Ko Te Whenua Te Utu: Land Is the Price by M.P.K. Sorrenson (Auckland University Press, 2014) 344 pp., $49.99; Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The contest for colonial New Zealand by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books, 2014) 280 pp., $49.99
Professor Emeritus M.P.K. Sorrenson is one of the people most qualified to write ‘Essays on Maori history, land and politics’, as his collection Ko Te Whenua Te Utu is subtititled. For over 30 years a leading light in the University of Auckland’s history department, he was also for 25 years a member of the Waitangi Tribunal, weighing submissions and contributing to those voluminous reports which, in his Epilogue, he calls New Zealand’s ‘largest exercise in public history ever undertaken’ (p. 299). Considering the matter of whether Pākehā can ever validly write Māori history, Sorrenson concedes in his introduction that ‘the most outstanding Maori history written in recent years’ was written by a Pākehā, Judith Binney. Nevertheless, being himself of mixed Māori and Pākehā descent, Sorrenson also claims to have a ‘personal motive’ in his long scholarly engagement with Māori politics and land ownership, ‘since I had been nurtured on stories of the alienation of the last remnants of my mother’s Maori land’.
Ko Te Whenua Te Utu comprises 13 essays, public lectures and commissioned reports, which Sorrenson has written over more than half a century, between 1956 and 2011. The earliest, from 1956, is ‘Land Purchase Methods and their Effect on Maori Population, 1865–1901’. It is modified section of Sorrenson’s MA thesis, and argues that the loss of land and disruption of the social cohesion of tribes were major causes of the decline in Māori population in the late nineteenth century. The most recent, from 2011, is ‘Folkland to Bookland’, examining the career of the nineteenth-century bureaucrat F.D. Fenton (first chief judge of the Native Land Court), who likened the loss of Māori customary tenure of land, and its transference into personalised title, to the loss of the ‘commons’ in Tudor England.
But the reader has to work out ‘earliest’ and ‘most recent’ like this by carefully scrutinising the footnotes on the first page of each essay. For Sorrenson has chosen to organise his essays, not in the order in which they were written, but in the historical order of the issues with which they deal. So the first essay in the book is a 1977 account of pseudo-scientific nineteenth-century Pākehā attempts (Edward Tregear et al.) to work out the origins of the Māori people. And the last essay in the book is a sombre 2005 reflection on how much New Zealand really is ‘one people’ as was boasted at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
As I interpret it, by organising 55 years of work in this way, Sorrenson is implicitly suggesting that readers approach this book as a sequential history – from Māori origins to the condition of the Māori people in the early twenty-first century. But I see a number of problems with this approach. First, as Sorrenson himself is aware, some of his own earlier scholarship has been overtaken by subsequent research. Hence at least some of these papers are themselves ‘historical documents’ rather than ‘documents about history’ – records of the way things would once have seemed to an expert observer. Second, some articles discuss things as they were at time of writing, and therefore badly need to be brought up to date.
As an example, I’ll take what I personally found the most informative and enlightening essay in the book (at 60 pages, it also happens to be the longest). This is ‘Maori Representation in Parliament’, which Sorrenson wrote in 1986 for the Royal Commission on the Electoral System. If I were to direct non-experts to one single and accessible text giving the history of Māori engagement with parliamentary politics, it would be this exemplary essay. Sorrenson contextualises the (grudging) Pākehā creation of the Māori seats in parliament, the various ways in which both Māori and Pākehā have regarded them, the quality of Māori MPs over the years, their varying party affiliations, and the way the parliamentary seats have outlasted Māori attempts to create an alternative, extra-parliamentary Māori assembly. But – maddeningly – this essay takes us perforce only up to 1986, when it was written. In nearly 30 years since then, there have been changes to Māori representation in parliament and certainly changes in party affiliations. Like other pieces in the collection, this essay badly needs a postscript of four or five pages to bring the story up to date. Certainly in his 12-page Epilogue Sorrenson addresses, in a general way, this matter of updating material; but it is no substitute for what would have been the better editorial decision of updating each item with a postscript, without modifying Sorrenson’s original words.
This is, of course, no more than a long-winded comment on the way the text has been organised – not on the quality of the text itself. It is true that there are some items that, for an informed New Zealand reader at least, seem to labour obvious points because they are being explained to an overseas audience (particularly true of ‘Colonial Rule and Local Response’, which was originally presented at a conference in London). It is also true that, in three articles on the working and impact of the Waitangi Tribunal, there is much duplication of material. But this is simply a warning that the essays are better read one by one, rather than as a sequence.
Along with his scholarship, the chief asset of Ko Te Whenua Te Utu is Sorrenson’s lucid academic prose, a model of exposition from somebody who was trained before the age of postmodernist verbal dithering. Odd organisation or no, this should now be an essential text on ‘Māori history, land and politics’. And its insights into the Treaty of Waitangi are alone worth the price of the book.
When a reviewer is commissioned to review, side-by-side in one notice, two books on similar subjects, there is the assumption that comparisons will be made.
