Imperial Beast: Very few New Zealanders ever grasped what the rest of the world saw when it looked upon the British Empire: a huge blood-smeared lion whose sharp teeth and vicious claws struck terror into the hearts of all those too weak to resist them.
WE HAVE JUST CONCLUDED four years of commemorating the First World War. What amazed me about all that official amplification of 100 year-old echoes is how little new information it contained. As is the case with Sir Peter Jackson’s stunning colourisation and all-round technical enhancement of First World War film footage, we have learned nothing that we did not know before. Our troops wore khaki uniforms. Their buttons were made of brass. They sang as they marched. In a strange way, by being stripped of their black-and-white historical dignity, they have been rendered ordinary: indistinguishable from the inhabitants of the here-and-now. They look and sound like extras in one of Sir Peter’s movies.
Perhaps it was always so with official attempts to appropriate the past? To dress contemporary problems in antique costumes and pack the past’s dialogue with all the lies our masters would like us to mistake for history.
It is a task which, tragically, is becoming easier with every passing decade. Reading some of the comments to Mike Treen’s latest post, I was astounded by the number of readers who had no idea of what was happening in 1918. They were clearly astonished by Mike’s snapshot of the dramatic events which drove the Allied and Central Powers to sign the Armistice of 11/11. But, then, why shouldn’t they be astonished? The “official” commemorative programme did not appear to regard the revolutionary wave washing across Europe in 1917-18 as in any way relevant to the War’s end.
Those same officials were even more determined to keep from New Zealanders living at 100 years remove from the First World War just how authoritarian the government of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ was. Far better to simply go on insisting that the young men fighting and dying in far-off Gallipoli, Flanders and Palestine were engaged in advancing the cause of freedom, justice and democracy. Informing young Kiwis that their forebears were actually fighting to secure for Great Britain the strategic oil reserves of the Middle East might cause them to ask – given the number of wars (some quite recent) that have been fought for the same prize – whether it was worth the sacrifice of 18,000 young New Zealanders.
The historians’ problem is that they assume that everyone knows the story when, as Mike’s post makes clear, hardly anybody understands what actually happened 100 years ago. How the fighting ships of Great Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, had made the transition from coal (of which the British had plenty) to oil (of which the British had none). How the Brits key oil supplier, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, had suddenly become vulnerable to the intertwined military and economic ambitions of the German and Ottoman Empires. How the rapidly expanding German High Seas Fleet and the proposed Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway convinced the Foreign and Colonial Office that the Germans had to be stopped. How the British Government could have prevented the outbreak of war in 1914 – but chose not to. How the big losers of the First World War were, you guessed it, Germany and the Ottomans. How Great Britain’s new best friends in the Middle East all just happened to live on top of a sea of oil.
And it’s still going on. New Zealand, whose Governor-General, Lord Liverpool, declared war on Germany in 1914 without bothering to consult the NZ House of Representatives, remains a loyal member of the Anglo-Saxon “Club”. (John Key’s term for the “Five Eyes” security pact linking Britain’s ‘white empire’: The UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; with that other great Anglo-Saxon power, the United States of America.)
The great disadvantage of being a member of the Anglo-Saxon Club is that it makes it practically impossible for most New Zealanders to see their country and its allies for what they are – imperialist bullies.
The present Coalition Government has made much of the “danger” China poses to the micro-states of the South Pacific. So much so that our Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, has declared the need for a “Pacific Re-set”. Exactly why the presence of China should pose a danger to the peoples of the South Pacific, while the ongoing presence of its former imperial and colonial powers does not, is never explained. It is simply assumed that “we” are the good-guys and the Chinese are the bad guys.
No one asks the question: Is it appropriate that Australia is essentially re-colonising Papua-New Guinea? Or wonders why the Australians have turned the tiny tropical state of Nauru into a sweltering island prison for Middle Eastern refugees, utterly destroying its democratic institutions in the process.
Most New Zealanders remain blissfully unaware that 100 years ago the New Zealand military occupation force of what had been German Samoa allowed a ship carrying the deadly influenza virus to dock in Apia. Or that, over the course of the next few weeks, that criminally negligent decision led to the death of fully one quarter of the inhabitants of the western half of Samoa. Or that, a few years later, New Zealand soldiers shot down unarmed Samoans demanding their country’s independence from New Zealand colonial rule.
We forget that both the British and the Americans, the good guys, held the Pacific peoples in such high regard that they turned their home islands into test sites for their atomic and hydrogen bombs. The radioactive fallout from these atmospheric tests poisoned the Pacific environment – along with the peoples who lived off its fruit, root vegetables and fish.
Such is the heritage of the Anglo-Saxon powers in the South Pacific. And yet “we” are not perceived to be a “danger” to its peoples. Rather it is the Chinese: a nation which has seized no colonies; created no pandemics; and exploded no nuclear devices in this part of the world who are considered “dangerous”. The country that kept New Zealand prosperous through the Global Financial Crisis is slowly but surely being transformed into our enemy, while the country that has imposed tariffs on our steel and which demands that we endanger our own health by dismantling Pharmac, is hailed as our “very, very, very good friend”.
One hundred years ago, New Zealand was a small but vigorous limb the great heraldic beast known as the British Empire. Being so, we were able to see only the great heraldic beasts identified as our enemies: the German and Austrian eagles; the Ottoman’s crescent moon and star. Having laid them low, we hailed our victory as a good thing. Very few New Zealanders ever grasped what the rest of the world saw when it looked upon the British Empire: a huge blood-smeared lion whose sharp teeth and vicious claws struck terror into the hearts of all those too weak to resist them.
Perhaps it is time for New Zealanders to give up their diet of imperial lies and learn, at last, how to digest the truth?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 November 2018.