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Perspective and colonial counterfactuals

datePosted on 08:55, April 14th, 2010 by Lew

It’s hardly the stuff of rigorous historico-social investigation, but Simon Schama sees much to celebrate in NZ biculturalism — particularly in comparison to our Anglo comparators:

But it’s the story of Maori and pakeha, the settlers of European origin, that – for all the pain, betrayals and suffering – still deserve to be known and celebrated as offering a different model of cultural encounter than anywhere else in the world. […] Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it’s in New Zealand.
Such stories don’t come along very often. Cherish them. Chant them. Dance them.
Upane upane, kaupane, whiti te ra! Up the ladder, up the ladder, the Sun Shines.

This is broad-brush stuff, and minimises the genuine grievance and disquiet which exists on both sides of the cultural divide — his “divided no longer” caption to a stock photo is altogether too pat. And his assessment of Paul Holmes as a “tough” and “a reproach to dozy thinking” is marginal at best. But Schama’s observation that what we have in this country is quite unlike any other postcolonial nation is exactly right. It provides a glimpse at what might have been been elsewhere, and what might have been here if the post-Treaty settlement had been undertaken in better faith.

This raises a question Pablo and I discussed in email after he wrote this post (I didn’t want to hijack the excellent discussion there): do those who hate and fear Tino Rangatiratanga and consider the Treaty a “simple nullity” really believe that the people of Aotearoa — of all colours — would be better off if the typical colonial counterfactual were true — if Hobson’s marines and settlers had simply driven the natives into the sea or exterminated them as animals? In my email to Pablo, I wrote:

I’ve often argued (as a wind-up or a devil’s advocate position) that the Māori are ungrateful whingers who don’t appreciate what an incredibly good deal they got from Hobson, and that NZ would have been better off if Europeans had just landed with boatloads of armed soldiers and done to the natives what they did in the rest of the world. Anything for a peaceful life. What’s interesting is that, even when discussing the topic with people who genuinely believe that the Treaty is a gravy train and the natives are taking the piss and actually are ungrateful, they generally balk at this suggestion. That consent [given by the colonised to the colonisers], however fraught and limited, is important to how we see ourselves. That’s one of the reasons I’m generally pretty hopeful about the bicultural future.

I expressed somewhat similar views in comments to this post of Chris Trotter’s a short time later. Neither Chris, nor the other commenter to that post (RedLogix, with whom I’ve had robust but usually cordial disagreements on this topic) responded to my comments, which I took as a sort of confirmation of my thesis.* As I say, this is the usual response to the argument I’ve made many times before — all but the most unrepentant rednecks are repelled by the view that colonialism NZ-style was worse than what might have happened if we’d undertaken it Australian-style. This indicates to me that even for those who are highly critical of it grudgingly accept that the Tino Rangatiratanga movement, Waitangi Tribunal and attendant concessions to Māori in our political and social systems are better than the counterfactual alternative of a white monoculture in the South Pacific, even if it were more peaceful. The importance of this for a bicultural future is profound.


* I don’t want to put words in Chris and RL’s mouths, though — it may be that they simply thought my remarks too ridiculous to bother engaging with. Happy to accept clarification on this point.

(Schama article via Tim Watkin at Pundit. Thanks! And as it happens, Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn has excerpted it as well.)

20 Responses to “Perspective and colonial counterfactuals”

  1. Hugh on April 14th, 2010 at 10:58

    Lew, I can appreciate the point you’re making, if I’ve understood it correctly. I feel that even if the Maori got a treatment that was lenient in terms of 19th century European colonialism as a whole, it was still short of the way you’d expect human beings to treat other beings. A Canadian friend of mine put it well when he said that, at least in the Commonwealth, indigenous New Zealanders have got, overall, a ‘better deal’ than any other indigenous people, but that it’s still basically not good enough.

    So expecting them to be ‘grateful’ is not really very defensible. Particularly when part of the rights that they were granted was the ability, at least formally and legally*, to engage with civil society and carry their grievances to those in power, since this leads to a situation where the way to show gratitude for those rights is to not exercise them. I’d actually say that fulling prosecuting those rights shows gratitude more effectively – it is, in a way, a compliment to the British legal system, that the Maori feel it is capable of hearing their case even reasonably fairly, if not fully or totally.

