Making up New Zealand, Geoff Watson

Encounters: The Creation of New Zealand. A History
Paul Moon
Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143568506

The Voyagers: Remarkable European Explorations of New Zealand
Paul Moon
Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143570554

In a year in which the historical focus is very much on the centenary of WWI, two recently published books by Paul Moon remind us that we have a much longer history than our involvement in that conflict and that there are many ways, other than warfare, through which New Zealand’s identity can, and has been, defined.

Encounters is the more ambitious of the two books, indeed it is the most wide-ranging work Moon has attempted in the more than 20 books he has written on New Zealand history. Ostensibly, the work has a modest objective, being “an idiosyncratic scrapbook of national memories”. Its scope is, however, much wider, being an analysis of the ways in which New Zealand’s identity has been repeatedly created and re-created by successive waves of human settlers and their accompanying ideologies, beliefs and practices. It is a wide-ranging and complex book, but its central argument is that there is not, and never has been, any fixed New Zealand identity. Even supposedly unchanging features, such as its landscapes, are themselves constructs, either as a result of human intervention or a conscious decision to leave them “untouched” so that present-day visitors can have an “authentic” wilderness experience.

Encounters is divided into four sections. The first, “Imagining New Zealand”, discusses how New Zealand was imagined by Polynesian and European settlers. Both cultures had their own creation and discovery stories about New Zealand, and both invested exploration with a sacred significance. One complicating factor, as Moon demonstrates, is that many of our accounts of Māori creation stories are filtered through the lens of the Europeans who recorded them, each imbuing their accounts with an ideological gloss from their own culture. “Arrivals”, the second section, analyses perspectives on the human settlement of New Zealand. Much of it focusses on the debates over whether Polynesian settlement of New Zealand was deliberate or accidental, and the purposes these arguments served. Moon also covers the European discovery of New Zealand in this section, demonstrating that even seemingly arbitrary actions, such as ascribing English place names to New Zealand locations, had a practical impact because they imposed a British identity on the land prior to the actual arrival of colonists.

Having discussed the conceptualisation and settlement of New Zealand, attention shifts to its landscapes, identifying ways in which Māori and European settlers invested our landscapes, particularly the forests, with spiritual significance, yet simultaneously sought to shape this environment for aesthetic and practical purposes. As a consequence, Moon argues, “a constant array of overlapping myths about how the land is perceived” have emerged. The final section of the book, “Imagined New Zealand”, examines various manifestations of nostalgia and constructions of New Zealand as a utopia, including varied attempts to establish such communities in places as diverse as Albertland in the 1860s and Centrepoint at Albany during the 1970s and 1980s. It is persuasively argued that the assertion of a simpler, “better” past is a recurring theme in such perceptions, even though they have little basis in reality. Moon’s conclusion, that attempts to locate a distinct, unitary identity that encompasses all New Zealand’s citizens are intellectually unsupportable, aligns with an increasing body of recent scholarship challenging New Zealand “exceptionalism”.

The promise of an “idiosyncratic scrapbook” is fulfilled as the book unfolds, the 331 pages of written text (excluding footnotes, bibliography and index) being subdivided into 47 chapters, some only a few pages in length. On the positive side, the short chapters enhance the accessibility of the book, enabling the reader to dip into selected parts or read the work as a whole. On the other hand, there are places where it reads more like a series of vignettes than a coherent work, and it is hard work for the reader to discern an overarching argument. The most convincing sections are where Moon draws on his detailed knowledge of New Zealand history and, in particular, Māori history. For this reader, his analogy of the marae to an “upturned canoe” and his discussion of the powhiri as a “security-screening measure” are particularly perceptive.

With the expansive range of the book, it is unrealistic to expect all representations of New Zealand to be covered, but readers would have benefitted from a fuller introduction, explaining the criteria used to determine which of the many possible visual and written representations of New Zealand are included and which are left out. The way in which Polynesian, Māori and European cultures have envisioned New Zealand is comprehensively covered, yet there is minimal coverage of Chinese and Indian perspectives, despite both communities having been in New Zealand over 100 years. Given the book’s focus on perceptions of New Zealand from outside and within, it would have been interesting to know how they conceived of New Zealand and what stories found their way back to villages in China and India from these communities. There is also little discussion of the whalers and sealers whose labours integrated New Zealand into the world of global commerce and showed its largest marine creatures could be subdued and consumed by humans.

