Ripping yarns, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

Fatal Frontiers: A New History of New Zealand in the Decade Before the Treaty
Paul Moon
Penguin Books, $39.95,
ISBN 0143020595

“New Zealand was undergoing an identity crisis in the 1830s,” writes Paul Moon on the first page of his introductory essay to Fatal Frontiers. “For almost a thousand years, Maori had been ensconced in a monogamous relationship with the country.” Monogamy was broken asunder by the arrival of newcomers, the Pakeha, and “In the engagements and entanglements that followed, the two cultures blended, but more often curdled.”

Moon wishes to portray the 1830s not simply as a preliminary to the Treaty of Waitangi, but as an epoch in its own right. He surveys the epoch chronologically rather than thematically. Chapter one opens with 1830; Chapter 11 ends with 1839. The viewpoint is most often Pakeha – in fact, British. “When Augustus Earle perched over his writing table in 1830 and looked out at his cramped view of an overcast London,” begins the first sentence of Chapter one.

Only one thesis for the book is stated overtly: “the emergence of a new people known as New Zealanders”. Outlined in the introduction, the thesis is picked up in the last lines of the conclusion:

It was from this rugged environment that the idea of a New Zealand nation was chiselled out – not as a conscious act, nor to a single design, but from the cumulative actions of all those people who lived in the country: people who were slowly becoming recognisable as New Zealanders.


Any historian aware of the current consensus about Maori/Polynesian prehistory will immediately feel doubt about the likely value of a book which on its very first page plays so fast and loose with numbers as to round out as “a thousand” the 500, or at the outside 600, years from what is thought by most scholars to have been the landing of the first colonists. Almost any historian will also feel uneasy about a book purporting to deal with New Zealand but deriving its voice mostly from the written words of the British. Maori were the overwhelming majority in the archipelago. As late as 1839 they numbered about 80,000, compared with only 2000 or so Pakeha. Moon is aware of this – having described a fleet of 42 waka attacking a pa, he comments that the scale of Maori military operations showed “the sheer insignificance” of the British in New Zealand – but that awareness informs the book only intermittently.

Moon, an academic at the Auckland Institute of Technology, is willing to take risks. Author of seven other popular histories and historical biographies, he seems to be liked by the political right but looked at a bit askance by most academic historians. He “tweaked the nose of the history establishment” with his books on Hone Heke and early colonial governors Hobson and FitzRoy, according to an essay in the National Business Review, and then was deemed “in need of a good slap” by most historians because of a book about the Treaty of Waitangi. Moon is said to have “shattered the myth” and “undermined a growing academic culture” of political correctness about the Treaty. He has also plunged into other areas of controversy. His website quotes a statement by David Irving, the well-known denier of Nazi policies of genocide, who says: “Moon exposes the fraud when the world’s newspapers published photographs of Serbian ‘concentration camps’.” Moon is of Serbian ancestry.

Certainly he has been energetic, and likes to take a strong stance. He promotes his career as one of brave truth-telling. “His prolific and often ground-breaking output has occasionally earned him the resentment and envy of a handful of other historians,” explains his website, “but Moon’s scrupulous research and careful treatment of evidence has made his works unassailable.”

Only a wrongheaded historian would ever claim that their work was unassailable. Historiography in western culture is a continuous, open and open-ended debate about the meanings of pasts. Historians acknowledge that their findings can only be provisional since, no matter how scrupulously they may try to avoid bias when defining a thesis and when searching out, then weighing, evidence, they are deeply constrained by endless variables ranging from the most clumsily obvious, such as lack of data, to the subtle, bewildering and usually only dimly felt lapses caused by the limits of the written language.

Moon writes fast and he writes prolifically. Fatal Frontiers is readable, enjoyable and middlebrow, crammed with ripping yarns. Style wavers. Moon at times writes good clean English. At other times, he writes like his primary sources. He writes with a dated, heavy sexist archness about an “amorous whaler” and his “lady companions”, two women of Ngati Manu. Sometimes a whole sentence will read like the work of a colonial journalist slurping at his bottle of laudanum: “The European world was starting to radiate through New Zealand like light over a landscape at sunrise.”

Primary sources for the book are highly uneven, of course, since the scope of the study is an archipelago where only a tiny minority of people wrote, let alone left behind, documents. Moon has failed to rise above this problem by any sensitive extrapolation from what was written, from studies of comparable societies elsewhere, or from archaeology. Secondary sources are less excusably lopsided. Old works no longer worthwhile as history, valued by historians only for their own status as bits of history, are cited as authoritative sources while more recent works are sometimes overlooked.

Historians as a whole, together with many readers, will be surprised, for example, by an apparent lack of knowledge about French plans for the South Island. “Much has been made by some historians of French designs on New Zealand,” writes Moon, “but these conclusions are possible only by confusing popular opinion and government policy in France.” A footnote below this observation leads us to a work by A J Harrop published in 1926! Moon shows no sign of having come across the leading work of scholarship on France in relation to 1830s New Zealand: French Akaroa: An Attempt to Colonise Southern New Zealand, by Peter Tremewan. The truth as shown by this book is that Paris during 1839 made explicit statements about its intention to checkmate London in New Zealand; or, in its own words (here translated), “to paralyse the invasion by the British”. The South Island was “earmarked for annexation at the earliest possible moment,” observes Tremewan. Other historians have integrated Tremewan’s findings into their work. Why not Moon?

Fatal Frontiers allows narrative to take priority over analysis. Analysis is so unsystematic, in fact, as to be little more than a piecemeal dropping of off-the-cuff hunches between too many, far too long, chunks of primary sources which the reader is often invited to swallow whole without any help in thinking about their representativeness or reliability. A good deal of the book reads like scissors-and-paste work. The reader seldom has a sense even of the thesis overtly stated by Moon: the “emergence of a new people known as New Zealanders”.

Nor is the thesis about an emergent nation proved, let alone argued. A thesis that seems, on the face of things, startlingly anachronistic needs to be articulated carefully. We need the historian to offer a definition of the phrase “New Zealanders”. We need to see the cultural concepts behind that phrase unpacked in an orderly way. Next, we need to be talked carefully through its appropriateness to the lives of those 80,000 or so Maori and 2000 or so Pakeha who by the end of the 1830s lived in the archipelago.

The reader is advised by the author to be dismissive of big ideas. Moon concludes the book with an astonishing claim that “New Zealand in the 1830s was not the product of profound political causes, or long historical evolutions – which historians and sociologists seem preoccupied with discovering.” Moon knows better than “historians and sociologists”. Causes are not profound but superficial. Society was shaped by “a perpetual series of … accidents”. Empiricism becomes stretched so far to its limits by this book that understanding becomes almost impossible. History turns out to be little more than what the Annales school called histoire événementielle: a chronicle of one thing happening, followed by another thing happening, and then another thing …

Fatal Frontiers offers recycled yarns from old sources, mostly British, brought together by an unsteady narrative voice. Occasional remarks of wider scope do spike the narrative here and there, but on the whole the book offers few insights and little wisdom.


Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s Shanghai Boy was reviewed in our December 2006 issue. He is working on a social history of the colonial New Zealand gold rushes.


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Posted in History, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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