Modernism and the colonisation of New Zealand

Colonisation of NZ falls within the era of modernist project(s) and also at a late stage of British imperialism, when both the techniques and justifications were well-established. This accounts for a lot of settler attitudes and actions. For example, assumptions about their own superiority and entitlements were not thought of as questionable, but as knowledge. Somewhat garbled Darwinism was rife. The English were the fittest, and therefore destined for survival, at the expense of ‘inferior’ humans and all other species. Self-appointed scientists, all over Europe and North America, pursued the study of extinction as an interesting and inevitable phenomenon.

Buller and his ilk sent thousands of the skins and skeletons of birds back to the Natural History Museums of Europe, in Buller’s case this included the shooting of the last Huia.

The retrieval and preservation in our time of endangered species like the Takahe and Chatham Island Robin would have been unthinkable and pointless to them. Fiona Farrell’s novel, Mr Allbones’ Ferrets, gives an accurate account of the study of extinction and the ignorant disturbing of natural equilibria by the introduction of rabbits, and then stoats and other mustelids. We today are very much affected by actions like those, the introduction of opossums springs to mind.

Almost all settlers believed in the inevitable extinction of the Maori people as a ‘dying race’, whether they felt a compassionate urge to ‘smooth the pillow’ or believed that it should be brought about the sooner the better, and adopted with gusto policies of invasion and scorched earth destruction of homes and crops.

For example, to speed up the transfer of land to settlers, there were previous British policies of colonization which were re-used – the creation of ‘rebels’ to justify the invasion of the Waikato was accomplished by a replication of the Suppression of Rebellion Act used in Ireland in 1799. Then the Land Court used techniques which had been used in Scotland after the Battle of Culloden to break down the role of the Chieftains in collective land management.

Individual title was issued to a few names of Rangatira which appeared on the title deeds to blocks of land. They and the people considered this to have been a naming of trustees. But as these named leaders died the court practice was to subdivide the land ownership to their direct descendents. When those who now found themselves disinherited appealed to the Court, the obligation, they discovered, was on them to prove that the original names had been those of trustees. Time and again the Court declared the names to be those of ‘beneficial owners’. In a couple of generations land sales were accelerating, in a tangled web of chicanery and deception. No wonder that it was settlers who jokingly named the Native Land Court “Te Kooti Tango Whenua” (The Court for taking Land) – see David Williams’ excellent book of that title.

Another lasting mark of Modernism among New Zealand settlers was a psychological clinging to Britain. The British Empire was the top team – they had come to set up Britain in the South Seas, and by golly they were just about doing it better! Fit, healthy and loyal they were raising and exporting wonderful food and other natural products to the Mother Country, where their best children were still being sent to be educated. In the 1950s there were still New Zealanders, often New Zealand born, who spoke of England as ‘Home’. New Zealand was one of the colonies of Britain which most resisted independence. Why would you fiddle with perfection?

Mitzi Nairn

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