Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past
Bridget Williams Books, $50.00,
Books on Britain’s colonisation of New Zealand range from the often jingoistic efforts of some writers in the 19th century, through to the heavily revisionist works that began to appear from the 1970s. And nestled in between are some works of great scholarship and enduring value, such as Alan Ward’s A Show of Justice and A H McLintock’s Crown Colony Government in New Zealand. Given this broad spectrum of histories dealing with New Zealand’s colonial experience, is there a need for yet another book examining Britain’s involvement in the country from the late 18th century?
The reflex response would be “No thanks, we’re satisfied with what we have already”, but Tony Ballantyne’s Webs of Empire defies such presumptuous thinking. In 14 chapters spread over six sections, he reassembles ideas about New Zealand’s place in the British Empire, resorting to a much wider range of perspectives than have traditionally been employed and, in the process, enhances considerably our understandings of New Zealand’s positions in the British Empire (there is no single perspective he advances), and the Empire’s complex and sometimes conflicting connections with New Zealand. As part of this reassessment, he also highlights the role that Britain’s experiences with other colonies had on its relations with New Zealand. In the course of this, Ballantyne offers alternative views of much of the conventional image of New Zealand’s past that has been cultivated by the state through agencies such as the Waitangi Tribunal and Te Papa Tongarewa (the national museum), and through publications such as the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. There is a much more fascinating colonial interplay at work, and Ballantyne reveals ways of looking at it.
However, Ballantyne’s thesis is not merely a revisionist reaction to conventional renditions of the nation’s past, and the distinctiveness of Webs of Empire does not in any way make it an aberration in the corpus of works that analyses aspects of British colonialism. On the contrary, Ballantyne’s work has its roots sunk deep in the literature on colonial history, with particular attention paid to numerous historiographical issues as they arise. As one example, Ballantyne draws attention to the deficiencies in those narratives that divide imperial from colonial histories, and which inevitably compartmentalise them in a way which bypasses the “entanglement of metropolitan and colonial histories”. In this book, samples of such entanglement are put on display in ways which emphasise how integral they are to contextualising the record of New Zealand’s colonial past. The overall result of Ballantyne’s approach is a work of great academic erudition which drags imperial studies – as they relate to New Zealand – into new territory.
Structurally, though, the book suffers at certain points from a lack of narrative and thematic continuity. Many of the chapters are revised versions of previously published articles and chapters, which is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. The advantage is that Ballantyne can treat each topic he tackles as a self-contained case study – examined for its own sake without being compelled to adhere rigidly to a central theme. However, the price paid for such analytical parochialism in many chapters is a lack of thematic development through the book, and the sense that some chapters are so self-contained that their connection to the chapters that flank them is almost incidental.
The opening chapter “Race and the Webs of Empire” provides a meticulously researched survey of 19th-century ideas about race, and how they insinuated their way into beliefs about the origins of Maori. And, as Ballantyne argues most succinctly, this was no mere theoretical self-indulgence by writers in the 1800s. On the contrary, arguments about racial origins had a distinct bearing on government policies.
One of the important patterns that Ballantyne establishes in this chapter, and which he imprints in most of the subsequent sections, is his reference to relevant developments in other parts of the Empire. This sort of international context has made fleeting appearances in previous studies of Britain’s colonisation of New Zealand, but here it is applied to full effect. This wide-angled view of the period of New Zealand’s colonisation also reveals at times that what might at first be regarded as tangential can be, in fact, integral.
In addition to probing the nature of British intervention, Ballantyne dissects some of the episodes when the imperial grip began to weaken. His chapter on “War, Knowledge, and the Crisis of Empire” is a compelling analysis of the tensions that British colonisation produced in New Zealand, and some Maori responses. The connection between Maori “rebellion” in the 1860s, for example, and the anti-colonial reactions in India in 1857-8 is convincingly argued. However, Ballantyne’s comparison is not merely one of registering similarities in events. Instead, he delves into the cross-cultural dimensions of the confrontations, the legislative and policy environments that gave rise to the conflicts, and the shifting balances of power that occurred between the coloniser and the colonised. This is part of what Ballantyne refers to as thinking “transnationally” about local events, rather than deferring to the established pattern of writing a history of colonisation in New Zealand by considering the subject almost solely from within the country’s boundaries.
If there is a weak link in this volume, it is the chapter entitled “Christianity, Colonisation, and Cross-cultural Communication”. The emphasis on the importance of British Protestantism is slightly overstated in parts. Far from its being a powerful cog in the imperial machine, the three main missionary bodies operating in the South Pacific during the first half of the 19th century – the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, and the Wesleyans – were financially impoverished organisations which struggled with practically no official support.
On the other hand, though, there were links between Protestantism and British Colonial Office officials during the 1830s and 1840s in particular (a crucial period for New Zealand) that are overlooked in this chapter. Surprisingly, for example, there is no mention made of Sir James Stephen, the British Undersecretary of State for Colonies (and ultimately responsible for the Treaty of Waitangi), who was a member of the evangelical Clapham Sect, whose uncle was the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, and whose father-in-law was John Venn, one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. Indeed, the omission of Stephen (known affectionately as King Stephen by some politicians at the time for the extent of power he wielded over the Empire) is puzzling.
The subsidiary argument in this chapter, about the Protestant-colonising nexus and its relationship to the introduction of literacy, is deserving of a chapter in its own right, but its brevity here ends up just muddying the waters. The connections between Christianity and literacy, given the constraints of space, are too generalised to offer the sort of penetrating insights of the sort that are made in other parts of the book.
Despite a few shortcomings, Webs of Empire represents an important advance in the scholarship dealing with the nature of New Zealand’s absorption into the British Empire. The intricacy of many of the links – suggested in the title’s web metaphor – between the core and the periphery during this episode of imperial expansion is illuminated in this work, as are the historiographical tensions that have grown up around this web in the subsequent one-and-a-half centuries. The text is aimed much more at those with a specific interest in perspectives on the character, intent, and historiography of British imperial activity, rather than those looking for a re-telling of traditional narratives about the character of Britain’s colonialism.
Ballantyne concludes his volume with a challenge to others researching New Zealand’s colonial history. While not wishing to see an end to national histories, he argues the case for a more internationalist perspective, in which both the complexity and the influence of the world-wide web of 19th-century British colonialism are given their due. The result, he suggests, will be a “richer and more nuanced” historiography. Throughout this book, Ballantyne identifies the constraints of histories that have not been open to the complexities of a broader perspective on British imperial activity.
Webs of Empire is certainly bound to encourage historians at the very least to explore the much wider dimensions of the New Zealand colonial experience than they have hitherto been inclined to do. If this was to be the only achievement of the book, Ballantyne will have done the country’s historiography a great service.
Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology. His Turning Points is reviewed on p21.