Very well then. Here are my comparisons. Like M.P.K. Sorrenson, Vincent O’Malley is a professional historian, but he is of a younger generation, his perspective is a little different and, in Beyond the Imperial Frontier, he addresses issues which overlap with those of Sorrenson but which are not quite the same. As in his earlier book The Meeting Place, O’Malley is as much interested in Māori–Pākehā cultural interaction as he is in the issues of land and politics. Coincidentally O’Malley’s book also consists of 13 essays, all written within the last 15 years. Unlike Sorrenson, he confines himself to nineteenth-century matters and does not continue any essay into the twentieth century, except for his engaging history of the Whakakotahitanga flagstaff, which closes the volume. Some of O’Malley’s essays were written specifically for Beyond the Imperial Frontier, but some have been published previously in scholarly journals. As he tells us in an introductory note, O’Malley has edited and reworked the texts of those that have been published previously, presumably to make his book a more cohesive whole. I’ll make one last slightly impertinent comparison – in his introduction, Sorrenson is quite explicit about his ethnic heritage and how this affects his view of history. O’Malley makes no comparable statement, but I would suggest that his Irish heritage is important to him. In his essay ‘The New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 in Wider Context’, O’Malley spends quite some space drawing comparisons between the centuries-long history of English land-grabs in Ireland, and the nineteenth-century history of Pākehā land-grabs in New Zealand, in both cases in the dubious name of ‘civilization’.
So much for the comparisons which, as Dogberry said, are odorous.
One of O’Malley’s strengths is his awareness of how porous and malleable the notion of ‘frontier’ was. He is always at pains to stress how, in the nineteenth century, Māori and Pākehā met and adapted to one another in a variety of ways, not at the same pace, not uniformly across the whole country, and not in a spirit of wholesale acceptance or rejection. In the earlier nineteenth century, Māori were perfectly capable of adopting those Pākehā manners and customs that suited their own purposes, just as Pākehā would carefully observe Māori tapu when they were not yet in a position to be independent of Māori goodwill. ‘Agency’ worked both ways.
O’Malley is also aware of how time-specific the judgments of historians often are. He begins his essay ‘Reconsidering the Origins of the Native Land Court’ thus:
The writing of history can be seen as … intergenerational warfare. One generation of historians sets out to establish the received version of particular events, before their revisionist successors come along to challenge such an interpretation. Before you know it, the revisionist take on history has become the dominant paradigm, while the next generation waits in the wings, often ready to argue for reinstatement of at least some of the original truth … (p. 176)
In the face of some recent revisionism, this particular essay goes on to endorse the dominant view (established by Sorrenson’s pioneering research) that the Native Land Court, often employing very questionable methods, was in large part a device to wrest land off Māori. Likewise O’Malley’s essay ‘Te Riri o Waikato – The Invasion of the Waikato and its Aftermath’ endorses the dominant view that Governor Grey’s ‘ultimatum’ to the Waikato was a sham, as it was issued when the invasion by imperial troops was already underway. O’Malley does, however, make the highly original point that, per capita, the death rate of Māori in the 1860s conflicts was as high as the death rate of New Zealanders in the First World War.
Or could this comparison be indicative of O’Malley’s occasional tendency to ‘talk up’ the subjects with which he engages? In the essay ‘The Curious Case of Tiritiri Matangi’, for example, he compares the Crown’s claim to the island in the Hauraki Gulf with the ‘terra nullius’ concept that allowed Britain to claim the whole of Australia without consulting its indigenous inhabitants. The essay title ‘The East Coast Petroleum Wars’ inflates the importance of the complicated story he tells of how business interests attempted to gain control of the Turangi oil springs in the period of land confiscation in the 1860s.
The writing and re-writing of history is an unending process. Even a new book like this one is bound to miss some material. It is a pity that O’Malley’s brief essay ‘Frontier Justice? The Trial and Execution of Kereopa Te Rau’ was not able to draw upon Peter Wells’ excellent book-length study of the same case, Journey to a Hanging, but both Wells’ book and this one were probably with their respective publishers at the same time. I am more concerned, however, by one omission in Beyond the Imperial Frontier. It strikes me as odd that an historian so concerned with cultural interaction should apparently have so little to say on the matter of religion. At pp. 98–100, in the essay ‘Reinventing Tribal Mechanisms of Governance’, there is a brief discussion of Māori understandings of Christianity in the context of missionary-influenced attempts to set up rūnanga with real local authority. Elsewhere, there are references to tapu and to Pai Mārire, but little exposition of their spiritual significance. If a ‘frontier’ between peoples is a real meeting of worldviews, then the nineteenth-century New Zealand ‘frontier’, however various definitions of it may be, was certainly a place where religious understandings of the cosmos loomed large.
In saying this, I do not mean to take away from what O’Malley does achieve in Beyond the Imperial Frontier. From James Busby’s failed attempts to use chiefly prestige in his own schemes for super-tribal government; to George Grey’s failed attempts to hybridise British and Māori legal concepts; to the machinations of the Land Court; O’Malley gives a history of the ‘frontier’ where mutual incomprehension was too often the mark of how cultures met.
NICHOLAS REID’s doctorate is in history. He is an Auckland poet and biographer and runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.