Mything our myths, Miles Fairburn

A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century
James Belich
Allen Lane, Penguin, $59.95
ISBN 07139 91712

Writing a general history about New Zealand is an extraordinarily daunting and difficult task and as a consequence we have very few of them. One reason for the difficulties is that the thousand years of human settlement in New Zealand are composed of such markedly different eras. How possibly can a historian thread together such a diversity of complex stories — the Maori occupation of the country, the early years of Maori-western contact, the frenetic European colonisation from the 1840s to the 1880s, the settling down of European society from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, the dramatic events going from the great slump of the 1930s to the first Labour Government to the War, and then all the changes associated with the post-War era?

Another reason for the difficulties is that the history of Maori and of non-Maori has, at least until the great urban migration of Maori from the 1940s, followed quite different courses though with many intersections. Compounding matters, the whole concept of history has become severely — almost hopelessly — fragmented and compartmentalised. When Keith Sinclair wrote his History of New Zealand (1959) and W H Oliver his The Story of New Zealand (1960), they followed a long established historiographical convention of treating the past (with the obvious exception of the pre-contact era) as essentially the history of politics and government. Hence their task of putting together a coherent story was relatively simple, for the convention allowed them to focus on the ideas and deeds of the powerful few, “the white male élite”.

Over the last two decades, however, several trends have made the convention almost untenable. There is now a consensus of opinion amongst professional historians that New Zealand did not have a unitary past but a multitude of different local or regional pasts. A large proportion of feminist historians say that women had a different past from men’s. Moreover, the explosive growth of specialisms over the last two decades has shaken the belief that the past can be known predominantly through its political and governmental forms. These specialisms include the history of gender, labour history, local history, ethnic history, poverty history, the history of crime, the history of childhood, the history of popular attitudes towards everyday life, micro-history, urban history, even the history of silence and of smell, to name but a few.

How does Belich tackle these difficulties? His book is divided into three parts. The first covers the early colonisation by Maori of New Zealand (yes, he sees Maori as colonisers). The second part, where he is clearly at his best, deals with Maori-European relations between Tasman and the 1880s. The third and longest part tells the story of European colonisation from the 1840s to the 1880s. (A second volume is promised for the period from the 1880s to the 1990s.)

It should be noted that Belich attempts to say far more about these eras than any other general history and that the third part probably strives to say more about social history and women’s history than any specialist book on each of these topics (though it also says far less than other general histories about political and constitutional developments). It is thus to his great credit that he not only tries to say more about a greater variety of topics but that he endeavours to thread everything together in a coherent fashion.

His threading devices are interesting for they do not depend, as Oliver’s and Sinclair’s did, on telling a story, on selecting events and weaving them together with a narrative. The first device consists of taking a thematic approach. Each part has an overall theme, with chapters and sections within chapters providing the constituent elements of the theme. This works well in that it enables Belich to engage in arguments and synthesise large amounts of material, though inevitably there are repetitions and often the chronological linkages are difficult to follow.

The second device is one I am going to discuss at length. Although it had some potential, it does not work well and reveals a weakness in the book: its tendency to employ rhetoric at the cost of analytical thought. The weakness, I have to add, is not easily seen since the book is long, dense (surprisingly so, given that it is intended to be widely accessible), written with an air of great confidence and authority and wordy, especially in part 3.

The second device is introduced on pp37-38 during a discussion of the conventional explanations for the origin and growth of new societies. Belich claims that these explanations cluster around two concepts: the “fragment” concept (the notion that new societies inherit their attributes from their parent societies) and the “frontier” concept (the notion that the attributes of new societies are determined by their natural resources). Belich asserts that these categories are insufficient. The third category which needs to be added to them is the “ethos of expansion”: this, he declares, is “the missing link in the study of the formation of new societies”. Thereafter, the book is loosely organised around the concept of the “ethos of expansion”, but with Maori society in the first two parts of the book having a radically different type of “ethos” than European society in the third part.

