Colonisation continues to damage our world at large, but should it be a matter of “guilt” and “shame”?
The new collection of essays Aftermaths: Colonialism, Violence and Memory in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific is an incomplete catalogue of the horrors inflicted on Pacific indigenous peoples by colonisation since the late 18th century. Incomplete because the colonisers in question are always British and there are no French or Spanish sails on the horizon. Incomplete because therefore several sites of colonisation, such as Tahiti and West Papua, are not included.
It reflects the origins of the 21 essays, drawn from their authors’ contributions to the symposium “Afterlives: Intimacy, Violence and Colonialism” held at Te Papa in November 2019. With one exception, all essayists hold academic posts at Australian or New Zealand universities and, it seems, more female than male academics are drawn to topics involving historical injustice and abuse towards indigenes. Of the 23 writers or co-writers, only three are men. This may or may not reflect a shift away in academia from the study of the grand political and economic power narratives of history towards an examination of their social and human consequences.
The essay chapters are divided into five thematic parts and the writers were clearly given length maxima. This ensured focus and clarity and makes for accessibility and readability. This has created a collection not just for fellow scholars, but also for aware general readers and for people further down the academic food chain in high schools who must grapple with the requirements of the new history curriculum. At the close of chapter 1, “War stories our teachers never told us”, co-authors Joanna Kidman and Vincent O’Malley write, “Generations of New Zealanders learned nothing of the bloody events at Ōrākau and elsewhere during the nineteenth-century New Zealand Wars … Those omissions and silences foreclosed the possibility of a more vibrant and informed national conversation about our difficult past.” Māori should be empowered to tell their own version of history so that we can be brought “together in diverse ways as we forge new public intimacies around the difficult, violent, unresolved past.” There should be more truth-telling, more recognition by the descendants of colonialists of what their ancestors inflicted on the indigenous. And then…?
“Guilt” and “shame” are words used by some of the writers and these reminded me of a conversation I had with Berliners working in the cultural field on a literary summer cruise over the Havelmeer back in 2003. There was controversy over the Holocaust memorial at the centre of Berlin that was under construction at the time. I asked a young cultural worker whether or not she felt any guilt about what had happened in Germany’s past. She was very quick to put me right, telling me that she felt no guilt because she had done nothing wrong, nor had her family. But she was ashamed of what her country had done. That message needs to be repeated here. No-one alive today is liable for guilt; but we should feel at least some degree of shame for what happened to indigenous peoples in the past.
I use the qualifier “some” because not all colonisers intended or inflicted harm; not all agreed with the policies, politics and actions of those who visited the kind of egregious violence visited upon indigenes described in some of these essays. Many tried to bring about justice at the time or were also victims. New Zealanders (and Australians) must know about and face up to what happened and attempt forms of reparation. There is much talk of “decolonisation” as a solution; but in a world dominated by the continuous, unstoppable forces of international corporate colonisation this seems Utopian.
“Part I: Confronting Historical Silences” includes essays dealing with violent events that have been hidden, or forgotten, beneath the history told by the victors. This includes colonial family stories rediscovered, and has produced what is, perhaps, the most effective exploration of tangled threads in our history in Anaru Eketone’s essay, “Wētere Te Rerenga and the Murder of Rev. John Whitely.” Missionary Whiteley was shot as he arrived at Pukearohe military outpost in 1869 just after the members of a raiding party led by Waikato chief Wētere had killed five soldiers, the wife of one and her three young children, including a three month-old baby. “Even the dog was killed.” It was reported that Whiteley had been shot five times, finally at close range by Wētere. He had been “supposedly murdered by the man he had baptised and given the new ‘Christian’ name Hone Wētere, John Wesley, the name of the founder of Methodism.” In missionary histories, Whiteley became forever a martyr to the cause.
This book springs from the uncritical belief that colonisation was a bad thing, that the colonised always suffered and, somehow, that it should not have happened
Anaru Eketone is a descendant of Wētere Te Rerenga and has access to his family’s stories of what happened, and has explored other accounts of the event. There is no denying the attack on the outpost and the killings; but it appears that two of Wētere’s men were “Pākehā Māori”, British army deserters who feared Whiteley’s identification of them, and one of them fired (most of) the murdering shots. Whiteley was also no pure Christian martyr. He had become actively anti-Māori, reporting to the government on the movement of “rebel forces” and wrote to the London Times “calling for resources to defeat Māori and put an end to their love of the land which he referred to as ‘idolatry’.”
