Forging an ideology, Philip Temple

Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders. From the 1880s to the Year 2000
James Belich
Allen Lane/ Penguin, $59.95,
ISBN 0713991720

One person’s “History of the New Zealanders” over a period of 120 years can never be complete, wholly accurate or perfectly balanced. There can be no authoritative last word in such a project. Rather, the work must be judged on how well it provides an interpretation and understanding that will be found both authentic and accessible by its contemporary readership. In constructing such a volume for debate about who New Zealanders are and where they have come from, style is also important. Should this be a story or a text; a synthesised narrative or a well-organised seminar? More than 40 years ago, Keith Sinclair opted for the former, encompassing an entire history in three parts, 13 chapters and 300 pages. James Belich has opted for the latter in both his history to the 1880s, Making Peoples, and this new volume, which brings us up to the present. Altogether, Belich’s two-volume work amounts to a thousand pages in nine parts and 34 chapters; a massive achievement of collation and scholarship that will do much to encourage New Zealanders’ interest in their own history. For that alone, we must be grateful.

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Paradise Reforged has been constructed around the thesis that there have been three distinct periods of history since Pakeha settlement – Progressive Colonisation from the 1840s to the 1880s; Recolonisation from the 1880s to the 1970s; and uncompleted Decolonisation since then. It works well as a seminar, as a collection of contiguous and stimulating papers (lectures?). As an end-of-century round-up of research and opinion, it provides a wonderful basis for discussion and new investigation. But while Belich is always comfortable in expressing his own conclusions, readers must work through the seminar’s 60 papers and accompanying statistics to arrive at their own. This is a task, rather than a good read – despite Belich’s felicities with anecdote, pun and hyperbole – and the reader sometimes loses grasp of the whole with the need to fast-forward or rewind when being referred to Chapter This or to Chapter That.

One is left with the feeling that, heroic though Belich’s effort has been, everything has been pulled out of the basements and attics of scholarship in order to demonstrate that “Here it all is” rather than “These are the components necessary to make this machine work.” In jamming it all into an imposing and overflowing pantechnicon, intended to move us entirely down the road from where we once lived – rather than a precisely packed BMW that will get us to our destination in speedy elegance – it sometimes seems as if Belich, too, is not quite sure what is all there and has consequently left the odd bit behind (the metaphorical style is catching).

Belich divides Paradise Reforged into “Over-History” – the political and economic; and “Under-History” – the social and cultural. It is easy to guess which is the most entertaining and probably the more valuable. Belich seems particularly strong on the history of Maori and racialism, and on the moral “Great Tightening” of the first part of the 20th century. In attending to the later loosening, however, he has overlooked that elements of the “Tight Society” still linger, transmogrified into ethnic- and feminist-based political correctness.  He renders a service by also attending to the role of sport in New Zealand culture – especially rugby – although he is sometimes wrong-footed.  Peter Blake and the America’s Cup are mentioned but not the domination of international offshore yachting by New Zealanders over the past 30 years. Not only in rugby, but also as sailors and mountaineers, New Zealanders have punched far above their weight on the international scene.

Such near-misses in the book are exemplified by Belich’s coining of the useful phrase “protein industry” to underpin his central mantra of “Recolonisation”. But in lumping meat and dairy products together, he overlooks that butter ain’t protein. In any case, his early and relentless insistence on the thesis of “Recolonisation” provokes one to an equally early conclusion that these particular ideological underpants are too small for all the shirt-tails that he seeks to stuff into them. (No matter how “better hung” we “Better Britons” thought we were than the folks back “Home”, as Belich joked in a recent Dunedin lecture.) The need to fit everything into social and economic eras with exact dates and turning points – as if our past has been a sequence of events as clear-cut as the Tarawera eruption or Napier earthquake – serves dogma better than history. Biography is not so neat and if “history is the essence of innumerable biographies” then we should acknowledge that they overlap.

The cornerstone to “Recolonisation” has a date, the “great secret” of the voyage of the Dunedin to Britain in 1882 with the first cargo of frozen mutton, establishing the great Protein Industry. Hardly a secret: Sinclair in 1959 noted this as an “achievement which was to transform New Zealand life”.  For many a year now, travellers on State Highway One, south of Oamaru, have been able to “rest and be thankful” in contemplating the ruins of the slaughterhouse where the first sheep were chilled before being sent on their epoch-making voyage to London. But where Sinclair saw the event chiefly as a transformation affecting agricultural development and the economy, Belich sees it also as the end of a nascent independence, a point where New Zealand entered a kind of arrested childhood, becoming more securely bound to mother’s apron strings and fulfilling a role as South Britain, London’s town supply, the “shire to England’s Middle Earth”.

It is not clear, however, what other more independent course the fledgling country might have taken, when already deep in debt to London bankers, with gold production declining and few other natural resource exports except wool. New Zealand could have gone with the Australian Federation 20 years later, and become a kind of distant Tasmania, but would there have been much advantage in this economically and culturally, let alone for the status of Maori? And Australia was plugged in to Britain, too. New Zealand has always had a tiny population in international terms and, therefore, a limited range of options economically and geopolitically. Making the most of our special connections with the biggest empire on earth was hardly a bad option for the time. If we wanted to eat some cake then the ingredients had to go to Britain for the baking.

