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.

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