Monday, March 30, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“AT THE MARGIN OF EMPIRE” by Jennifer Ashton (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)
By one of those odd coincidences, this is the second time in the last month that I have found myself reviewing a book about a forceful Scotsman who had an impact on New Zealand in the nineteenth century. Three weeks ago, it was Matthew Wright’s Man of Secrets (look it up on the index at right), his account of the controversial Donald McLean. This week, it is a book about a rather more obscure figure.
Jennifer Ashton’s At the Margin of Empire (which began life as her doctoral thesis) is subtitled John Webster and the Hokianga, 1841-1900. Unlike Donald McLean, a sometime government minister who features in every history of nineteenth century New Zealand, John Webster (1818-1912) has been at best the type of person who has received a few fleeting mentions when historians deal with early Pakeha days on the Hokianga and in the Bay of Islands. Webster never achieved national political status (though he went through a phase of desiring it) and was never a national figure. After youthful adventures, he spent most of his working life as a timber merchant on the Hokianga before retiring to Auckland in old age and dying there.
So why should this obscure figure merit a whole thesis – or book?
Basically because Jennifer Ashton wants to use him to argue a case.
The book opens with a vignette of the author seeing the impressive, but now run-down, house John Webster had built in Opononi. At once a theme is suggested, as Ashton asserts:
“Webster’s life on the Hokianga over the more than 60 years he lived there was characterised by commercial success, but it was also shaped by accommodation and compromise. The economic influence that he enjoyed and the political power that he wanted to claim were both circumscribed by the daily realities of the area in which he lived. Unlike settlers in some other parts of New Zealand, Webster found that Maori were a constant presence in his life right up until the time he finally left to live in Auckland, making him a useful window through which to view shifting relationships and social boundaries between Maori and Pakeha in Hokianga during the second half of the nineteenth century.” (p.2)
Throughout Webster’s long sojourn there, the Hokianga (divided between Nga Puhi and Te Rarawa hapu) was an area where Maori remained numerically dominant for longer than in other areas of Pakeha settlement, and hence more capable of showing the persistence of cultural interdependence.
Clearly this is not going to be a book about an heroic Pakeha pioneer, but about the interaction of Maori and Pakeha, and the patterns of interracial patronage and co-dependency. Once upon a time, says Ashton, the likes of Webster would have been presented as an “old identity” who formed the New Zealand we now enjoy. But since the 1980s especially, such Pakeha settlers are more likely to be seen in a negative light as people who inflated their own importance (especially when they wrote their own memoirs, as Webster did) and underestimated the agency of the people they were colonising. Therefore, this biography presents Webster not as an heroic figure, but as part of the social and economic force that changed the relationship and power bases between the races:
“Webster was one of the untold thousands of Britons who went into the world as the foot soldiers of empire, determined to spread its influence across the face of the earth. His personal experience can illuminate the ways that the empire shaped individuals, but also how those individuals and the empire itself, were in turn reshaped by their experiences at the far corners of the world. As an imperial man, Webster confidently viewed himself as someone who ought to enjoy ascendancy over the indigenous peoples with whom his travels brought him into contact. The counter to this was an identity formed in Hokianga which served the economic and social demands of his day-to-day dealings with Maori, and which undermined his expectations of superiority. The interplay and tension between these two identities are central to the portrayal of Webster offered here, and are used to trace the shifting relationships between Maori and Pakeha.” (p.8)
Thus the thesis that the rest of the book argues. Webster, far from illustrating early Pakeha overlordship of Maori, really represents a world of endless compromise and accommodation to Maori customs and imperatives.
At the Margin of Empire presents this argument so emphatically (and repetitively) that we realise we are dealing with a case study rather than a true biography. Jennifer Ashton is quite frank about this in her introduction. She tells us she has deliberately left out many aspects of the man’s life (especially domestic and family matters) so that she can concentrate on Webster as an exemplar of a certain sort of race relations.
This is evident in all the book’s eight chapters.