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One cogent point Belich makes – with the resonance of truth – is that what may be a fad in the larger countries of the world tends to become a fetish in New Zealand. It has ever been so and continues, a function of our smallness, isolation and relative homogeneity. There has always been a limited pool of social and cultural antibodies to counter ideological infections. Belich’s “Tight Society” has always exacerbated this tendency. There should be no retrospective surprise, therefore, in noting that New Zealand’s Britishness was more OTT than in other Commonwealth countries. We have often made the best or the worst of a good thing, Rogernomics being the most recent example. And the good thing until the Depression, at least, was Britain as the economic and cultural capital of the English-speaking world. Belich considers that modern New Zealanders will be “uncomfortable” with William Lane’s vision a century ago that New Zealand should become a “Better Britain”, but not its equal in stature, only the “chief among the children”. With a population then of barely a million, compared to a rising 40 million in Britain at the apogee of Empire, this view merely seems orthodox for the time.

Belich says that Lane’s aspirations were not those of Edward Gibbon Wakefield; yet it was Wakefield who coined the phrase of Britain being the “workshop of the world”, meaning mostly dominions bankrolled by excess British capital. In his most prescient essay, Wakefield wrote (1844):

For this age and the next it is enough to know that Colonies, built up by their own people and gifted with our own [British] free institutions, must be bound, alike by the natural feelings and the commercial wants of their people, to ourselves and our policy, no less than to our trade; that neither the one tie nor the other need we, nor yet if we are wise shall we, ever let go or loosen.

 

Belich gives us little to judge Britain’s attitude towards New Zealand during the years of “Recolonisation”, unless it was entirely patronising. Nor does he examine adequately the nature and expectations of British immigrants who came to New Zealand. The majority were from the British working and lower middle classes with expectations of bettering themselves, in the great surge of “self-improvement” that motivated those classes from Victorian times until at least the 1960s. They may not have thought of becoming “Better Britons” but they certainly thought New Zealand would be Better than Britain.

About 130 years were to pass after Wakefield’s essay before Britain finally loosened the ties. New Zealand grimly tried to hang on. While Belich identifies Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1973 as the end of the special economic relationship, he downplays Norman Kirk’s role in setting out the first symbolic markers of independence after the twelve Empire Loyalist years of Holyoake. Following the 1972 election, one could feel the winds of change. Not asking anyone permission to send a frigate to Mururoa was at least as symbolically significant as John Ballance refusing to send troops to support Britain in the Sudan in 1885.

In promoting his ideology of “Recolonisation”, Belich does not get the real sense of family in the British connection. He effectively gets his head around it but seems uncomfortable with its heart. One illustration will have to suffice. In Chapter Seven, Belich presents a convincing and intriguing case for New Zealand being “the neo-Scotland”. It seems there are more New Zealanders of Scottish descent in proportion to our total population than in Britain or anywhere else (although Canadians may argue the point). Belich adduces certain New Zealand words and phrases and behavioural characteristics as strong evidence of the Scottish legacy. But it goes (or went) a good deal further than that.

About 20 years ago, on my only visit to Scotland, I drove one evening along the shores of Loch Fyne searching for bed and breakfast accommodation. Near the village of Carrick, a sign drew me down a farm track and I arrived at a single-storey farmhouse where I was greeted by a border collie. The sight of this familiar face did not prepare me, however, for the domesticities of the farmhouse which, with pikelet and porridge, quilt and ornament, might have belonged equally to the interior of a farmhouse in southern New Zealand; though its occupants had never been here nor had they any New Zealand connections. I noted the chief difference as being the Scotsman on the breakfast table rather than the Press or the ODT. One must, of course, take care in ascribing too many continuing connections, as much as in parcelling them up as legacies. But this was not so much a connection as a recognition – of ancestry and place, of soul even. My small tale pales before others’ stories of more powerful recognitions that have spanned the hiatus of generations.

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At the end, Belich considers that “Recolonisation casts its long shadow into the present”; that today’s Pakeha must “face up to” their British recolonising past if they are to lay its ghost. As if some other well-defined era may then begin. But exorcising the past is unnecessary. Making and accepting the recognitions will do. I suspect a majority of young New Zealanders understand this as they continue in great numbers to visit and work in the land of their ancestors.

Belich seems perplexed that an English Sunday Times article, as late as 1995, could state that New Zealanders had “become our favourite, most admired people” combining “go-ahead Aussie can-do-ness, old-fashioned Scottish rectitude and clear-eyed Canadian freshness”. Most recently, those fresh Canadians were upset that the only non-European troops included in the British peace-keeping force to Afghanistan were New Zealanders. The family feeling lingers. And should it be a problem that Sir Peter Blake, born in Auckland, is buried in Hampshire? Or that Peter Jackson was “entrusted with the reworking of a great British legend”? More than anything, the film of Lord of the Rings, triumphantly set among New Zealand’s green and pleasant hills, confirms Better Britain; confirms that we share the legends and the ancestors. You can only have a problem with that if you don’t accept the family – dodgy grand-uncles, embarrassing distant cousins and the rest. Maori respect their ancestors, warts and all, keep in touch with them and walk with them into the future. Pakeha should assimilate this behaviour and learn to walk with their own. Belich’s books give us the reference points for this but not the reassurance.

 

 

Philip Temple is a Dunedin writer and part of Recolonisation’s “long shadow”. His biography of the Wakefield family is due to be published by Auckland University Press in October.

 

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