Pioneering efforts, Tom Brooking

The Legacy of Guilt: A Life of Thomas Kendall
Judith Binney
Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
ISBN 1877242330

There are few New Zealand history books that can be described as seminal, that is, books so deep in their research and broad in their perspective, impeccable in their scholarship and persuasively written that they shape scholarship and teaching for a generation or more. The list is necessarily short and open to debate. Three works that would make most practitioners’ lists, though, are two of Binney’s other books – Nga Morehu: The Survivors and Redemption Songs – and The Legacy of Guilt, recently reissued by Bridget Williams Books.

Some 37 years later this book remains the single most important publication on missionaries. This situation may soon change, but until some of the endeavours discussed below are published, Binney’s first book remains the stand-out work on the missionary period.

Returning to it after a longish absence (it is the kind of book one returns to frequently for teaching purposes and for the writing of general and synthesised histories), the reader is struck by the quality of the research and the writing. The book is supposed to have emerged from a master’s thesis, which leaves a very experienced examiner of postgraduate theses like myself somewhat breathless. I have marked over 20 MAs and about the same number of PhDs, as well as supervising more than 20 master’s theses and over a dozen PhDs to completion. I have also consulted hundreds for teaching and research. In all this reading I have never come across anything at the master’s level which exhibits such deep research. Binney was a prodigious talent indeed.

Nor have I read another thesis which so engages the reader in this essentially Faustian story of a missionary who became fascinated by an alien belief system and “fell”, in both European and Maori terms, as he wrestled with the enticing differences of two worlds forced into contact by large historical forces. Kendall’s affair with Tungaroa, daughter of the chief Rakau, meant that the missionary transgressed the moral codes of both societies and suffered rejection from both. His trading in muskets further dented his reputation with other missionaries and humanitarians, as well as iwi attacked by Nga Puhi. Like a character in a Greek tragedy, Kendall tried to climb back from the abyss but succeeded only in winning some limited Maori support and in making a modest living in Australia.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Binney’s analysis is her discussion of Kendall’s clumsy attempt to convert Maori into a written language, and his even clumsier description of Maori cosmology. Kendall was no linguist in the formal sense, but he did speak the language reasonably well, and his trip to Cambridge with chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato ensured Maori’s development as a written language. The consequences of that trip proved catastrophic for Maori society, as Hongi cut loose with his muskets bought in Sydney on the journey home. Yet no-one can deny that Kendall played a critical role in the development of te reo.

Kendall’s efforts as a metaphysician were less impressive except for their fanciful exaggeration. Binney shows that his strange version of Maori cosmology owed more to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Pythagoras and the strangely mystical book of Revelations than to any sense of ethnography. Kendall was not a careful observer and proto-anthropologist like, say, Edward Shortland. Although he got a few things right, his version of Maori cosmology is close to travesty.

Binney concludes this grim tale by recounting that, even though Kendall flourished as a farmer and timber seller in New South Wales, he never regained the respect he craved. So he drowned, an unhappy victim of his curiosity defeated by his narrow evangelical values system.

This compelling tale dominated New Zealand historical writing and research for some considerable time. One of the few debates to ever enliven a profession fixated on consensus broke out in the early 1970s. John Owens, who worked on the rival Wesleyan Methodist Mission Society (as opposed to the Church Missionary Society), suggested that Maori conversion resulted largely from improvements in missionary methods, especially after 1823 when Henry Williams broke economic dependence on Hongi Hika. Binney countered that something as profound as the adoption of a new faith and belief system owed more to some kind of crisis of confidence and trauma within the Maori world. Yet she never went as far as visiting American scholars such as Harrison Wright, who argued that Maori suffered from a fatal impact as a result of the destruction and devastation caused by European disease and military technology.

Binney stressed dynamics within the Maori world rather than changes in the missionary approach. She probably won this battle, although peace soon returned as scholars turned their attention to later periods of New Zealand history. Many historians seemed to assume that the early contact period had been adequately covered and that they needed to pursue social development of the emerging New Zealand society from later in the 19th century.

Binney herself, therefore, began revision of the fatal impact thesis. As her knowledge of both te reo and Maori belief systems deepened, she realised that Maori agency, sometimes working in response to European intrusion and sometimes following its own rhythms, explained Maori actions more than any kind of simple, victim-like response to unscrupulous colonisers. Binney had picked up the importance of so-called adjustment cults such as the Bay of Islands examples – Nakahi and Papahurihia – in The Legacy of Guilt and she set out to learn more of such movements throughout her long intellectual journey.

Work on the Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana Hepetipa forced her to wrestle with the intricacies of the older Ringatu faith. This investigation led her back in time to the founder of the Ringatu faith, Te Kooti Arikirangi. By using her language skills and abilities as an oral historian, Binney slowly unpacked the extraordinary story of how a loyalist Maori became first a military resister and then the founder of a pacifist sect.

