Monday, July 16, 2012

Something New

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

“THE MAKING OF NEW ZEALANDERS” by Ron Palenski (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)

            At what point in the nineteenth century did transplanted English, Scots and Irish, or people from anywhere else, make the mental leap to considering themselves New Zealanders?

            This question is asked in the opening pages of Ron Palenski’s introduction to The Making of New Zealanders. It is the key question that motivated his research. Palenski, noted sports journalist and author of numerous books about New Zealand sporting achievements, undertook The Making of New Zealanders as his doctoral thesis in History at the University of Otago. It is a weighty, well-documented 382-page tome (312 pages of text; 70 pages of notes, bibliography and index).
            In answering his own question, Palenski immediately suggests what he is up against. He is taking on Keith Sinclair’s 1986 book about early Pakeha national feeling A Destiny Apart. Pakeha consciousness of a distinct national identity, argues Palenski, was being forged progressively in the late 19th century. Pace Sinclair, it did not come into existence with the Boer War or the 1905 New Zealand rugby tour of Britain or the Gallipoli campaign. Indeed the fact that these things  were seen as nation-defining events was the result, rather than the creation, of national feeling. The emergence of a sense of national identity among Pakeha was a gradual, decades-long, late nineteenth century process.

            Chapter by chapter, Palenski sets out to prove this thesis.

            In the first, he details the binding effect of communication in early New Zealand. The telegraph, then the creation of New Zealand Mean Time in 1868, then the expansion of railways and the establishment of the Union Steamship Company, all meant that New Zealand, being settled in an age of advanced technology, rapidly developed the sense of being one unified community. The country soon by-passed the stage of meaningful provincialism.

            Then (Chapter 2) there was the press. At first, says Palenski, New Zealand newspapers were very local and overtly political sheets. He details the early, pre-cable, practice of rival rags vying for priority in reporting overseas news, by raiding overseas ships for their overseas newspapers as soon as they arrived in port. But greater uniformity of news (and hence a more emphatic shared national identity) came with the formation of a New Zealand Press Association. Further, as Palenski notes only briefly, newspapers provided the foundation for a real indigenous literature as they were the only places where New Zealand poets and short story writers were regularly published.

            It was also (Chapter 3) through the press that national symbols and phrases were popularised and disseminated. Palenski says that the phrase “God’s Own Country” [whence “Godzone”] was a common New Zealand usage before Thomas Bracken included it in a poem and Richard Seddon took it up. Bracken’s national hymn “God Defend New Zealand” was set to music and already widely sung after its first performance in 1876. (At which point one critic – accurately, in my view – described it as “a dreary dirge for a national song.”) A distinctive New Zealand flag and distinctive New Zealand postage stamps were introduced and distinctive New Zealand flora and fauna were taken up as trade-marks and images by advertisers, publishers and boosters of New Zealand tourism.

            Thus far, thus incontestable. Palenski, in his first three chapters, sets out material evidence for distinct markers of New Zealand identity before the end of the nineteenth century. But this is not the same as proving a consciousness of being a New Zealander as opposed to being primarily a transplanted Briton. In some of what follows the argument becomes more contestable.

            When he opens his fourth chapter, “Was New Zealand Exceptional?”, Pakenski contends overtly with the historian Miles Fairburn’s thesis that New Zealand was not exceptional in its development when compared with other settler colonies in the 19th century. Au contraire, says Palenski, much of New Zealand’s polity was unique to New Zealand. He argues for New Zealand exceptionalism with reference to the Treaty of Waitangi; the relationship (more accommodating than in other British colonies) with the indigenous people, especially after wars of the 1860s and with the fact of Maori representation in parliament; the abolition of a federal (provincial) system, unlike federal Australia, Canada and South Africa; the standardising of national education with the 1877 Education Act; and the distinction of early women’s suffrage. In turn this leads him to consider New Zealand’s Liberal-era reputation as the “social laboratory of the world” and the familiar list of distinguished visitors who praised New Zealand in these terms. Consequently, he argues in Chapter 5, it was not only geographical location and the 1200 miles of the Tasman Sea that led New Zealand to reject federation with Australia when it was offered. By the time the offer was made, New Zealanders already knew they were a nation apart.