On first acquaintance, “the ethos of expansion” seems like a genuinely original and arresting idea. But when we look closely at the many contexts where the phrase is employed in the rest of the book, we can see that the concept is disappointingly obvious. In virtually every context the concept refers to little more than the desires and beliefs that led people to settle new lands. Of course people who colonised new lands had the desires and beliefs to colonise. What else would they have in their minds when they did form colonies? Apart from this, it is very difficult to see how Belich’s concept of the ethos of expansion differs in substance from the conventional concept of “fragment”. Belich’s ethos consists of beliefs and desires brought by immigrants; are these beliefs and desires not inherited from, and formed in, the old society?

The major component of the “ethos of expansion” is “myth”. Hence Belich sees myths as playing a fundamental role in laying the foundations of both Maori and European society. The term is first defined on p25, uninformed, I have to say, by the huge theoretical literature on the subject. Although their overall sense is obscure, they seem to suggest that “myth” will be used as a value-free concept, that every society has myths, that myths cannot be equated with objective knowledge, that they represent the shared beliefs of a group of people and that myths function unconsciously to bind a culture together (“legitimate” its explanations of the world).

Now although throughout the rest of the book the meaning of “myth” constantly shifts, there is a pattern to the changes: the connotations vary according to whether the reference is to Maori history or to European history. A double standard is involved, one of many in this book. In the context of Maori history, the word is seldom mentioned — Maori, by implication, are comparatively myth-free — and  when it is mentioned, the author’s tone is highly respectful, even deferential and the meaning is always positive, frequently implying objective knowledge. Thus on p22 Belich chooses the word “knowledge” instead of “belief” or “information” to describe the contents of Maori oral tradition: “They also preserved myth, religion, custom, geography, lore and law, explanations of nature, guidance about the future and many other types of knowledge”. Thereafter, whenever Belich talks about Maori skills or technology he generally slips in the word “knowledge” to suggest that their epistemology is not really based on myth. To be sure, Belich extensively discusses Maori beliefs about the supernatural. But he carefully avoids saying Maori were “superstitious” (the cosmology is “rich”) and emphasises that Maui, the key god, provided Maori with a role model of agency: “After all, Maui had conquered the sun.” (pp110-11)

The cumulative effect of the relative infrequency of references to “myth” and the high frequency of the references to “knowledge” is crucial to the overall impression he is trying to make in part 1. The impression is that right from the outset, Maori had superior epistemological rules, they were super-smart. According to Belich, pre-contact Maori acquired “knowledge” about their new environment and how to manipulate it with extraordinary rapidity (“the thickening archipelago”); they made minimal errors given the available information; they were gifted problem solvers; and they were extremely adaptible and pragmatic. He conveys all this by speculating that the first arrivals deliberately chose the far north as their first place of settlement to prevent their tropical and subtropical plants from being frosted. He also conveys it by sliding over in one paragraph (p34) the problem of why such a rational people would hunt to extinction the moa and the vast seal colonies that provided them with natural sources of protein. And he conveys it by asserting that they effectively adapted to the extinctions (after some initial difficulties) by establishing “sophisticated economies” of hunting and gardening, forming tribes, constructing pa to protect surpluses (which he says actually minimised war) and by engaging in more intensive gathering activities. (Tim Flannery in The Future Eaters has the adaptations producing lower surpluses and succeeding for a shorter period than Belich does.)

The impression that Belich evokes in the first part about early Maori being super-smart prepares the way for the theme of the second part, on Maori-European relations to the 1880s. The story here denies that the advent of European settlers crippled Maori, let alone had a fatal impact (though it brought some disruptions). The story instead is that because Maori, the makers of the “thickening archipelago”, were super-smart they were able to rule the roost until the 1860s; and were able to force Europeans to share the ruling of the roost from the 1860s to about the 1880s. Over most of the nineteenth century, Belich insists, in other words, Maori were agents not victims. When Maori adopted christianity, signed the Treaty of Waitangi, engaged in prostitution with Europeans, sold land to Europeans, married Europeans, bought European guns and so forth, they did so on their own terms, for their own reasons. Belich summarises the implications of the super-smart thesis on p154:

Maori did not passively receive Europe but actively engaged with it. They chose, adjusted and repackaged the new, in many respects into a less culturally damaging form. They did so with courage and perceptiveness, exploiting a technologically formidable Europe that thought it was exploiting them, separating Europe and its things like a fool and his money.

The only thing that eventually led these super-smart people to lose their resources and autonomy, Belich says, is that they were overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers (“swamped”).

