Monday, September 16, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“MATTERS OF THE HEART – A History of Interracial Marriage in New Zealand” by Angela Wanhalla (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)

            I recall that when I was a teenager, I was reading an American article on social problems and I came across a word I had never met before. The word was “miscegenation”. It sounded like an unpleasant disease. Curious, I looked it up, and I discovered that it merely meant marriage between people of different races. “Why should this be a problem?” I remember thinking; and then “Why have Americans invented such a nasty name for it?

            I could turn this into a smug little image of how good race relations were in New Zealand in my teenage days. After all, a Pakeha kid like me didn’t think there was anything odd or wrong about people of different races marrying, and I hadn’t been brought up to think there was anything wrong with it. I sat in primary and secondary school classes with Pakeha kids, Maori kids, “Islanders”, and kids of various mixed parentages, including a bunch of Chinese-Maori kids.

            On the other hand, there’s a little shadow hanging over this idyll. I do recall some grown-ups (not of my family, I hasten to add) saying what a pity it was that Miss XYZ had gone and married a Maori. I also remember that, while we thought the term “half-breed” (as used in Western movies) was a bit crude, we didn’t think twice about using the term “half-caste”, which is now regarded as demeaning and patronising. To put it another way, while there was clearly no apartheid in New Zealand and no legal barriers to interracial marriage, there were pockets of prejudice and some thoughtless racist assumptions.

Angela Wanhalla’s Matters of the Heart sets out to tell the whole story of interracial marriage in New Zealand, from the earliest years of Pakeha settlement to the early 1970s, when the institution of marriage began to be challenged as the chief form of cohabitation by adults. The research for the book was made possible by a Marsden Grant and, according to the Acknowledgements, was mainly conducted in 2008-09. While “Affairs of the Heart” is the more common English-language idiom, I’m sure Wanhalla consciously avoided it in part because this is a book about marriage – not affairs! So Matters of the Heart it is.

Wanhalla’s preface argues that despite a common myth, interracial marriages have historically been as stable as any others. She previews some of the historical themes her book will develop. Unlike parts of the USA and elsewhere, interracial marriage was never illegal in New Zealand, but there were periods when it was seen at best as a way of taming and assimilating Maori to Pakeha norms, or even as a way of gaining control of Maori land. And there were indeed periods of social disapproval.

She then sets to work (Chapter 1) with a survey of interracial unions in the pre-colonisation period up to the end of the 1830s. This was the high tide of whalers and traders and “Pakeha-Maori” before the establishment of British authority. Wanhalla acknowledges the existence of a sex trade servicing sailors and transient Pakeha men, but says that even in the most disorderly times “temporary marriage” and formalised monogamy were the norm between Maori women and Pakeha men. In chronicling this, she is determined to defend the validity, sincerity and durability of most interracial unions at this time. She notes the variety of motives that led to such unions:

Historians have debated the extent to which marriages forged between Maori and traders or whalers in the pre-1840 decades were simply strategic alliances, simple commercial transactions devoid of love or affection. There were many reasons why male newcomers welcomed marriages, with most couples coming together for a combination of love, comfort, politics and pragmatic need. While visiting northern settlements in the early 1830s, Edward Markham concluded that arrangements between interracial couples there were entered into for pragmatic reasons to secure the safety of men so they were ‘not robbed or molested’, in addition to offering domestic comfort and a cure for loneliness. Sentiment was also part of the equation, for Maori women sometimes made their own choices and would ‘suffer incredible persecution from the men they live with.’ ” (p.11)

A few pages later, she takes issue with the frequent interpretation that, should Pakeha men leave their Maori women spouses, it was always a case of callous abandonment:

            “Abandonment is a problematic interpretation because it does not leave much room for the possibility that women exercised choice when it came to ending a relationship, nor does it recognise the full array of marriage customs applied by Maori, which included managing marital breakdown.” (p.17)