            Palenski then proceeds to deal with the event that Keith Sinclair saw as inaugurating Kiwi national consciousness – participation in the Boer War. For Palenski it is the “forgotten war”, never properly covered by New Zealand historians, and he emphasises the degree to which New Zealand involvement was on New Zealand’s terms, and was an offshoot of existing national consciousness. Referring to Maori involved in combat duties, he once again notes New Zealand’s distinctiveness in this area:

            Maori, as in so many aspects of New Zealand life, provided a significant point of difference from both Britain and the other settler colonies in the Boer War and an appreciation of this factor is critical to the belief that the war consolidated rather than created a national identity. While other settler colonies subjugated or tried to ignore their indigenous populations, encouraged by the belief in white Anglo-Saxon superiority, New Zealand’s was absorbed and embraced.” (Pg.204)

            In his last two chapters, Palenski enters the territory with which he is most often identified. Chapter 7 is the sport chapter, with Palenski arguing that inherited British games were approached in a distinctively New Zealand way. He makes the case for greater New Zealand egalitarianism in sportsmanship, noting among much else the absence of guides and porters in such endeavours as mountain-climbing. Finally Chapter 8 is the rugby chapter. Rugby, says Palenski, was already firmly and distinctively embedded in the New Zealand psyche before the almost-invincible New Zealand side toured Britain in 1905. He spends much time refuting (successfully) the myth that the name “All Blacks” was invented in England during the 1905 tour. It was already in common use in the 1890s. This he takes as an example of game’s adoption and acclimatisation to New Zealand.

            And here, before a final recapitulation, his argument ends.

            You will note that in typically poker-faced fashion. I have simply summarised Palenski’s book before making any critical comments, as I do want to make it clear that it covers much ground, is extensively researched and is full of interest.

            I sympathise with Palenski when I detect an undercurrent of impatience with postmodernist theory. I mentally applaud when he rejects a “Said-like standpoint” and the term “cultural appropriation” in discussing the way 19th century Pakeha entrepreneurs used Maori motifs in their advertising and trade-marks (pp.108-109)

            At the same time, I do have to take issue with elements of the style. I assume the original academic thesis was adapted for publication. But some parts seem insufficiently purged of the academic style. For example Chapter 5, on possible federation, begins with what looks like a “literature review” of what has been written on this topic. It takes too long considering how Australia got federated before it swings back to the supposedly focal issue of New Zealand. Chapter 2 becomes a list of the names of writers and newspapers without really evaluating the national spirit that Palenski says they expressed.

            More important than matters of style, however, there is much that I take issue with in the overall argument.

            I am surprised that Palenski makes so little use of nineteenth century demographics. Had he done so, he would have found that the proportion of Scots and Irish in New Zealand was far higher than the proportion of those ethnicities (vis-√†-vis the English) in Britain itself. In effect, he would have found that if ever New Zealand was a “South Britain”, it was racially a very different Britain than the original one. [Even leaving aside the whole question of the indigenous Maori]. And this could have powerfully reinforced his argument for a distinctive nineteenth century New Zealand Pakeha identity.

            On the other hand, he would, in considering the New Zealand Scots and Irish, have found how much recent historians (see Brad Patterson; see Lydon Fraser et al) have emphasised their retention of a distinct ethnic identity, set apart from what they saw as the Anglo stream. Yea verily, even unto the second generation, New Zealand Scots and Irish still saw themselves primarily as transplanted Scots and Irish. Too often, Palenski assumes that there was one standard norm of Pakeha and ignores this major factor of Pakeha ethnic and cultural (and religious) diversity. Did Dunedin Scots Presbyterians have the same national consciousness as Southland Irish Catholics or Canterbury English Anglicans?

            More generally, I think that Palenski is too certain he has proven that there was a “finished” national consciousness in the late nineteenth when it was (and still is, and ever will be in such an immigrant nation) an ill-defined consciousness very much in the making. Well into the 20th century, there were still New Zealand-born people who referred to Britain as “Home” and even now, with a British monarch as head of state, the project of forging a distinct national identity is incomplete. Too often, Palenski turns aside from, or glides swiftly over, clear evidence that Pakeha in the late nineteenth century saw themselves as transplanted Britons first.

