Christchurch Crimes 1850-75: Scandal and Skulduggery in Port and Town, by Geoffrey W. Rice, (Canterbury University Press, 2012), 232 pp., $30; A Concise History of New Zealand: Second Edition, by Philippa Mein Smith (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 368 pp., $26.99; Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past, by Tony Ballantyne (Bridget Williams Books, 2012), 374 pp., $49.99.
One of the interesting things about these three works in the history of ‘New Zealand,’ whatever that last noun phrase might or might not mean – about which more towards the end of this review – is that all have been shaped strongly by the South Island. Are they South Island New Zealand history? Yes, in some ways. A fair few southerners think that only with quite a lot of pummelling and pounding can the history of their island be made to fit into what at present are the central narratives of ‘New Zealand’ history. Geoffrey Rice in his almost naïve provincialism is very South Island. Tony Ballantyne with his profound interrogation of the concept of nation and empire is also very South Island. Mein Smith is the least South Island, but a swift flick through her index will show markedly more entries for Christchurch and Canterbury than for Auckland.
Notwithstanding, three very different books ranging from a slight collection of historical anecdotes, unembarrassed by thesis, to a heavyweight collection of widely surveying, pensive, reflective essays in which theses are debated in the best tradition of historiography.
First, the slight stuff. Christchurch Crimesby Geoffrey Rice is a string of edited excerpts from newspaper reports, loosely knotted together with narrative, dealing with what he calls ‘scandal and skulduggery’ during twenty-five years of a new white society named Canterbury. Antiquarianism rather than history. Rice is clear about this from the beginning: ‘not an academic study … it should be regarded as an attempt at evidence-based reconstruction of crimes and courtroom proceedings, opening a window on the lives and deeds of ordinary people.’ So far so good, but there are gaps. Coroner’s inquests, for example, yield far more than court news. Also, the book is more or less reinventing the wheel. Only getting as far as the spokes, too. This wheel has no tread. Rice is doing what was done better by a penetrating thesis submitted thirty years ago in the sociology department of his own university: ‘Of diverse persons, men and women and whores: women and crime in nineteenth century Canterbury,’ by Jan (Robinson) Jordan.
The subtitle of the book, like the overall tone, weakens and dwindles the content. After all the content of this book is strong stuff, the red meat of life: fear, pain, despair, grief, rage, misery. Rice, who can write pleasantly, knows no words to grapple with dark demons. He seems not to know how to write a sentence that will scan. He seems not to hear his words. A sentence on p. 103, for example, while bumbling along uses the prefix ‘re’ three times: ‘… retired for only 20 minutes and returned with a guilty verdict, but added a recommendation … .’ Though, to be fair, how many historians have an ear?
Rice, as noted above, is disarmingly provincial. A wider world than Canterbury seems seldom to exist, except oddly in the shape of engravings nicked from a cartoon anthology published in Victorian England. Overseas artwork for a book about colonial Canterbury is a flaw. A much more serious flaw is the lack of any analysis of the concept or system of ‘justice.’ Where did ‘justice’ come from and where was it going? The sexual abuse of children within the family, for example, is something he supposes to be behaviour ‘all too common’ today, by contrast with some supposedly less abusive past. Yet only from 1900 was it outside the law for a father or mother to have a ‘carnal connection’ with a daughter or son, which means that historians have no quantitative data, and precious little qualitative data, about how many people were doing it. Nor does he talk about who laws served and did not serve, nor about whose wealth and power the laws guarded and who was skinned by those laws – sometimes, in the case of some of the people standing at the dock in his book, skinned raw. The reader is likely to gawp at his folksy foolishness when he does make a few feints at analysis. Here we go: ‘ … some people will always be rule-breakers and troublemakers … most of society does its best to stay on the right side of the law … The dishonest are usually found out.’ Yes, well. The reader might reasonably ask for a little more insight from someone who has taught for nearly the whole of his working life at a university.
Philippa Mein Smith writes few slight phrases in this second edition of her A Concise History of New Zealand. A very professionally written and professionally produced book, nearly the whole of it is thorough, reliable and thoughtful. Yet like Rice her weakness is a lack of overall theory. The goal of the work is to allow us to view the whole history of ‘New Zealand’ in one volume that will fit inside a pocket. Keith Sinclair and his 1965 A History of New Zealandis a hard act to follow, and nobody has yet done it. Certainly not Mein Smith. Sinclair had strong theses and argued them cogently. Mein Smith comes uncomfortably close in some chapters to the ‘one damn thing after another’ school of historiography. She has a high level of skill at evaluating theses developed by others, and arranging them clearly. She has uneven skills at coming up with theses of her own and poor skills at sustaining those theses from the beginning to the end of this book. One unlucky outcome is that the text reads in many ways like a lot of well-grounded fragments, following in sequence, but without any overall shape. Which is life, of course, but historians are meant to look for the patterns, to analyse, to suggest underlying meanings. Things pop up in one period, where there’s a historiography, then drop out in another period, where the historiography is weaker or there’s no historiography.
