Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Past
March 23, 2016
Review By Kenton Storey
A student in search of a thesis topic or a scholar seeking to understand the shape of historical writing in New Zealand over the past fifty years need go no further. In this collection of essays, Tony Ballantyne explores the history of nineteenth century New Zealand and at the same time critically analyses the attendant historiography. Readers familiar with Ballantyne’s work will recognise how the title, Webs of Empire, encapsulates its theoretical manifesto. In 2002 in Orientalism and Race, Ballantyne reimagined the British Empire as a spider web of inter-linking networks with both horizontal connections between colonies and vertical connections between colonies and metropole, a structure that facilitated the movement and exchange of both cultural capital and actual goods/commodities. This model challenged the metaphor of the empire as a spoked wheel “where Britain was simply linked to each colony through a discrete and self-contained relationship” (16-17). Similarly, in Webs of Empire Ballantyne interrogates the effects of New Zealand’s embedded position within the structure of empire, thereby tracking how the circulation of capital, personnel, and ideas energised colonial development.
Webs of Empire can also be read as an extended riposte against the theme of biculturalism in contemporary New Zealand historiography. According to Ballantyne, historians “have fashioned a genealogy of the bicultural nation, where the distinctiveness of New Zealand is located in the relationship between the tangata whenua (people of the land), who came to define themselves as Māori, and European colonists, who with time have increasingly seen themselves as Pākehā” (107-8). Thus we see how bicultural histories of New Zealand emerged as a revisionist critique of the positivist nationalist histories of the 1950s. Exemplified most prominently by the work of James Belich — in The New Zealand Wars, Making Peoples, and Paradise Reforged — bicultural histories have highlighted both the racism inherent to the colonial project and the ways in which Māori resistance shaped both national development and race relations. Bicultural narratives resonate with many contemporary New Zealanders because they reinforce a progressive view of the future and have also become institutionalised within the governance of New Zealand through the reparative work of the Waitangi Tribunal.
Therefore, many of the essays in Webs of Empire tell stories that are either absent from customary bicultural narratives or actively problematize the categories of analysis common to such histories. For example, within the “Connections” section, Ballantyne considers the historical ties between New Zealand and Asia. Here Ballantyne is mindful that visions of a bicultural nation deny a space for New Zealanders of Asian origin because they cannot readily identify as either Māori or Pākehā. Likewise in the chapters “Christianity, Colonialism and Cross-Cultural Communication,” and “Paper, Pen and Print,” Ballantyne explores how Kāi Tahu Māori people employed both Christianity and literacy to adapt to and resist the pressures of British settlement on the South Island. Ballantyne is interested here in how Māori systems of knowledge were retained, transformed, and translated through engagement with European technologies and epistemologies. In this way, we see how bicultural narratives have told only partial stories because their dominant dichotomies, most notably of Māori versus Pākehā, are not compatible with the theme of circulation between cultures.
Webs of Empire is thought provoking and personal. In these essays, Ballantyne reflects on both his own development as a scholar and the craft of history itself — how the stories we can tell are shaped by the limits of the archives we work with and how historical scholarship has been co-opted by successive governments of New Zealand to delineate the ongoing reconciliation work of a liberal nation state. Scholars of Canadian history and especially British Columbia, which shares with New Zealand an institutional origin on a Pacific littoral edge of the mid-nineteenth century British Empire, will find much of value here, from Ballantyne’s engagement with rich recent Imperial scholarship to his assessments of the strengths, weaknesses, and analytical insights of New Zealand’s historiography. Indeed, one hopes this book will inspire a reader to build on Chad Reimer’s Writing British Columbia History with an assessment of the contemporary literature. Finally, Ballantyne inspires us to read broadly across networks of scholarship, thereby enriching our own work in the process.
Ballantyne, Tony. 2002. Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire. Cambridge: Palgrave.
Belich, James. 1986. The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict: The Maori, the British, and the New Zealand Wars. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Belich, James. 2001. Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders, from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Belich, James. 2001. Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders From the 1880s to the Year 2000. Auckland: Penguin Books.
Reimer, Chad. 2009. Writing British Columbia History, 1784-1958. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Past
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014. 376 pp. $39.95 paper