Removal from the Wings

J.G.A. Pocock

  • Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the 19th Century by James Belich
    Allen Lane, 497 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 7139 9171 2

For a people accustomed to govern itself, history is the past of its sovereignty, modified by such other pasts as appear relevant. What is such a people to do when the historical conditions which have defined its sovereignty are radically changed, and the future of sovereignty itself appears uncertain? A possible answer is that it may set about rewriting its history in the light of these new questions, emphasising the precariousness of its historical autonomy, and asking whether sovereignty has in fact been exercised and if so, by whom. Since autonomy is in question, it may even ask whether it has been one people or several. The uncertainties of the present stimulate enquiry into the past, and the outcome may vary between an angry nationalism, a whining defeatism, or a recognition that as autonomy, sovereignty and history become precarious, their value can be re-assessed or re-asserted; the texture of thought toughens as the questions grow more difficult.

As the United Kingdom has faced (assuming that it has faced) Europeanisation, a revisionist historiography has included a shift from English-centred to British history, meaning by that the history of the various peoples of the archipelago in their interactions with each other. Some see this as the prelude to a dissolution of their union, others as the prelude to a re-appreciation of their association. On the opposite face of the planet the British once did much to shape, the three or so millions of New Zealanders have been undergoing a similarly radical transformation of their present, and discovering that small size and recent settlement offer no guarantee against the Chinese curse: they live in interesting times and discover that they have an interesting history. James Belich’s volume – the first of a projected two – is the most remarkable product so far of the historiographical re-assessment with which New Zealanders have been challenging their sense of themselves. It should remove them from the wings, and place them on the stage, or on a globe on which such things are going on.

New Zealanders have undergone three transformations of the history which once told them who they were. There has been the disappearance from effective reality of the Commonwealth of Britain and the neo-British dominions, in which they believed they were an equal partner and which they fought their wars to sustain. As late as 1940, they sent their expeditionary force to North Africa and Italy, locating themselves not in the Pacific but in the chain of oceans which linked them with Britain; this link has gone, probably for ever, with the British decision for Europe, and they find themselves appended to that Pacific which has an Asian-American rim, and out of which the Polynesians came. The liquidation (largely by the British) of the British ecumene has gone on concurrently with the exhaustion and disappearance of that politics of capital and labour, conservatives and reformers, country and city, ensuring a system of state-guaranteed security, which once enabled New Zealanders to regard themselves as a social democracy and a social laboratory. Its disappearance has been achieved through a process of privatisation which has revealed how many of their resources are controlled and owned by capital based elsewhere, raising the question whether they govern or possess themselves as a people at all.

In a third, and not unconnected, transformation, an upsurge of political activity on the part of the Maori people has institutionalised a process of arbitration of their claims against the European majority and the state – whose central authority is revealed as that of the Crown – based on a revival and reinterpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi, made in 1840 between the Crown and the iwi or tribes, and antedating and conditioning the establishment of the Crown’s sovereignty. The Treaty has rapidly become New Zealand’s ancient Constitution, fundamental law and social contract, rendering it perhaps the only unitary state in the modern world prepared to regard its sovereignty as perpetually renegotiable and debatable. A necessary consequence has been the discovery that the nation consists of two peoples, living two histories and two understandings of what history is. Interesting times; especially for people who once regarded their history as worthy and exemplary but slightly boring, while the world’s great issues were settled elsewhere, in a universe called ‘overseas’. I recall that perspective; I had to determine my own understanding of history in it, as seemed easy at the time.

Making Peoples is best thought of as the first Treaty-based history, dealing with a world of vastly increased contingency and insecurity by recognising that there are two peoples and offering to narrate how they came to be. The late Keith Sinclair, the leading New Zealand historian of the middle and later 20th century, was, like William Pember Reeves and J.C. Beaglehole before him, a man of the Left and saw his theme as the growth of a settler nationalism founded on social-democratic principles; but Belich writes after the appearance of works bearing such titles as The Ideal Society and Its Enemies, A Vision Betrayed and Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle without End, in which the weakening of Pakeha democracy has been accompanied by the assertion of democratic claims on behalf of the Maori. He returns to origins, not in search of principles or purposes, but aiming to show how two peoples came to find themselves defining each other. This is their sovereignty if they can keep it, and the words ‘Maori’ and ‘Pakeha’ are terms which each has found for itself when faced by the other.

