Scoop Review of Books

Kei Wareware i a Tātou

Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The Contest for Colonial New Zealand
by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books, paper $49.99; e-book $20)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

OMalley_Cover_2014As we enter what Australian historian Henry Reynolds has called a “carnival of commemoration” around the Gallipoli centenary, it feels both necessary and refreshing to dig into local history – into stories of our own wars in all their tragedy and triumph.

Wellington historian Vincent O’Malley’s new book, Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The Contest for Colonial New Zealand does that, and more besides. Because it’s a collection of essays rather than a linear history following a singular narrative, O’Malley is able to range widely across time and topic, from a fresh analysis of the 1863 invasion of the Waikato, to the taking of Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf, to the oil wars of the East Coast (who knew?).

This also makes it the perfect book to dip into and out of, although I read it from cover to cover, in order of appearance. Well almost. I couldn’t resist dipping into Chapter 7 first.

That chapter, about the Waikato war, caught my eye partly because I live in Tauranga Moana, into which the Waikato war spilled 150 years ago this past year, and partly because I know O’Malley is working on a book dedicated to that war, due in 2015, and I was eager for a preview. I also confess to becoming a little obsessed of late at the disconnect between the wads of cash and attention being lavished on Gallipoli and the curious  neglect shown our own wars, and it’s a point O’Malley makes here, albeit more politely than I might.

He opens Chapter 7, which is titled “Te Riri ki Waikato: The Invasion of Waikato and its Aftermath”, by noting that while all eyes are focused on World War I, this war – “the most decisive event in the history of Māori and Pākehā relations after 1840” – has fallen from our view. O’Malley argues there’s much more to learn about “Te Riri ki Waikato”, and promises that this chapter – and presumably the book that’s under way – will bring to light “fresh evidence and insights”. And so it does, including on the difficult question of how many Māori died: “There is every indication, that the numbers of killed and wounded may have exceeded those sustained by New Zealand troops during World War One in per capita terms,” he writes, later putting the death toll at around 4 percent of the Waikato Māori population.

O’Malley also takes a closer look at how the war began, highlighting the Crown’s duplicity in manufacturing a casus belli, including its ultimatum to Māori to essentially ‘do as you’re told or forfeit your lands’ (that’s my language, not O’Malley’s). Except it turns out not to have been an ultimatum at all, or not one Māori had any chance to consider. “Nominally dated one day before the invasion, it was in fact still being drafted a day after the troops had crossed the Mangatawhiri River,” he writes. “No Māori would have received it before the troops crossed into Kīngitanga territory.” (Click on the map to enlarge it.)


Elsewhere, he details evidence, some of it neglected he says, that casts further doubt on Gov. George Grey’s professed commitment to peace. According to notes written by Grey’s immediate predecessor, Gov. Thomas Gore Browne, Grey had said he wanted “an excuse to take the Waikato”.  In addition, Browne’s wife, Harriet, reported Grey as saying “he hoped the natives would not submit as it would be much better for both races that they should be conquered.” O’Malley – with some of that obligatory scholarly hedging – concludes that “the invasion was perhaps even more cynical than has previously been described by historians”. Sounds to me like there’s no “perhaps” about it. He hedges less later on: “Grey had not gone to war to teach the Kīngitanga a salutary lesson but to destroy the movement entirely, and if he could not do that, then at least to ensure that the question of sovereignty was settled decisively and for all time in favour of the Crown.”

The details of the war and its impact are sobering to say the least. Aside from the death toll, the social, cultural and economic effects were crushing: leading rangatira were lost, Māori were pushed from their homes and 1.2 million acres of land were confiscated. O’Malley closes this shocking chapter where he began, with World War I, and with the Kīngitanga a mere 50 years before: “We rightly remember today those diggers who died on the slopes of Gallipoli but this need not be at the expense of others who sacrificed everything on the shores of Aotearoa half a century earlier. Their cause is no less worthy of remembrance.”

