Letters – Issue 5

The legacies of history

I should like to comment upon some very misleading remarks in the review by Mr B J Poff of my recent book, Kinds of Peace, Maori People after the Wars, 1870-85, (March 1992). In my preface, I wrote, ‘I have tried to describe, I believe, as much as to analyse’. Mr Poff completely misrepresents this and writes, ‘He will attempt to describe, not analyse, he says…’. How any experienced historian could suppose that history can be written without analysis is beyond my comprehension. However, the rest of Mr Poff’s review is based on the assumption that I believe this nonsense.

Mr Poff goes on to show that ‘judgments’ appear in some of my sentences. Of course they do, though ‘judgments’ are not the same thing as analysis, as he seems to believe.

I also wrote that my book presented no thesis in the sense of a central argument, except at the high level of generality, that the Maori reactions to war varied greatly. A common question at the viva examinations of doctoral candidates is to ask, ‘What is your thesis?’. Mr Poff finds the absence of one ‘disingenous’ and he invents one for me. He writes that the ‘argument is that the way of the kupapa was the right way for Maori. This is never stated explicitly’. He adds that the ‘most explicit statement’ of this view is the dust jacket! This shows two fine portraits by Lindauer of the great Ngati Whatua chief, Paora Tuhaere, in Maori and in European dress, symbolising that Maori were between two worlds. Of course, I did not design the jacket. I did not reach the conclusion that Mr Poff attributes to me. Had I been investigating this issue I would have written a different book about how the kupapa and so-called ‘rebels’ fared many years after the wars, not in the confused immediate post-war scene.

Although I wrote that the ‘friendly’ and neutral Maori, perhaps half the population, should not be ignored, the bulk of my book is about the prophecies and policies of Tawhiao, Te Whiti and other Maori disaffected with the government. While discussing issues irrelevant to my book, like the supposed absence of analysis, Mr Poff fails to notice this fact.

Mr Poff writes that, ‘Rather disapprovingly, Sinclair concedes on the penultimate page: “In effect they were asking for a separate Maori government”‘. How anyone could detect either approval or disapproval in such a factual statement I fall to understand.

Mr Poff berates me for refusing to recognise what he calls my point of view. I can only say that, while a reviewer is entitled to make his or her own judgments, an author is at least entitled to hope that the book reviewed is his own and not one invented by the reviewer.

Keith Sinclair, Auckland


Basil Poff replies:

Sir Keith Sinclair’s response to my review of Kinds of Peace (March 1992) led me to read the book again, for which I am grateful: as I said in my review, I found much of value in it.

I also saw that I had misrepresented what he said about analysis and description – he would describe as much as analyse, he said (p9), not describe rather than analyse, as I said. I apologise for the misrepresentation.

But on the substantive issue of whether the book has a thesis, and what the thesis might be, I am not persuaded by another reading that I was too far wrong. Sir Keith writes that he has no central argument, ‘except to say that Maori reactions to the wars varied greatly’ (p9). These varied responses are not, however, simply described. They are also evaluated, and it is because they are evaluated against criteria which are never explicitly spelled out that I as a reader was forced into the sub-text, and into looking at the overall shape of the book. I came to the conclusion that the Maori response he thought ‘best’ was that of constructive engagement with the colonising Europeans rather than armed resistance or withdrawal.

I said that an argument along these lines seemed to have a good deal of force, but that it had to be argued. This is especially so because it has all sorts of resonances today for issues like divided sovereignty or separate justice systems. I pointed to some places where Sir Keith’s description was interpenetrated with editorial evaluation. Let me add some more.

On p48 he describes how one of Tawhiao’s Gisborne supporters wrote to other Maori to ‘return ashore’ to the King. This drew a rebuttal from the other Maori that there was no shore. Tawhiao did not hold the land, they said: ‘it was held by them, the kupapa, and the Queen. They urged him to come home in peace, to Waiapu’. To this Sir Keith appends his opinion, to close the description and the chapter: ‘It was good advice’. But no grounds have been laid down anywhere in the book for judging such advice good, bad or indifferent.

