Strong on descriptive narrative, K R Howe

Years of the Pooh Bah: A Cook Islands History
Dick Scott,
Cook Islands Trading Company/ Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1991, $49.95

This beautifully produced and heavily illustrated book is an account of the ‘ignorance’, ‘neglect and … vague benevolence’ that characterised New Zealand’s effective 75-year rule over the Cook Islands. Scott is far more interested in agency than structure. Thus New Zealand’s rule is examined by a focus on the personalities and policies of the succession of Cook Islands-based administrators. These were the New Zealand appointed Residents of the 1890s when the Islands were a British protectorate, and the Resident Commissioners from the time of Seddon’s annexation of the Islands in 1901 to internal self-government in 1965. Throughout this narrative, Scott’s reference points are the first two administrators: Frederick Moss (1891-98) and Walter Gudgeon (1901-09). Moss is Scott’s hero, an enlightened liberal democrat who tried to introduce political, social, and economic reform to liberate a society ‘long subject to abuse of power’ by missionaries, trading interests and chiefs. But the good Moss was undone by these vested influences and replaced by Gudgeon. If Moss was a saint, Gudgeon, in Scott’s hands, becomes the devil incarnate. He is nothing less than a cruel, monstrously arrogant tyrant who regarded ‘the Polynesian as a doomed race of congenital criminals’. He was more successful than Moss in subduing missionaries, traders and chiefs, though he did so to enhance his personal authority and profit, not to empower Cook Islanders. Successive administrators are judged on the Moss/Gudgeon scale: ‘As if by design, the appointment of resident commissioners had taken a course where each new man had been at odds with his predecessor’s policies. In modern political terms, the philosophy of successive administrators, from Moss to Hewitt, had been wet, dry, wet, dry, wet, dry’. Hugh Ayson (next, and longest serving, 1923-1943) was ‘dry with some wettish tendencies’.

Interwoven in this narrative is an account of the Cook Islands soldiers who went to Europe in World War One (and suffered an appalling casualty rate), and of the relative prosperity of the 1920s and depression of the 1930s. We learn about diseases, the endless problems with outside shipping and trading monopolies, and the racist neglect of New Zealand-based ministers, including Maui Pomare and Apirana Ngata. We learn about the unfulfilled promises and political treachery of the Labour administration, and the labour unrest and local political initiatives (and early New Zealand attempts to quell them) in the post-colonial environment after World War Two. Overall it is a very gloomy tale wherein Cook Islanders generally suffer endless social, economic and political misfortune largely due to New Zealand’s action or inaction and regardless of whether resident administrators were wets or drys. But the story eventually has a sudden and happy ending with Albert Henry leading a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand. It is a deliberately disturbing story, one meant to shatter any myths anyone might have about New Zealand’s long standing benevolence towards its Pacific neighbours and its exemplary colonial expertise. But therein lies an issue.

Scott’s judgmental presence, indeed passion, pervades the narrative. The characters often become larger than life, like caricatures in a morality play. Was Moss really that saintly, was Gudgeon really so evil? Were Cook Islanders always innocent victims, were they all at heart frustrated liberal democrats waiting to be set free? Were New Zealand’s colonial policies and attitudes always so dreadful? It seems to me that Scott comes very close to conforming to the current ‘politically correct’ school of New Zealand history, so courageously described by Melanie Nolan in her recent review in New Zealand Books. I would go even further and suggest that a national pathology is currently de rigueur, where Pakeha historians feel obliged to apply today’s social-policy ideals to New Zealand’s past, predictably find it wanting, and self-righteously judge it very harshly. In the case of the Cook Islands, New Zealand was a colonial master. Her administrators were ignorant about indigenous custom and values and did believe in their own racial and cultural superiority. It would be surprising if it were otherwise. Historians should be in the business of explaining (which does not equate with agreeing) rather than constructing a morally superior litany of condemnation. And, as part of an explicatory process, some brief comparative comment might have been helpful. How does New Zealand’s rule in the Cook Islands rank against its colonial overlordship in Western Samoa, or with German, British, French, US, Australian, Japanese colonialism in the twentieth-century Pacific?

Readers should also be aware that the book is much more limited in scope than the subtitle implies. This is not a history of the Cook Islands. There is nothing on the Islanders’ origins and pre-European history, or on their social and political organisation at the time of European contact, or even on the Islanders’ experiences during that phase. Most surprisingly there is nothing about the way in which the islanders responded to and were influenced by the whole process of ‘Christianisation’ in the nineteenth century. An understanding of the socio-political ramifications of this process, particularly the relationships between missionaries and leading chiefs, must surely be a basis for understanding Cook Islands society during colonial rule. All we have are brief comments to the effect that missionary and chiefly rule was, by the end of the nineteenth century, repressive and cruel. Even during the period covered by Scott’s narrative the reader has to try to read between the lines to see what was happening to the indigenous society, other than merely reacting to foreign meddling. The decline in indigenous authority structures is occasionally mentioned but never adequately examined. In this sense it is a pity that Scott did not use some of the methodological approaches long adopted by Pacific historians to attempt to cross to the ‘other side of the frontier’. Instead he stays firmly within a Eurocentric, or New Zealandcentric, framework. Thus the Cook Islands still sadly lack the historical treatment that has been given to neighbouring Tahiti, Tonga and Samoa.

In summary this is a well-told tale and it will be acclaimed by those who identify with its message. Light on analysis, it is strong on descriptive narrative. Scott certainly has an eye for the quirky and bizarre. For example we are even told about George Craig, former Cook Islands medical officer, who at Waihi in the aftermath of the 1912 strike, conducted a post-mortem on the miner killed by police and sewed ‘his brain into his stomach cavity where rapid putrefaction prevented any other doctor from conducting an independent enquiry’. It makes for great reading, but sometimes it is just slightly suspect as history.


K R Howe is Associate Professor of History at Massey University, specialising in New Zealand and Pacific history.



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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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