Rough justice, Tom Brooking

The Newest Country in the World: A History of New Zealand in the Decade of the Treaty
Paul Moon
Penguin Books, $39.95,
ISBN 978014300670

Paul Moon is one of the most prolific historians currently holding an academic position (Moon is Professor of History in the faculty of Maori Development in the Auckland University of Technology), having written a dozen books before this one and with two more under production. As the author of biographies of Governors William Hobson and Robert FitzRoy, the Nga Puhi chief Hone Heke, a book on the path to the Treaty, a book on the beginnings of Auckland and another on New Zealand in the 1830s, he seems eminently well-qualified to write such a book as this, which will be of use to both students and teachers, at all levels. Some may complain that a degree of recycling is involved, but if the “heuristic” method is to be taken seriously, there is every reason for scholar’s to return to the same area time and again as they deepen their research. Moon, like all successful popular historians, writes prose that is crisp, clear and mercifully free of jargon. At his best he can also be witty and some passages remind me of John Miller, whose Early Victorian New Zealand helped many a young lecturer amuse undergraduate students in the late 1970s. On balance, he tells a good story and is conversant with a wide range of primary sources from the 1840s.

When I first heard of the title of this book, The Newest Country in the World, I imagined that it must be some kind of new environmental history of New Zealand, given that these isolated islands are the last on the planet to be settled by humans. Closer acquaintance with the book made clear that this is a most appropriate title because New Zealand was very much the “newest” country in the world in the 1840s in the European sense, even if key Colonial Office officials like James Stephen judged the potential colony to be much older in terms of being a Maori country. The 1840s also has coherence as a decade and, indeed, most New Zealand history can be written about and taught perfectly coherently in 10-year bites.

Moon begins by tracing the country’s imperial origins with much skill, pointing out how reluctant Britain was to become involved and stressing the parsimonious limitations placed on Governor Hobson and his skeletal staff. He also explains the influence of ideas promulgated by the likes of Jeremy Bentham and John Mill before describing how hastily the Treaty was constructed. Even so, he concedes that it at least provided some “surety and security” about New Zealand’s destination within the British Empire. He demonstrates the flimsy efforts made to protect Maori and stresses that sharp divisions between the two races did not yet exist, but concedes that Hobson spread British law around the colony, albeit slowly and intermittently.

Moon moves on to portray Edward Gibbon Wakefield as a “villain” and rejects recent attempts at rehabilitating the founder of the New Zealand Company. He then highlights the very difficult relationship that developed between the Governor and Company settlers in Wellington and Nelson. The French get a brief mention before he moves on to outline the claims of Johnny Jones and other Australians upon the larger South Island and recounts the Wairau “incident” to reveal the severe limits of British power.

The move of the capital from Kororareka (Russell) to Auckland is traced in some detail with Moon arguing that Hobson’s choice upset the New Zealand Company mightily. Chapter four maintains that law and order had not yet been achieved in any meaningful way on the ground while chapter five examines the missionary contribution to this period. Rather than concentrating on the well-worn tale of Henry Williams, Moon spends several pages relating the story of the English Congregational missionary, Barzillai Quaife, to show that the Government did not learn that Maori resented the mighty, long-term effort at “civilising” them. Moon returns to the world of secular authority in chapter six, emphasising that justice remained “rough”. Theft and the occasional murder by Maori threatened order, and things come to a head in chapter seven with Hone Heke’s rebellion in the north.

Moon attributes Heke’s resorting to arms to internal conflicts within the large Nga Puhi tribe, but also points to personal caprice. His Heke is a difficult, vain and capricious rebel without a cause, determined to make trouble for its own sake. Moon then credits the much-maligned FitzRoy with winning the war in the North. After rehabilitating the unfortunate humanitarian in chapter eight, he introduces the much more autocratic Grey. Moon concludes that this “Leviathan” was above all else an astute politician able to promote himself as a saviour while downplaying the efforts of everyone else and placing the blame for any failures upon a few unfortunates unable to defend themselves. He qualifies this denunciation by conceding that Grey genuinely hoped to improve the lot of the ordinary people and especially wanted to improve the parlous state of Maori health. Even so, Moon laments that race relations remained fraught, with the majority of settlers reluctant to concede anything to Maori. An account of questionable land purchase, particularly in the South Island, follows.

Chapter nine, entitled “Frayed at the Edges”, argues that despite the superficial advance seen in the building of quaint cottages celebrated by artists such as George Angas, New Zealand remained a raw frontier land with large parts unexplored and completely unaffected by British influence of any kind. Maori still controlled large parts of the country when New Zealand Company settlers in Wellington expressed their dissatisfaction by sending a “monster petition” to Governor Grey against any policy of appeasement. This did not stop resumption of fighting in the Wellington region until Grey kidnapped Te Rauparaha on 23 July 1846 and thereby undermined the old chief’s mana.

Moon ends with a snapshot of New Zealand in 1849. He concedes that trade had encouraged much interaction but argues that the two races remained largely separate, inhabiting two very different worlds. He follows Grey on his tour through the North Island to reinforce the point. Grey travelled as an anthropologist determined to learn more of the Queen’s new subjects and often found “filthy, impoverished, and craving communities” rather than “happy, prospering natives”. Grey, nevertheless, learnt much about Maori traditions, built alliances and promised improvements. Moon moves on to discuss the demise of the Wakefield ideal and the slow development of settlements based on his theories before discussing the origins of an improved version in the case of Canterbury, but inexplicably fails to mention Otago. He concludes that developments in New Zealand dictated outcomes, rather than directives from the Colonial Office. He argues that New Zealand as an idea emerged organically. Egalitarian attitudes supposedly undermined the emergence of a rigid class system like that of Britain. A slight sense of security had also begun to emerge by 1849 as settlers yearned for economic progress, elected government and the establishment of further European settlements.

Moon is to be congratulated for challenging the interpretations of the numerous other historians he describes as “revisionists”, because so-called “post revision” is often required to correct the enthusiastic excesses of revisionists. His attempt to write a history of the 1840s that is not Treaty-centric also has merit. His argument implied throughout the book, and spelt out on the back jacket, that the Treaty was not important to most New Zealanders in the 1840s, however, is hardly new. Gordon Parsonson taught this interpretation to generations of Otago students. It is, though, somewhat overstated because some Europeans took the Treaty very seriously indeed, including the first two governors. Equally, while some iwi may have been indifferent to the Treaty with Ngai Tahu, for example, concentrating their long protest much more on the questionable buying up of the South Island, the Treaty was very important to Nga Puhi and most iwi on the east coast of the North Island as far south as Ngati Kahungunu in Hawke’s Bay.

Other scholars working with Maori language sources, like Judith Binney, Ann Parsonson, Manuka Henare, Lachie Paterson and Lyndsay Head, have discovered that there is a large set of sources written in Maori that reveal deep interest in the Treaty. Maori writers of letters of complaint and countless petitions targeted the Treaty because they saw it as a means of having their grievances acted upon. These sources probably constitute the richest collection of written material anywhere on the response of an indigenous people to colonisation. They reveal a lot about Maori agency and the dynamic contribution of the iwi who produced them. They also reveal interesting differences in Maori responses; differences which could be explored further. There is also scope to investigate the lower South Island context, the other main area of interaction between the races.

Moon’s extraordinary industry and energy and considerable abilities as a storyteller – currently the greatest compliment anyone can pay to an historian – are showcased in this publication.


Tom Brooking is professor of History at the University of Otago.


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