Processing history, Bronwyn Dalley

Historical Frictions: Maori Claims and Reinvented Histories
Michael Belgrave
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
ISBN 1869403207

It used to be a lonely business being a New Zealand historian. There have been plenty of us around for the last 30 years, but the trouble was finding a fellow traveller working in a closely-related area who’d read the same books and looked at the same files. This “feel the breadth, never mind about the depth” world gave us a generous sweep of New Zealand history. Occasionally we politely quibbled with each other – over social class, for example, the impact of the missionaries or why women were enfranchised. Sustained and deep debate was rare; no posses of historians lined up on opposing sides of an argument or theory to trade interpretations.

The emergence of historical research into claims before the Waitangi Tribunal has changed all that. Two decades of scholarship has generated an enormous literature; there are over 30 major historical reports, and many more in the pipeline as the claims process works on. Historians and legal scholars, as well as the odd “amateur” researcher and writer, now look critically at the work of the tribunal. We have a treaty historiography, and tribunal history is a field. The tribunal’s “output” – and, by extension, the literature around it – has given New Zealand, Michael Belgrave argues, the most extensive and comprehensive review of any country’s colonial legacy.

And he should know. Belgrave was one of the first historians appointed to the tribunal in 1987 to research claims. He confesses he was a reluctant participant at first, believing that “uninteresting history” would come from the tribunal’s newly enlarged ambit that allowed it to research historical grievances. Belgrave has been involved in tribunal research in one form or another ever since. His depth of knowledge and familiarity with the historical research and a grasp of the tribunal processes are to the fore in his latest excursion into tribunal history.

Historical Frictions: Maori Claims and Reinvented Histories is the type of book that comes after someone has been immersed in a topic for a prolonged period: here is an understanding of how the process works, an appreciation of the diverse sources, an ear for nuance, an eye for contradictions, an awareness of motivations, a knowledge of what has gone before and an openness to what may yet come. Of course Belgrave draws heavily on the work of the legion of claims scholars and commentators involved in debates and counter-arguments, for competing arguments and viewpoints are at the heart of much of the work that comes before the tribunal. He knows that his work, too, is part of this process and that it will be subject to critique; at the book’s launch late in 2004, he urged people to “read it kindly”. Historical Frictions shows the depth we now have in this vital area of New Zealand history; no one walks alone here.

Belgrave examines the Waitangi Tribunal itself “as historian”. It is an historian which operates within a “distinct cultural tradition”, primarily legal, and in which recommendations are directed towards changes in government policy. Acknowledging and understanding this framework is essential in seeing how the tribunal’s historical narratives or reports come together. Belgrave’s aim is to show that the tribunal’s writing of history must be understood within an extended tradition of judicial investigation of past events, stretching back virtually to the signing of the Treaty. The work of the tribunal, in this analysis, is not a novel process to draw a line under our colonial past. Instead, it builds on historical narratives created in various courts, tribunals and inquiries. And where other commentators on the tribunal’s work have looked primarily at the published reports, Belgrave sees it necessary also to examine the research that goes into making those reports. The process of history, just as much as the history itself, is under discussion here.

I’m not sure this argument will convince those who know the legalistic context in which the tribunal works but still contend that the usual markers for judging history should apply just the same. It’s not a debate that should end, either. The divide between academic history and that produced by the tribunal can become too wide and already, as Belgrave notes, the “rapidly increasing library” of historical research from the tribunal has had only a limited impact on wider New Zealand historiography.

Books like this are crucial in contributing to that impact, for here we see the organic process of forming historical narratives in articulating claims. A central part of Historical Frictions is about the “reinvention” of histories – narratives developed within particular contexts, altered in some, forgotten and discarded in others. It is a process that is integral to the entire field of history – the “complex way that we remember the past”, Belgrave reminds us – but in the context of this book, the legalistic framework in which most Maori claims (and thus historical narratives) have been formulated is paramount. The advocacy involved in the court process, the adversarial nature of proceedings, and the deployment of history for present and future aims all come into play.

Belgrave explores this through four separate tribunal inquiries that cover over a decade of the tribunal’s work, but which represent 150 years of Maori quests for satisfaction, settlement or recognition: Muriwhenua, Ngai Tahu, Taranaki, and the Chatham Islands. In each case, Belgrave traces the history of the claims before they got to the tribunal, and then before the tribunal. “The tribunal” is, perhaps, a misnomer, for it is clear that the motivations of the tribunal and the context in which it was working changed substantially over this period, and this is reflected in its work as historian.

Examining the claims provides a rich history of particular moments in time as Belgrave considers how, why and from whom land was acquired. The Muriwhenua claim, for example, takes us into the whirl of the pre-1860s when Maori customary law was strong. Here Belgrave sees Maori and Europeans at times completely misunderstanding one another, but at other times coming to agreement that would subsequently make little sense to either party.

Looking closely at the context for agreements and misunderstandings, and then at the contexts in which those actions (and history) were litigated and relitigated leads him to challenge the tribunal’s interpretive framework that posited a world where people and groups “talked past” each other. Such an analysis was, Belgrave suggests, a “diplomatic” approach that tried to mediate between the two positions, but one which also left little room for ideas about common understandings between cultures. In reaching such a conclusion, he argues, the tribunal drew heavily on the evidence presented by claimants, considering much of that of professional historians to be suspect because of the reliance on English-language documents. Belgrave shows the tribunal in a broader process of reinstating Maori legal frameworks to a central place in debates about law. In doing so, living traditions and relationships were celebrated.

The four inquiries are all very different, with the tribunal reports penned at distinct times that markedly affected their nature. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Taranaki report. Belgrave feels an undertone of anger in the words of Chief Judge Eddie Durie in one of his last reports for the tribunal, and a bleak assessment of the past and for the future. Rather too pessimistic for Belgrave, and a little loose with history. The report embodies, he suggests, a “fatal impact” approach to the past that allows individuals little influence on the outcomes of colonisation; the events at Parihaka in November 1881 were “grossly overstated”; and the tribunal imagined an unobtainable position for the Crown in the 1840s.

But in what is a great strength of this book, Belgrave goes on to consider the context of this report, written in the fiscal-envelope climate of the mid-1990s. Durie showed no confidence in the notion that the injustices perpetrated against Taranaki iwi could be resolved within the package available for settlements. In the tribunal’s worldview, the Crown made promises to protect Maori interests, and “if it failed … because to do so was politically impossible, that is no excuse”. Seeking out “the future from the past”, Belgrave notes, will always make some historians – and indeed many others – uneasy.

This is a message that needs to go beyond the treaty sector. The work may be a little too detailed for some – it’s not the lightest of reads and there are a lot of words crammed on the page – but Belgrave’s balanced and challenging arguments considerably enhance our understanding of New Zealand’s colonial past and the ways we are attempting to redress some of those wrongs.


Bronwyn Dalley is a public historian living in Wellington.


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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