Acknowledge No Frontier: The creation and demise of New Zealand’s provinces, 1853–76, by André Brett (Otago University Press, 2016), 346pp, $45
The provincial system is undoubtedly an aspect of New Zealand history that was overdue for scholarly attention. The lack of close historical treatment to the semi-federal system that divided the colony into six provincial legislatures is surprising given the formative phase that it represents – where colonial administration moved beyond a formal treaty with Māori and into the complicated business of the development of land, infrastructure and economy. The violence and conflict that attended appropriation of land has rightly preoccupied historians of this period. In contrast, the blind spot around provincial politics can be attributed to a kind of common-sense consensus about this short-lived system. In a field where histories have (until recently) been primarily framed around the nation, the provinces are regarded as a brief and explainable blip on the road to a strong central government.
In Acknowledge No Frontier Andre Brett foregrounds both the scholarly and the popular neglect of this aspect of New Zealand history. He opens the book by sketching some examples of provincial rivalries (e.g. rugby), and then quickly points out that all such usages of the term ‘provincial’ are ‘bizarre’ given that New Zealand is a unitary state. Moreover, most New Zealanders are unaware that the provincial identities they hold so dear ‘once had an existence in law’. Brett then provides a useful outline of the historiography, finding that some historians have dismissed abolition of the provinces as ‘predictable or inevitable’, while those who have paid more attention to the subtleties of its demise have posited a range of causes that cohere around the need for centralisation to provide a strong response to warfare, to build infrastructure, and to address financial problems. The weight of this scholarly consensus is reflected in the remarkable fact that Acknowledge No Frontier is the first substantial work on the provincial system since William Morrell’s 1932 monograph.
The book comprises 14 concise chronological chapters. This structure is an effective tool by which to prise apart the key phases from the creation to the demise of the provinces. Provincial government was implemented in 1853 after a period of considerable instability, but it was a divisive solution from the outset – since winning the right to govern in this manner was a victory for some but a loss for others. Brett is at pains to demonstrate the lines of fracture between and indeed within the six regions, tracing the addition of new provinces through constant jockeying for local power, and vividly narrating some spectacular failures. In a dialogue that was often reduced to ‘petty politics’ Brett finds the seeds of demise of the provincial system. Those who wanted to see the system continue (Auckland and Otago) did so for reasons particular to their locality, and thus even those committed to the provincial system found little opportunity for unified action. This inherent disjointedness is central to Brett’s argument and provides an important counterpoint to more simplistic national narratives – which posit the inevitability of provincial needs coalescing as the population filled out and technology rendered distance less of an obstacle to centralism.
This book is a reworking of Brett’s PhD dissertation. The research is detailed and precise, and the book includes a number of useful appendices. Sources include some personal papers of significant individuals, but the study is largely reliant on archival inscriptions produced in and for public forums – newspapers, parliamentary proceedings and contemporary texts. This confines the analysis to the political arena at the cost of any social history, which is surprising given his gesture towards a broader conception of identity at the opening of the book. Having said that, Brett exhibits an excellent command of his sources and there are many lively touches in his writing which speak to his enthusiasm for this overlooked topic. This is perhaps most evident in his tangible illumination of distance in the early colonial period; Brett’s treatment of this problem leaves a lasting impression on the reader. Tracing the establishment of a local press, Vogel’s career and transport/railways are important subthemes throughout.
Brett’s overarching quest is a careful and nuanced explication of the system’s demise. His analysis magnifies, complicates, and to some extent challenges arguments made in previous work. The question of provincial identity and its endurance beyond political existence, however, is a challenging one given the lack of social and cultural perspectives. Brett states categorically in his final chapter that ‘regional identity and politics have been largely divorced since 1876’, which sets up something of a contradiction – or at least a slippage between provincial and political identities – given his stance on the enduring legacy of provincialism. There is also a gap to be bridged here between his close attention to individuals and associations, in contrast to frequent personification of provinces (‘Auckland feared that …’, ‘Otago desired …’ and so on) that undoes some of the more careful work. His critique of Damon Salesa’s scholarship on the grounds that ‘the colonial polity was not a monolith’ is one that Brett might also need to answer given these generalisations and those in the conclusion about what ‘New Zealanders’ expect of their local governments.
The problem of finding a meaningful register with which to explore the question of provincial identity could have been addressed had Brett taken a more inclusive approach. It was a cause of unease to this reader to note the number of illustrations of men – politicians usually in three-quarter (head and shoulders) portraits – that peppered the text. While the book is beautifully produced, the unflinching visual depiction that associates men with landscapes and maps, buildings and machines, reflects a lack of nuance in the research design. Some portraits were captioned in a way that justified their inclusion, but for the most part these images appeared largely as a soft device to lift the text, with a negative side effect – that of reinforcing the suppression of non-white, non-male agency, activity and indeed presence in ‘settler’ history. One welcome exception portrays Thomas Browne with his family; another photograph depicts Jane Cain, the wife of mayor Henry Cain, at the centre of a crowd, turning the first soil for the construction of the railways in Timaru. But this is the only mention of a woman in the entire book.
This is a political topic and I understand that the response to this line of critique goes something like ‘men did politics, this is a book about politics, therefore it is a book about men’. But nowhere does Brett acknowledge that this is a problem; nor does he write about these male politicians as men. One fruitful means of attacking both the problem of inclusion (which every historian formulating a research project should consider) and the question of identity, would have been a gendered approach. For example, what kind of masculinity was expressed and developed via these men whose words and actions spun a layered foundation upon which future political institutions were built? Alternatively, what might a cultural lens (or a wider angle on class) have revealed about the particularity of provincial dynamics? Perusing the index for this book, there is no heading for ‘class’, ‘race’, ‘gender’, or ‘women’. I am not suggesting that Brett should have been attentive to these categories out of a sense of responsibility; rather because (a) it makes better history and (b) in this case it would have enabled construction of a stronger narrative to both house and give momentum to the dense detail that the author has gone to so much effort to gather. In 2009 Tony Ballantyne called for more scholarly attention to the state in nineteenth-century New Zealand in response to the turn away from ‘high politics’ and towards ‘histories from below’. But, crucially, Ballantyne insists – and his work exemplifies – that this is best achieved by bringing colonial politics into dialogue with the body of recent research formulated around race and gender.
Acknowledge No Frontier is an important book and hopefully one that stimulates more studies that build upon it. The appealing title of this book is most appropriate – steering the reader’s attention to the shifting ground of the era and capturing somehow the energy of this significant historical moment. The difficult task of integrating the often divergent, sometimes convergent perspectives of various provinces within each chapter is one that Brett does not shy away from. In doing so he has produced a work that contains much for scholars and teachers of New Zealand history to grapple with, and plenty for a general reader with an interest in politics to enjoy. It is impossible to read this book and to not appreciate the importance of the provincial system, nor to be curious about the complex regional dynamics that preceded and underwrote not only central government but also the social and cultural developments that would cohere and persist as provincial identities.
JANE McCABE is a lecturer in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Otago, teaching courses in South Asian history and migration to New Zealand. She is author of the forthcoming Race, Tea and Colonial Resettlement: Imperial families, interrupted (Bloomsbury, May 2017), and has recently embarked on a Marsden-funded study of farming families and inheritance in New Zealand.