Between pages 51-55 there is an account of Tawhiao’s demands to the government that his lands be returned. There are then three successive statements that, because of Pakeha settlement, it would be ‘impossible’ to return them all. One reports Donald McLean using this word, one reports Paora Tuhaere, and the third is from Sir Keith himself. The three ‘impossibles’ weave together to produce a very strong impression on the reader that the line being taken by Tawhiao was not very practical (even though the next chapter describes the government paying money for already confiscated land in Taranaki).

The chapter on Parihaka emphasises how uncompromising Te Whiti was towards colonisation. It ends, without comment, with the settlers moving on to the land. The implication is clear, that the way of Te Whiti was doomed to fail. This feeling is confirmed in the passage on the kupapa which opens the very next chapter: ‘Some modern Maori radicals regard such people as Uncle Toms; others may believe that they made a rational response to European expansion’, (p86). The contrasting tone and colour (so attractive a quality in all Sir Keith Sinclair’s writing) of ‘Uncle Toms’ and ‘rational response’ leave little doubt as to which view is being argued.

That there was no future in separation is made clear in the final pages of the book. Parihaka is invaded and Te Whiti arrested. He may have sustained hope, and may even have helped to secure reserves, but he could not achieve ‘the perfect independence of the Maori race’ (p78) which he sought. And in these final pages Tawhiao ‘comes in’. Sir Keith asks on what possible grounds I conclude he disapproves of Tawhiao’s journey to Britain in 1884 to seek self-government. The grounds are the context in which the mission is described. Tawhiao is shown to be uncomprehending and powerless – ‘he could not negotiate; he had nothing to bargain with’ (p. 127). In short, his was not a ‘rational response’.

That was still to come, with Carroll, Ngata and Pomare, men ‘all equally at home with English and Maori people and languages, and well-educated in the European system; moving comfortably with both worlds’. If anyone thinks that the book I reviewed is not the same book as Sir Keith wrote, they should ponder these words, with which he brings Kinds of Peace to a conclusion.



Aspects of reviewing

Thank you for your gallant endeavour to produce a quarterly which seriously reviews New Zealand books. May I comment that I find the page size too large and the layout a little austere; that I would like the journal to review exclusively New Zealand books, though I would hope the reviewers will set New Zealand writing in a wider context; that I would appreciate a selection of each quarter’s best books to be reviewed at length by well-read critics with different theoretical perspectives; and a check list of the quarter’s publishing to be included.

New Zealand Books contributes to the aspiration of our era to affirm New Zealand’s unique vision.

Wendy Pond, David Stout Fellow, Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington



A poet neglected

I note a disturbing trend in recent poetry reviews: far too many volumes are lumped together indiscriminately in one review/ article, as happened in Anne French’s ‘Do they have talent?’ (March 1992). With the number of volumes being published each year, I see why it happens, but I suggest if your book editor did a little preparatory winnowing, then the chaff might be separated off into a ‘brief-mention’ article, allowing poets of merit to receive the concentrated attention to which they are entitled.

Anne French spends seven-eighths of her review faulting two spotty anthologies, leaving a mere 75 words for Michael Harlow’s Giotto’s Elephant. Though she found Harlow obscure in part, in the end she was ‘enchanted’; French found that ‘The poems are worth all that patient stalking’. Why did she not do her ‘stalking’ in public for our illumination? It must be galling for an important poet publishing his first collection for six years to receive such scant attention.

Heather Murray, Dunedin


Anne French replies:

It’s good to know someone out there cares about the review coverage that poetry gets. I am sorry I wasn’t able to devote the whole review to Michael Harlow, but I was given 600 words to cover three books, two of which were anthologies, and it’s arguable that I haven’t given them their due either. I know poetry is very much a minority taste and difficult poetry even more so. Under pressure of time and space I went for the easy option. Michael Harlow would have been best served by a 1000-word review written by someone cleverer and better read than me; but unless I have mistaken the intentions of Peppercorn Press, not even New Zealand Books can give that sort of space to one volume of poetry, much though its editor may want to.


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