            Yes, New Zealand adopted a distinctive flag (Chapter 3). But surely  - as Palenski fails to note - a flag incorporating the Union Jack is still a flag proclaiming dependence on British authority. Yes, New Zealand may have been the “social laboratory of the world” (Chapter 4) but even Palenski has to note that our social legislation wasn’t as distinctive as all that. Much of it derived from Australian models and the very fact that New Zealand took such pride in foreign approval shows how much Pakeha were unsure of their own status. They still required reassurance from others that they were doing the right thing. Yes, Palenski may be right in his contention that “war is one way in which national identity is put on display to the rest of the world”. But the chapter on the Boer War really tells me that New Zealand still wanted (and got) a pat on the head from the imperial power for its participation - just as it did at Gallipoli. If this is national consciousness, it is the national consciousness of a dependent child. When he speaks of rugby and other sports, Palenski does (to be fair) note the irony of a national identity being built on English “public” school games. But he passes quickly over the implications this has for a continuing dual identity – at least as much British as New Zealand. Likewise, he does mention, but rushes past, Jamie Belich’s “recolonisation” thesis – which says that in many respects New Zealand’s growing sense of nationhood was retarded by the greater economic dependence on Britain which began with refrigeration and the export of meat and dairy products.

            None of this is to deny the real and demonstrable evidence for New Zealand national consciousness that Palenski presents. It is simply to suggest that much of it can be contextualised differently. For every “proof” of Kiwi consciousness in the late nineteenth century, one could find in the record an equal “proof” of persistent identification with Britain among Kiwis. To get all rhetorical, I want to ask if New Zealanders were “made” in the late nineteenth century – as in the title The Making of New Zealanders -  then why were our writers and poets in the 1930s so aggressive about (as they saw it) for the first time creating a truly national literature? How come Michael Joseph Savage could still say in 1939  Where Britain goes we go”? Why was Bill Pearson still having anxious hysterics about the nature of New Zealanders in his 1951 essay Fretful Sleepers? Why wasn’t New Zealand history taught in our universities until the 1960s and why did Keith Sinclair and W.H.Oliver, in the late 1950s, see themselves as having to present the case for writing nationalist history at all? There was, well past the middle of the twentieth century, much uncertainty about what is meant to be a New Zealander anyway.

            Etcetera. Etcetera.

            My point is that national identity is a fluid thing and you really can’t fix down one time (late nineteenth century or much later) when most New Zealanders were comfortable with being New Zealanders. Palenski’s thesis is only as valid as the Sinclair one that it specifically contests. Perhaps it would be better re-titled The Beginning of the Making of New Zealanders.

            I do not want to finish on this sour note, however, as I have to acknowledge that this book is filled with interesting insights and with factual information of which I had hitherto been ignorant. To give some examples, I wasn’t aware that different parts of New Zealand operated in different time zones until 1868, or that telephones were being used in New Zealand within three years of Alexander Graham Bell’s taking out his patents in 1876 (Chapter 1).Nor did I know that British coinage remained New Zealand’s legal tender until the 1930s (Chapter 3). It was a shock to discover how close New Zealand came to being another convict colony like New South Wales (Chapter 4).On the other hand, it was heartening to find that at least one reason for rejecting federation with Australia was a fear that Maori would be disenfranchised in a Greater Australia (Chapter 5).

            I may disagree with the overall argument of this thesis, but it is a solid work of scholarship and a big contribution to a debate on national consciousness that is far from closed.

Interesting but otherwise irrelevant footnote – Palenski’s Introduction gives a clear account of Lord Macaulay’s famous image of a future “visitor from New Zealand” sketching the ruins of London from the broken arch of London Bridge. As Palenski rightly notes, it became a clich√© for English editorialists in the nineteenth century to quote it whenever New Zealand was mentioned. In Ian St George’s edition of William Colenso’s letters-to-the-press Give Your Thoughts Life [look it up on the blog index at right], there is reproduced a letter Colenso wrote in March 1864 (pp.175-176) in which he points out that Macaulay probably unconsciously plagiarised the idea of a “traveller from New Zealand” gazing on the remnants of London or Paris from a French book, the preface to an account of La Billardiere’s voyage in search of the missing explorer La Perouse. These perfidious Albionites are always nicking good ideas from the French! (Just compare the original Eiffel Tower with the Blackpool Tower, mon ami.)


  1. The Oxford historian Robert Service asserts that a sense of nationalism stems from three things: territory, custom and traditions. Palenski's thesis has, in my view, missed the mark on all three.

    Dr Neil Clayton
    History New Zealand

  2. You may be right, Neil, but my own view is something like that of Chou En-Lai (I think) when he was asked if he could explain the real outcome of the French Revolution; "It's too soon to tell." I think national feeling and nationalism in New Zealand are still too provisional to be discussed as things other than potential.