Although Belich argues his super-smart thesis very forcefully and although it synthesises views about this period of race relations that are now widely held within the historical community, it is overstated. Maori were not as super-smart as Belich makes out and his own material shows this. Two of their own traits — the intense competition for mana and intertribal divisions — were as critical as anything else to their eventual loss of autonomy. To that extent, Maori were the makers of their own misfortunes (unmaking?). The competition for mana drove them to seek European ideas and goods as status commodities and thus to encourage European settlement. The intertribal divisions prevented them from collaborating sufficiently to resist the attacks on their autonomy by the growing body of Europeans they had encouraged to settle.

The point I am leading up to, however, is not to question the idea that Maori were rational actors. Rather the point I want to make is that when Belich tells his story about Europeans in the third part his implicit value judgments are different from those in the Maori parts. Pivotal to this is the way he shifts the concept of “myth” and handles it.

Whereas in the first part of the book Belich seldom talks about “myth” when referring to the Maori “ethos of expansion”, he uses the word incessantly in the third part when describing the British “ethos” of expansion. Although the prose insinuates all kinds of myths into the British (pakeha) mind, the group of myths which Belich calls the “pakeha myths of settlement” are the most insidious and dominant. The flagship chapter that Belich uses to convey these “myths of settlement” is the first (and arguably most unfortunate) chapter of the third part, “The Pakeha Prospectus”.

The theme of the chapter is that from the 1840s to the 1880s the principal elements in pakeha culture were “constructed” out of immigrant propaganda generated by the most manipulative marketing and the “greatest advertising campaign in New Zealand history”. Belich is vague about who participated in this “crusade” to attract immigrants to New Zealand, but he emphasises that the leading “crusaders” were the infamous Edward Gibbon Wakefield in the 1840s and the disreputable Julius Vogel in the 1870s. Although he is also vague about what attributes of pakeha culture the advertising campaign “constructed”, he is in no doubt that all were false images of New Zealand — in Belich’s sensationalising rhetoric, they were “lies”, “grand fraud”, “gross fictions”, a “con”. Nor is Belich in the slightest doubt about the inordinate power of the “myths”. He dramatically states: “The crusader prospectus ‘took in’ its thousands”; “The colonising crusade had a tendency to convert its victims like a vampire’s bite.” (pp339, 282)

In contrast, then, to  his respectful treatment of Maori oral “traditions”, Belich treats the “pakeha myths of settlement” as  outrageous propaganda and, to make sure we understand the point, he puts his intellectual boot into them. The effect is heightened by his handling of the word “knowledge”. Although the word is used liberally to describe Maori “traditions”, it is never applied to any of the pakeha myths; indeed the word never appears in any context in the third part at all. On top of all this, he uses a particular rhetorical device to create the impression that the “pakeha myths of settlement” limit agency and produce closed minds, incorrigible conduct. In his labelling of Maori society Belich uses proper Maori terms: tribes are called by their actual names, utu is called “utu”, mana is referred to as “mana” and so on. But in his labelling of the collective entities of pakeha society, a different rhetorical game is played: Belich coins all sorts of metaphors to designate the key collective entities of pakeha society. Thus the organisers of immigration campaigns are called “crusaders”; the writers of immigration literature are termed “lynchpin prophets”; the mechanisms of economic development are designated “progress industry and its allies”; and so on.

The effect of the metaphors is to suggest in two ways, one general, the other specific, that pakehas have inferior epistemological rules. The general suggestion is that pakahas thought only in terms of metaphor; they are primitives, members not of a “thickening archipelago” but an archipelago of thickies. As their minds are filled with illusions, they do not see the world as it is but through a veil of imagery and fantasy. The specific suggestion is that pakehas have rigid and ignorant minds. “Crusaders” and “lynchpin prophets” conjure up notions of religious fanaticism and deep superstition; the odd metaphor, “progress industry and its allies”, suggest that pakehas anthropomorphised economic development and called it by a strange name because they were ignorant of what it really was. A leading manifestation of their rigidity and ignorance, Belich implies in a later chapter, was that they opened up the interior of New Zealand not through rational action but irrational: through repeated bursts of frenzied speculation, each feeding on itself, each based on borrowed money lent by gullible British bankers, all of which, he hints, were pushing New Zealand headlong to disaster.

