Uncle Toms and Kupapas: ‘Collaboration’ versus Alliance in a New Zealand Context

Later this year I will be attending a conference at the University of Bern, Switzerland, on the theme of 'Cooperation under the Premise of Imperialism'. Many of the papers to be presented at the conference will be exploring the role of indigenous agents in imperialism throughout Africa and Asia. In my case, I will be discussing the role of kupapa in New Zealand history. I hope to write more about this later on, but meanwhile, by way of providing some insight into my main arguments, what follows is the abstract to my paper.


The term ‘collaboration’, used in its historical sense, carries unquestionably pejorative connotations. One thinks immediately of those who collaborated with the Nazi regime during the Second World War. Depending on one’s cultural context, the Campbell’s role at Glencoe might also come to mind, or any number of other examples of groups seen as acting in a manner contrary to the national interest.

In the New Zealand context, the label is one applied to those Maori tribes (iwi) who fought on the British side during the New Zealand Wars of 1844-1872. Here, too, the term has negative connotations. In fact, although the act of fighting on the British side against other Maori considered rebels is often described as a form of collaboration, the tribes and individual chiefs concerned are hardly ever called ‘collaborators’. Most commonly, they are simply termed ‘loyalists’, with or without quotation marks.

Such terminology can be seen as reflecting the historical usage of this word (alongside phrases such as ‘friendlies’) in the nineteenth century; but its use can perhaps partly also be attributed to the realisation that the branding of Maori as ‘collaborators’ by historians and other scholars would be highly controversial. In fact, however, the stigmatisation of such groups within Maori society itself is well known. It is common to hear of Maori today who are too ‘whakama’ (ashamed) to name their tribe for fear of being labelled as ‘Uncle Toms’ (or worse). ‘Kupapa’, the usual Maori word for those who fought alongside government forces, is a widely employed contemporary term of abuse, used to describe politicians and others considered guilty of selling out or betraying their people.

This need not be the case. Those Maori tribes who fought on the Crown side during the wars fought alongside the Crown rather than for it. The distinction is one of more than mere semantics. They fought to pursue their own tribal imperatives, rather than simply those of the Crown. That being the case, it is misleading to describe their actions as a form of ‘collaboration’, with all of the cultural baggage that this terminology brings. A better description would be alliance. For these tribes were very much allies of the Crown rather than soldiers fighting for it. They had their own battles to fight and their own motives for fighting them. These motives included settling old scores with other tribes, preventing the confiscation of their lands by the Crown, securing payment and reward for their services, enhancing the mana (prestige or status) of their tribe through victory, and in some circumstances pure self defence. One thing such groups were not is passive tools of the Crown. A considerable degree of Maori agency was evident throughout the New Zealand Wars.

‘Loyalty’ in practice was much more than a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out notion of blind adherence to the Crown. Indeed, at a fundamental level the aspirations of tribes considered loyalists were little different from those of the iwi they fought against. All of the tribes — whether ‘loyal’ or ‘rebel’ — sought to retain land and mana. The difference was that some chose to try and achieve these goals in alliance with the Crown. The decisions and actions of such groups in the mid-nineteenth century reveal much about the persistence of a Maori worldview throughout the colonial era. And those notions of an alliance with the Crown carried through into the twentieth century, when the most ‘loyal’ tribes were at the forefront of substantial Maori involvement in the two world wars — even as other iwi who had suffered invasion and land confiscations made clear their ongoing bitterness at such brutal treatment by refusing to serve in the armed forces of the same Crown that had caused them so much misery.   

Whether the strategy of alliance paid dividends for those groups who opted for such a path is, however, a moot point. Though one historian has suggested that Kupapa Maori communities ‘mostly prospered’ in the wake of the wars, the evidence suggests altogether more limited gains. Loyalist tribes soon found themselves under pressure to sell their lands to the government as further evidence of their ongoing allegiance to the Crown, for example, and themselves suffered land confiscation and significant socio-economic disruption notwithstanding their alliances with the government. A direct comparison with former ‘rebel’ Maori tribes points to little real difference in outcomes over the long-term, even if iwi deemed loyal were able to extract some small concessions, such as the creation of dedicated Maori seats in Parliament, during the period when the Crown became most reliant on their military and logistical support. 

In summary, this paper will argue that the notion of collaboration is not only an inaccurate one in a New Zealand context. It is also a deeply Eurocentric concept, implying as it does that Maori actions in the mid-nineteenth century were entirely governed by and revolved around an imperial presence, rather than reflecting older and pre-existing tribal imperatives. Some Maori communities opted to ally themselves with the Crown out of a range of motives, few of which had anything to do with whether they supported the imperial project. Ultimately Kupapa groups fared little better than those tribes they fought against, whose own goals and objectives were often surprisingly similar. Recognition of these realities can contribute not only to a more nuanced understanding of the nature of indigenous responses to imperialism, but at a practical level can also assist to lift the stigma sometimes still unfairly attached to iwi considered Kupapa.


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