On Writing History, Colonization and Development in New Zealand between 1769 and 1900: The Seeds of Rangiatea

By  Ian Pool, Emeritus Professor, University of Waikato
Vincent O’Malley has generously made space available to me for a guest-blog in his series. I should mention, even before I start, that I owe a lot to Vincent’s patient responses to my questions and other forms of help in writing my book.

Marching into the specialised territory of real historians is always a challenge for those of us who are on the fringes of the discipline.  In New Zealand this is particularly true, as Aotearoa has a significant corpus of powerful historical research – focused, technical monographs on many topics; elegantly written general narratives in the best humanities’ traditions;  and broader annales-type studies. In sum, I owe a large debt to historians. Above all, historians have carefully documented the 19th century, for example , its prime and momentous events, the key actors and their actions, the constitutional trends, the interactions of Pākehā and Māori (albeit mainly from Pākehā records), and so on. Additionally, also from the “outfield”, Richard Boast’s legal history is an authoritative voice on the policies and mechanics of Māori land loss. Much, of course, remains to done, and I hope that my book stimulates this. 

My research covers three axes: (i) population, (ii) development and (iii) their broader contexts. For the third of these I turned, with confidence, to the extant history by the “conventional historians”,  as represented by my blog-host’s own work both on pre- and post-Waitangi issues.  This, I thought, would be the easiest and most enjoyable aspect of my work. When I last drew systematically on historical research for my 1991 book Te Iwi Maori, I was impressed by what I had found. But the world had changed since 1991 – for the worse. Instead of a fast and comfortable passage, I have had to navigate through waters churned up by what I have called  “tabloid historians”. In its place “tabloidism”,  making history popular, is no bad thing, but also it must adhere to standards set by the discipline. 

Perhaps inspired by the American neo-con “culture war” or the revisionist Australian “history wars”, we have seen a wave of “historical” studies that have emphasised the lurid, very often inaccurately, particularly for the pre-Waitangi period. These “histories” rely on selected European sources. William Jennings seems to be that rare and patient author who has read 2000 documents of the Marist Brothers in mid-19th century French; “tabloid histories” even seem to by-pass a treasure trove of first-hand observations in the 1838 Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords. By contrast, Victorian sources, often written well after Waitangi by people who had not been there but seemingly accepted uncritically by “Tabloidists”, often demonised Māori to justify their displacement and deprivation, arguing that the British were not responsible. Moreover, “Tabloidists” and their mentors – read Keith Windschuttle on Anne Salmond, a scurrilous and inaccurate attack – avowedly eschew Māori sources as “unreliable”.  Unfortunately, as Bain Attwood found when he confronted Windschutle – that so-called  “John Howard intellectual” – documenting a detailed rebuttal is a tedious process. Thus, I thought long and hard before I took on this challenge. Finally, I did so for three reasons: 

1. “Tabloidists” throw population data around with a total lack of care and little knowledge about what are drivers, and what are the maxima and minima of reported demographic trends – that is, what is feasible: I had the tools to set the record straight and felt obliged to do so (see below). 

2. “Tabloidist” soundbites and other pronouncements unjustly demonise Māori as stone-age “savages” – contrasting them with a “superior race”,  the British. They were were busily “clearing” the Scots and Irish from their lands, brutally putting down the Indian Mutiny and about to use Maxim guns on Mahdi’s poorly armed cavalry at Omdurman, a slaughter applauded by young Winston Churchill. Unfortunately, these notions have entered the public dialogue, right up to the highest levels – one only has to think of Key’s comments in 2014, to say nothing of Don Brash’s, Paul Holmes’, Michael Laws’ and others.

3. Perhaps most importantly, the attention of the thinking public has been drawn away from the “everyday story” of Māori life, especially pre-1840. Tumult and savagery are the profiled events. Yet, most Māori were in fact engaged in  “the factors of production and reproduction”. Even the emblematic and terrible “Musket Wars” were spotty in terms of geographic distribution and periodicity, probably more significant for population redistribution than for lethality. Here I was fortunate in having access to Ron Crosby’s incredibly detailed book; Michael King’s endorsement of Crosby is truly justified. Crosby also carefully cross-checked my parsing of his book – a very generous act. Despite one “tabloidist” arguing that from 1850 Māori benefited from a Pax Britannica, the New Zealand Wars, especially those of the 1860s, were both highly lethal and caused massive displacements, besides finally destroying most of Māori commercial horticulture. Moreover, from a military standpoint as James Belich has shown, the British resorted to massive force: 27% of all Imperial troops outside Britain and India were in New Zealand at one stage, far outnumbering the Māori warriors pitted against them, and engaging in all the actions that were to characterise colonial wars (eg “scorched earth” tactics in the Urewera in the late 1860s). Even modest protest – the 1899 Rawene Dog Tax “War” – saw military might (eg a naval ship, machine guns) brought to bear. And the attack on pacifist Parihaka by 1600 armed militia and police, led by the Native Minister, Bryce, must be New Zealand’s lowest moment.

To analyse Māori population trends I have drawn on well-tested methodologies (empirically as well as mathematically), grounded in demographic theory, plus the vast knowledge-base about how population dynamics and structures change over time, including what are limits to demographic trends. For dynamics (births and deaths), the so-called “indirect estimation techniques” of demography are robust and very useful. They are employed across the entire Third World to gain basic vital rates where data are inadequate, and thus the statistics used for almost all macro-level social and economic planning. But the rates merely provide skeletons, allowing hypothesis-building. I hope these postulates will be investigated in depth using the tools of expository research, particularly by historians with access to the “iwi” and “hapu” books written in Māori in the 19th century. 

This becomes even more important when one turns to the third aspect of my work: development. I have explored this mainly using secondary sources. But, until there is detailed expository analysis, my research on what “Mr and Mrs Everyday Māori” were doing in the 19th century must remain speculative. Despite the tumult of the inter-tribal wars and other dislocations due to contact and by the invasion of pathogens, against which Māori had no previous exposure and thus no resistance, everyday life continued and, in some ways, Māori prospered. Māori adopted and adapted new foods, tools and other technologies: I call these “clip-ons” to their economic system. But, they also built on their own skills and structures, such as the trading networks from the far north to the far south. By 1840 they were at a “take-off point” for serious development. They also brought a very tangible, huge dowry to the Waitangi Treaty table – all their land, their economy and their vibrant international trading ventures. What did the British bring? Intangible advantages of joining the British Empire?

This bring me to the end of my story. By 1897 (Queen Victoria’s Jubilee), Māori were in an “under-development trap”. They were barely surviving because of introduced disease. This was, of course, an unintended consequence of contact and colonisation. Given the state of 19th century health sciences, even had they wanted to, the settlers had no real means of  improving Māori health. But the gradual natural gains in resistance through exposure to disease were delayed for Māori because of the “development of [their] under-development” by their brutal displacement from their major capital base – land (to use Thomas Piketty’s definition of capital). But Māori did not have access to the financial capital that could allow them to escape this trap.

The sequel, which I am now working on, will explore their “escape”, first by improved survival, and later, but only partially, by building an asset base. 

[Colonization and Development in New Zealand between 1769 and 1900: The Seeds of Rangiatea is published by Springer]


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