John Webster was born in Montrose in Scotland in 1818 to a comfortable merchant family (Chapter One, “The Making of an Imperial Man”). Educated in mercantile Glasgow, he was trained to the view that imperial expansion offered personal opportunities for betterment. Aged 20, he emigrated to Sydney in 1838. As he recorded in the diaries he edited much later, he undertook a trek in Australia in which he and his party skirmished with, and killed, Aborigines. His account is interpreted by Jennifer Ashton as evidence of a shift in his thinking, from seeing Aborigines has a harmless element of the landscape to seeing them as a force to be subdued. She sees him as bringing this attitude towards indigenous peoples to New Zealand (Chapter Two - “Hokianga and the River Trade) when he arrived here 1841, joining some of his brothers and establishing himself in the timber trade. But in 1841 there were a mere 104 Pakeha as compared with 3,600 Maori on the Hokianga. Hence, slowly and with some false starts, Webster had to learn how dependent he was on Maori goodwill and on a rangatira’s willingness to gain prestige through Pakeha enterprise. Webster formed a client-patron relationship with the prosperous George Russell. It is clear from his diary entries that he was involved in back-breaking work in the early phases of his involvement in the timber trade (a dawn-to-late night schedule is laid out at p.34). It is also clear that he looked down on Maori traditional customs as in his reaction (p.42) to hahunga ceremonies, where the bones of a recently-deceased chief were reinterred.
How does the author situate Webster in relation to the Maori world?
Webster could speak te reo and formed strong and sometimes equitable working relationships with many Maori, such as Papahurihia (Te Atua Wera) who had founded a synchronistic sect and acted as Hone Heke’s tohunga. But Webster was in no way a “Pakeha-Maori” like those of a slightly earlier generation who were absorbed into Maori tribes and survived there at the rangatira’s pleasure. He saw clear boundaries between his European and their Maori culture, even if his trading activities often put him on a footing of affability with Maori. Ashton gives an account of Webster’s role in a potentially violent dispute between two rival Maori parties who arrived at his house, seeking satisfaction for goods one group had stolen from the other. In the way Webster dealt with this situation, Ashton claims to see him treating Maori quite differently from the way he treated Aborigines in Australia – that is, knowing he had to negotiate tactfully.
Webster joined the forces of Tamati Waka Nene, fighting against (his fellow Nga Pui) Hone Heke (Chapter Three - “Among the Queen’s People: The Northern War 1845-46”). Pakeha like Webster interpreted Nene as being for the Queen and protecting the idea of a British colony as opposed to a reversion to traditional tribal rule. For Nene, however, it was a matter of protecting his mana and of hoping to revert to the situation in which land was not pre-empted to the Crown but was the iwi’s to dispose of. Webster was directly involved in the fighting when Heke’s men attacked one of Nene’s positions. Says Ashton of the “battle” of Te Ahuahu: “His role as one of Nene’s fighters took him into the midst of one of the most significant and desperate engagements of the war, and arguably the only battle in which Heke and Kawiti were clearly defeated” (p.70). But Ashton insists that Webster and a few other Pkeha acted as mere foot soldiers for Nene, on the understanding that Nene was acting in settler interests. She once again presents the Pakeha settlers as being the ones taking commands, not dominating the scene.
For three years (Chapter Four - “A Voyage Through the Pacific, 1848-1851”) there was a break in Webster’s New Zealand sojourn when he was involved in an unsuccessful business enterprise with a commercial voyage to California. As he voyaged around the islands of the Pacific, Ashton accuses him of cultural misperception: “He became part of the anthropological attempt to classify the peoples of the world and measure their perceived degree of ‘civilisation’ against Northern Europeans, placing them within the developing Eurocentric, intellectual context of the time” (p.84). She is most reproving of Webster’s part in a retribution attack on a village in Guadalcanal, where the crew of the ship Webster was on destroyed a village, killed some villagers and ripped up their plantation. Some of the ship’s crew had been attacked and “Webster [without considering local taboos] took the suddenness and ferocity of the attack as signs of barbarity” [p.89]. Further, “Without a clear understanding of the environment in which he was operating, and genuinely frightened by the events that had taken place, he ended up telling a one-sided story of technologically superior Europeans ultimately meting out justice to savages. This was similar to what had taken place in Australia, where threat had turned to violence and where distance and lack of interaction meant that Aboriginals had remained shadowy figures” (p.90]. Webster had grandiose imperial schemes for thr colonisation and exploitation of Pacific Islands, but they all came to nothing and he returned to New Zealand permanently.
