Monday, May 16, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“ENCIRCLED LANDS: TE UREWERA 1820-1921” by Judith Binney (first published 2009)

A recent news release tells me that a new category has been added to New Zealand’s annual book awards. It is The Judith Binney Best First Book Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction, named after one of the country’s best historians, the late Dame Judith Binney (1940-2011). Binney first became well-known for Legacy of Guilt (1968), her book about the deeply flawed missionary Thomas Kendall, which was developed from her MA thesis. Later there came many books and articles, on the general theme of Maori-Pakeha relations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but largely seen from the Maori perspective as much as a Pakeha historian could reconstruct it. Binney’s books were always closely detailed works of original research. I took the opportunity to read many of them while undertaking a doctorate in history, even if the field in which Binney worked was far removed from my own chosen field.
In many respects it was her last book, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820-1921, that I found most powerful. I know that when it first appeared, a few historians (such as Matthew Wright) gently suggested that Binney had produced a rather partisan account, attuned to today’s priorities. Even so, I was completely absorbed by it. I had the privilege of reviewing this book for the New Zealand Listener (23 January 2010) when it first came out six years ago. I reproduce below that review as it originally appeared. Bear in mind that it was written for a general, and not a specialist, audience.

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An opinionated non-historian once told me: “You can learn more history from novels than from history books.” He actually seemed to believe it. It’s a comforting thought for people who want to avoid the hard scholarly slog that the real study of history entails. But as a means of understanding the past, it’s a non-starter. History always confronts us with rival interpretations of causes and events, and the more real evidence there is available, the more complex that history will be. History is also ongoing. Neat novelistic beginnings, middles and endings have little to do with it. And yet, underlying the most complex history can be some remarkably straightforward principles.
This duality is well illustrated in Judith Binney’s magnificent and capacious Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820-1921. The product of more than ten years research, Encircled Lands originated as an overview report Binney prepared for the Waitangi Tribunal. It’s the work of a scholar who has been engaged with Maori history and culture for over four decades.
In one sense, Encircled Lands is a general history of the Tuhoe people’s relationship with their land, and negotiation of outside forces, in a century of European colonisation. But it also argues a case. Through careful consideration of traditional land tenure, “first contact” with various Pakeha, the impact of the 19th-century wars and an apparent settlement with the Liberal Government, Binney makes a strong case for Te Rohe Potae o Te Urewera, which she defines as “the sole legally recognised self-governing tribal enclave in the country”. The Government’s systematic undermining of this tribal authority, from the 1890s to the 1920s, is interpreted persuasively as a major cultural and social disaster.
And the remarkably straightforward principle that Binney’s painstaking history reveals? Simply the fact that a colonial government will try any trick in the book when it wants to extend its authority and thinks an indigenous people can’t answer back. For the relatively uninformed Pakeha reader (like this reviewer), it is positively embarrassing to encounter the chronicle of force, fraud and theft as governments nibbled away at Te Urewera. Bad enough were the antics of the 1860s and 1870s, where the whole Tuhoe people were held responsible for the actions of Te Kooti (at that time leading raids on various townships in the central North Island) and suffered land confiscation as a result. But possibly worse was the later show of legality, when courts endorsed land-grabbing by bare-faced con men like Harry Burt.
Since this is not fiction, Encircled Lands does not have many unambiguous heroes and villains. Even when Binney strongly disapproves of people’s actions, she sets them in their historical context and fairly compares their actions with credible alternatives. That said, some of her judgments may surprise.
On the whole, Apirana Ngata and James Carroll come off badly: “modernisers” who pushed Liberal land policy in the interests of assimilation and hastened the loss of Tuhoe land and authority. Yet Binney’s portrait of Rua Kenana is equally nuanced. His brand of prophecy may have been a tonic to a people who had suffered famine and loss, but his authority was always contested by Tuhoe traditionalists, who had a greater respect for whakapapa lines. Surprisingly, too, Rua favoured private sales of land to outsiders (bypassing depressed government prices) to support his ideal community.
Real history sweeps away popular misconceptions of the past. Binney has no time for what she calls the “heart of darkness” myth that presents the Tuhoe as ethereal “children of the mist”, divorced from, and unaware of, the modern world. Her view is that the Tuhoe were fully aware of what they were up against, even if they lacked the legal machinery to fight it.
What makes Encircled Lands pure gold is that Binney’s voice is never shrill. When she needs to, she can craft brilliant one-liners (“Petitions are like prayers: seldom answered.”). She can turn on understatement to devastating effect. (“It seems reasonable to suggest that the government did not wish to settle for peace terms with Tuhoe’s leaders.”) But stylistic flash appears only after the copious cold hard evidence has been sorted – true to the book’s forensic origins.
A warning, though. Across more than 600 pages of text (and a wealth of fascinating archival photos that deserve a review of their own), this scrupulous accumulation of fact does not always make for easy reading. I admit to going back a number of times to check the whakapapa tables, just to make sure I was reading about the right person, and having to re-read paragraphs of close legal reasoning. To put it another way, this is a work of sustained scholarship and not a popular paraphrase.
It’s no contradiction to say that this is also the type of book – like Binney’s Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki or Philip Temple’s A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields – that has the power to make us radically reassess our past.

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