Mishmash history, Nepia Mahuika

Beyond Betrayal, Trouble in the Promised Land – Restoring the Mission to Maori
Keith Newman
Penguin, $45.00,
ISBN 9780143570516

Most Maori I know have a different view of the past to the nation-building rhetoric that inhabits the majority of mainstream histories in New Zealand. The most obvious example is Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End, an account not only of protest, but of Maori agency in disturbing the progress story inherent in the national myth. It is, then, frustrating to find yet another author in Keith Newman, who fails once again to enable a reading of New Zealand history from anything other than the Pakeha point of view. Instead, in Beyond Betrayal, Newman is so eager to dismiss uncomfortable colonial tensions and return to the directive of “restoring the mission to Maori” that he flat out refuses to entertain the notion that colonisation and religion actually go hand in hand. Early on in the book, he writes: “I have worked hard to avoid the blame game – which tribe did what to whom – or to descend into using ‘colonialism’, ‘the government’ or ‘the Crown’ as the whipping boy for modern day resentments”. Newman makes the mistake of thinking that there is no connection between present grievances, colonisation and Maori encounters with religion. The truth is that they are all inextricably intertwined. Ironically, this decision to avoid a robust retrospective analysis makes a mockery of the adopted catchphrase “walking backward into the future”, and essentially sidelines indigenous perspectives, leaving only a narrow Pakeha-centric interpretation of how Maori have dealt with faith and religion over time.

Beyond Betrayal begins with a telling confession, in which Newman admits to harbouring for many years a “fragmented and Eurocentric view of history” that has only in recent times been modified as he “warmed to the Maori perspective”. He goes on to claim that this book offers a balanced history, in which he can now “put spirituality and religion back in their rightful places as a legitimate part of our heritage”. The “our” he invokes subsumes Maori in a perverse sense of shared story and proprietorship. These accounts, he proclaims, “are not just Maori stories or missionary stories: they are my stories that belong to me as a fourth generation New Zealander”. These are precisely the attitudes that Maori have taken exception to in the past, particularly the propensity for non-Maori, or even other iwi, to claim ownership and authority over a tribe’s ancestors, spaces, and histories.

Newman ignores all of this, choosing instead to pat himself on the back for offering “a more rounded view” that he hopes will take “the sting out of anti-Pakeha and anti-Christian rhetoric at times expressed by Maori, and in Treaty of Waitangi courses”. In short, he sets out to show that Maori may have unfairly blamed Pakeha and religion for their colonial problems, arguing that Christianity should be more positively considered for its vital place in the New Zealand story. Nation-building, he argues, is not the main focus of the book, but this is undone immediately in chapter one, “Groundwork for a Nation”, in which he completely ignores traditional pre-colonial Maori spiritual beliefs and moves straight to the arrival of European missionaries and Christianity. This is the all too familiar opening stanza in the Eurocentric colonial song. What unfolds in the following chapters is a mishmash of histories from tribal conversion, conflict over land sales, to war and the advent of several Maori religious movements.

The book is broken up into 23 small chapters, and includes a bibliography, notes, glossary and index. Aside from a short history of Ratana, many of the chapters deal with topics more adequately accounted for in other books. Readers would be better served looking in those directions to acquire knowledge about Parihaka, the Kingitanga, and most other Maori prophetic movements. Unfortunately, too many chapters are bogged down in detail, leaving the reader to wade through an unnecessary amount of information in the hope of hearing something new. Often, this never eventuates.

