Imperial vision, Richard Hill

The Best Man Who Ever Served The Crown? A Life of Donald McLean
Ray Fargher
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 7980864735607

The name Donald McLean pervades the historiography of colonial New Zealand. But despite this ubiquity, until now no extensive examination of his official deeds has been produced – and his private life has always remained strangely shadowy. In the 1940s Ray Fargher studied the implementation of land acquisition and “native policies” in colonial New Zealand for his master’s thesis. He went on to an educational career, but placing McLean centre-stage in the complex drama of early colonial Crown-Maori relations remained a personal aspiration – a challenge he took up upon retirement.

Scholars of New Zealand history everywhere eagerly awaited the first book by “the McLean biographer”. At last we have it: a densely packed and erudite biographical narrative which integrates “the life” with “the times”.  Assessments of historical figures change through time, of course, and the book’s prolonged gestation has allowed it to incorporate changes in scholarly fashion over some six decades. Had the biography been written in the 1950s-60s, for example, its efforts to present Maori perspectives might well have been fewer (and less successful). Aware that biography itself becomes history (this is “A Life” not “The Life”), Fargher tests previous perceptions of McLean against a vast amount of archival evidence (although not without a number of factual errors).

In many essentials, the “new McLean” is an amalgam of the McLeans which were prototyped during the “revisionings” of New Zealand history from the 1970s onwards: the bureaucratic implementer of indigenous dispossession who nevertheless had considerable empathy for Maoridom – Alan Ward’s McLean in the 1990 Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. But Fargher has also been influenced by recent scholarly efforts to further penetrate both sides of the relationships between imperial/colonial states and indigenous peoples. While knowing that “total objectivity” is not achievable, he believes it a worthy goal to aim for, and strives for “balance” in assessing the activities of both settlers and tribes. In doing so, he attempts to penetrate the mindsets, motivations and mechanisms of both coloniser and colonised. His efforts to weave disparate analyses, emphases and approaches into his research findings have greatly assisted his assessment of “the times”.

Extending this exercise into “the life”, however, has proved more difficult. A number of colonial leaders were able to lessen imperialism’s inevitable damage to Maori interests. Some went further, helping develop a modus vivendi between Maori and Pakeha; a few even sought arrangements which took Maori wishes into some account. Fargher makes a strong case for McLean being the foremost 19th century official/politician in such mediatory processes. But in trying to do justice to McLean’s beliefs and activities, Fargher seemingly endeavours to reconcile the two key irreconcilables of the colonisation of New Zealand (and elsewhere): the western imperative to procure land, and subjugate and assimilate its owners, and the indigenous desire to both preserve their resource interests in the new economy and run their own political and cultural affairs autonomously (in New Zealand, to exercise rangatiratanga). Portraying McLean as a man who worked for the interests of “both races” has brought the biographer into difficult conceptual terrain.

Fargher is aware of this, stressing, for example, that McLean played a significant role in engineering the main phase of the Anglo-Maori wars and masterminding their later savagery. Yet his McLean is a man who also identifies with aspirations, even with outcomes, desired by Maori. Fargher resolves such apparent paradox by, in effect, giving McLean two personalities. He is both “the arrogant face of British imperialism” and the man who begins by alienating Maori land fairly and with “free consent”. A problem is immediately apparent. Free consent presupposes full understanding of and respect for tribal systems, but by Fargher’s own evidence this was not the case even before blatant engineering, and even fabricating, of consent became increasingly the mode of acquisition (not to mention outright confiscation).

There was really only one McLean, not two jostling personalities. For him and the other agents of empire, the ends of colonisation justified the means. McLean and his peers did want “social happiness and advancement” for indigenous people, but essentially for expedient reasons and only within terms of reference set by the Crown. Fargher quotes a contemporary summing up of his career as being “to subject [Maori], without exterminating” them, and this goes to the heart of the matter. Given his stress on Maori aspirations for rangatiratanga, on one level Fargher endorses this perspective. But it is a professional hazard of the balance-seeking biographer to be tempted to venture beyond understanding the subject’s worldview and to enter the domain of defending it. In places Fargher seems (inadvertently) willing to see the “public good” in 19th-century western terms, which depicted any possible future Maori might have as lying entirely within western-imposed social, economic, cultural and political frameworks.