    However, having said all that. I think your counterfactual, Lew, doesn’t actually work. I don’t want to downplay the very real suffering that British colonialism caused – I’m well aware of the millions who died in famines caused by British colonial policies, and while the hardship and deaths caused more indirectly by British economic interference are harder to quantify, I think we can all agree they’re probably equally numerous. However, having said all that I am not aware of any point where the ‘redcoats’ created a ‘white colonial monoculture’, presumably by actively exterminating the indigenous population. You use the example of Australia – that’s not actually what happened in Australia, which I think we can agree is anything but a monoculture. (If nothing else, post-colonial immigration needs to be considered)

    And finally, if you say that colonisation can’t take place without the consent of the colonised, doesn’t that mean that the Maori leaders of the early colonial era are partly to blame for everything that followed? Or are you using ‘colonisation’ in the narrow sense of ‘arrival and settlement of people from a colonising power’, rather than the broad, post-Marxist sense with its connotations of cultural warfare, dehumanisation, etc etc? Because the idea that consent is a prerequisite is valid in both cases, but has quite different implications.

    *Obviously there were major practical considerations to attaining these rights, but I don’t think it diminishes to say that, even at what is probably the nadir of collective rights for Maori, the 1870s-1930s era, they had more formal citizenship-related rights than their Australian or Canadian counterparts.

  2. Chris Trotter on April 14th, 2010 at 11:18

    The reason I didn’t respond to your comment, Lew, was that I was simply pressed for time.

    Re-reading it, however, I still find myself disinclined to enter into the debate as you have framed it.

    Nowhere in the article do I say (or even suggest) that Maori should be “greatful” for their treatment. Indeed, a close reading of the text reveals nothing but sympathy for the Maori situation.

    The whole article was actually about the way 20th and 21st Century Pakeha have responded to their nation’s history. Using a series of counterfactuals to illustrate the folly of anachronistic thinking.

    Judging by your comments, Lew, I just don’t think you’re mentally wired for this sort of historical argument.

    For a really excellent response to my article, written by someone who really “gets” history, I’d refer you to Scott Hamilton’s posting at “Reading the Maps”

  3. Pablo on April 14th, 2010 at 13:08

    Chris: Lew invites you to debate and you respond with an ad hominum. Nice.

    I see Lew’s point in a larger comparative context. If we take the history of European colonisation beyond the British, so as to include Spanish, French, Belgian Portuguese, German, Dutch or Russian colonial endeavours, then the treatment of Maori stands in marked relief. Moreover, Anglo Saxon territorial expansion in the US and Canada came directly at the expense of those who were there already. US colonialism and territorial annexation in places like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guam, or the Philippines was also not the most benign of ventures, even if some of the injustices committed by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt were eventually recognised, if not rectified.

    It is this contrast that marks the Maori/Pakeha colonial experiment as distinct. Moreover, Lew touched on the bottom line of that experiment–the issue of consent–which was more often than not honoured in the breach by all of the colonial masters. That, to me, is why the Treaty and the history of Maori/Pakeha relations are unique instances of what might be called the “foundational compromise” whereby the foundations of a multiethnic national state were agreed upon. But then again my comparative historical read could be wrong because I simply am not wired correctly.

  4. Lew on April 14th, 2010 at 13:50


    However, having said all that I am not aware of any point where the ‘redcoats’ created a ‘white colonial monoculture’, presumably by actively exterminating the indigenous population. You use the example of Australia – that’s not actually what happened in Australia, which I think we can agree is anything but a monoculture. (If nothing else, post-colonial immigration needs to be considered)

    I would still cite Australia (especially Tasmania) — and some regions of North America. I chose the term “white colonial monoculture” to include the wider European settler populations, as opposed to indigenes, although I’m very much aware of the diversity within “Pākehā”. My own family, though comparatively recent settlers, is equal measures Scottish, Irish, Dutch and Belgian — not a known drop of English, a matter which was the source of considerable cultural friction for all of those groups except perhaps the Scots.