Provinces, for example, come into existence on p. 68 and then cease to exist. Yet a good many southern people today still speak about the ‘province of Canterbury’ and the ‘province of Otago.’ Class, for another example, doesn’t exist, at least not as an index entry. Class is a key well fitted to turn many locks in the story of New Zealand. A third example: men who have sex with men. Sex of this very widespread type seems not to have existed in our islands before the 1980s, or in the context of this book before p. 271, when it turns up only because it’s the subject of a new law. Yet surely if a new law came onto the books, there must have been an old law or laws, and behaviours and emotions the system of laws was trying to exploit or shape or slap about? Mein Smith can’t be expected in a short text to explore all these things systematically, but at the same time a good history will do more than report on nine day wonders that busied politicians or historians at a given period.
A weakness, too, is that she often lacks a broad view about the events of her own fleeting days. The Hawkes Bay earthquake of 1931 gets scarcely more than four lines. The Canterbury earthquake of 2011 gets fifty lines. Or in other words, one line of text for every sixty or so deaths in Hawkes Bay against one line of text for every six deaths in Canterbury. The personal experiences of the author, who lived in Christchurch at the time of its shaking, have elbowed their way into what should be a balanced weighing up of experiences from today right back to the beginning.
The prose style is competent but uninteresting. Mein Smith is pretty good, in fact, at boring. Attempts to enliven are often dire. A dispute ‘erupts’ (p. 145). The early colonial government has a ‘track record’ (p. 69). Debate over the foreshore and seabed was in a ‘morass’ (p. 277). At the same time, she can be thanked for not showing off with her prose.
A strength of the book is that she compares and contrasts New Zealand with elsewhere. A weakness of the book is that when making such comparisons and contrasts she opts nearly always for Australia, Britain and the United States. The ‘Tasman world,’ as she calls it, has been one of her leading fields of research and writing. She has said many interesting things about that world. Yet a history of our archipelago needs not to stop at the shores of lands whose folk speak English. Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia are all states whose histories can yield many useful comparisons and contrasts with New Zealand. Also, they have sent significant numbers of people to our islands. Germany and Scandinavia are not mentioned in the index. Dutch migration is mentioned once. Mein Smith sticks to the Anglophone world even when not dealing with white people.
She takes care to put Chinese into the story, thus making good one of the major weaknesses of most general histories of New Zealand – Chinese from the 1860s to the 1960s were the third largest ethnic group in this archipelago, and tomorrow may become the third largest group once more – yet her context for Chinese New Zealand is not China but California and Victoria. Cantonese migration to the goldfields of California, she notes, was bigger than to the goldfields of New Zealand. She fails to note that Cantonese migration to the goldfields of Southeast Asia was bigger many times over than the migration to California, nor that Cantonese migration of all sorts during the last two centuries mostly has been to Southeast Asia. The Anglophone world has functioned as a relatively trivial ancillary. Anyway, doesn’t it make more sense to skip California and Victoria and instead talk only about Guangdong when summarising, for a short history, Cantonese migration to New Zealand? Mein Smith says not one word about what was going on in Guangdong.
Geography in the book is skewed generally. Japan, given its immense importance to New Zealand during the 1940s and then again from the 1970s to the present day, is slighted. Britain, on the other hand, now a good deal less important to New Zealand than either China or Japan, makes a strong showing in the last chapters of the book even though those chapters deal with the most recent period of history. Mein Smith seems to live in a world essentially the world of Britain and its former holdings. Overall, there’s a slightly colonial feeling to A Concise History of New Zealand, a feeling that important things happen not in Berlin or Moscow or Beijing or Guangzhou or Tokyo but instead in London, New York and – God help us – Melbourne.
Lastly, the best book. Webs of Empire is a tour de force in the history of ideas not only for New Zealand but the Victorian British Empire. Tony Ballantyne focuses on the whole of our colonial period which, he points out, long has been key to ‘the protracted and perhaps endless contest over the nature of our past and our national identity.’ A lot of his work has been in Indian history on one hand, and on the other hand close study of Otago and Southland, allowing him to swing sweepingly across colonies and continents while also dropping deftly down to look with nice closeness at one or two moments, one or two texts, or the streets of a small town like Gore during its dizzying climb from little ‘ferry town’ to what its boosters called ‘The Chicago of the South.’ He links our own colony and the lives lived on our archipelago with other bits of the empire, exploring ways in which links shot out sideways from colony to colony rather than simply from the metropolis at the top downwards to each colony.
An important idea in his work is a sustained critique of the nationalism at the heart of most historiography in New Zealand. ‘It seems that in this age of transnationalism, historians remain … deeply invested in the nation state.’ The very phrase ‘New Zealand,’ he points out, is ‘an imaginative abstraction.’ A notion, in other words, not a nation. Ballantyne by looking at empire is trumping nation from above, but also by looking at locality is having a go at misère. He compares and contrasts in intriguing ways. One essay, for example, looks at the Indian Mutiny alongside the New Zealand Wars. Also, he glances at the way both struggles, along with other ‘rebellions and small wars in the middle decades’ of the century were ‘a very real crisis for the empire.’
