The Land that History Forgot

by NORMAN SIMMS November 5, 2015

At the end of my last essay-or satirical fantasy-I said that New Zealand tended to be a place that dropped out of history. This is meant in the sense that it often attempts to stand apart from international politics and carries on as though it were a very large farm subject only to the vagaries of the elements-from floods and droughts, earthquakes and cyclones-and not to acts of terrorism, clumsy boats loaded with desperate refugees, and participation in military coalitions.  It is not strictly speaking true, of course, but many kiwis would like it to be. And many tourists, seeking relief from troubles back home, would like to believe that when their planes land at Auckland International Airport they have arrived in Peter Jackson's version of Tolkien's Middle Earth. It is as though they were peering out from their air-conditioned buses at the time that history forgot.

Paradise on Earth:

Every once in a while, too, some journalist pays a visit to New Zealand, spends a few days or weeks here, and then writes up what he or she believes is an insightful piece, either to tout the place as a vacation paradise or to highlight what they deem to be the wonderful, safe, environmentally-friendly nation in the South Pacific. Tourists, the reporter writes, love the warm and welcoming atmosphere, the laid-back and super-helpful locals, the apparent lack of crime and tension. Visitors, it may be added, many from Japan and China these days, come to see the gorgeous and spectacular scenery where Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were filmed.  People gawk at the snow-capped volcanoes, the awesome Southern Alps, the crystal-clear lakes, the untouched forests.... This is a Fantasy Island they wish to believe in.

These earnest scribes speak of a wonderful island nation, as though there were only one, when modern New Zealand consists of many islands, not just the South and North Islands (which once were called then Middle and North Island, as Stewart island was then known as the South Island), but off to the east where the international date line curves around to include them within the national time zone are the Chatham Islands. Further into the Southern Ocean, heading towards Antarctica are Auckland Island and other smaller morsels of land; these today are sanctuaries for seals, penguins and endangered species of birds. A hundred years ago they housed emergency shipping stations, and near the end of the nineteenth century some attempt was made to establish towns and farms, but this proved unviable. Yet given global warming and the change to sea levels, they become in the not too distant future more important than they are now. North of New Zealand, there are the Kermadecs, recently designated as a national park for sea life, while again giving New Zealand vast amounts of territory for its territorial waters. In addition, along the coast are hundreds of small islands, some inhabited, some of them set aside as animal refuges others merely there to be seen at a distance. It took many years for the powers that be in London or Sydney or Wellington to decide what they would all be called, under whose jurisdiction they were to be governed, and of what use they could be in the world order.  A coaling station for the British navy, a large sheep farm for the Empire, a dumping ground for unwanted younger sons of the aristocracy...or a refuge from modernity.

Separation and Autonomy

In the beginning of the beginning, what is now the South Island was attached to the Australian continent, then broke away as Gondwana Land and eventually floated to its present location.  It was then joined-not attached-to what is now the North Island, as the land emerged from the seas in a series of volcanic events. These two main islands are close, but quite different in geological terms. When the early Maori sailed south and east from their ancestral homeland-which they called Hawaiki (not to be confused with Hawai'I, as it may have been Rarotonga or the Cook Islands), they named the larger fragment of an ancient continent Punamu after the jade-stone found there, Te Ika a Maui (Maui's Hook) after the puckish-demigod who fished up the land out of the primeval oceans. This first human colonization may have begun in the 8th or 9th century of the Common Era and continued into the 13th century, and it was the latest in a series of immigrations occasioned by both natural events (such as tsunami, warming of the polar ice-packs and inundation of coastal South East Asia) and human history (the pressure of massive population shifts south from India and China into the Pacific Basin, especially what are today Indo-China, the Philippines and Indonesia, and then out further into the South Pacific Islands).  That last great surge of refugees from natural disasters and political invasions happened just about the time that Europeans began their incursions into the region.  Wanderlust, over-population, scientific curiosity, commercial enterprise, there were many reasons.

