J.G.A. Pocock

  • Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921 by Judith Binney
    Bridget Williams, 670 pp, £50.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 1 877242 44 1
  • Stories without End: Essays, 1975-2010 by Judith Binney
    Bridget Williams, 424 pp, £30.00, May 2010, ISBN 978 1 877242 47 2

To explain why Judith Binney – who died in New Zealand in February – is a major figure in contemporary historiography it is necessary to explain why the history of her country has become a field of which contemporary historians do well to take notice. They have not always done so. New Zealand has been considered a safe, dull Anglo-democracy, with a welfare state 75 years old and reasonable race relations, small and remote enough – even in times of world war – to be dismissed as happy in having no history; none at least, to which historians need bother to attend. Within living memory, even New Zealanders sometimes felt like that. Since the 1960s, however, two major changes have caused them to reassess their history and the histories of which it has formed part, so that they now have things to say which call for the attention of others. Judith Binney was an actor of genius in at least the second of these changes.

The first – about which she did not write, though it is necessary background – was the termination of ‘Commonwealth history’ by the decision of the United Kingdom British to consider themselves, however half-heartedly, Europeans. Commonwealth history had been a lesser aspect of the history of empire, always sidelined by the greater theme of the Raj; a history of colonisation, further sidelined by the still obscure process of replacing the old term ‘imperialism’ with the term ‘colonialism’, meaning empire over culturally different peoples, which could happen without colonisation in the sense of settlement playing much part. Finding themselves marginal to the history of both empire and Europe, the settler-descended peoples of the former Commonwealth or ‘white Dominions’ might, and in some cases have, set about reconstructing the history of settlement and the historiographies it has generated. In this, a major figure among New Zealand historians has been James Belich, a historian of the ‘Angloworld’, the massive emigration of English-speaking peoples who changed global geography by their settlements in North America and the southern hemisphere; Belich continues the history discerned by J.R. Seeley, the great 19th-century historian of the empire of settlement, now that Seeley’s historical world has disappeared. The owl of Minerva follows many flight paths.

Binney and Belich should be mentioned together when we turn to the second transformation of New Zealand historiography. ‘Colonisation’ denotes the occupation of lands by emigrant peoples desirous of maintaining the culture they bring with them; ‘colonialism’ seems predominantly to denote the domination, by means of empire, of at least one culture by people of another. Since there was no case in the history of European or British empire of the colonisation of lands altogether empty of human inhabitants, the two phenomena were inseparable and the term ‘colonialism’ will have to remain, however confusingly, in use. It will denote the experience of the colonised rather than the colonisers, who have other things on their minds and may be unaware – may even deny – that they are subjugating indigenous peoples (the tangata whenua in New Zealand Maori). In recent history – including the history of historiography – it has been necessary to remind them.

Te iwi Maori – to employ another term for the tangata whenua – were originally themselves colonisers, arriving perhaps less than a thousand years ago at the southern limit of the Pacific world settled by Polynesians and others, in sailing vessels for which no English word better than ‘canoe’ has been found. Though mariners of extraordinary skill, they did not become a maritime culture; two-way commerce did not endure so far south, and though each kindred traced its genealogy to the canoe in which the first ancestor arrived, they displayed skill in populating new lands with mythical figures, spirits and ancestors, which linked them with the cosmos through the land where the ancestors were present. Whenua may mean either ‘land’ or ‘placenta’ and for Maori the past is spoken of as ‘before (not behind) us’. To simplify an oral consciousness of vast complexity and sophistication, the central concept has been that of mana whenua, the identification of a particular kindred’s sacred identity and – a word we now use – sovereignty, its power to be and speak itself, with ancestral lands acquired through occupation or war (a significant addition).

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