Fortunately, such “capture” is only intermittent, and Fargher’s deepest sympathies tend to subvert it. As his title implies, he is aware that the real historiographical debate is not over whether McLean “served Maori” but whether he was the “Best Man Who Ever Served The Crown”. Implicitly, moreover, a great deal of evidence in the book indicates that McLean’s humanitarian facets were subsets of his imperial vision; even in his role as “peacemaker”, his empathy often extended only as far as “loyalists”, or more generally, to those willing to be assimilated.

It seems that Fargher’s dwelling on McLean’s apparent “ambivalence” reflects an attempt to judge him by his own estimation, or by that of “enlightened” contemporary opinion, as well as by present standards. This is a worthy enough aim, and ascribing Janus-like characteristics to historical actors is one well-tried biographical way of implementing it. But this method can sometimes obscure hypocrisies which lie deep at the heart of socio-political systems. Individuals internalise hegemonic interpretations of the world, and to understand their perspectives and actions, the beliefs and motives of ruling circles need to be canvassed. Interpreting the wealth of evidence in Fargher’s book in such terms leads inexorably to the conclusion that the “contradictions” in McLean’s life are more apparent than real – that his biographer’s “Janus solution” to seeming ambivalence can obscure the holism of the imperial servant’s approach to indigeneity.

While humanitarianism was an undoubted strand of belief among mid-19th century colonisers, for example, it coexisted with and helped justify their possession of an unyieldingly alienatory gaze. McLean’s fervent belief in a just god in a world which required (in his own words) “plenty of Redjackets to keep [anti-landselling Maori] in subordination” is fully consonant with the worldviews of the conquerors of great parts of the globe. Empire was based on coercive dispossession of indigenous people, and religion was one of its key ideological justifications; in this country the deeply religious McLean was one of the leading dispossessors, and that is what was of profoundest importance for both Maori and Pakeha.

But, of course, a colonial biography must do more than explicate a fundamental truth or two about colonialism. While it needs to see “the life” as a product of “the times”, it also needs to situate the subject’s individual place in the latter. Fargher carries off this feat exceptionally well, showing McLean to be a certain type of pioneering leader. A man who respected indigenes, and was respected by many of them, at the same time as he dispossessed them. A man who would not hesitate to confiscate and kill if it were deemed necessary in the name of civilisation and progress, though he preferred less draconian methods (for reasons of both humanitarianism and efficiency). Such men were often restless, roaming figures – the surveyor Percy Smith, for example – whose families suffered from their commitment to both their jobs and their self-promotion.

Furthermore, the skilled biographer explicates the individual character of the subject. Fargher presents, convincingly, a person whose imperial gaze was more benign than that of many of his fellow imperialists, while also providing glimpses of a Pakeha considerably less empathetic than a number of others – his acquiescence (for example) in “friendly tribes” suffering along with “rebels” if necessary. Like many 19th-century politicians and officials, McLean made little distinction between private and public interests, but his relentless energy led to amassing much more wealth even than others with similar opportunities. Like much of the colonial leadership, he detested collective action from below (be it from Maori or Pakeha “combinations”) but, unlike many of them, he also saw all forms of “democracy” as dangerous – even the obligation of officials to be responsible to their ministers.

Fargher’s McLean is a fascinating individual. But the main value of the book is its use of his career to illuminate, through state-of-the-art scholarship, important defining issues in colonial New Zealand; in particular, those relating to official and settler imperatives to acquire the whenua and assimilate the tangata. McLean worked more assiduously and continuously on this task in colonial New Zealand than any other official, and Fargher produces a compelling case for McLean being quite possibly, from the Crown’s point of view, the best official/politician ever to represent it in this farthest part of the British Empire.


Richard Hill is a professor of New Zealand Studies at the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington.


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