The chapter on the Waikato war is not alone in its impact. To this lay reader, every essay (just over half have been published elsewhere, in scholarly journals) offers freshly disturbing insight into a history that is far too poorly understood. This accessible, readable collection could go a long way to remedying that. Its 12 essays (plus an introduction) are loosely linked, O’Malley writes, by the concept of “frontier”. Not “frontier” as that “place where civilisation met and inevitably triumphed over savagery”, as earlier generations of historians conceived it, but as “zones of contact and encounter … a place where different cultures and peoples literally ‘fronted’ one another.” This feels like a bit of a retrospective fitting together of otherwise disparate writings, something O’Malley acknowledges, but it works nevertheless.

Chapter 4, “Beyond Waitangi: Post-1840 Agreements between Māori and the Crown” makes the surprising (to me, anyway) argument that the Treaty of Waitangi was just one of many treaties of varying stripe struck between settlers and Māori, and O’Malley goes on to argue that by focusing exclusively on Waitangi “we risk losing sight of the many more localised agreements after 1840 that proved crucial instruments of colonisation”.

He suggests many of these other agreements were, on the part of Māori at least, seen less as real-estate deals (a la the Pākehā view) and more as efforts to establish a mutually beneficial and on-going relationship with settlers. Or as an “assistant Native Secretary” put it at the time: “Māori did not regard the extinguishment of native title over a block of land ‘merely as a mercantile transaction but as an important national act.’” O’Malley makes this case with examples from across the country, including deals with Ngāi Tahu in the South Island, and with various groups in the Hawke’s Bay. And here he sees the colonisation of Canada as comparable. “For the colonial regimes of both countries, obtaining aboriginal land at the lowest possible cost was a prime objective. Buying it from the indigenous people was always much cheaper than fighting them for it.”

Chapter 5, “English Law and the Māori Response: A Case Study from Grey’s New Institutions in Northland,” provides a tantalising look at the clash of justice systems between settler and Maori that I confess to previously thinking very little about. O’Malley describes the blindness the colonial administration often had – in its zeal to impose English law – to Māori ideas about justice and its application:

Rūnanga regularly handed down penalties tailored to the circumstances of the offender, rather than those of the actual crime committed – a notion that sat comfortably with Māori concepts of utu and muru but less so with mid-Victorian ideas about crime and punishment. Some chiefs readily accepted large fines levied by rūnanga against them as a mark of their own mana and significance, while crimes considered minor in Pākehā society, such as verbal curses, caused huge disruption within Māori communities and were accordingly treated seriously by the rūnanga.

This chapter also conjured up for me another reason the modern-day dog-whistling policies of “one country one law” are so bankrupt, not to mention how convenient that cry is today, now that all the rampant injustices and selective application of Victorian law have done so much of their work of dispossession.

I’ll close with a look at one last chapter, which is also the last in the book. At risk of being flip, this story is quite simply a tear-jerker. Titled “‘A Living Thing’: The Whakakotahitanga Flagstaff and its Place in New Zealand History,” this is essentially the biography of a quite remarkable historical object, and O’Malley tells it well. Whakakotahitanga was the initiative of more than 30 northern hapū, who spearheaded and funded its placement on Maiki Hill in Kororāreka/Russell – the site where Hone Heke had famously dispatched several previous staffs. It was, O’Malley writes, intended as “an emblem of reconciliation and unity in the wake of the Northern War”, although the government of the day was “lukewarm” about the idea fearing it would have to defend the flagstaff, no matter who put it up. Nevertheless, “on 29 January 1858 … northern iwi erected their new ‘King’. Some 95 feet long and 2 feet in diameter, the spar used for the new flagstaff required more than 500 men to carry it up Maiki Hill.”

O’Malley then follows Whakakotahitanga through 134 hard years of neglect, encroachment and attack – including an effort to blow it up – until 1992 when, believe to be fatally diseased by rot, Whakakotahitanga was taken down “for what most people now assumed was the final time”. But the staff didn’t want to go quietly, as an observer explained: “To begin with the flagstaff would not lift out of its socket. The kuia and women were calling and finally it let go and popped out.” Later, a wood conservator who examined Whakakotahitanga concluded the rot was not as bad as previously thought, and it could be saved. Over the next year, the staff was repaired, to be re-erected in March 1993, reduced over its hard life to roughly two-thirds its original height.

But Whakakotahitanga is still there, O’Malley writes, “a silent yet resonant reminder of the aspirations of those northern tribes that solemnly renewed their relationship to the Crown some 150 years ago”.