This volume covers perhaps a thousand years of Polynesian history in the islands for which Aotearoa came to be one of the names, and from half to one and a half centuries of European history in what was called New Zealand from the time of the first landfall. Both periods are very short by historical, let alone palaeohistorical reckoning. The waka or galleys of the Polynesians appeared in these waters about the time when the long-ships or galleys of the Scandinavians were afflicting the previously seaborne Anglo-Saxons. They had crossed oceanic distances which Europeans could barely manage until the chronometer was added to the compass, but do not appear to have established the patterns of two-way voyaging which permitted European commerce and colonisation. Though they are the tangata whenua, or people of the land, in Aotearoa, their arrival is recent, compared for instance with that of the Aboriginals of Australia, a people so ancient that their origins could be conceived only in cosmological terms. Maori tradition describes it in the language of myth rather than record, but permits every lineage to name its first ancestor and the waka that brought him; they exist in heroic history, not in the dreamtime.

Belich declines to use the term ‘prehistory’ for the undocumented centuries preceding European contact. There has been an explosion of archaeological research recently in New Zealand, producing a scheme of history which interestingly – and a shade disquietingly – recalls the stages of development supposed by 18th-century European philosophers: an age of massive hunting while there were still large populations of flightless birds and marine mammals, succeeded, as these were exterminated, by an economy of reduced hunting and intensive gardening. In this era, the iwi or tribes arose, groups connected by lineages and competing for land and power. They formed the reference groups – Ngapuhi, Ngatiporou, Ngai Tahu and so many others that it is invidious to select – by which these New Zealanders knew themselves before there was a need to establish (and then never with finality) a common identity as ‘Maori’; and although they shared a common language and culture, based on a deep identification with ancestors and land, it was a culture of intense and intermittently warlike competition, whose governing values were mana (prestige-authority-possession), utu (reciprocity-justice-revenge) and tapu (ritual sacralisation and prohibition).

The presence of a culture of conflict and resolution early convinced European governors that ‘the New Zealanders’ were not ‘savages living by the chase’, like the food-gathering bands of Australia, but possessed a capacity to apportion land, engage in wars, just or unjust, and enter into treaties over its apportionment. The words quoted are those of Lord Glenelg, British Colonial Secretary in the years just before the Treaty of Waitangi, and though that Treaty has often been disregarded, and may not have been honestly intended, the admission of the iwi to treaty-making status has been of an importance transcending even its role in recent politics. It has meant that, in both ideality and reality, the Maori have lived their history with the Pakeha in a universe of ‘the law of nations’ or jus gentium, where both treaties and wars have occurred and continue to influence the politics and jurisprudence of the present. By contrast, the ancient peoples of Australia possessed no capacity for war and were denied the capacity to make treaties; the land they occupied was defined in law as terra nullius and, even after the recent judgment reversing that rule, they must found their claims in the law of nature, rather than of nations (or history).

This ideal structure defines the Maori as agents in law and history; and Belich’s history of te iwi Maori – the iwi began to call themselves maori, meaning ‘normal’ and ‘original’, when confronted by others – depicts a reality in which they were always agents, often defeated but never passive victims bewildered by the new. Perhaps self-enabled by the ‘politics of mana’ which characterised the aggressive competitiveness of iwi culture, they took initiatives in greeting the new forces brought by the Europeans and appropriating them to their own perceived needs. They took to farming, trading, gunpowder and literacy, including Biblical Christianity; they set up an ‘Old New Zealand’ in which traders, missionaries and beachcombers belonged to the iwi more than the iwi to them; through means ranging from marriage to mass prostitution, they made themselves into an increasingly mestizo people among whom the ancestries have by and large survived; and they were over sanguine about the extent to which they could utilise the farms, towns and seaports of the settlers in advancing their own insatiable demands for mana.

It was as this process began to appear unmanageable that the wars of the 1860s and 1870s occurred. James Belich is already the author of two major studies, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Myth of Racial Conflict and I Shall Not Die: Titokouwaru’s War, New Zealand 1868-9, in which he has viewed both sides of the hill, emphasising that the Maori were formidable and very modern belligerents – he is inclined to credit them with the invention of trench warfare – who won most of the battles and did not so much lose the wars as fail to prevent the process of colonisation that occasioned them. The wars petered out rather than ending in Pakeha victory, and it is worth recalling that Pakeha historiography did not on the whole recount them triumphally. The myth on which my generation grew up was that they had been honourable wars which had been honourably concluded; not, as it turned out, an adequate statement of the case. The aim of the Maori was to retain certain zones in the central North Island in which they would be sovereign over land-dealing; the aim of both Crown and settlers – seldom of one mind – was the negation of this.