    Post-colonial immigration (in the case of Australia and North America particularly) from Southern and Eastern Europe was a later phenomenon, and notwithstanding the fact that colonialism is an ongoing process, I’m referring more to the initial goals of settlement than the long-term eventuality. Australia is not now a monoculture — but in its initial settlement it very much was, and most of that by design.

    And finally, if you say that colonisation can’t take place without the consent of the colonised, doesn’t that mean that the Maori leaders of the early colonial era are partly to blame for everything that followed?

    Oh, I don’t mean at all that colonisation can’t take place without the consent of the colonised — in almost all cases that’s exactly what happened: colonisation was undertaken by coercive force of one form or another. What marks the NZ case out is that the colonisers (represented by Hobson) gained indigenous consent for their settlement (via the Treaty). My point was that this does not excuse their abuses and disregard for that consent — and it could be argued that, by their own standards, made those abuses worse since it’s one thing to slaughter and disposess the natives because you genuinely think them subhuman, and another thing altogether to do so having admitted in private and in public that they are equals in principle and documented that recognition by way of a Treaty.

    That being said, I believe a share of blame, although I dislike that term, for the post-Treaty ructions must fall on Māori, who agreed to the Treaty’s provisions apparently without understanding them fully and without sufficient resources and safeguards to enforce its provisions — relying on “tuku rangatiratanga” (~= noblesse oblige) rather than hard and enforceable guarantees. In some cases individual rangatira also sought to use the Treaty or its provisions to their own cynical advantage. Still, they can hardly be criticised too harshly for these things, given their circumstance and the extent to which the settlers exploited the agreement. Moreover, I think it is clear that Māori understand that they have to bear responsibility for how things have turned out — that it’s a genuine partnership and there are errors and poor faith on both sides, while that realisation has come but lately to the settler consciousness (and in some cases, not at all).


  5. Lew on April 14th, 2010 at 14:53


    I’m not really surprised at your disinclination — it’s a highly critical framing, and potentially an offensive one. But I choose it deliberately because I think it is justified.

    If you criticise the state of things as they are and justify the nastier episodes and outcomes of NZ history by recourse to a consideration of how it might been given one counterfactual (more hostile colonisation by another colonial power) then consideration of other counterfactuals is fair enough as well, is it not? If you accept that the path taken by Hobson in treating with the natives rather than extirpating them was better in principle and in outcome than the alternative of simply slaughtering and disenfranchising them without a second thought, then it casts a shadow on protestations against the “anomalies” of history to which you object. And if anyone here in the 21st Century wishes to make the case that things would have been better if the pesky natives had just been slaughtered — then I suppose they’re welcome to try and argue that (though I’m not suggesting that’s your view).

    I disagree that your article is sympathetic to Māori, except in that patronising sense of saying, “poor bastards had it coming even though we went easy on them”. You seem to accept the premise that treating with them was superior to slaughtering them, but by the same token believe that refusing to honour the agreement and slaughtering them later on a range of pretexts was superior to honouring the treaty.

    Your use of the phrase “why the long faces” suggests that we should just be happy that all’s well that has ended well, when it patently is neither ended nor well. It minimises the grievance, another instance of the “insensitive and hypersensitive” theme I’ve written about previously with respect to these matters.

    You raise the spectre of a more rapacious colonial power having its way with Aotearoa had not the British Crown done the honourable thing, suggesting that the abusive shotgun marriage which resulted was the best deal going. I agree that it was, if those were the only options: but I dispute that those were the only options.

    Read in the context of your existing body of work on this topic, the theme that acquiescence to (rather than assimilation and subjugation, or at the very least management of) the natives is a limp-wristed modern PC liberal conceit without historical validity and suggestive of cultural and national treason shines through most clearly. This is hardly “sympathy”, and is in fact an ongoing aspect of the colonial project. There is a deep incongruence bewteen this position and the principle of treating with another people as equals, and so I ask: how do you reconcile this? Does that view not more readily accord with the idea that they should have been cleared from the land like so much scrub, making way for the progress of civilisation? The suggestion is not so much that you can’t, as a struggle to see how you can.

