Gerry Te Kapa Coates
Paikea: The Life of I.L.G. Sutherland, by Oliver Sutherland, (Canterbury University Press, 2013), 480 pp., $65.00
This fascinating book is about an early twentieth-century New Zealand philosopher and teacher, Ivan Lorin George Sutherland, a relatively little-known or acknowledged Pākehā New Zealand academic now, who threw off his conservative upbringing to become a pioneering liberal thinker – and New Zealand’s first cultural anthropologist, arguing for a bicultural New Zealand. As a progressive, a lone Pākehā student of Māoridom championing Māori aspirations, he became friend to and trusted confidante of Sir Apirana Ngata. Sadly, he also suffered from anxiety and depression and took his own life, alone in the Port Hills at Christchurch, at the relatively young age of 54. Oliver Sutherland is Ivan Sutherland’s son, and was only eight when his father died. A respected scientist, formerly with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, he is also now a very fine biographer who takes care not to intrude himself as consciously writing a memoir of his father. Instead, he concentrates on telling the story of Ivan Sutherland’s unfolding life, in relation to the era, mining the amazingly rich amount of source material, including his father’s prolific letter-writing when in Britain in the 1920s. The narrative is appended with a further 67 pages of endnotes that will prove a substantial treasure trove for future researchers. All in all, Paikea: The Life of I.L.G. Sutherland, in bringing this neglected figure to our attention, is a book which sets out to redress an imbalance, and by and large it succeeds, with its well-reasearched account of a particular time and place in New Zealand twentieth-century history.
Ivan Sutherland was born in 1897, to parents who were the children of immigrants to New Zealand from Orkney and London. His life traversed the two World Wars, and their aftermath, and his humanitarianism must be understood in that context. Ivan was a Masterton boy, who – as his family were in the Salvation Army – had a strong church and moral background that included supporting the prohibitionist cause in what was a town ‘brimming with temperance activities’: Masterton eventually went dry in the 1908 election.
While studying at Victoria University College from 1916, where he gained a BA and then an MA, he became a protégé of the renowned Professor Thomas Hunter. Ivan Sutherland’s Master’s thesis was assessed in Britain by the eminent Welsh philosopher Sir Henry Jones, which led to him being accepted for a two-year PhD programme supervised by Jones at Glasgow University. Unfortunately by the time Sutherland arrived, Jones was very ill with throat cancer and Sutherland did not enjoy his time there, moving to complete the final year of his studies in moral philosophy and psychology at the University of London. His regular letters back home to his family paint a dismal picture of a Britain struggling with unemployment and gloomy, post-Great War economic conditions. He was horrified by the poor accommodation in Glasgow, such as what were referred to as ‘single ends’ – where a family of seven or eight lived in a single 2m x 3.5m room that served as kitchen, living and sleeping space, using a variety of concealed beds and mattresses.
Although he enjoyed the company of women – particularly Kiwi women studying in England, like himself – Ivan was determined to remain, as he wrote in his letters, a ‘confirmed bachelor’, despite being “‘off” (as they say here) with half the girls in the place, some of them quite good looking too’. While in London, he attended talks by many of the major figures of the day, including Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Leonard Hobhouse and Harold Laski.
Finally completing his doctorate only a little later than anticipated, he was offered a position as lecturer back at Victoria University College by Professor Hunter. Returning in 1924, he threw himself into this new job, as well as into many extra-curricular activities, including the debating society. He also became director of the increasingly popular Workers’ Educational Association. Both Sutherland and Hunter opposed the introduction of the Mental Defectives Amendment Bill in 1928, which had been initiated by supporters of the eugenics movement, who were promoting the idea of ‘sterilisation of the chronically, mentally or morally unfit’. In Sutherland’s hour-long address to the Public Health Committee hearing submissions on the Bill, he said: ‘I have been urging all along for the betterment of social conditions and against eugenic legislation that goes too far.’ Despite their best efforts however, the Bill was passed.
Earlier on, in 1925, as Sutherland’s socially responsible views on society strengthened, he came to the attention of the Ngāti Porou leader Apirana Ngata, who wanted someone to encourage and promote Pākehā support for his ideas of Māori rural redevelopment. A counterpart to these schemes would be the cultural revival of Māori. After his first visit to the East Coast in 1930, Sutherland was drawn into deep involvement, which led to him later being given the honorific title of Paikea – the name of the whale-riding ancestor of Ngāti Porou – by the iwi. Ngata was also central to encouraging the restoration and building of new meeting houses, with the associated carving, decoration and weaving involved. They were opened with great ceremony – many hui, with haka, waiata and oratory – and Sutherland attended these ceremonies with Ngata. This became a career parallel to his academic one. Writing and speaking empathetically about the Māori and Polynesian world, encouraged and enabled Māori to trust him.
However, Ngata was receiving relentless criticism from the media and was also the subject of an inquiry by the Native Affairs Commission into alleged dodgy finances for his schemes. Sutherland wrote to him at the end of 1934, expressing his distress at the never-ending personal attacks, and restating his support for Ngata’s vision for his people. He decided to personally argue the case for Ngata’s vision, wanting ‘to do what I can for both peoples’ to advance mutual understanding. The result was the publication of his pamphlet entitled The Maori Situation in 1935, that came to be seen as a benchmark for establishing a new Pākehā understanding of Māori culture at the time. In the final chapter, entitled ‘Pakeha Goodwill’, Sutherland said, ‘Looking back, one can again and again see how the Maoris might and should have been more fairly dealt with and more fully preserved, how conflict and its resulting bitterness might have been avoided, how the idea of the Treaty of Waitangi which implied equality and promised “all the rights and privileges of British subjects” might really have been carried out.’