Throughout the book, Newman contends that Maori were not reluctant Christians, but active converts. His focus on Christianity here is too narrow since, in fact, Maori were constantly driven by a desire to amplify their indigenous identities: to remake Christianity on local terms, not vice versa.  He also points the finger at the New Zealand Company and government officials as key perpetrators in the act of betrayal, yet downplays or ignores various examples where missionaries were the worst offenders. Most significantly, Newman too often presents ill-conceived summations of historical concepts related to Maori. At one stage, he argues that “the new Christian ethos … displaced the old caste-based rules”, which is an incredibly odd way of presenting Maori hierarchies as if they were synonymous with the caste system in India. Likewise, he invokes “Kupapa” in an oversimplified binary between Maori rebels and loyalists, Christians and fanatics, when, in fact, Maori were regularly operating in accordance with their own tribal aspirations. Those in Ngati Porou territory, he writes, “remained loyal to Christianity” and resisted Hauhau-ism, but this is a gross misunderstanding of what actually occurred on the East Coast. Similarly, more could have been said on the West Coast about Wiremu Tamihana practising Christianity within “a traditional Maori framework”, the prophetic history of Tawhiao or the fact that Te Puea was attended by traditional healers, yet these are either skipped over or disregarded. Instead, figures like Potatau Te Wherowhero are narrowly described as regular churchgoers who rejected the “old Gods”. Here, Newman overstates repeatedly the role of Christianity and fails effectively to address the ongoing presence of traditional beliefs and atua in daily Maori life.

There is no question that religion inspired decisions made by Maori, but the extent of that influence, its mediation and negotiation, as well as its specific long-term meaning, are not effectively addressed in this book. The overly romantic view that “the pioneering missionaries had come to New Zealand with their message of love and forgiveness … and had done everything to ensure that Maori had a voice” is simply a fiction that Newman tries to argue was, in reality, a virtuous mission interrupted by the Wakefields and other greedy land-grabbers. In contrast, he presents missionaries such as Octavius Hadfield, T G Hammond, and the Rev Arthur Seamer as humanitarians who gave “selflessly”, motivated by the “greater good of Maori”. This is hardly a balanced history, but is made even worse by other jaw-dropping statements in the book. Newman, for instance, suggests that “New Zealand has a long record of embracing other cultures”. Surely he is not talking about the Poll Tax imposed on Chinese immigrants or the dawn raids endured by supposed Pacific overstayers? Faith and religion should be more closely examined in New Zealand history, but this book does so within an almost completely anti-academic frame of reference.

This problem appears again in the closing chapter, where the author once more tries to position himself as the unproblematic objective family spokesman. He writes:

like any family we carry our disappointments, broken hearts, failures, successes and betrayals …. New Zealand history is not something that should be left to academics or those with left-wing or right-wing barrows to push. We need both sides of the story if we are to emerge from this phobia that has so many people embarrassed about our heritage.


This is followed by yet another disclaimer, in which Newman stresses that “while ‘we are all New Zealanders’ sounds like nation building”, it is actually a call for diversity that “needs to be affirmed in order for those other than the dominant culture to buy into the rhetoric”. It is precisely because of this twisted logic that Maori perspectives of New Zealand history are so vital. If indigenous views were more carefully enabled, and the rhetoric of nationalism deactivated, then Beyond Betrayal could have been a very different, and better, book. Instead, it does not address these power imbalances between Maori and Pakeha historical accounts. If, as the author contends, “Pakeha can no longer expect to get away with bad renditions of ‘Pokarekare Ana’” or a “clumsy haka”, maybe we should expect better histories too?

In the final pages, Newman asks the question: how do we find “a destiny beyond betrayal”? Perhaps a more considered appreciation of “betrayal” is required in order to understand that it is not something that happened way back then, but is still occurring today. Thus, the idea of betrayal might then be extended to those who claim to be fixing problems, restoring “missions”, when, in fact, they may well be singing the same old colonial tunes that dispossessed Maori in the first place. Claiming history this way can be dangerous, even an act of betrayal, in a society frequently bombarded with messages that demand Maori get with the programme and cease complaining about the past. Beyond Betrayal, unfortunately, contributes to this problem by declaring New Zealanders as owners of all local history, including that of the indigenous people, and insisting that Maori should return to the mission, embrace their supposed “Christian” heritage, and bury the troubles of colonial grievance. Something tells me that this is not the “promised land” that Maori envisioned.


Nepia Mahuika lectures in the History programme at the University of Waikato.  


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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