The colonisers’ descendants might also raise the question as to whether Māori were, in fact, colonised at all. Not a question that anyone would have thought to raise fifty years ago. In the 1970s the argument that Māori had not been colonised would have been laughed out of court. Back then it was generally accepted that, under the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi, Māori had ceded sovereignty to the British Crown. What’s more, the British, very soon after the signing of the Treaty, had exercised their sovereignty by annexing New Zealand, declaring it a British colony, and appointing a Governor to rule it. Oh yes, the Māori had been colonised alright – they’d been colonised good and proper.
SO, HOW DOES IT WORK? At every level, on every subject, the same explanation is offered for Māori disadvantage – colonisation. What’s more, the word itself has acquired such a talismanic quality that its mere utterance is sufficient to close down any further discussion. After all, the only people likely to challenge the colonisation explanation for Māori disadvantage would be the colonisers’ descendants themselves. And they would say that – wouldn’t they?
But, fifty years later, the story has changed. Today we are enjoined to believe that the Māori chiefs gathered at Waitangi on 6 February 1840 did not cede sovereignty to Queen Victoria. Indeed, no less a body than the Waitangi Tribunal has declared that the sovereignty of Māori iwi and hapu remains intact to this day.
It is a curious sort of coloniser who, 180 years after the event, proclaims the untrammelled sovereignty of the indigenous inhabitants of the islands his ancestors had claimed as their own. If the indigenous people of New Zealand were not subjugated by military force, relieved of their lands, forests and fisheries, and pushed to the margins of colonial society, then what was going on between the 1850s and the 1970s?
In the most brutal and unvarnished terms, what was going on between the signing of the Treaty and the military suppression of all Māori resistance in the 1860s and 70s, was a deliberate policy of overwhelming the indigenous people by settling tens-of-thousands of immigrants across the country, to the point where their numerical superiority rendered the construction of a second Britain in the South Pacific a feasible proposition. What made “New Zealand” possible was the reduction of the Māori to a militarily and politically powerless minority in their own land.
A particular kind of colonisation, then? Not at all the same as the colonisation visited upon India and Africa. Not even the same as the colonisation visited upon England and Ireland by the Normans. That sort of colonisation featured a relatively small number of conquerors and a very much larger number of conquered. Hundreds-of-millions of Indians were ruled over by around 100,000 British soldiers and administrators. This was the sort of colonisation which colonised peoples could dismantle – which is pretty much what they spent most of the twentieth century doing.
But, the Anglo-Saxon colonies of North America and Australasia were a very different proposition. In a relatively short period of time the indigenous peoples of those lands were reduced to insignificant minorities by an unceasing flood of settlers from Europe.
This huge discrepancy in numbers rendered military resistance futile. Always there were more, and more, and more Europeans to replace the settlers and soldiers killed by the indigenous tribes. North America and Australasia thus became “Neo-Europes”, ruled over and overwhelmingly populated by Europeans. Even where they escaped becoming the victims of outright genocide, indigenous cultures: their languages, customs, modes of political and economic organisation; found themselves smothered by the sheer pressure of European numbers.
This is the process which Māori, along with the many other indigenous peoples forcibly assimilated into the Neo-Europes created by Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, call “colonisation”. The cultural suffocation that inevitably attended the submerging of indigenous peoples beneath a relentlessly rising tide of nineteenth century immigrants. Settlers who came to stay – and who, more than a century later, are still here.
Within the institutions of the state, and even in a number of private organisations, the answer to colonisation is being presented as “decolonisation” and “indigenisation”. As if the cultural and demographic facts of New Zealand life can be re-configured to the point of somehow undoing the facts of New Zealand history. Regrettably, this strategy carries within it distressing intimations of coercion. The threat is there, all the more daunting for being unstated, that those who refuse to decolonise and indigenise will pay a price.
Given the degree of coercion involved in colonisation itself, this hard-line approach is entirely understandable. Unfortunately, it is also likely to provoke the colonisers’ descendants into adopting an aggressively oppositional stance, which, given the balance of demographic forces, is almost certain to be counterproductive. Attempting to undercut “the tyranny of the majority” by unilaterally redefining the meaning of democracy will only make matters worse.
The decolonising concept of “co-governance” cannot succeed if it is understood by Pākehā to mean that Māori will be empowered to exercise a right of veto over the ownership and delivery of essential state services mostly paid for by Pākehā taxes. European cultural traditions and political norms are simply too deeply embedded in the Neo-Europe called New Zealand for this crude approach to righting the wrongs of the past, and overcoming the inequities of the present, to succeed.
Much more likely to secure Pākehā support is the argument that, in the making of New Zealand far too little concern was shown for the impact the colonists’ nation-building was having on the lives and treasures of Māori iwi and hapu. In their eagerness to create a second Britain in the South Pacific, the colonisers simply crowded-out the indigenous people whose rights they were pledged to respect. Presenting co-governance as a way of encouraging Māori to reclaim their lost space has a high chance of success. That the colonial state smothered and suffocated Māori culture and Māori rights is historically undeniable, and morally indefensible.
Ceding Māori the space they need to both rediscover and redefine their tino rangatiratanga is unquestionably the right thing for Pākehā to do. Encouraging Pākehā to join them in that expanded space is unquestionably the best way for Māori to make Aotearoa less European and more indigenous.
Decolonisation is not a programme to be imposed, it is a skill that Māori and Pākehā can only acquire together.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 7 October 2022.