Ballantyne, like Mein Smith, does leave a hole where we might hope to find a whole hunk of Europe. The British Empire admittedly is his focus, yet it often seems far too narrow. France was the other great power most likely to take New Zealand: de Surville sailed our waters in the same year as Cook; the South Island nearly became a French colony. Germany, too, was a big part of the story. Ballantyne at times seems a little like the dry scholar Mr Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, toiling at his typology and not lifting his head to look at the dynamic core of the western intellectual world in the nineteenth century, the German-speaking lands. A glance at those who came to our colony and who, or whose descendants, wrote key texts, created key images or spoke in key voices must yield such names as Haast, Dieffenbach, Hochstetter, Hallenstein, Dittmer, Baume, Brasch, Arndt, Rosenberg, Nordmeyer, Lange – and, in history, Munz. Nor does Webs of Empire look at Argentina and Uruguay, which in many ways during the nineteenth century were the ‘other’ Australia and New Zealand.
Two of the fourteen essays are new; the others have been published in academic journals and anthologies over the last thirteen years. Altogether, the author believes, they ‘develop a distinctive approach to New Zealand’s history from the 1770s through to 1900’ and ‘offer new vantage points on the colonial past.’ Ballantyne toots his own trumpet a bit — he takes pains to devote one third of a page to telling us how insightful his work is thought by a couple of British academics — but this is forgiveable as he certainly does open up the historical debate in perceptive and lively ways.
One question he explores is of interest not only to historians and essayists but also novelists and poets. Ballantyne writes about the way written texts, together with the archiving of written texts, have shaped the way we see the story of these islands. He thinks that during the colonial period there were ‘four modes of writing’ in which the written text was linked strongly with ‘the process of colonisation.’ The first mode was when colonists wrote about what they saw ‘within the framework of an imagined imperial future.’ The second mode was ‘colonial promotion,’ or what he could have called ‘Advance Sunnydowns!’ had he reached for a copy of George Chamier’s period novel A South-sea Siren. The third mode was ‘ethnographic assessment’ of the indigenous people of a colony. The fourth mode was ‘improvement writing,’ by which he means the way colonists projected onto a colony their belief – or wish to believe – that history was a tale of constant improvement in the lives of humanity. As always when a general theory is advanced, we can pick holes easily. The idea of improvement was of course undercut by many moments of gloom, many corroding anxieties, many competing beliefs, not to mention many hysterical moral panics, during the nearly always bewildering and often frightening course of the nineteenth century.
Ballantyne with his wish to find pattern can easily overlook the obvious. ‘Few colonists could object to’ the idea of improvement, for example, he says almost casually. Yet how do we know? Who knows what most colonists were thinking or feeling? All we know, as he himself is at pains to point out, are the words written and archived by quite small groups of colonists, above all of course the elite, the educated and the middle class. Yarns and wisecracks handed down the lower working-class generations of my own mother’s cynical, unskilled and feckless family – handed down by word of mouth – saw history not as progress but as ‘getting nowhere slow.’ Cantonese colonists, for their part, may have been likely to see history in the classic Chinese way as a matter of going around in constant cycles involving decay, recovery and then once more decay.
As for style … well, unluckily Ballantyne makes the mistake widespread among academics of thinking that long words are better than short words, and loan words from Latin tongues better than homely words from the Germanic mother tongue – or rather, not so much thinking as demonstrating, given that he seldom seems to give a thought to style. One outcome is a sort of weightlessness. Wandering sentences whose thoughts float flexibly, yet dully, and often carry only a light cargo – or sometimes no cargo at all other than a woolly wad of padding.
I will end by taking that floating metaphor and extending it to the gas-filled balloon, a trope fit for ‘our’ nineteenth century about which all three of these historians have written more or less interestingly. Smith with her Concise History can be seen as a hardworking street vendor selling a bunch of motley balloons well swollen with hydrogen, which gives them a fair bit of lift, but she holds the strings too tight and finds herself so harassed by trying to make a living on the pavement as to have no hope of singing a song winning enough to make many of us care to buy her wares. Ballantyne by contrast with his Webs of Empire is captain of an immense and thoroughly rigged blimp, a vast vessel whose skin has been sewn ingeniously from thin slips of goldbeater’s skin and now soars high into the sky in hopes of relieving a besieged city — only he forgot to climb on board; nor is anybody else on watch inside the gondola to drop the ballast or vent the gas. Rice with his Christchurch Crimes is a few bits of ballast nobody has bothered to stow.
STEVAN ELDRED-GRIGG is a novelist, historian and essayist who recently published Bangs, a novel set in Christchurch in the second half of the 20th century. At present he is working on White Ghosts, Yellow Peril, a history of China and New Zealand from 1790 to 1950, together with a satirical novel about Palagi in contemporary Samoa. His website: www.eldred-grigg.com