It has to be remembered that the wars were fought by certain iwi who held that land-selling had gone too far, opposed by other iwi – notably the Ngatiporou of the East Coast region – who were profiting by it and thought they had it in hand. There was fighting between Maori as part of all this: not a simple conflict between resisters and collaborators, but a continuation of the politics of mana by means involving the Pakeha. War, however, reaches a point where it damages and changes social structures, and there is evidence that by the end of the 1860s messianic prophets, in whose preachings Maoridom played the role of an Israel chosen to suffer, were challenging the mana of those who held it from their ancestors. Like Judith Binney in her recent superb study of the prophet Te Kooti (Redemption Songs, 1995) Belich offers evidence that wars of religion were breaking out within the structures of several iwi, including Ngatiporou.

If they were, they were allayed; partly because the warrior religions converted themselves with remarkable speed into religions of peace, partly because war among Maori disappeared as Maori society was not so much defeated in the field as ‘swamped’ – Belich’s term – by the sheer growth of the settler population, creating an economy which marginalised the tribes faster than they could adapt themselves to it. The Maori found themselves, once they had parted with their lands, superfluous in their own country (a fate with which the communications revolution threatens all historic peoples). Belich leaves them, at the close of the 19th century, at a low point of dispossession and deculturation, but showing signs of a resilience which will lead them to pursue their own recovery. Throughout the volume, he has invested them with a vigour and agency which leave little room for ‘subaltern studies’, or the politics of cultural subordination, though no doubt a history could be written in these terms. The first 11 chapters of Making Peoples are the most remarkable history of Polynesian Aotearoa that we have; yet they are the work of a Pakeha historian: a Maori would write differently and empower the people otherwise. Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou is a summons and a challenge, written to mobilise energies by narrating the sufferings and resistance of te iwi Maori under alien domination; we are not yet at the point, though it is not far off, when Maori historians will view the disputatiousness and disputability of their history as reinforcing and toughening its texture.

‘Making Pakeha’ is the title of the remaining five chapters. They recount the creation, at great speed during the half-century following the Treaty of Waitangi, of a viable neo-Britain, British, Northern Irish and Irish in its composition and possessing that element essential to success in all 19th-century settler societies, a white working class. This was ‘New Zealand’, and not ‘Aotearoa’; it swamped and marginalised the decreasing Maori minority, rather by disregarding than by subordinating them (though it did both). Because it was viable within its own self-referential structure, Belich can supply us with its social history. Instead of the political narratives of the older New Zealand historiography – the whig history which led to the achievement of representative self-government, the liberal history which led towards a politics of social reform – he can write an essentially, and justifiably, populist history of the genteel, the respectable, the decent (these were the respectable working classes, ancestors of the Decent Joker who is or was New Zealand’s Gianduja or John Q. Public) and the disreputable, who came so rapidly to provide the neo-Britain with a structure. His history is populist in that he celebrates its raw vitality, as in the forceful rhetoric of his two last sentences: ‘A booming, burgeoning neo-Britain, growing hysterically, tamed only historically. Love it, loathe it, or both, this was colonial New Zealand, and boring was the one thing it was not.’

He needs to say the last because the insecurity and self-dispraise which mark new societies as strongly as does self-assertiveness lasted through the second period of New Zealand history, of which he will treat in his next volume, and may have disappeared only in the third, when the need to come to terms with insecurity has led to the discovery that New Zealand history is interesting after all, as he so strongly demonstrates. But ‘Making Pakeha’ is to a large extent a prelude to that history, and the view from 1890, just quoted, leaves the reader with several questions regarding what is to come as his history continues. First: is ‘Making Pakeha’ an adequate account of what settler New Zealand was becoming? ‘Pakeha’ is a Maori word which the descendants of settlers use to define themselves in their relation with Maori, and by using it constantly they acknowledge the constant and enormous importance of that relation. But it may after all disclose a ‘subaltern’ reality to observe that Maori have been forced into an exclusive relation with Pakeha, which is a primary determinant of their identity, whereas Pakeha, as a dominant majority, have been both free and necessitated to define themselves through contradistinctions with others beside Maori – British, above all, Australians, Americans, latterly Asians – and are therefore ‘Pakeha’ only much of the time and with much of their being. Belich acknowledges this when he writes: ‘It was perfectly possible to be a staunch Ashburtonian, Cantabrian, New Zealander, Australasian and Briton simultaneously, and this is important in the study of New Zealand collective identity, at any level.’

