed from a virgin landscape to create a colonial farm. This invokes the ‘mud on your boots’ geography of W.G. Hoskins (1955). In 1984 the Department of Education distributed a video of the series to schools across the country. The former Director General of the BBC Lord Reith (1924) observed that the aim of broadcasting is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. Landmarks achieved each of these aims.

Representations of nationhood

The concept of nationhood in relation to New Zealand is perpetually evolving. Landmarks was ‘a historical geography of New Zealand’ (Cumberland 1990) which cited prominent individuals and significant events that shaped early New Zealand European nationhood. As time elapses, this situated knowledge becomes contestable and, as Billig (1995) contends, ‘Nations have to create their own histories’ and ‘national histories are continually being re-written and the re-writing reflects current balances of hegemony.’ The series addressed multiple themes from forest clearing and soil erosion to urban sewerage and hill country farming. These themes developed key geographical imaginaries that it wove into notions of New Zealand national identity (Howie and Lewis 2013).

Table 1: Television Episodes and Book Chapter Comparison

Episode Title Episode Description Book Chapter
1 A Land Apart The physical characteristics of New Zealand Where No Human Footprint had Trodden
2 The First Footprints Origins of first people to reach New Zealand Castaways in a Cold New World
3 Ready for the Taking Early exploitation of resources taking The Looting of Nature’s Treasures
4 The Pastoralists History of sheep farming on Canterbury Plains Kings of the Tussock Country
5 Go North Young Man Development of dairy farming in Waikato and Taranaki The Little Man gets his Chance
6 The Bitter and Sweet North Island hill country Defeat and Victory in the Hills
7 Nature Fights Back Harmful effects of species introduction Nature Exacts its Revenge
8 The Main Trunk Line Development of transport networks Forging the Links of a Nation
9 Towns and their Times History of New Zealand towns Townsfolk Call the Tune
10 The Journey Ahead The 21st century Tracing the Shape of Tomorrow

The programme itself was the only extended and theorised statement of nationhood and nature-society relations available at the time and in this format. It gave meaning to and linked social histories, landscapes, identities and economy. The series screened during a period when New Zealand was attempting to shake off its ‘cultural cringe’ and when a swathe of drama productions such as The Governor (1977) and Children of Fire Mountain (1979), which had New Zealand landscape and history as their backdrop, was being broadcast.

Landmarks placed geography in New Zealand homes and circulated Cumberland’s geographical imaginaries widely. The introduction to each episode stated ‘a personal view’ of Kenneth Cumberland and many of the imaginaries projected were vestiges of the political projects that Cumberland had waged over a long career as an academic and public geographer. Some of the visions of geography were at odds with the academic temper of the time.

Landmarks: The You Tube legacy

The influential geographer David Harvey (1990) notes that ‘the study of historical geography … has a major role to play in understanding how human societies work’. Landmarks describes how a small number of individuals altered the landscape of New Zealand in a shorter time frame than anywhere else. This is a compelling narrative but a simple question remains: Why are the mobile-phone using, iPod carrying, internet savvy, Facebook tweeters in my classroom so engaged by this story teller, an older bespectacled man dressed in a jacket and with an English accent?

Modern technology has allowed the series to be separated into visual chunks which appeal to the modern digital consumer, with no clip longer than 11 minutes. Cumberland’s training as a lecturer and radio presenter means that the narrative that accompanies the clips is articulate, accurate and sharp. Therefore the art of storytelling and the series relating to New Zealand mean that an individual’s ‘common curiosity’ (Cumberland 1945) is stimulated.

Table 2: Landmarks clips available on the Te Ara website

Topic Episode Location Time
Geomorphology Episode 1 White Island 1.09
Sheep Driving Episode 4 Mukamuka Rocks, Wellington 1.01
Establishing pastoralism Episode 4 Pencarrow Heads 1.03
Raurimu Spiral Episode 8 King Country

Where can clips be found?

The complete series is not available on DVD. However, extracts from the series are available in the following places:

  1. The complete series is available on video from the National Library of New Zealand.
  2. NZ On Screen provides episodes 1 and 8 broken into 10 minute clips, which are available at
  3. The national film archives (
  4. Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand shows four clips ( See Table 2.
  5. On ‘You Tube’: Downloaded by TeeVee NZ. See Table 3.