In his essay, Eketone presents the kind of nuanced, even-handed account of a violent event in our colonial history that sets a benchmark of how we should approach its telling, how we can arrive at a fuller understanding of our past, and achieve a reconciliation with it.
The second part, “Women and Colonial Violence”, includes essays which uncover forgotten stories of women’s experiences on the colonial frontier. The standout here is co-editor Lyndall Ryan’s story of farmer’s wife Margaret Young’s attempt in 1848’s outback Queensland to achieve justice for the gratuitous murder of her Aboriginal servant and only female friend, Maimie. This is the first account in this book of the utter savagery of settler farmers in hunting down Aborigines who, in some way, had transgressed their land ownership and “rights.”
Despite the efforts of Young and a police magistrate, the stockmen murderers were never successfully prosecuted. A code of silence was maintained among them, a kind of widespread Aussie frontier omertà. Ryan concludes, nevertheless, that the “friendship between the two women was always inherently unequal: the close bond Margaret formed with Maimie was not one she would have chosen” but was more a circumstance of her isolation. “For Maimie, friendship with Margaret was fundamentally undermined by the brutal loss of her land and way of life to white settlers who were determined to preserve their fragile hold on their valuable acquisition, regardless of the cost to Aboriginal life.”
Essays in “Part III: Intimate Violence” focus on the harm inflicted on young people which continues to be felt to this day and includes distressing stories of the sexual abuse of “Stolen Generations” girls in homes and of Indian orphans in Fiji’s Methodist orphanages.
The most unusual essay here examines the career of Australian film star Errol Flynn, the handsome, swashbuckling hero of Hollywood costume dramas of the 1930s and 1940s whose sexual abuse of underage girls dated from the late 1920s, when he started out as a 19-year-old adventurer in New Guinea. Flynn was eventually put on trial for statutory rape in Hollywood. His acquittal, writes essayist Patricia O’Brien, demonstrated the “deep, persistent and violent colonial ideas about sex, race and white masculinity” that Flynn took to Hollywood and which became pervasive there. “The sexual abuse of underage girls and sexual aggression are foremost among the troubling brand of masculinity Flynn embodied and helped to entrench in Hollywood.” And not fully countered until the trial of Harvey Weinstein.
Here is where I should reveal some “skin in the game,” in the sense that I can bear witness to colonial behaviours that prevailed in New Guinea within recent historical memory. Flynn died in 1959 and Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975. I spent a month in “Flynn country” in 1963 where I heard stories, apocryphal or not, about Flynn’s behaviour. I also encountered the deepset racism in the attitudes of Australian colonial administrators.
I had been engaged by the Bishop Museum, Honolulu to collect animals for ectoparasite research. But, as a green 23-year-old, I knew little about actually catching them and depended on a much older local indigenous man, Bukum, as my guide and instructor. Yet I was designated as his “masta” and when he had to obtain a firearms licence renewal, I had to accompany him to the district officer and vouch for him. To this officer, Bukum was “boy” and he spoke to him as if he was a deeply inferior being just in from the jungle. When I began to bristle, one hostile look from the officer told me that if I objected, there would be no licence; and probably my work would be compromised, too. My sense of disgust lingers to this day.
There is another disgust that lingers, from a Flynn-like episode I had experienced the year before in West Papua. I had been climbing and exploring in the highlands and, in the course of this, discovered a US plane wreck from World War II. The US Army commissioned me to lead a small team to the crash site to recover the human remains. A lieutenant was in charge and, at a camp on the return trek, some local women came with food for the men in our carrier party. The lieutenant had already been boasting about his sexual exploits back in Hawaii and he asked me, as having some knowledge of the language, to obtain some women for sex. I turned him down with scarcely concealed revulsion and he taunted me for not having “the balls” for it. And punished me in an oblique way at the end. But that’s another story.
The fourth part of the book, “Critiquing Colonialism” includes four differing essays on contemporary views of colonising behaviour and action. Jane Lydon recounts the appalling story of slavery, sexual exploitation and penal violence inflicted on Aboriginal people on Western Australia’s north-western frontier in the late 19th century, and the scorn and abuse directed at those who publicly questioned the behaviour of both settlers and authorities.“In a pattern common across colonial frontiers, violent conflict between Aboriginal and white men was entwined with the white settlers’ exploitation of black women […] these legacies continue today: sexual violence in Australia is deeply grounded in the historical toleration of the systemic rape and sexual abuse of Indigenous women.”
