Love and land, Julia Millen

Matters of the Heart: A History of Interracial Marriage in New Zealand
Angela Wanhalla
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869407315

In Christchurch, May 1970, Stan Wanhalla (Irish, German and Maori ancestry) married Coralie Noonan (Irish, Manx heritage): one of many cross-cultural alliances of that era. Stan’s and Coralie’s daughter Angela has now researched 200 years of interracial marriage in New Zealand including a wide range of marital practices: temporary and common law, Maori traditional rituals of betrothal, Christian marriage traditions, and the ways in which all three contributed to the development of marriage law and practice in New Zealand.

Historically, Wanhalla asserts, interracial alliances have “been a feature of life from first contact through the colonial period and beyond”. She identifies three major phases which in a way mirror the history of colonisation and non-Maori settlement: amalgamation, assimilation, and fusion, the latter involving the so-called “science” of miscegenation.

From the 1780s, British naval ships and whaling vessels called at northern harbours for water, provisions and timber. Some sailors jumped ship and, if they survived, were accepted into Maori communities. At a later period in the deep south, ships deposited sealing gangs ashore, leaving men stranded for months at a time to survive and do their work. Some “married” into Maori families and stayed on. Marriage celebration rites for Maori traditionally involved exchanges of gifts. Tribal leaders needed such goods as axes, nails, tools, fire-arms and, increasingly, services like access to Pakeha officialdom. For Pakeha men, “marriage” tied them to a patron – hapu or iwi – and gave them protection, domestic comfort, status and, in the longer term, land.

For the women involved, some of high rank, Wanhalla suggests that, while many of these “marriages”, viewed by most historians as pragmatic alliances, failed and women were apparently “abandoned”, other relationships were of long duration. They involved choice, even love, and so began the process of amalgamation.

Early Christian missionaries had strong views about male-female intimacy and relationships of whatever ethnicity. They deplored traditional Maori rites as “barbaric practices” and actively promoted Christian marriage among their Maori converts. They met with varying degrees of success – not helped by scandals involving sexual behaviour on the part of some missionaries – and encountered disagreement from all parties over cultural differences in ceremonial practice. Wanhalla also notes: “In many instances, bringing Christian marriage to Maori was as much about controlling traders and whalers as it was about celebrating the successful conversion of Maori to Christianity.”

From 1840 onwards, when English law began to replace traditional lore, officials gave consideration to the legal status of existing marriages and in consultation with missionary leaders sought to control the institution, setting out rules for the wedding ceremony, the legal basis of marriage and its administration. At the same time, Wanhalla maintains, this apparent tolerance of interracial marriage was largely for its supposed benefit to “colonisation”. Using a sample of 1,110 couples, from records taken between 1840 and 1910, she has studied these alliances in relation to a vast array of other historical sources, and develops themes and certain conclusions.

Wanhalla asserts that in this “amalgamation” process, by “recognising the marriages of interracial couples and legalising their title to land, early lawmakers and officials ensured that ownership of that land was transferred into the hands of white men and Maori land was opened up for settlement.” The colonial government also hoped that it would bring Maori into line with European values, systems of commerce and trade, English law and in addition would encourage loyalty. As New Zealand law evolved, trusteeship was established as the principle by which land was granted under title, but title to land was set down in the name of the “white” husband and father, for occupation rather than ownership, and he acted as a trustee for the children. Complex interconnecting, somewhat conflicting, laws brought confusion and at times injustice: “The title did however come with protective provisions: the trustee had no right to sell, mortgage or lease the land.” In many cases, by so-called legal means, marriage gifts of land effectively removed this land from tribal lands.

Another phase identified as “assimilation” began after the land confiscations of the 1860s-1870s. Maori suffering severe economic hardship were, Wanhalla asserts, “targets of a colonial racial policy with the express aim of eradicating Maori language, land holdings and culture”, by means of Native Schools where children were taught in English, and through the Native Land Court, which transferred communal ownership of land into individual title. In other instances it was noted that government officials like judges, surveyors and interpreters used – and abused – their positions to personally acquire vast amounts of land.

Ongoing concerns on the part of both cultures and the state continued over the status of “half-caste” children and rights over property. Interracial couples, ideally involving a respectable Pakeha male and a Maori woman, in this period were being heralded by officialdom as “exemplars of assimilation in practice”. Half-castes brought up in “orderly households”, and described as more intelligent and disease-free as a result of miscegenation, would be the key to assimilation. Others viewed such theories as yet another on-going threat to Maori land ownership.

Sometimes the reader would like to know more about the couples featured, but for the most part information is not available. An exception is the record of events following the 1835 marriage of Waikato-based trader Edward Meurant and Raiha Kenehuru. In telling their story, Wanhalla provides a fascinating snapshot of early Maori-Pakeha relations and the complexities of laws surrounding land claims.

Elsewhere, more could have been added. In the 1860s Colonel Thomas Porter married Herewaka Porourangi Potae, niece of Ngati Porou chief Ropata Wahawaha. Their eldest daughter Fanny Rose is described as an opera singer. The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography provides further information. Fanny Rose Porter (1868-1916) married John Howie and, in the early 1900s as Princess Te Rangi Pai, achieved considerable success as a concert performer in England. She composed the popular lullaby Hine e hine.

Late 19th-, early 20th-century census records showed the Maori population dwindling to dangerously low levels. “Fusion” between Pakeha and Maori was mooted and justified as a way of retaining surviving elements of Maoridom with biological absorption. Much public debate was concerned with patterns of racial mixing, the need to understand the science of miscegenation and its effects, which resulted in a government inquiry set up by Sir Apirana Ngata in 1929.

Wanhalla also examines post-WWII racial prejudice in New Zealand society, at a time characterised by rapid Maori urbanisation and increasing numbers of interracial marriages. She cites several high-profile relationships where parents expressed concern and fears, when their child was proposing to marry someone of another race, that they would find difficulty in accepting a much darker grandchild – a “throw-back”.

Professor Leslie Palmier of Victoria University was heard to remark during the 1960s that racial prejudice often came down to one basic question: “Who will you let your daughters marry?”

I remember, as a psychology student, an assignment from lecturer Dr James Ritchie: to write a review of The Fern and the Tiki by American psychologist David Ausubel. Wanhalla also mentions this study as notable for not only providing examples of everyday racism, but famously exposing smugness and complacency, a “national self-delusion”, about New Zealand race relations as “good”. The book attracted strong condemnation from the general public (and some psychology students). Outrage was expressed at the temerity of an American daring to write such things about New Zealand, where Pakeha and Maori lived in comparative harmony, when Ausubel’s own country had such an appalling history of racial intolerance.

In this powerful, well-written history, Wanhalla includes some examples of intermarriage involving other races and ethnicities, but concentrates on Maori-Pakeha relationships. The book includes many excellent photographs: unfortunately not indexed. Sometimes the captions show the author’s tendency to take the best possible, almost romantic, outlook, in the process straining for effect. A studio portrait from the 1940s depicts a couple with their seven children looking attractive, healthy and neatly dressed. The caption describes the children as “happy, healthy and much loved”.

Wanhalla points out that many scholarly interpretations of interracial relationships emphasise economics and politics. Maori women’s bodies are characterised as objects of trade. By contrast, as the title suggests, she has been at pains to show that rather than, or as well as, involving convenience, commerce and property transactions, these marriages were on the whole monogamous, enduring, and loving.


Julia Millen is a biographer, a historian and a director of Writes Hill Press.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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