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Inglorious Past

Prendergast: Legal Villain? by Grant Morris (VUP, $40)
Parihaka Invaded by Dick Scott (BWB Texts, e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

Prendergast_coverI have reviewed these two recently published books together as they share so much in common as regards subject matter, given that the latter is but a small extract from an earlier and far more significant book by Dick Scott, namely Ask That Mountain, originally published in 1975.

This commonality pertains to Parihaka and the – for all Māori at least – illegal invasion of this most civilised settlement in 1881; an invasion most desired by the then Minister of Native Affairs, John Bryce, and given legal sanction by Sir James Prendergast in his role of Acting Governor of Aotearoa-New Zealand. More, Wi Parata, MP, was also at Parihaka, some years after Parihaka_CoverPrendergast had declared Parata’s chances of reclaiming his Poneke whenua (Wellington land) impossible, because the Supreme Court did not recognise native title, thus inaugurating further repressive parliamentary Acts which further diminished Māori land holdings.

Grant Morris never sanctions Prendergast’s rather nefarious role in the entire Parihaka blot on our country’s history – as so well delineated in the brief BWB Text booklet – and he also makes it clear that Prendergast had no empathy whatsoever for Māori. Indeed, it all seems rather fortuitous in hindsight that Prendergast authorised the Parihaka invasion during the time then Governor Gordon was overseas in Fiji. In other words, for this reviewer, Prendergast was as culpable as Bryce for the unwarranted rape and pillage that took place there. Whether he was manipulative and deceitful at worst, or merely somewhat of a tool of similar-minded politicians, at best, remains for the reader to ultimately decide.

More, Prendergast was – of course – the prime force behind the declaration that The Treaty of Waitangi was ‘a simple nullity’, for it was this phrase reinforcing his 1877 decision against Wi Parata that inevitably led to further legalistic machinations by Pākehā politicians (themselves all rather prosperous landowners) to further usurp Māori rights to their own land.

In other words, given Morris’ plea that Prendergast be accorded a fairer hearing over these two issues, that he – Prendergast – be seen as much a victim of his Victorian upbringing as Māori became, precisely because of the concomitant racist attitudes involved in this heritage, for me at least, Prendergast was indeed a legal villain, even if it has taken decades for this negative summation of his long legal career to eventuate. Prendergast, after all, denied Māori had any customary law’ justice system of their own, decreed that Māori were ‘in fact’ mere ‘primitive barbarians’ and ‘savages’.

James Prendergast was very much a key member of a conservative, white, cabal that gave little quarter to Māori, that enriched itself accordingly by accumulating huge farming fortunes, while pacifist heroes such as Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi were forcibly incarcerated and had their tūrangawaewae razed completely.

Yes, as Morris, points out over and over, James Prendergast should be considered also as regards his important roles as politician, lawyer, administrator, Attorney-General, Chief Justice and so on, and for his very lengthy conservative career, and some important legal decisions based explicitly on the English law he epitomized. And his own detailed familial background should also be given consideration, so as to make for a more balanced view of his life. However, it is precisely because of such pivotal legal roles that ultimately history now adjudges him as somewhat of a legal rapscallion who quintessentially penalised Māori not only during his own times, but well beyond, because of his far-reaching decisions.

Robert Stout, his contemporary, best summed up Prendergast’s legacy when he wrote “his name will be recalled as our students study our case law and our legal history.” Recalled for all the wrong reasons.

However, for me, John Bryce is even more of a villain than the rather boring figure of Prendergast. Bryce was somewhat of a militaristic madman in that he was so desirous of making a massive bloody battle against the ‘natives’ of Parihaka, just as he had earlier attempted at Handley’s woolshed. As the brief BWB extract states, “Bryce, mounted Napolean-like on a white charger, had virtually taken over command from Colonel Roberts.” What in effect eventuated was no such mayhem, but rather a series of buffoonish actions promulgated by Bryce, that made him a laughing stock of many of his Pākehā peers in the new colony, as is evident by the incorporation of their derisive verse in Scott’s book. Bryce too, of course, profited greatly by the Whanganui and Taranaki land confiscations and became very wealthy. For Dick Scott, and indeed most subsequent historians, John Bryce was a robber baron colonialist par excellence and there is no call for a more balanced appraisal of his life in either this booklet or the original book, from which this is just a two-chapter extract.

Unfortunately, whilst I read both of these books, I was always made aware of several things that are to their detriment.

Firstly, the BWB Text pamphlet is – inevitably – only an appetite whetter for Dick Scott’s masterwork of 1975 (and its several later editions), and publisher does point this out: “Although this short BWB Text covering what happened during the invasion is but a fragment, we hope that it will lead readers to Dick Scott’s full account of this crucially important New Zealand story.” Quite honestly, readers would be far better off by obtaining Ask That Mountain. My final assessment of the booklet is again a quotation from its Publisher’s Note, in that it will, at least, result in “peeling away dense layers of ignorance and prejudice about the Parihaka story for the wider Pākehā world.”

Grant Morris’s legal treatise – for this is what it reads like – is something else again. While Parihaka Invaded is too short, Prendergast: Legal Villain? is rather too long, by virtue of the fact that it is far too repetitive and should have been far more closely edited. Morris tends to repeat not only the same facts about Prendergast too many times, and to longwindedly summarise all too often, as well as make lengthy lists of laws, but he also is guilty of verbosity and tautology all on the same page. An example of the constant repetition of points and indeed words is the entire second chapter, where Morris continues to tell us that Prendergast was a member of the English schooled and culturally circumscribed ‘elite’. Indeed ‘elite’ is written many times in this chapter and by pages 20 and 21 we read “Prendergast met and associated with the elite” and soon after “Prendergast entered the English elite at a young age”. Where was the editor?

What we end up with is a text that is all too dense, legalistic, difficult to read in long sessions. It is almost as if Morris has many of the same attributes he accords Prendergast – a love of the law, formality, conservatism of style, an unwillingness to counter ‘accepted’ notions of writing. We even see the rather quaint usage of ‘at’ with reference to the page numbers quoted.

My final judgment of Morris’ book, then, is that it is commendable that he has written the first biography of Prendergast, but that not only his subject matter, but also his style, tend to reinforce the very real fact that Sir James Prendergast may well have been a pillar of respectable Pākehā society, but was somewhat of a pillock when it came to his attitude and actions regarding Māori. Morris, to give him credit, tries his level best as an advocate for assessing Prendergast more fairly and by stating that history should apportion blame for Wi Parata and indeed Parihaka to other figures such as Justice Richmond and Frederick Whitaker. But even he – Morris – is forced to state rather emphatically on more than one occasion that “As Attorney-General, Administrator and Chief Justice, Prendergast played a key role in separating Māori (including Te Whiti) from their land and culture.”

Enough said. Morris has answered his own titular question.