'I am an Irishman': Irish and Māori Historical Connections

Just as exceptionalism has formed an enduring strand of American historiography, New Zealand history has its own variant of this. In New Zealand’s case, this rests largely on the notion that the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 between representatives of Queen Victoria and more than 500 Māori chiefs represented a unique experiment in benevolent and humanitarian imperialism. Allied to this is often the notion that subsequent relations between the indigenous Māori tribes and incoming settlers were, after a few early hiccups, vastly superior to other white settler dominions. For much of the twentieth century Pākehā New Zealanders liked to boast that their country had the ‘greatest race relations in the world’.


It turns out Māori had a different story to tell concerning the history of their relations with the newcomers. In recent decades New Zealand historians have played their own part in deconstructing these myths. Most historians now acknowledge that the Treaty of Waitangi had much deeper roots in British imperial practice, while a process of painstaking historical reappraisal over the last four decades (most especially through the Waitangi Tribunal claims process) has seen the ‘best race relations’ shibboleth well and truly discredited.

Less often appreciated is the extent to which Māori in the nineteenth century drew their own parallels with the wider history of colonisation and imperial expansion, drawing upon both impressive levels of literacy and remarkably high rates of travel to Australia, Britain and elsewhere.


Hone Mohi Tawhai (PA2-0771, ATL)


Although it was a less common destination for travel, Māori increasingly drew on the Irish comparison, seeking and finding parallels in the situations of the two peoples. In 1879 the Northern Māori MP, Hone Mohi Tawhai, told Parliament that ‘I have heard of the people of Ireland, and the circumstances under which they were placed are very similar to the circumstances under which the Maoris are now placed. There were certain laws passed affecting their land, and it resulted in those people being deprived of their land. And now the same laws are being brought to bear upon us’. He went on to declare solidarity even more emphatically with the people of Ireland, stating ‘I am an Irishman’. As the New Zealand Herald newspaper reported a few years later, Māori were remarkably well informed about the Irish situation and appeared ‘to consider their grievances similar to those of the Irish people’.

For many Māori the Home Rule model that was advocated for Ireland offered a solution to their own woes, especially in areas like Te Urewera where the tribes retained sufficient contiguous lands in order to make some kind of self-government under British sovereignty feasible. When an Urewera District Native Reserve Act was passed by Parliament in 1896 it was framed by some observers in terms of providing for Home Rule. At the same time an unofficial Maori Parliament that emerged during the 1890s also demanded Home Rule, with one member predicting that it might take ‘up to 30 years – like the Irish seeking home rule for themselves’.

Irish nationalists, for their part, had long drawn similar parallels and Michael Davitt wrote sympathetically of the Māori prophet and resistance movement leader Te Whiti-o-Rongomai after visiting New Zealand in 1895. Settlers in New Zealand sometimes made the same connection but in an entirely negative light. Thus Te Whiti’s followers (who ploughed and fenced lands confiscated from them in defiance of authorities) were compared with the contemporaneous Irish National Land League’s ‘No Rent’ advocates and an implacable response demanded in both cases.


Irish National Land League 'No Rent' Poster

Imperial comparisons were being made both in order to advance the colonising agenda and to push back against it. And just as both Māori and the settlers in New Zealand compared their own situation with that of other parts of empire, so did Irish nationalists and others highlight events in New Zealand for the purposes of drawing parallels with their own circumstances. For much of the twentieth century scholars tended to ignore making meaningful comparisons of their own in favour of the notion of New Zealand as an exceptional experiment in humanitarian colonisation.

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