Grace Moore’s essays tells of Kate Atkinson’s mid-19th century writings that deplored the felling of Australia’s forests, the violence against the landscape, and her visionary understanding of what their loss would mean to both land and climate. Of particular local interest is Lachy Paterson’s forgotten story of Kīngitanga newspapers published just before the invasion of the Waikato. Accounts of Haiti’s overthrow of French rule and the establishment of an independent state showed Māori the “possibility of a functioning anticolonial state.” The prospect of this was soon submerged by the New Zealand Wars.
Essays in the final part of the book, “Creative Resistance,” look at artistic approaches to remembering and memorialising the past. The celebrated work of Aboriginal artist Dover Thomas is surveyed, especially his creative rendering of the Bedford Downs massacres. Modern Australian art projects by Judy Watson form a “compelling, if confronting, form of truth-telling and remapping of Country and history because it stages the intimate relationship between art and history, beauty and violence, documentary and interpretive modes, and colonial and Indigenous sources.”
Tony Ballantyne tells of the response by Michel Tuffery and Nick Tūpara to the 250th anniversary commemorations of Cook’s arrival at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa in October 1769 and its first fatality, when Cook’s men shot Te Maro, a high-ranking kaitiaki of Ngāti Rākai. In the “Cook Town” of Gisborne, Te Maro is now memorialised by Tūpara’s superb sculpture on Kaiti Hill which “offers another way of thinking about people and place, and place and history; it makes Te Maro literally visible to the whole community, reasserts his mana, and frames his story within traditional Māori knowledge.”
The book’s collection concludes with an examination of Rudall Hayward’s film Rewi’s Last Stand (1940), and how its story of the siege and battle of Ōrākau has influenced the teaching of the New Zealand Wars. “The colonial view presented in the film sanitised historical violence in favour of romance and nation-building.” Later critiques have tended to “reproduce Eurocentric notions of film authorship and historical authority” and it should now be viewed within the context of Māori experience.
The two Australian editors of Aftermaths, Lyndall Ryan and Camille Nurka (the third is Otago University’s Angela Wanhalla) conclude that “The key elements of settler colonialism – the violence of dispossession and the code of silence that prevailed in the aftermath, and the dishonourable process of assimilation that attempted to make Indigenous people disappear into settler society – have now been exposed across the Pacific rim, enabling Indigenous claims of sovereignty to grow in strength.”
The emphasis in this statement does reflect their Australian standpoint; but they admit that the process of acknowledgment and reparation is “much further advanced in New Zealand with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, which has investigated historical injustices since 1985, and the introduction of a compulsory history curriculum.” Many of these essays will prove valuable resources for this. The editors might also have added that although Australia has yet to give First Nations a constitutional voice, New Zealand has a Māori governor-general, more than 20 Māori MPs, several Māori cabinet ministers, separate Māori agencies and a Treaty settlement process that, over the past 25 years, has gone a long way towards addressing loss of land and mana.
Revelation and truth-telling may lead to reconciliation. Understanding and accepting our history in an unsanitised and demythologised form is essential to our progress as a society. But this book, and others, spring from the uncritical belief that colonisation was a bad thing, that the colonised always suffered and, somehow, that it should not have happened. Yet colonisation – the movement of peoples driven by dwindling resources, overpopulation, greed and the pursuit of power – has been a human event from the beginning. This is not to excuse its consequences on the subjugated but to suggest that, in the teaching of history, this wider context needs to be laid out and debated.
The truth-telling of our history also needs to be approached within the context of the colonisation and its evils that continue to damage our world at large. I left West Papua on the day before Indonesia took complete control of the country in April 1963. The violence, slavery and vast damage to the environment that followed this continues, and it is a genuine national shame that successive New Zealand (and Australian) governments continue to do nothing to support the claims of West Papua’s peoples for freedom and independence. That story should be included in our international history curriculum.
Aftermaths: Colonialism, Violence and Memory in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific edited by Angela Wanhalla, Lyndall Ryan and Camille Nurka (Otago University Press, $50) is available in bookshops nationwide.
https://www.newsroom.co.nz/book-of-the-week-colonise-first-traumatise-later Book of the Week: Evil Colonisation, Good Colonisation