A key element is the availability of a well researched New Zealand narrative that provides accurate insights into how and why settler societies dramatically transformed their landscapes. While the number of views may not correspond with any of the clips going ‘viral’, there is more than simple nostalgia operating. A scholarly aptitude prevails in every aspect of the series: from precise dates of the arrival of sheep from Australia in New Zealand to the use of an original cream separator which helped transform the Waikato dairy industry. The series introduces individuals such as Chow Chong, John MacKenzie, Rudolf Wigley, William Goodfellow and others who each had a major impact upon the development of the New Zealand landscape yet enjoy little contemporary profile. The referencing of the photographs (see Figure 1) displays the attention to detail displayed in all areas of the series.

Table 3: Landmarks clips and number of views

Title Episode Time

Views at 30/11/12

Views at 31/05/13

Views at 30/09/13

NZ Maori Kumara Revolution 2 4.55




NZ Moa 2 8.36




Moa Hunters 2 4.31




First Sealers in Fiordland 3 5.07




The Whalers 3 8.35




Auckland: Polynesian Capital City 2 3.39




Hobson and Treaty of Waitangi 3 7.49




Muskets, Flax and Bibles 3 5.25




Tiwai Point, Bluff NZ, Australia 3 2.02




Landmarks was and still is a well researched New Zealand narrative that tells us about how our land came to look as it does today. George Santayana (1905) stated that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. While not suggesting that the environmental management practiced in early colonial times is likely to be repeated, awareness of how decisions taken can rapidly lead to transformation of existing landscapes provides a pool of knowledge that benefits all New Zealand.



Andrews, G. (2009). Landmarks: A Land Apart. NZ On Screen (accessed 4 August 2012). Available from URL:

Archive New Zealand (2012). The New Zealand Film Archive (accessed 10 Oct 20) Available from URL:

Baker L., S. Braunias, G. Hill (2005). The Unauthorised History of New Zealand. NZ On Screen (accessed 1 September 2012). Available from URL:

Billig, M. (1995). Banal Nationalism. Sage, London.

Boyd-Bell, R. (1985). New Zealand Television: The First 25 years. Reed Methven Publishers Ltd, Auckland.

Cumberland, K.B. (1945). ‘Foreword’, New Zealand Geographer 1, pp 1-4.

Cumberland, K.B. (1956). ‘Why geography?’, New Zealand Geographer 12, pp 1-11.

Cumberland, K. . (1981). Landmarks: How New Zealanders Remade their Landscape. Readers Digest Services Pty Limited, Surry Hills, New South Wales.

Cumberland, K.B. (1990). Landmarks Revisited. Waikato Branch, New Zealand Geographical Society, Hamilton

Cumberland, K.B. (2011). Milestones and Landmarks. W. J. Deed Printing Limited, Waiuku.

Harvey, D. (1990). ‘Between space and time: Reflections on the geographical imagination’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80.33, pp 418-34.

Hoskins, W. G. (1955). The Making of the English Landscape. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Howie, W. (2012). ‘Landmarks: Geographical imaginaries and the co-constitution of nation and discipline’. Paper presented in the Kenneth Cumberland session, NZGS Conference 2012.

Howie, W., N. Lewis (2013). ‘Geographical imaginaries: Articulating the values of geography’, under review, New Zealand Geographer.

NZ On Screen (2012). NZ On Screen (accessed 15 June 2011). Available from URL:

Pawson, E. (2007). ‘Landmarks: A personal view of the story of New Zealand’, in ‘Films every environmental historian should see’, Environmental History 12.2, pp 350-51.

Pawson, E. (2011). ‘Creating public spaces for geography in New Zealand: Towards an assessment of the contributions of Kenneth Cumberland’, New Zealand Geographer 67.2, pp 102-15.

Reith, J. C .W. (1924). Broadcast over Britain. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Roche, M. (2012). ‘Geography as “education for life”: Kenneth Cumberland in the New Zealand Geographer 1945-2007’, New Zealand Geographer special edition.

Santayana, G. (1905). The Life of Reason: Introduction, and Reason in Common Sense. Charles Scribner and Sons, New York.

Te Ara, The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (accessed 18 August 2011). Available from URL:

[1] Bill Howie is currently in the second year of his PhD at Auckland University where he is researching the civic role public intellectuals play in stimulating debate relating to academic disciplines within wider society.