I mentioned in a post a little while back that I studied history largely to have something to write about. It’s a great subject. And popular. Just the other day somebody told me that British settlers invaded New Zealand in the nineteenth century and ate Maori.
Of course, there’s a small problem with the popular reduction of history to that particular post-colonial trope. It’s bollocks.
Those without historical training too often apply our values to past societies – fuelling fantasies such as the invasion-and-dining orgy theory. The fact is that real societies are complex, multi-layered and can’t be jammed into post-fact value boxes. If we judge past actions by principles that didn’t exist then, all we do is create a fresh injustice.
The real question is whether what happened was in line with the values of that time. Often it wasn’t. Britain launched what Niall Ferguson has called ‘white plague’ during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the late nineteenth century that began again, driven by economic rivalry and a conflation of territory with status. The Ndebele (Matabele) learned the hard way in 1893 when they lost 1500 warriors to four British machine guns. A one-sided British victory lampooned at the time by Hilaire Belloc in his The Modern Traveller, more recently in Blackadder Goes Forth.
But the generation of 1820-50 were different. They were still patronising, still suffused with their self-appointed notion of racial superiority. But they weren’t particularly hard-nosed. Britain had been at war for most of the previous century; industrial change threatened to destabilise society. The Church Missionary Society was in the ascendant – eager to help local peoples and save them from destruction at the hands of British culture. The Treasury was eager to avoid paying for Empire. In New Zealand that led to the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 – in which Maori were invited to accept British sovereignty. Why? The main reason was to give authorities in Sydney legal clout to reign in the privateers roaming the New Zealand coasts. As an aside, the new governor, William Hobson, was also instructed to stop Maori engaging in kai tangata. People food. Cannibalism.
So was colonialism bad? It didn’t take long for the British to forget the ideals with which they had started. By 1862 the Governor, George Grey, had engineered a full-scale and unprovoked British assault into the Waikato, despite being in treaty with Maori. There were some terrible injustices done by the British.
But not, history tells us, at every turn.