Having committed himself to the position in the opening chapter of his European history that pakeha culture was constructed from powerful delusions (“myths”), Belich endeavours in the remaining chapters of his European history to tell us about the realities of the pakeha social structure. The evidence and arguments in the remaining chapters, however, are fundamentally at odds with the rhetoric on “the pakeha myths of settlement”.

In “The Pakeha Prospectus” Belich states that one reason why the falsehoods (“lies”, “gross fictions”, ‘con’) contained in the “greatest campaign in New Zealand advertising history” caught hold was this:

Propaganda became subliminal when it merged imperceptibly with what appeared to be objective geography, ethnography or history. Government statistics, the New Zealand Handbook and Yearbooks, and New Zealand history itself — all have their roots in crusader propaganda. (p282)

The clear implication of this passage is that all the sources it names — government statistics, the Handbook, the Yearbooks, and New Zealand history(!) — are quite unreliable. Yet the chapters on the realities of pakeha society cite, without qualification, research by a variety of New Zealand historians and data contained in the Yearbooks. Furthermore, these later chapters provide statistics on the demographics of colonists, statistics on occupations, on incomes,  on housing, literacy levels, land-use and land-holding, shipping services, even per capita rates of horse ownership, to name but a few. When we look at where all these statistics come from, we can see that nearly all were originally generated by the government and that Belich accepts them without reservation, unaudited, unconfirmed, unscrubbed. The “subliminal” sources of the “lies” in the flagship chapter become the sources of the facts in the rest of the story about pakeha settlement. Water has been turned into wine.

Belich’s handling of another source of evidence — letters written by immigrants — is equally contradictory. In the “pakeha prospectus” chapter, Belich argues that letters written by immigrants either formed an integral part of the propaganda industry about New Zealand or did comparatively little to correct its deceptions:

Most of the New Zealand letters back we know about were managed by the crusaders — prompted, selected and selected by them, and, of course, supporting their view …

Unmanaged letters back were probably an important counter-current, but probably not as much as one might think. A reluctance to admit mistakes, and an inclination to persuade other people to share them to reduce the sense of error, appears to be human nature. (p282)

Yet despite the alleged untrustworthiness of these immigrant letters, we find them being employed extensively and unsceptically in later chapters, again as evidence for claims about pakeha realities.

Furthermore, whereas the “pakeha prospectus” chapter insists that immigrant propaganda about New Zealand was all “myth” – “con”, “grand fraud”, “lies”, “gross fictions” — a later chapter informs us that in reality colonial New Zealand converged on the myths. It “did provide decent working people with opportunities for enhancement and adoption. Wages were higher than in Britain”. Moreover, jobs were more numerous than in Britain, land was cheaper and more accessible, as were meat, houses, horses and hunting. All told, “many, perhaps most decent immigrants did indeed ‘get on’ “. (One cause of his difficulty here, is his failure to differentiate the propaganda for the Wakefield schemes, which was false, from the highly diverse propaganda generated in the subsequent three decades, which was fairly accurate about material life).

A further problem springs from Belich’s insistence in the earlier flagship chapter that the “pakeha myths of settlement” were extremely powerful. As the later chapters proceed it turns out that the “vampire’s bite” was in fact rather toothless. These later chapters refer to “informal myths” which Belich says challenged or differed from the formal “pakeha myths of settlement”. Belich does not explain how and why these competing “informal myths” were able to emerge and grow despite the inordinate power of the formal myths of pakeha settlement.

Belich wants to have two bob each way. He wants a pakeha archipelago of closed minds in the flagship chapter, but he wants some sort of magic to change the minds in later chapters. At least some of the muddle in the argument, I suspect, derives from his failure to read properly the descriptive literature on New Zealand written for and by immigrants. My own research on the literature suggests that it frequently contained most of what he calls the “informal myths”. Maybe, then, the “informal myths” are actually part of what he classifies as the “formal myths’; but it is impossible to tell. His list of the propagandists and his analysis of their ideas are very sketchy.