Moon’s arguments on the conscious Anglicisation of New Zealand’s landscapes among 19th-century painters are persuasively put, but not all will be convinced by his allusions to phallic imagery in Augustus Earle’s Distant View of the Bay of Islands or to “erotically charged pert peaks” in McCahon’s Otago Peninsula. His work is, however, based on a solid scholarly foundation, with the footnotes and bibliography occupying nearly 80 pages. He writes in a lively and engaging manner, and the book is very nicely presented, with 28 colour illustrations, each of which is contextualised for the reader and integrated into the overall argument, a welcome contrast to the practice of ghettoising images into a mid-book insert where they are divorced from the text they are supposed to complement.

Compared to the broad sweep of Encounters, The Voyagers, a potted history of 22 European explorations of New Zealand between 1805 and 1859 (beginning with John Savage and concluding with Ferdinand Hochstetter), is much more precise in its focus. Some of the personalities, such as Henry Williams and Charles Heaphy, will be well known to readers, but others, like Francis McKenzie, who travelled from Auckland to Wellington in 1853, are more obscure. The strength of this book is the glimpses into New Zealand’s past it provides through the eyes of an interesting cast of travellers. Indeed, if this lively text stimulates some readers to turn to the original texts of these voyagers, it will have more than served its purpose. Each chapter begins with a brief biography of the explorer before discussing the chosen expedition. Moon does a good job of describing their journeys, interspersing his own analysis with quotations from the explorers themselves.

One potential pitfall with a book such as this is that the reader encounters the explorers via the filter of a third party, rather than reading their impressions first-hand. This authorial intervention has advantages  and disadvantages. Discussing the presence of Christian graves and a box containing the clothing of an eminent tribesperson in a pa near Taupiri, Moon perceptively observes “two very distinct cultures of death were now evident in the same community – something that just 20 years earlier would have been inconceivable.” Indeed, Moon’s evocation of change over time is one of the most powerful elements of the book. There is a marked difference between the early 19th-century explorers, who tended to encounter few signs of European presence, and those who travelled in the 1840s, by which time European influence had already transformed much of New Zealand. The book also highlights the dynamic nature of Māori society, descriptions of abandoned villages and the impact of the Musket Wars, reflecting the fact that Māori society too was constantly in a state of change. It is also clear that these “remarkable European explorations of New Zealand” were, in fact, very much joint ventures between Europeans and Māori, most of the explorers employing Māori as guides and porters.

On other occasions, the editorial observations are inclined to hyperbole. In chapter one, a quotation from John Savage in which he makes some qualified remarks upon the attractiveness of the Māori women he saw is prefaced with a paragraph in which it is asserted he was “exploring the sexual geography of the region”. There are also some curious omissions from the book. The focus on the first half of the 19th century (a seemingly arbitrary choice of period for which no explanation is given) means that there is no discussion of James Cook and Marion Du Fresne, whom most would regard as leading European explorers. Given the author’s expertise in New Zealand history, the introduction could usefully have been extended to locate these explorations within their wider historical context. Many of the explorations coincided with the Musket Wars, and a more detailed explanation of these conflicts and their impact on Māori society would have been rewarding. Nor is there any overarching analysis of these particular explorers and their impact.

The book ends abruptly, after the account of Hochstetter’s 1859 journey to Taupo, so there is no conclusion to provide an overall summation of the explorers’ legacy. In contrast to the lavishly illustrated Encounters, The Voyagers is a modest production. Readers, especially those from outside New Zealand, would have benefitted from the inclusion of a map, showing where each person explored. Even many New Zealand readers will be unfamiliar with 19th-century place names. Nor are there any pictures of the explorers themselves.

Minor reservations aside, Encounters and The Voyagers both advance our understanding of New Zealand’s history (or histories in the case of Encounters). There is always a need for good historical writing which revisits the past in an attempt to answer today’s questions, and presents its arguments in a way which an interested general reader can comprehend.


Geoff Watson teaches history at Massey University.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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