Putting the Treaty in a discursive context, Jim McAloon

Before Hobson
Tony Simpson
Blythswood Press, $38.00,
ISBN 9780473312848

Tony Simpson has been writing history for a general, rather than academic, readership for a long time and to good effect. His aim in this book is to situate the Treaty of Waitangi in a long-run context. Most studies of the Treaty deal with the first four decades of the 19th century as a prelude, to be got through as quickly as possible; conversely, many studies of New Zealand in the Tasman/Pacific context after 1769 or 1788 have the Treaty as a postscript. Simpson explores the period in considerable, and sometimes discursive, detail and his perspective is welcome.

New Zealand’s early 19th century was intimately related to the previous decades of European empires’ rivalries in the Pacific, and, once the convict settlement was established in New South Wales, European activity in New Zealand was bound to increase. Indeed, within four years of the First Fleet’s invasion of Australia, Sydney-based entrepreneurs were nosing around the New Zealand coasts in search of timber and flax, then seals and whales, as well as fresh provisions.

Simpson is particularly good on the variety of characters who comprised the European population around New Zealand, whether sojourning or staying. Some of them were undoubtedly ruffians, some were “characters” with backgrounds about which they may have wished to be discreet, but many of them were simply trying to do the best for themselves in circumstances not of their own choosing. New Zealand’s maritime frontier was by no means as lawless as it suited some interested parties to maintain; Māori were well able to look after their own interests and keep order. Characterisations of Kororareka as “the hell-hole of the Pacific” were exaggerated, and missionaries and their friends who indulged in such language failed to appreciate the hard and dangerous lives which sealers, whalers and seafarers led. The exploitation of ships’ crews by unscrupulous shipowners is nothing new, and New Zealand was unusually well placed as a refuge for those lucky enough to desert. Whatever his other failings, and those of his father and uncles, Edward Jerningham Wakefield wrote some perceptive accounts of this dimension of New Zealand in 1840.

Similarly, convicts who had served their time might well have found New Zealand a more congenial environment than Sydney with its snobberies and its money-power. Some of those convicts became significant entrepreneurs on this side of the Tasman, as Simpson reminds us; they are little remembered now except in a few place names. Yet those place names – Cooper, Levy, Underwood – should remind us of the brutalities of the English penal code of the 18th century, and Simpson ensures that we are so reminded.

The vast scale of agrarian restructuring (to use a modern euphemism) and industralisation in Britain are perhaps better recalled in New Zealand folk-memory, and Simpson places both Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his reluctant admirer, Karl Marx, in this context. Simpson is no fan of Wakefield (a perspective which alone commends the book to this reviewer). He recalls the late 1950s writings of Michael Turnbull (and, as he might have added, John Miller) to show how Wakefield’s scheme was “a quite deliberately created land bubble”. Land speculation, unhindered by the inconvenience of a capital gains tax, has a long history in these islands. Where Simpson’s emphasis is particularly important is in noting the close, indeed intimate, links between the New Zealand Company and Westminster. Most of the Company’s parliamentary supporters were Whigs, and insufficient notice is usually taken of this fact. It was of the first importance once the third Earl Grey became Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1845 and instructed his namesake, Governor Grey, to place the power of the state unreservedly at the disposal of settler interests. Simpson’s argument is that even nominally Tory administrations in 1839 relied on Whig support, and thus he emphasises the dimension in Hobson’s instructions that envisaged large-scale British settlement in New Zealand. Little enough humanitarianism, then. He perhaps draws a slightly long bow in attributing Commissioner Spain’s decision to impose compensation on Māori evicted from their cultivations at Port Nicholson by trespassing settlers to his Whig connections. FitzRoy was just as paternalistic and was a high Tory; paternalism transcended party lines.

Nor does Simpson refrain from noting the later prosperity of some missionaries, particularly the Williams family. Samuel Marsden is similarly analysed in clinical detail; Simpson emphasises a point of which I routinely endeavour to make my first-year students aware: that Marsden is virtually canonised in New Zealand, but recalled as the flogging parson in Australia. There are some other useful insights here, such as the suggestion that missionaries might well have exaggerated the death toll in the musket wars in order to highlight their own importance as peacemakers.

The back of the book promises a surprise regarding the origins of the Treaty of Waitangi. If the ambiguities of Hobson’s instructions are well enough known, it is an open question whether this ambiguity is always sufficiently emphasised. More noteworthy is the importance which Simpson places on William Charles Wentworth, perhaps the most influential Sydney merchant of his day and, to use an Australian term, an unreconstructed bastard. Wentworth had his own designs on New Zealand, and an important reason for Hobson being despatched to secure unambiguous British sovereignty over New Zealand was to pre-empt those designs. Here, the role of the New South Wales Governor Gipps, in advising London and Hobson, was important, and Simpson suggests that we need to think about the making of New Zealand policy in Sydney as well as in London.

Before Hobson is an interesting and an engaging book. It makes some points of emphasis which I think are not always given due weight. Simpson’s scepticism about the origins of the Treaty (although not, as he hastens to add, its subsequent meaning) reflect to an extent those of Ruth Ross and Ian Wards, and if readers are encouraged to familiarise themselves with those and other historians, that is all to the good. Simpson’s work will also, I hope, encourage readers to acquaint themselves with some other classic studies of the decades before 1840, especially Harry Morton’s The Whale’s Wake, and the now century-old works of Robert McNab. That is no bad company to be in.

Jim McAloon teaches in the History Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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