When she turns to the period of early missionary influence (Chapter 2), Wanhalla depicts missionaries wishing to regularise interracial marriage by a Christian ceremony. This was part of their concern to “tame” whalers, traders and other possibly lawless Pakeha while at the same time “civilising” Maori women. There were controversies among missionaries over whether they should conduct weddings between Pakeha and unbaptised Maori. There was also anxiety over the need for missionaries themselves to be married, so they would not be tempted to seek irregular sexual comforts among Maori women. The Church Missionary Society (Anglican) and Wesleyan Missionary Society (Methodist) both had sexual scandals of their own (involving the likes of Thomas Kendall, William Yate, William White and William Colenso) and this made their mana suffer among Maori as exemplars of desirable morality. As Wanhalla notes:

These transgressors of the sexual and moral codes of Christian marriage undermined missionary claims about the excesses of ‘renegade’ settlers in pre-1840 New Zealand, and challenged the ideal of the mission as a model of morality and sexual propriety. We must not forget that they transgressed Maori codes of conjugality and morality, too, and were subjected to Maori censure.” (p.42)

Moving into the mid-19th century (Chapter 3) Wanhalla reiterates that while interracial marriage was never legally forbidden as in “anti-miscegenation” American legislation, there was the general context of a policy of racial “amalgamation”, which was pioneered by Wakefield’s New Zealand Company and gradually became New Zealand government policy, especially under George Grey. When a male Pakeha married a female Maori, property laws said that the title of any land owned by the Maori wife would pass automatically to the Pakeha husband. Thus the extension of Pakeha title would lead to the gradual opening for Pakeha settlement of Maori-owned areas of the country.

Marriage laws were gradually amended to invalidate customary Maori marriages; and even in the 1950s, welfare assistance to Maori was tied to marital status, which had to be according to a legally-registered minister, and therefore not according to Maori custom. Many 19th century Pakeha males acquired land through marriage to Maori woman, but were anxious to secure the land claim by having the marriage witnessed European-style rather than according to Maori custom.

Oddly Chapter 3, while also touching on anxieties about the status of “half-caste” children, comes to concentrate more on issues of property related to interracial marriage than on interracial marriage itself. During one famous property dispute in Auckland in the 1850s, it was widely claimed that the government was encouraging the “concubinage’ of Maori women with Pakeha men rather than marriage. Wanhalla comments:

Interracial relationships, as practised in the second half of the nineteenth century, were in fact far different from how they were popularly portrayed. Maori women were not widely taken up as the ‘concubines’ or ‘mistresses’ of colonists. Instead, in a context in which it was easier to get married, monogamous relationships forged within legal marriage were the norm.” (pp. 66-67)

The whole of the next chapter (Chapter 4, called “Wives or Mistresses?”) elaborates on this same theme. Between Maori and Pakeha, married monogamy was the norm. In the later nineteenth century, there was a widespread perception that interracial marriages belonged to the wilder pre- and early-settler period. There were a few high-profile cases of married Pakeha men keeping a “second family” with a Maori mistress. Wanhalla notes how exceptional these arrangements were, however, with reference to her research database. Taking case studies of 1100 interracial couples between 1840 and 1910, her sample reveals that 63% of them were married and 365 in common law or customary marriage, most of which were later regularised. The idea that many Pakeha men kept a Maori mistress proves to be a fiction. An additional matter is that colonial soldiers who married Maori women often left them behind when their regiment had to move on. Wanhalla does not interpret this as desertion or wilful callousness, but shows that Pakeha soldiers with Maori wives were often forced into this action because army regulations did not allow for women’s removal expenses to be covered when a regiment changed its base of operations.