He might have included ‘Irish’, but has not found it necessary to include ‘Pakeha’; it was probably the last thing a South Island settler of the 1890s thought of him/herself as being. It has increased in authority as a term of self-identification as the urbanisation and politicisation of the Maori has pushed the non-Maori majority into recognising the critical importance of their relationship, and concurrently, as the diminution – largely imposed from outside – of the British component in their self-recognition has compelled them to ask new questions about who and what they are. It is appropriate and necessary that they should think of themselves as Pakeha, and explore the various meanings which the term can be made to bear; but it is fair to ask how far – that is, within what limits – it can ever describe all the things they may choose or be obliged to be, and how far ‘Making Pakeha’ is a satisfactorily compendious term for the process of self-definition which began between 1840 and 1890. Some day we may ask the same questions about ‘Maori’; but not yet.

A second set of questions arises when we consider Belich’s projected continuation of his history. He envisages a volume covering the period 1880-1960, during which New Zealand became the nation whose radical transformation has launched a third period in its history and necessitated a revised historiography of the first and second. How he will narrate the crucial middle period remains to be seen, but I should like to offer some predictions, or rather prescriptions. It will be a period of participation in globally distributed wars – in South Africa, Gallipoli and Flanders, Greece, North Africa and Italy, Korea and Malaysia – which cannot be dismissed but must be understood, if we want to know who New Zealanders of this era thought they were and what world they were living in. It will be a period of social democracy, aimed at managing an economy and securing a society; and it will be a period during which Maori were mostly out of Pakeha sight, engrossed in their own survival and preparing their return to politics when the Ratana church became allied with the Labour Party.

To this now vanished era Belich proposes to apply the term ‘recolonisation’, and I wait to see what he will do with it, not without misgivings. The lesser intellectuals of New Zealand, who are much like lesser intellectuals elsewhere, seek to impose on themselves and others both the guilt of having been colonists and the victim status of having been colonised. They fasten on an overworked family of words, to bring the whole history of the country under the paradigms of ‘colonialism’ and ‘decolonisation’; the latter in particular standing for an apparently nationalist rejection of a supposedly slavish subjection to British policy and culture. Belich knows better. Just as his Maori have no great need of ‘subaltern studies’, so his Pakeha do not display much of the ‘colonial cringe’. They take their Britishness (when not their Irishness) for granted, and believe themselves to be the equals of the British in an oceanic partnership. This myth was exploded by the Europeanisation of Britain beginning in the Sixties, and New Zealanders now punish the ‘Brits’ for exploding it by scourging themselves for having believed it; but the history of Belich’s second period has to be written as that in which the myth was not only formed, but was effective and valid. While waiting to see how ‘recolonisation’ will turn out, I will express the wish that he had chosen some other term; perhaps ‘dominionisation’, since it is the Dominion of New Zealand of which he will be writing the history.

Making People offers contemporary New Zealanders the double whakapapa, or genealogy, of knowing themselves formed by two histories, the history of two peoples. Yet the image of Minerva’s owl holds good. In the third age of New Zealand history, and helping to form it, Belich’s two peoples have been joined by a third, or a conglomerate of peoples: the tau iwi or new immigrants, including Polynesians who are not Maori, Europeans who are not Pakeha, and Asians who are not either. (Belich’s own whakapapa is Dalmatian or former Yugoslav, but his iwi began arriving a century ago.) What demands they will make on historiography remains to be seen. They may be assimilated to the histories recounted in Belich’s two volumes; they may demand multicultural histories of their own; they may be content to do without a history, and join themselves to the forces demanding that nobody shall have one. We face a future in which it cannot be guaranteed that histories will supply identities any longer; but in that world, powerful inputs will continue to be made by those peoples who have histories and are not afraid to write them. James Belich has seen to that, for his own islands.