    I’m not really much concerned if you think this reading of your article shows I’m not ‘mentally wired’ for this; I could substitute ‘culturally’ and say the same about you, but we’ve been down that road. No need. I read Scott’s blog avidly but don’t consider his argument an exact substitute for mine (although his is much more powerful and comprehensive, it doesn’t quite cover the same ground). I’m not a historian, and don’t harbour ambitions to be one. But this isn’t just a historical debate; it’s an important political and cultural topic as well. How one rationalises the past indicates one’s view of the future. So the critique is made in good faith, whether you think those aspects are relevant or not.


  6. Chris Trotter on April 14th, 2010 at 15:12

    A silly and oddly gratuitous comment, Pablo.

    I was not arguing ad hominem against Lew, merely pointing out that his approach to these matters is fundamentally at odds with my own. “Mentally wired” is not, and certainly was not, intended to be read as “mentally deficient”.

    Our disagreement arises from our seeing the world through very different lenses. And that is why I feel disinclined to respond. Not because no response is possible, but simply because it would make not the slightest difference.

    Lew and I hold different ideological currencies, mine purchases nothing (or very little) in his world, and his suffers the same fate in mine.

    Fortunately, the visitors to “Kiwipolitico” and “Bowalley Road” can travel freely between both blogs, and with any luck draw something useful from each.

  7. Ag on April 14th, 2010 at 17:26

    The idea that human agency was responsible for the broad outline of race relations in NZ is probably wrong in my view.

    I reckon that the overwhelming reason that relations between Maori and Europeans ended up running comparatively smoothly when compared to, say, Australia, is that the NZ Maori and Europeans were culturally very similar, and so Maori people found it easier to deal with and adapt to the European presence.

    If that sounds strange to you, then consider what is the fundamental work of Western Literature, Homer’s Iliad. Now you pick up a copy of the Iliad and as you are reading it, try to pretend that the characters are Maoris instead of Greeks. Here I am talking about the object culture in the Iliad (although not the poem itself, which is a critical view of that culture). You’ll find that it is surprisingly easy to do throughout most of the text (Odysseus is particularly obvious, but so are the others).

    Now try rereading the Iliad and imagining that Agamemnon and company are Chinese, or Incans, or Sioux, or Australian Aboriginals. It just doesn’t work.

    No wonder Europeans and Maoris found each other pretty easy to deal with.

  8. Pablo on April 14th, 2010 at 18:13

    Neither silly or gratuitous Chris. I read your initial comment as rude, and the fact that you had to clarify your intent pretty much supports that read.

    Ironically, my views of colonialism are closer to the comparative historical view than the culturalist view. So my disagreement with you, once again, is about your tone rather than the content of your opinion (at least on this matter).

    Ag: That is a cool insight. Thanks.

  9. Chris Trotter on April 14th, 2010 at 22:41

    Curious logic, Pablo. You unjustly accuse someone of something they did not do, and then, when they defend themselves, cite their defence as proof of your original accusation.

    Kafka would be proud.

  10. Hugh on April 15th, 2010 at 10:31

    Ag: I don’t really think your example works.

    Firstly, I’d disagree that the Iliad is ‘the fundamental work of western literature’, but let’s assume you’re right. In fact, let’s further assume you’re right and agree that there is some fundamental cultural similarity between Maori and Europeans.

    If that were the case would we not expect to see markedly less harsh colonisation when Europeans went to the Middle East, a culture which has a long interaction with and subsequent similarities with, Western Europe, than when they went to the Americas, which were basically utterly isolated from Europe?

    (For that matter, wouldn’t many cultures other than Maori be able to similarly appreciate the Iliad in the way you say Maori did?)

    Lew: You see, I’d go further. No colonisation has ever been imposed purely by force, and when New Zealanders claim that this happened elsewhere, or even was an option, we’re generally committing the error of dichotomising the local experience with some generalised ‘everywhere else’. Even in Australia, probably the case par excellence of hostility between the indigenous population and the settlers, the indigenous Australians could be argued to have given some form of consent, in withdrawing from settlements rather than actively resisting them. And of course there were many acts of individual assistance and consent – which may seem insignificant on the wider scale, but I think a pattern of such individual acts is at least as significant as any ‘official’ action on the part of larger indigenous political bodies.