This work could only move slowly because the Pakeha historian had to build trust with her Maori informants. The story she uncovered forced a complete rethink of New Zealand history. Religions such as Ringatu revealed that Maori had adapted rather than adopted Christianity. Many aspects of Ringatu are recognisably Christian, as was the case with the Nakahi and Papahurihia cults, but the religion is also profoundly Maori. Suddenly the so-called “conversion” looked rather different. In short, by moving into the Maori world with care and sensitivity, Binney advanced far beyond the muddled understandings of Kendall. She would never, of course, claim that her understandings are in any sense complete, but the advance remains tangible and constitutes a life-long contribution which makes Binney one of our very best historians.

Not everyone, however, was entirely satisfied with her approach. The first substantial challenge came from the deep south. Both Tony Ballantyne and John Stenhouse felt from their reading of “new imperial” history that Binney had been somewhat harsh in her judgements of missionaries in general and Kendall in particular. The work of scholars such as Andrew Porter, Brian Stanley and John Mackenzie suggested that missionaries played a complex role in the colonisation process which did not always support the imperial project. Indeed missionaries sometimes criticised and occasionally disrupted the more malevolent impacts of European intrusion upon indigenous societies. After all, had it not been for humanitarians and missionaries, New Zealand would not have had a Treaty of Waitangi. Even in Australia, with its appalling race relations record, more recent works like Henry Reynolds’ This Whispering in Our Hearts showed that some missionaries and religious leaders acted as the conscience of the expanding penal colony.

Ballantyne also noted that Binney wrote Legacy in 1968, the year of student revolt in Paris and San Francisco. This was the time when the decolonisation movement reached its moment of greatest influence. Fatal impact theories held sway, and neo-Marxist dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank, along with postcolonial theorists like Edward Said, would thereafter portray colonialism as inherently evil and destructive of all cultures other than European. Furthermore, Binney’s two supervisors – Keith Sinclair and Robert Chapman – acted as leading critics of New Zealand’s puritanical code.

Chapman’s 1953 article “Fiction and the Social Pattern”, published in Landfall, remains one of the most stinging attacks upon what James Belich has called the “tight society”.  Sinclair, too, both as historian and poet, attacked New Zealand’s nonconformist heritage as “wowserish” and constraining. The black frock-coated and apparently joyless missionaries seemed to him to personify the worst of the puritanical code which stifled creative and artistic development. Kendall became a hapless victim of a merciless Calvinism, according to this reading.

Ballantyne countered such claims by demonstrating that many missionaries, in fact, had happy and healthy sex lives, but usually within the confines of Christian marriage. Although the Kendall story, or that of the Wesleyan William White, had several parallels throughout the Pacific, Ballantyne argued that Kendall was atypical. It was, therefore, dangerous to generalise from his experience.

Since then, Stenhouse has argued that missionaries including Henry Williams, William Williams, Octavius Hadfield, T S Grace and Richard Taylor frequently stood out against the machinations of colonial government and modified the outcomes of the colonial experience. Under their tutelage the humanitarian impulse may have weakened, but it did not die.  Clear-eyed idealism regarding race relations stayed alive in pockets, some of which infused the Maori world and helped ignite many protests, ranging from prophetic cults to more mainstream political movements working within the Pakeha system. Even if Maori ambivalence deepened during the Waikato wars, the conversion stalled around the outbreak of major wars in 1860. Maori became more determinedly Christian, even if in a decidedly Maori fashion, than Pakeha secularists, such as Sinclair, ever conceded. Sinclair revealed in the 1988 Hocken Lecture his frustration at Maori refusal to follow the liberal, secular way, when he complained about karakia preceding meetings of the 1990 celebrations committee.

Stenhouse’s work is in line with that of Andrew Porter and Brian Stanley for many other parts of the British Empire and supports many of the conclusions reached by John Mackenzie and Norman Etherington on the missionary experience and impact in Africa.

This debate seems likely to continue for many years because of deeply different philosophical approaches to the role of religion in history. Binney’s frame was and still is essentially Maori, whereas some of her critics are more interested in encounter with, and comparison across, the British Empire. Without Binney’s pioneering efforts, however, this debate centering around intersections between the Pakeha and Maori worlds would not have developed to the point where New Zealand historiography in relation to this encounter is as sophisticated as that anywhere on the globe. Nor would we have seen as fine an historical novel as Judy Corballis’s Tapu (on the affair between Kendall’s wife Jane and his servant Richard Stockwell).

Binney’s brief new introduction is all that is required because her subsequent work has produced the best possible criticism of a brilliant start to her scholarly career and intellectual journey. As she herself puts it in her elegant prose: “To revisit history is to walk beside a running stream, alive to the fall of light on ever-changing water.” This timely reissue opens up these shimmering vistas to successive generations of readers.


Tom Brooking, Professor of History at the University of Otago and author of eight books on New Zealand history, is working on the reconstruction of the New Zealand grasslands, Scottish migration to New Zealand, and a biography of Richard John Seddon. 


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Posted in Biography, History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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