In other words, the indigenous people of Aotearoa (the Land of the Long White Cloud, as New Zealand was called) may have been still pioneering their settlement for only a few hundred years when Abel Tasman and Captain Cook arrived.  Maori had to learn to adjust a more temperate climate, with cold winters, snowstorms and ice. They changed their tropical culture to one that could build wooden houses, wave warm feather and dog-skin clothing, and create a food supply without any indigenous mammals. They also began to explore and settle an environment much larger than they had known, high volcanic mountains, long rivers, fjords, glaciers, and other features never seen before, as well as new plants, fish, reptiles and flightless birds.

History is not Evolution 

These Polynesian migrants from the tropical north had to change who and what they were in order to survive in a new land. They were not stuck in the Stone Age, as some people would have it; and, though they had no writing system, they used their carvings and structures as mnemonic aids to enhance their collective national memories which they sang and danced. As soon as Europeans began to appear in the late eighteenth century as whalers, sailors and missionaries, they too interacted with older permanent inhabitants, again everyone adjusting to new circumstances, learning and modifying what they could see, sometimes incorrectly.  By the early nineteenth century, given that most colonists from the Old World came as domestic servants and field labourers, while the "natives" had become Christians, the literacy rate among Maori exceeded that of the Europeans, and they started newspapers, created a king movement, appointed members of a "native" parliament, and traded their farming produce to the gold fields of Australia and the shipping ports of South America.

Yet all was not smooth and peaceful.  The availability of modern weapons caused some tribes to pay back old grudges (utu) and dominate others.  The wildness of whalers and unruly sailors also brought on imperial armies to try and control the land and protect the European settlements.  There was fighting and treaties were signed; and so the "Little Britain of the South" took shape, not only against many prevailing ideas of forced suppression of the indigenous people (as happened in Australia), or the use of indentured and slave labour (as in Africa). Not all the tribes were defeated by the English forces.  Large tracts of territory were not conquered and the immigrant population remained small enough not to overwhelm the local people.  Eventually, new diseases spread over the land, a new religion, and an awareness of the world beyond the islands.  There would be no paradise on earth, but there would also not be the hell generated by colonialism and imperial conquest in most other "new worlds" and the local culture would not disappear under a soul-crushing inflow of immigrants.  Not everyone was happy, but there was no genocide.

Why? With the social troubles caused by rapid industrialization and uncontrolled urbanization back in England in their mind, the settlers, such as the church-based Wakefield Company, sought to develop a rural-based farming colony, with the advent of refrigerated shipping in the late nineteenth century allowing for the expansion of sheep and cattle raising.  These idealists were as determined to avoid those kinds of problems back "home" as they were not to become another penal colony like Australia built by convicts and greedy landlords. Not everything panned out as beautifully as they hoped, but nonetheless until very recently, New Zealand had few urban centres and wealth was generated through sales of sheep-meat, milk products, and timber exports.  Instead of being a province run by a Lieutenant-Governor of the New South Wales Colony in Australia, the new country became a separate dominion, with its own Governor General, eventually an elective parliament. New Zealand is similar to Australia in many but not in all ways, and the New Zealand national flag became the model for the one chosen by the Dominion across the Tasman Sea. In the British Commonwealth, New Zealand remains "last, loneliest and most loyal." 

And so, just this very week, when Australia's new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has decided to remove the titles Knight and Dame from his country's honours awards, New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, declared that those same titles would remain valid.  Not only that, but on the same day that the victorious All Blacks returned from the World Rugby Finals in England, headlines tell us: Charles Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall have arrived in New Zealand at the start of a 12-day tour.

Knowing and Not Knowing of What they Speak

Thus, without knowing either geography or history, most visiting reporters misconstrue the place they are talking about.  New Zealand becomes an apolitical, almost non-historical, dream-construction of a land they wish would exist, from which they can delete all the normal difficulties of modern life, and overlook its own special characteristics and circumstances. 

At the end of the nineteenth century, it was known as the Social Laboratory of the world because of its experiments in social laws, such as women's votes, pensions, treatment of the native people, etc.  In some ways, it thought it could lead the western democracies because the development of refrigerated shipping of meat made it a major supplier to the British Empire, its distance as a remote set of islands gave it security from foreign invasions, and its low population kept it free from most modern urban problems.  That is its paradox: to lead and to be separate.    

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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