    I recently read a book on the Spanish empire by Thomas Hugh, ‘Rivers of Gold’. His thesis was that at every point the Spanish Empire relied on not just the consent but the active cooperation of its subjects – that it was effectively a shared project between imperialists and those subject to imperialism. I think this thesis could very easily be extended to empires in general.

  11. Ag on April 15th, 2010 at 11:48

    Firstly, I’d disagree that the Iliad is ‘the fundamental work of western literature’.

    What would you pick? The Bible won’t work, as Western Culture was already formed before Christianity was established as the state religion of Rome.

    If that were the case would we not expect to see markedly less harsh colonisation when Europeans went to the Middle East, a culture which has a long interaction with and subsequent similarities with, Western Europe, than when they went to the Americas, which were basically utterly isolated from Europe?

    I think you are making too much of it. There are of course other factors such as distance involved.

    What I am trying to get at is an indigenous neolithic people’s shock at being confronted with an expansionist European civilization (which is different from your case). Australian Aboriginals were simply incapable of dealing with it. FIrst Nations were similarly incapable of quick adaptation. So were the Aztec and Inca peoples. All of them were rolled and marginalized very quickly. The common thread in these cases is that the indigenous were simply bewildered by the Europeans. They literally couldn’t understand what was happening.

    That never happened to the Maori, who were very quick (astonishingly quick in my opinion) to adapt to the colonists and their new technologies. The Maori were never bewildered and helpless. The Maori immediately saw the Europeans as people whom they could exploit for their own purposes, and trade rapidly blossomed. Intermarriage was common and Maori were early players of the political game (Maori have always been a political force in New Zealand).

  12. Hugh on April 15th, 2010 at 12:54

    I would say that, to the extent that ‘Western Culture’ is a useful analytical term – which is a fairly sharply limited extent – it has no fundamental work.

    I think you’re still underestimating the adaptivity of colonised peoples to colonialist technologies, strategies, economics etc. For instance, the Mexicali peoples (or ‘Aztecs’ to give them their commonly used, but incorrect, name) actually engaged very deeply and consistently with the Spanish the moment Cortez showed up – their reaction was definitely not one of shocked incomprehension.

  13. Pablo on April 15th, 2010 at 13:39


    With regard to the Spanish consquest, you would do well to read more than Hugh’s revisionist interpretation. After all, one book does not make for a full historical review. The pattern of colonisation was different in what is now Central America when compared with South America (and the Caribbean), owing to both the nature of the original conquistador leaders (Pizarro was more brutal than Cortez) and the nature of the societies they encountered. The Aztecs were a divided empire that overlapped territory with the remnants of Mayan and Toltec cultures. Thus a divide-and-conquer strategy initially worked for Cortez as he wound his way through the Isthmus (although it worked better in the more temperate and open spaces in places like Mexico than it did in the jungles of what is now Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). The Incas were a united empire than spanned the Andes from Colombia to Central Chile by virtue of superior military force and strong social networks (the Amara, Auracano and Mapuche tribes that populated what is now Bolivia and Chile were able to establish alliances with the Incas and therefore retained a significant measure of cultural-linguistic sovereignty until the Spaniards arrived). Pizzaro’s approach was to use deceit and force to impose the Crown’s will. He was ruthlessly successful.

    Moreover, the first pattern of colonial settlement, largely based on force, was different than the second pattern that followed, which did allow for some accomodation once the indigenous majority were subjugated. The US conquest of the West is instructive in this regard, but the Spaniards followed this approach as well.

    Within 100 years of Spanish settlement the Incan population was reduced by 60 percent, in large part decimated by European diseases (as happened to the Aztecs and Maori), but with a significant portion of the male population put to death by Crown orders (they either had to convert to catholicism or die, and they chose the latter or fought until that happened). That left a majority of women and children as the source of purported “cooperation” with the Spanish “colonos” (Iberian born) and “ladinos” (first and second generation whites).

    Thus, your idea that there was much more cooperation between the Spaniards and indigenous peoples is contentious at best. To say nothing of the fact that you make the very basic mistake of confusing “acquiescence” with “consent” (concepts that have been elaborated upon by myself and others in the context of several previous KP posts).