After working at a feverish pace for twelve years on many fronts at Victoria – including a position as Warden of its hostel, Weir House, from 1933 – Sutherland applied for, and was appointed to, the Chair of Philosophy at Canterbury University College in 1936, a position for which he was in competition with Karl Popper, a Jewish refugee from Austria. Popper was a formidable philosopher, but unlike Sutherland had no formal training as a psychologist. Popper was appointed as a lecturer under Sutherland, to the chagrin of both. Both were strongly opinionated, and their personalities clashed. Relationships remained uneasy on both sides for the next nine years until Popper returned to Europe, after World War Two.
Sutherland, while maintaining his status as a confirmed bachelor, had developed a strong relationship in Wellington with Nancy Webber, who was from a large farming family at French Pass. She had been one of Sutherland’s undergraduate students – one who had become, in her words, ‘besotted’ with him. He finally made the move many of his friends thought he would never make, and proposed to her before his Canterbury appointment was confirmed. She then went on a six-month OE. They married quietly at her family’s homestead soon after his arrival to take up the position in Christchurch, and began to build a large and close-knit family. It was a happiness that was to last just fifteen years, during which time Sutherland proved a popular head of department.
A high point was the publication of a collection of his, and others’, essays entitled The Maori People Today, as part of the 1940 Centennial celebrations. Sutherland made it clear that in order to retain their identity, the Māori people needed to be able to retain their culture, especially their language. The book’s foreword was provided by the pre-eminent Māori scholar Peter Buck; and although Ngata was to have written four contributions, he was under such pressure – both personally and politically (establishing, for example, the Māori Battalion as part of the war effort) – that Sutherland ended up writing most of them himself. Sutherland’s many trips to Wellington to discuss the project with Ngata gave him the opportunity to maintain first-hand links with friends and colleagues in Wellington – and at Victoria University – including, for example, John Beaglehole.
Sutherland had also become a skilled public lecturer on emerging psychological and social topics – such as arguments about race – and on public issues including the Second World War and the proposed international solutions following the end of war. Although a pacifist, he did not actively oppose war, and in fact actually enlisted in March 1943, but was not called up. He had always espoused since his student days the view that ‘we cannot believe that war is inevitable’. It was therefore unsurprising that in 1947 Sutherland was sent to Japan to lecture to the occupying forces as an honorary major in the New Zealand Army Education and Welfare Service. There, he talked to the soldiers – including the Māori contingent – and found that many of them were already doing pre-university study. After he finished his lecturing service, Ivan Sutherland travelled to Hokkaido to follow up his interest in, and meet with, the Ainu people – Japan’s indigenous people. They had suffered a fate similar to that of Māori. As Sutherland told Ngata in a letter, ‘Assimilation has gone very far. Treatment by the Japanese has been brutal at worst and unsympathetic at best – save for a few gestures.’
Sutherland was deeply affected by the death in 1950 of Sir Apirana Ngata, who had been not only his friend but his mentor in things Māori. They had spent countless hours together over the preceding quarter-century. During a year’s proposed sabbatical leave in Christchurch, he planned several major projects, including a study of rural and urban race relations requiring four months’ fieldwork in the North Island. He was also involved with the start-up of the quarterly bilingual illustrated magazine Te Ao Hou in 1951.
However, he became very disheartened when, in mid-1951, a paper by his former student, Ernest Beaglehole (John Beaglehole’s younger brother) appeared in a scholarly journal that, although ‘not of great substance’, he realised deliberately pre-empted his own work about to be published in the same field. Certainly this seemed like academic intriguing around what had now become the essential redefining of Māori–Pākehā relations, and central to questions of national and cultural identity. By this time also, overworked and run-down, Sutherland had become unwell and anxious. Diagnosed with depression, he was admitted to Ashburn Hall for treatment, including electric shock therapy – a trendy remedy at the time. But it was to little avail, except to confirm Ivan Sutherland’s view: ‘I will never go back into a mental asylum.’ In February 1952, he took his own life. So ended the life of an unusual New Zealander, an original thinker, with huge energy and potential, and possessing a far-sighted outlook for a Pākehā at that time.
Aside from the insights into life in the first half of last century, where Oliver Sutherland makes good selective use of the many documents he uncovered, what does the book tell us about how a person’s life develops, even if the promise is not totally fulfilled? In the seventies I read a book by Robert W. White called Lives in Progress, which fascinated me because by looking at case studies on subjects over the course of their lives he purported to provide some patterns if not answers. So how did a rather priggish young man turn into a socially-conscious leader, determined to advance the cause of the dire Māori situation at the time, and why is he so little remembered? It was not the great New Zealand clobbering machine at work, but rather it is that he was far in advance of others’ thinking. Whether the deciding factor was his being an innovator in terms of bringing psychology into the public’s view through his academic teaching and WEA lecturing, or his helping start the Australasian Association of Psychology and Philosophy, or just his seeing that the collective common good approach of Māori was preferable to the colonisers’ accepted politics of the time before anyone else did, is hard to say. It is still surprising though how few people know about him. Perhaps this book will remedy that.
GERRY TE KAPA COATES (Ngāi Tahu) is a Wellington consultant and author.