The end of the 19th century (Chapter 5) showed a more severe Pakeha attitude to interracial marriage when “assimilation” became the new catch-cry. Wanhalla does note the extent to which white men “used” interracial marriage to acquire title to Maori land, but adds:

Only detailed research into whakapapa and kinship connections of interracial families and the cases pursued by them in the Native Land Court can help unravel the degree to which white men, or their mixed-race children, were complicit in the erosion of Maori land, or can confirm the extent to which they manipulated the court system in favour of their own Maori families.” (p.101)

She also cautions that it is all too easy to harp on idea that Maori were thus beguiled out of land:

This kind of approach elides the agency and desires of Maori who may have sought some advantage from men who were well versed in the language and ritual of the land court system, as well as the practices of colonial administration and the culture of governance.” (p.101)

After the Taranaki and Waikato wars, interracial marriage was still officially encouraged, but it was seen as a means of assimilating Maori to European domestic norms:

The point is that, despite a hardening of racial attitudes, interracial marriage was still welcomed by government officials, but it had to work in aid of cultural assimilation, involving men of good standing, education and respectability who could teach their children the English language and act as models of propriety.” (p.107)


For assimilation to have an effect, it needed a ‘half-caste’ population raised in orderly households, and inculcated in English language, values and culture. It was a problem, however, when the mixed-race population generally lived amongst Maori, and was well integrated into Maori culture and life.” (p.108)

There is another glaring fact about interracial marriage between 1840 and 1900. Judging from her sample of 1110 interracial unions, Wanhalla notes that only just over 6% were Pakeha women marrying Maori men. In some detail, she considers that white women who married Maori men were popularly seen in the press and in letter columns as either morally degraded or the victims of rape; and there were plenty of lurid newspaper stories to reinforce this view.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century (Chapter 6) were the high tide of “scientific” racism, heavily tinged with eugenics. In New Zealand, this took the form of an hysterical campaign against Chinese immigrants and there were strong prejudices against Asian-Maori marriages because Maori were seen as “Aryan”. Fear of such “miscegenation” came to a head in a government enquiry in the late 1920s, chaired by Sir Apirana Ngata. This shows the extent to which Maori too bought into this form of rationalised racism. It is possible that at this point Wanhalla could have made here more of the fact that, in a way, Maori were saved from the grosser forms of Pakeha racism by the fact that Pakeha had chosen to hate Asians more.

The final chapter , “Modern Marriage and Maori Urbanisation”, brings the story up to Wanhalla’s terminus ad quem. Given that this is the 1970s, it seems odd a mere twenty pages are given to interracial marriage in New Zealand from the 1930s to the 1970s. In some respects, this last chapter is the saddest of the book. It is clear that there was a major change in Maori social life and values after the Second World War with, first, the manpowering of Maori women into urban industry during the war, and then the huge urbanisation of Maori from the late 1940s on. In this period interracial marriage became more common than it had ever been. But Wanhalla’s account reveals – via advice columns, editorials and anecdotal evidence – huge pools of resistance to the idea that this was desirable. Many opinion-makers were still ready to say that Maori and Pakeha could not live compatibly together because of differences of culture.

As a general critique of Matters of the Heart, I would say that, despite the author’s clear personal engagement with the topic, interracial marriage is seen from the “outside” – that is, as a social phenomenon, with emphases on government policy with regard to interracial marriage, and popular prejudices and attitudes thereto. But this misses the inwardness of what every marriage is – the intimate relationship of a man and a woman with all its satisfactions, happinesses, tensions and stresses. I suppose I am saying that every marriage is in some way unique. But then perhaps to have a book which dealt with the real intimacies of interracial marriage in those terms, you would have to have access to more personal testimonies than actually exist. I should also note that, despite a few nods in other directions, interracial marriage in this books means almost exclusively marriage between Maori and Pakeha, so there’s nothing on those New Zealanders I know with mixed Dutch-Indian ancestry, or others who are Croat-Samoans.

I do not wish to end this review on such a negative note, however. Wanhalla’s scholarship is formidable (over 60 pages of endnotes, bibliography and index) and she writes clearly and with as little specialist jargon as possible. There is another very attractive thing about Matters of the Heart. It is one of the best-produced large-format paperbacks I have come across in some time. Margins for the text are generously wide, so that nothing is lost down the central chasm where the pages meet. It also has five generous sections of photographs, each image being given a long and very informative caption. One of the last is the wedding photograph of Wanhalla’s parents. She is of mixed Irish, Maori, German and Manx ancestry, and brings this perspective to her scholarship.

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