This brings me to the last implication which Belich’s handling of “myth” in “The Pakeha Prospectus” has for the remainder of part 3. Belich obviously thinks that he can distinguish the myths of pakeha society from the realities. But what makes him so certain and confident that he can? As Belich is so concerned to make this distinction, we would expect him to describe and defend the methodological principles he has employed to identify the realities. But he never does.

To be sure, Belich is an historian and not a social scientist; it may be unfair to ask him to describe and defend his methodological principles. That being the case, we would expect him to establish the realities by using the historian’s traditional tools of trade — by documenting his case about the realities with an impressive amount of hard evidence. But he largely fails to do this also. His case for the realities depends more on assertion than hard evidence.

The other two parts of the book are generally careful to point out where assertion begins and fact ends and to weigh the probability of the assertions; but the care is missing in the third part (which, incidentally, also makes it unreliable as a reference work). He does not, for example, produce any evidence to refute the notion expressed (so he alleges) in “the myths of settlement” that the only goal of immigrants was class promotion. To take another example, Belich claims that in reality colonial society was stratified according to finely graded cultural — subjective — distinctions, producing a social structure composed of a “genteel class”, a “decent upper class”, “upper respectables”, a “middle middle class”, “middle respectables”, and the “lower classes”. Not only is very little evidence cited to demonstrate that colonials actually carried this model around in their heads but the claim is inherently implausible. How possibly could the society be stratified in such an elaborate and clear-cut way, given its extreme fluidity during most of these decades, given the large numbers of new immigrants in the population and given the ambiguity of the ideas of “respectability” and “gentility” which, he insists, animated the principles of stratification? The implausible becomes the absurd when he tries to tell us he is able to make reasonable judgments about the numbers of people belonging to each class: “My impression is that the highly respectable were not numerous in the colonial era”. (p397)

The problems I have outlined so far are not the only ones that can be found in part 3. There are examples of careless writing (he cannot make up his mind if he wants to designate the culture of the lower classes as “respectable”, “decent” or “crew”); and of mutually contradictory arguments (the respectable lower class people being sued for debt on p337 become highly unrespectable on p435). There is a strong tendency to make vague generalisations, impressionistic statements about mass behaviour, the more obvious containing meaningless words such as “some”, “many”, “dozens”, “thousands”, “scores”. There is also a tendency to build, quite needlessly, enormous castles out of thin air. One example occurs on pp302-05. It consists of a long speculation, which plays no apparent role in the surrounding argument, about all the subtle meanings that colonists invested in an early nickname for New Zealand, “The Better Britain”, and about how all these subtle meanings were different from those attached to a later nickname, “The Greater Britain”.

Moreover, not content with setting up one model about how colonial society was stratified, Belich sets up many others without telling us how they are related. The net result is an incoherent picture. Apart from the subjective model described above, he has an additional but objective model consisting of the “immobile” (the “settled core”), “shifters” and “wanderers” (“drifters”); and, for good measure, he has other models based on land owning, for women and by ethnicity.

To be fair, a section of part 3 is very useful indeed. He provides a sustained and intelligent critique of my atomisation thesis about the social structure, systematically probing each of its components, judiciously assessing the strengths and weaknesses. There is no scope here to respond to his critique, except to say that its overall effect is to reshuffle the pack rather than to discover a better game; and that many of his assertions suggest fertile areas of further research.

To sum up, professional historians will feel most ambivalent about the Belich account of the archipelago. On the one hand they will admire the sheer scale, ambition and industry of the enterprise; on the other they will remind themselves that that he had unparalleled opportunities to engage in the enterprise and that there are few general histories with which to compare his. On the one hand, they will appreciate the skilful synthesis of two decades of research in the second part; on the other hand, they will find his key concepts inadequate and find that the third part is deeply flawed. On the one hand, they will say the book reflects our times; on the other they will say that he is far too tempted to tell sections of the New Zealand intelligentsia what they want to hear: that since the 1880s they have travelled a long way down the path of decolonisation, away from the falsehoods of the Greater Britain of the South towards the bi-cultural paradise of the Better Aotearoa.

Miles Fairburn teaches history at Victoria University. His most recent publications include Nearly out of heart and hope and, with Bill Oliver, The Certainty of Doubt. Tributes to Peter Munz, reviewed on p12 in this issue. 

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