He still had some extraneous activities. He was involved in having the distinguished artist Angas help him produce a version of his sketches from nature, which he got published. This allowed him to have an audience with Queen Victoria when he was visiting England. But (Chapter Five, “Hokianga’s Timber Baron, 1855-1870”) by his mid-thirties he was settling down in Hokianga. He married his prosperous patron George Russell’s daughter Emily. He now had some Maori relations by marriage. Yet he deliberately chose not to become immersed in Maori society and was careful to have all his many children educated in the English style. By the 1860s, in early middle age, he had become dominant in Hokianga’s timber trade. He ran his own small fleet of timber-carrying ships between the Hokianga and Sydney. Ashton undercuts any sense of achievement in this, however, by remarking: “He may have wanted to distinguish himself socially from those Maori who provided the bulk of his labour force during this period, but by deriving his wealth from the timber trade, he virtually guaranteed that such separation was in some ways unachievable” (p.110). For example, Webster had to resign himself to the fact that the cutting and dragging of timber came to a virtual standstill during the tribal planting season. Webster was one of those who sought the individualisation of Maori land titles, to ensure that it was easier to break up tribal ownership of land and also to break his own dependence on Maori patrons. He was also one of those who were happy to see Maori go into debt in order to make them more ready to sell land. And yet his relationship with old Nene still remained one of dependence.
Like those of his sometime friend and colleague Frederick Maning, Webster’s attitudes during the 1860s wars (Chapter Six - “War and Politics in the 1860s”) were that the country would only be at peace if Maori submitted to Pakeha government. However, in the history of an intertribal set-to in the north, in which both Webster and Maning both claimed to have major roles as conciliators and peacemakers, Ashton deduces that the decisive factor in settling the dispute was the mana of some rangatira. She remarks: “Instead of relying on men such as Webster, political collaboration between Maori and Pakeha, and particularly between Maori and the Crown, was a matter of negotiation, as Maori chose on some occasions to engage with Pakeha institutions and officials, while the Crown admitted the limits of its powers on others.” (p.150)
Webster managed to sell his timber business in the mid-1870s when he believed Hokianga’s timber resources are running out (Chapter Seven - “Hokianga Old and New, 1870-1890”). By now, the older Maori figures upon whom he had once relied are dying out. At this stage, Pakeha were the great majority of New Zealand’s population, but the Hokianga still had a Maori majority and therefore did not have the type of European-dominant “civilization” which Webster craved. Webster settled in his house (or mansion) in Opononi, and travelled much (Chapter Eight - “Unquiet Retirement 1880s-1900”). In recounting the trader’s old age, Jennifer Ashton still insists on Maori agency in Hokianga affairs. In this northern region, the “Dog Tax” was greatly resented by Maori, especially in 1898. Once again, when there was a real possibility of armed conflict between and the constabulary and those Maori who protested at the tax. An account furnished by Webster (and endorsed by the popular historian James Cowan) presented Webster as the active and wise peacemaker who prevented a pitched battle. But Ashton’s view is that there was no fighting because of the fortuitous arrival of the prestigious MP (“MHR”) Hone Heke.
To the very end, then, Ashton gives us a man whose ideas of imperial and Pakeha dominance were always trumped by the reality of Maori power and numbers. Webster was able to extend his (and Pakeha) influence only by commerce in which he had endlessly to negotiate and compromise with his Maori neighbours. Before her brief re-capping epilogue, Jennifer Ashton concludes: “The incremental extension of empire through commerce, rather than tall tales of courage in the face of savagery and a collection of interesting artefacts stored in an imperial showcase, was Webster’s real legacy.” (p.204)
So this is how John Webster stood “at the margin of empire” – as somebody who had to relinquish his youthful heroic self-image and admit to his frequent dependence on a non-European people.
Does Ashton make her case? I think she does, but I am still troubled that a man is reduced to a case like this. It may have been necessary for her argument, but I have the abiding impression that much of the man has been lost in the (largely reproving) case.