Sunday 4 April 2010

Apologising For Victory

Final Shots: Titokowaru's Taranaki War (1868) was one of the last major clashes of arms between Maori and Pakeha. The redoubtable Titokowaru may have won every battle, but the final outcome of the Land Wars (1845-1872) was never in doubt.

A CENTURY and a half ago, on 17th March 1860, Imperial British forces under the command of Colonel Charles Gold attacked a band of Te Atiawa warriors sent by their chief, Wiremu Kingi, to peacefully re-occupy 243 hectares of disputed territory just outside the settlement of New Plymouth.

Those hectares comprised the infamous "Waitara Purchase" – the then Governor’s, Thomas Gore Browne’s, carefully contrived pretext for war against the Maori King Movement. For months the Governor and his advisers had been itching to teach the natives "a sharp lesson". Kingi’s bold assertion of Te Atiawa sovereignty at Waitara gave them the opportunity.

That Kingi and his people were asserting no more than their rights under the Treaty of Waitangi cut little ice with Gore Browne. British settlers were demanding access to Maori land, and he was determined to give it to them.

The 150th anniversary of the Taranaki War was marked last Wednesday [17 March 2010] by a sombre day-break ceremony of commemoration and reconciliation. Prime Minister, John Key; Maori Affairs Minister, Pita Sharples; and Treaty Negotiations Minister, Chris Finlayson were all there to commence the negotiations which will, it is hoped, offer a belated measure of compensation to the victims of Gore Browne’s trumped-up war.

The sombre nature of such gatherings is readily understood from the perspective of Maori, but it is impossible to resist the thought that, on the Crown’s part, there is more than a little play-acting and a great deal of hypocrisy on display. No one on the Government side of the table is about to offer full compensation for the loss of land and cultural coherence suffered by the Taranaki iwi - whose "full and final settlement" will almost certainly represent less than one cent on the dollar.

The Crown may issue Royal Pardons to long dead tribesmen branded rebels and traitors by Gore Browne and his successors, and, if past practice is any guide, it will apologise for the pain and loss it inflicted on Te Atiawa and its kindred tribes. But no one in this Government – or any other – will ever attempt to wind back the clock to 17th March 1860.

That being the case, why the long faces? Why the solemn apologies? Are we seriously expected to believe that the Crown (and the post-colonial population it represents) is genuinely sorry that Governor Gore Browne and his successor, Sir George Grey, crushed the Maori King Movement; reduced the Treaty of Waitangi to a "simple nullity"; and set about constructing the unitary state of New Zealand upon the ruins of Maori society?

If we are, then rank hypocrisy should officially be declared our national sport.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the historical counter-factual to Gore Browne’s and Grey’s decisions to put an end to the Maori leaders’ assertion of tino rangatiratanga. Let’s imagine that both Governors loftily ignored the demands of the newly-established settler parliament, and stalwartly upheld the Treaty of Waitangi. How long do you suppose they would have lasted?

Now, let’s go way out on a limb, and imagine that the British Foreign & Colonial Office backed the Governors’ decisions. Let’s say they refused to send Imperial troops against the Maori, and commanded their vice-regal representatives to punish severely any person convicted of trading illegally in Maori land. What would have happened?

Even if we abandon all semblance of historical credibility and assume that a British Government responsible for such a self-evidently self-destructive colonial policy was re-elected, and persisted in protecting the Maori, one brute fact remains. Britain’s colonial rivals would never have permitted 268,000 square kilometres of prime real estate, located conveniently in the temperate zone of the Southern Hemisphere, to remain in indigenous hands.

If Britain didn’t have the stomach to rob the Maori of their patrimony, you may be certain that France, Germany, Spain or the United States would have "taken up the White Man’s burden" with alacrity. And while, for Pakeha, a French Nouvelle ZĂ©lande may well have been an improvement on Mother England’s (as the recent hit comedy Le Sud wittily confirms) it would still have been a disaster for Maori.

We are not, after all, talking about a few specks in the ocean like the Kingdom of Tonga, which the great powers left to its own devices for diplomatic – rather than moralistic – reasons. An independent Kingdom of Aotearoa, equal in size to the British Isles (but woefully underpopulated) would have fallen victim to Western imperialism even faster than the strategically-located Kingdom of Hawaii which, after years of destabilisation by American sugar interests, was finally annexed by the United States in 1898.

