September 14, 2021

Playing fast and loose with New Zealand history

Letter to the New Zealand Listener, February 7, 2021

I want to draw attention to several revealing flaws in John Robinson’s carefully crafted argument that all persons living in New Zealand should be treated as if they were the same (Becoming One People, Listener, February 6). Firstly, he blithely assumes that the nineteenth century model of ‘nation’ that underpinned European nationalism then and into recent times, works universally. With others who espouse such homogenisation, he promotes that specific cultural model as the only possibility. And, like those others, displays the colonising mindset that considered it proper to superimpose foreign practices and institutions while pushing indigenous peoples aside. History’s judgement will be that this model has routinely fostered rancour and division in Europe and wherever it has been imposed. In Aotearoa New Zealand we should all be looking for new possibilities that do not require peoples to surrender their cultural identity just to be accepted and respected.

Secondly, Robinson grossly misrepresents the northern Rangatira’s call for the British king to control his people as requesting British intervention in “the explosion of tribal fighting”.  Such fighting had always been resolved, as this eventually was, within Māori tikanga, whereas the King’s trouble-making people were setting themselves above and apart from Māori authority. As part of his argument, he provides a high-end guess at the number of deaths caused by the musket wars.  There are major difficulties with any such estimate, caused by the uncertainty about the total Māori population in 1800 and the tendency of British to overestimate both the number of Māori involved in such fighting and the extent of their casualties.

Thirdly, Robinson depicts Governor Grey as responding to aggression. Yes, he did erect a monument to Rewi Maniapoto, but Grey began his second term as Governor determined to destroy the Kingitanga because he saw it as resisting British sovereignty. To that end his reports to London constantly talked of threats to Auckland, enhancing the credibility of those threats with exaggerated accounts of raids. Troops and finance from Britain enabled him to create a supply route, the Great South Road, and as it neared completion, he demanded Māori living on their land, in what is now Franklin, to surrender their arms and sign an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria or leave and join the Kingitanga.  The evidence is clear; Grey and his settler parliament were the aggressors, and subsequent governments have done little more than to occasionally assist Maori to assimilate into the ‘one people’ Robinson espouses.

Raymond Nairn

Leave a Reply