    Moreover, even if and when there was active consent given, that came from a minority of the subjugated populations, not the majority. If we recall that all invaders and colonisers have some local sympathizers and opportunists to aid in their imperialist projects, the idea that such cooperation constitutes majority acceptance of the occupier’s world view is, again, contentious at least. That some local cooperation occurred in various colonial experiences is undoubtably true, but that does not disguise the underlying coercion that was the basis of indigenous subjugation. As a parallel, just think of Vichy France.

    I shall refrain from discussing the Portugese colonisation experience in what is now Brazil, which was very different from either form of Spanish conquest (I presume that you realise that there was Portuguese colonisation in South America), or the African experience, with which I am less versed.

    Let me just state that I am skeptical of the view that these colonial conquest experiences were largely cooperative or benign (which is why I believe that the Maori/Pakeha colonisation experience exhibits fundamental differences). To put things in comparative historical perspective in one phrase: can you say “slave trade?”

  14. Ag on April 15th, 2010 at 13:58

    I would say that, to the extent that ‘Western Culture’ is a useful analytical term – which is a fairly sharply limited extent – it has no fundamental work.


    I’m calling you out. ;)

  15. Hugh on April 15th, 2010 at 13:59

    Pablo, you’re assuming a few things there. Firstly, you seem to think I’m arguing that the fact that colonisation/imperialism requires consent legitimises it. That’s not the case at all. To say that some groups of indigenous people may share responsibility doesn’t diminish the colonist’s responsibility. In fact, I would argue that saying consent is irrelevant, in a weird way, legitimises colonisation – it tells us that the power of the colonists and imperialists was overwhelming (it wasn’t) and that the only thing that could have prevented colonialism was their moral rectitude (eg, white virtue will save the world). After all, if consent is unecessary, resistance is pointless.

    So with that in mind I think your example – of divided societies whose divisions were exploited to defeat and govern them – proves my point, that some level of consent is necessary for colonisation. It’s actually these examples that I was holding in mind (I’m pretty familiar with the history of the Spanich colonisation of the Americas. To a lesser extent with the Portuguese colonisation, although I do know a fair bit about Portuguese Africa, since you seem interested in the extent of my knowledge here) It’s true, the consent neededn’t be total, or even the norm, but that’s never what I was saying in the first place.

    The point about ‘consent’ and ‘acquiescence’ being different is an interesting one, and I agree that a resigned determination not to test the limits of hegemony is not the same as consent. But while accomodation to colonial role often requires this acquiescence, and it’s often withdrawal of acquiescence that actually ends it, I don’t think one could describe what Cortez met in Mexico as ‘acquiescence’. People actively accepted that Cortez was a better alternative than rule from Teohuitacan.

    I’d also respectfully submit that a parallel between Vichy France and anything that happened in Spanish America is likely to be, ah, loose.

    I’d say that the slave trade is actually an excellent example of what I’m talking about, since it was at times wholly dependent on indigenous African factotums to enslave people in the first place.

  16. Hugh on April 15th, 2010 at 14:03

    Ag, I’d love to talk to you about it, but it’d be a derail. Hit me up at hughteg (at) for the full rant.

  17. Lew on April 15th, 2010 at 14:14

    I haven’t yet read the rest of this thread, but the extent to which “Western Culture” is a useful analytical term sounds like a discussion best had out in the open, to me (particularly since a former job title of mine was “Teacher of English and Western Culture”, which I found endlessly funny.)

    Should I set it up as a guest post, or does one of you want to do so?


  18. Ag on April 15th, 2010 at 16:18

    Ag, I’d love to talk to you about it, but it’d be a derail. Hit me up at hughteg (at) for the full rant.

    Do a guest post here instead. I suck at keeping up with email debates.

  19. Hugh on April 15th, 2010 at 16:27

    I don’t really think I’m up to the task of doing a guest post, so the issue might simply need to rest until somebody else wants to pick it up.

  20. […] of savages found here by the noble white man of 1840. I asked Chris a while ago whether he thought that NZ would have been better off if Europeans had just landed with boatloads of armed soldiers and…. He responded by saying I was “not mentally wired for this sort of historical […]

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