The aquisitive gaze – colonialism and post-colonialism

Robert Jenkin wrote:

Can present day New Zealanders, descendants of the colonisers and the colonised,  construct a post-colonial and more bi-cultural view of  our shared history; can we assess the story of the first recorded meeting between Maori and Europeans post-colonially? One major problem is that every single contemporary text we so far have to use in doing so was written down or drawn or charted by a European.

What do I mean by post colonial history? One way of answering this is to examine how such stories have already been interpreted and then consider whether these interpretations are colonial. Here, for example, is an early 20th century sonnet by J.C. (Sir John) Squire which I was given to read at school around 1960:

There was an Indian, who had known no change,
Who strayed content along a sunlit beach
Gathering shells. He heard a sudden strange
Commingled noise: looked up; and gasped for speech.

For in the bay, where nothing was before,
Moved on the sea, by magic, huge canoes
With bellying cloths on poles, and not one oar,
And fluttering coloured signs and clambering crews.

And he, in fear, this naked man alone,
His fallen hands forgetting all their shells,
His lips gone pale, knelt low behind a stone,
And stared, and saw, and did not understand,
Columbus’s doom-burdened caravels
Slant to the shore, and all their seaman land.

I remember reading this and thinking, ‘ah, this could have been just how it was when Cook first arrived on the Endeavour’. I didn’t think ‘this could have been just how it was when Heemskerck and Zeehaen first arrived’, because I knew the names of no such ships. All I then knew, and mostly from a postage stamp, was that one Abel Tasman, a bearded dandy with a frilly ruff,  had seemingly  discovered us before our true British discoverer, Cook, had rather presumptiously named us after  some place he knew all about while I did not, and then had sailed away apparently without a backward glance, and none of his lot even bothered to come back for several centuries!

Two dominant historical narratives informed the little I then knew, the first colonial, the second nationalist. Because the nationalist narrative I grew up knowing was primarily a British one, my education focused more on Cook and Cook’s accomplishments. Because an even more pervasive narrative I grew up with was colonial, the few and brief accounts I ever saw of Tasman’s expedition to New Zealand were reluctant to engage with its  discreditable failure to exemplify the proper fatal impact of all Europeans  on all non-Europeans, who according to this narrative ought rapidly to be exploited or subsumed once they’d experienced the cultural and military superiority of Europeans.

During the 1960s our nationalist New Zealand and colonial British narratives were still ascendent and entwined. But a New Zealand nationalism inclusive of Maori and Pakeha was in the 1960s starting to emerge, and after fifty years has found a place at last for the seafaring  Netherlanders who arrived in 1642, left lines on a map, a name of theirs, and  several differing texts.

I wrote in Strangers in Mohua in 1999 that Maori success in 1642: “served a useful purpose for Maori as a whole. If they had to be colonized by Europeans, then from their point of view, the later the better.” I didn’t then say why I thought that, and nobody has ever asked me since; the reason is that I imagine 18th century ‘enlightened’ colonialism was perhaps more likely to lead to a bi-cultural or multi cultural society than was 16th or 17th century colonialism, which I suspect was even more mono-cultural and acquisitive.

Of course a different future could be hypothesized: if the Dutch had come back as traders without seeking to ‘aquire’ New Zealand as a colony, Maori might possibly have had an independent modern nation of their own. But is that very likely, given what went on elsewhere in the 127 years between 1642 and 1769? And since I am a Pakeha New  Zealander, New Zealand without Pakeha is not an idea that has much appeal for me.

I am a little bit, though not as much as I would like to be, bi-cultural. As far as I know I lack any Maori ancestors. But I see Heemskerck, Zeehaen and Endeavour as three Waka Tupuna. I also have a Pakeha niece who recently wrote an MA thesis in Te Reo. I see New Zealand as becoming more bi-cultural and less colonial.




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