The white settlers who built the New Zealand nation were as hard-headed and unrepentant about their role in dispossessing its indigenous population as any of their Anglo-Saxon "kith and kin" in Australia and North America. Like the latter, they confidently anticipated their own "natives" imminent surrender to the Darwinian imperative. When they stubbornly refused to depart, New Zealand’s "progressives" (particularly Edward Tregear) shrewdly declared Maori to be fellow "Aryans" – and therefore assimilable as "Better Britons".

Interestingly, "progressives" were also responsible for ending the New Zealand Government’s policies of assimilation. Inspired by the post-war anti-colonial and anti-imperialist "struggles", and stricken with guilt by the historical revisionism of American authors like Dee Brown and Alex Haley, not-to-mention our own Dick Scott, Michael King, Judith Binney and James Belich , New Zealand’s formerly hard-headed progressive intellectuals went soft.

Kiwi nationalists, who, in the interests of mobilising our national energies had promoted a homogeneous, monocultural and unified social order, were forced to give way to a new generation of bi- and multi-culturalists whose watchwords were "identity", "indigeneity" and "diversity".

That the elevation and promotion of difference might lead to disunity – and thus to the dissipation of national energy – did not give them pause. The Kiwi nationalists’ conviction that a divided population could never be mobilised to achieve the prosperous future New Zealanders were demanding had always sounded a little too much like "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer!" for the progressive Left to mourn its passing.

And so our leaders shuffle solemnly through endless powhiri. Anxious to demonstrate their historical empathy – but unwilling to accept its political logic.

How the ghosts of Governor Gore Browne and Sir George Grey must sneer at their successors: when conquerors start apologising for their victories – their conquests are already lost.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 25 March 2010.


RedLogix said...

Maori of their patrimony, you may be certain that France, Germany, Spain or the United States would have "taken up the White Man’s burden" with alacrity.

Often forgotten that the majority of non-Maori in this country prior to 1840 where in fact American whalers and sealers. Plus a few settlers, one of who was my first ancestor, a woman from San Francisco who arrived in 1832.

Also forgotten is that the Treaty was prior to the American Civil War and that the Maori chiefs well understood the potential implications of the American slave trade.... and Victoria's abolition of it in her Dominions.

Lew said...

It is sad to see people claiming swordright as justification for colonial abuses in a country where a diplomatic agreement was supposed to serve in place of outright conquest.

Are you of the view that the Treaty ought never have been proposed, and that Hobson's navy ought have turned up with a few dozen ships full of the bloodthirsty disenfranchised of the British Isles with instructions to drive the hapless natives into the sea? Would that make Aotearoa a better nation than it is now? As you say, the outcome would not have been in doubt over the long term.

What makes this one different is the fact that a diplomatic solution was agreed prior to the conquest. Me, I'm of the view that the Treaty, having been signed, must now be adhered to in good faith. Perhaps what was agreed was vague and impractical, but no matter: honouring agreements and dealing with the world in good faith isn't some matter of postcolonial deference -- it's a core tenet of the enlightenment liberal tradition, and one upon which the Crown and NZ governments have long claimed high moral ground. The settler authorities of early New Zealand, in how they treated the natives, failed to live up to their own standards by failing to hold to their part of the agreement, but at least have made some attempts to do so.

How much more so in those other colonies to which you appear to cast an envious eye, sighing "anything for a peaceful life". They have a peaceful life in Australia, Canada and the USA, after all. At least as far as the natives are concerned.


Lew said...

Incidentally, I don't mean the last comment as a "so you're in favour of genocide, then" accusation: I know you're not.

But colonial triumphalism of this sort, and the attendant suggestion that "this was the best deal going and the natives had better be grateful" invites the consideration of another counterfactual: What if the Treaty had been signed and generally adhered to and a unitary state established in good faith between the two parties? You seem to imply that such was simply impossible. I say that's precisely the obligation the settlers undertook to fulfill, and they bailed on it, resulting in decades of war and centuries of unrest. It could have been different.