Playing colonists at their own game, Angela Ballard

Agents of Autonomy: Maori Committees in the 19th Century
Vincent O’Malley
Crown Forest Rental Trust
ISBN 0 9583708 0 X

Hikurangi to Homburg
Helen M Hogan
Clerestory Press, $39.95
ISBN 0 9583706 0 5

To review these two books together is to do neither justice. They are full of contrasts. Agents of Autonomy is an important study of the political struggle of Maori to control their own world throughout the later 19th century, centred firmly in New Zealand. Hikurangi to Hamburg is richly evocative of the social fabric of the wider British Empire at the turn of the century, as seen through the eyes of two young Maori soldiers of the East Coast. Vincent O’Malley’s Agents of Autonomy is deeply serious, a read for the committed student of Maori history; Helen Hogan’s Hikurangi to Homburg has a frothy, fresh sparkle that has the capacity to attract and entertain a wide audience.

Both will be a revelation for many general readers. O’Malley’s account reveals the many facets of the persistent struggle, the sheer effort that 19th century Maori expended on new movement after new movement. Many Europeans behaved as though Maori were children willing to be patronised, gullible “natives” whose possessions were ripe for exploitation or a doomed breed in the way of colonisation. It should convince doubters that Maori leaders themselves devoted herculean energies in efforts to lead their people and sustain their mana, demonstrating among the way sophisticated political skills. O’Malley shows that time after time they were defeated by the smothering burden of Pakeha numerical superiority and monopoly of political power. Hogan’s book reveals facets of the little-known but rich intellectual life of Maori at the turn of the century: the existence of Maori newspapers, for example, some of which were church-sponsored periodicals, while others were fully independent Maori productions, the fruit of the many movements documented in O’Malley’s study.


O’Malley’s book is meticulously researched and textually immaculate, but is presented in an impermanent binding that is not equal to the importance of the book. Although it merits publication as an independent, academic study, its format as a report to the Crown Forest Rental Trust has been retained. Its earlier chapters usefully summarise European attempts to devise a system to deal with the acquisition of Maori land and the course of land alienation. If these chapters can be criticised, it is because they concentrate on European activity; Maori remain out of focus, the subjects of European manipulation.

But later chapters, the heart of the book, bring Maori efforts and aspirations clearly to the forefront. The chapters detailing Te Arawa committees and Tuhoe politics are quite brilliant, more closely and thoroughly researched than anything this reviewer has seen previously on the subject. The patronising, racist attitude of Europeans towards Maori initiatives is brought out through quotation rather than bare assertion.

Perhaps because of its genesis as a record on Maori attempts to counter Maori land loss, put together for one of the agencies currently responsible for researching this process and its consequences for contemporary Maori, the book consistently relates the struggle for autonomy primarily as the struggle to retain the land. While this was of course an overwhelmingly important consideration for 19th-century Maori, so too were mana and independence: Maori dignity, as well as Maori land, was at stake. In the end O’Malley brings this out strongly himself: “Maori consistently sought to establish committees and to have these recognised by the Crown … because they sought a place for themselves in the new colonial order that would not involve being entirely subsumed by it.” O’Malley has assumed that “traditional” Maori tribal authority existed and was undermined by 19th century land politics, but this assumption is on the borders of his argument, and does not prevent his noting new developments such as tribal runanga, and eventually, committees.

This book leaves the reader with a strong sense of tragedy and needless waste; the solutions were there all the time, put forward by generation after generation of Maori leaders. Confused notions of racial superiority, of the apparently inevitable course of civilisation, of the necessary march of assimilation prevented Europeans from hearing them, much less understanding them.


Hikurangi to Homburg is attractively presented and richly illustrated, but it has not fully exploited the opportunity presented by the subject matter. Its strengths are in the illustrations illuminating the lively commentaries of two young Maori on their journey. Their lack of sophistication, however, if taken as representative of Maori of the time, does less than justice to their people.

The translations of the letters of Henare Kohere and Terei Ngatai are generally good, although some of the imposed punctuation in Maori text is less than appropriate (eg, p viii, paragraph 2, “a tae noa“, not “a, tae noa“; and paragraph 6, “hei hoa awhina“, not “hei, hoa awhina“) and a line of Maori text is missing from pp30-31. Some of the English is a little stiff or clumsy. All translators of Maori will know the trap: too literal, and Maori nuances will be unintelligible and the English will read less than fluently; too free, and the translation will be made to express European connotations that are absent from the original.

The opportunity missed is in the commentary. At times verging on the inane, Hogan’s commentary tends to matronise her young men in a mother-hen-proud-of-her-chicks style. She has missed the opportunity to analyse the extent to which Kohere’s and Ngatai’s internalising of the racial stereotypes found in their own commentaries was typical of their people, and if so, the reasons for this development.

This lack is particularly marked when contrasted with O’Malley’s detailed analytic study of Maori struggles with political domination and Pakeha racist attitudes. Hogan draws attention to the contrast Kohere and Ngatai make between their own people and South African blacks, or between their own people and the poor of Britain, without, for example, documenting the actual conditions of blacks in South Africa or the strait-jacket of class consciousness suffered in imperial Britain.

She would have done well to relate Ngatai’s and Kohere’s experience to the contemporary Maori scene in New Zealand including some of the movements described by O’Malley. Had she done so, she might have discovered that there was indeed an official Maori contingent that accompanied Premier Richard Seddon to London for the Diamond Jubilee of 1897; its commander was Captain, later Major, Hoani Paraone Tunuiarangi, who led the contingent of 18 Maori who departed from Lyttelton on 30 April 1897, facts documented in the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (1897 H.14, 1898, A.-2) and in National Archives files.

Tunuiarangi carried with him and presented in the form of a loyal address a petition prepared at Papawai during the previous session of the Kotahitanga parliament, demanding that the remaining five million acres of Maori land be reserved for Maori in perpetuity. This 1897 activity, reported in the independent, Kotahitanga Maori newspaper, Te Puke ki Hikurangi, sets the 1902 letters in a perspective which should have emerged in Hogan’s book: they were the relatively innocuous, enthusiastic letters of young Anglican Maori printed in an Anglican Maori organ, devoted to the support of the empire and the political status quo within New Zealand.

But perhaps to demand more of Hogan’s book is unfair. Her intent was limited – to present these charming letters to a wider public – and this she has admirably fulfilled. All publication of translated Maori text is desirable, and will have an ongoing value in many respects, not the least in studies of the adaptability of the language. In summary, Hogan’s book is a book to enjoy; O’Malley’s is a book to study.

Angela Ballara is a historian with The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Her book Iwi was published in June and will be reviewed in a later issue.

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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