Entanglements of Empire review: a new take on the Maori-Pakeha relationship

Author Tony Ballantyne.

Author Tony Ballantyne.

Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Maori, and the Question of the Body

Tony Ballantyne

Auckland University Press, $40

Entanglements of Empire by Tony Ballantyne.

Entanglements of Empire by Tony Ballantyne.

Most historians agree that the British Empire conquered a quarter of the Earth's surface and one-fifth of its humanity on the promise of cash and loot. Enterprising British tycoons arrived in foreign lands like juggernauts, they were thugs without taboos. Indigenous peoples were crushed, their resources pinched and their land was claimed in the name of the Crown.     

It may come as a surprise that all of the italicized words in the paragraph above are borrowed from the languages of some of the British Empire's former subjects: Hindus, Indigenous Americans and Polynesians. It's a testament to the occasionally rich exchange between the coloniser and the colonised or, as historian Tony Ballantyne might term it, the "entanglements" between the two.

In Entanglements of Empire professor Ballantyne – an authority on the cultural history of the British Empire – reconstructs the complex cultural, political and economic interactions between Maori and the colonisers from 1814 to 1840. Far from the one-way exchange we often imagine, Ballantyne explores a captivating history of interdependence (and, of course, tension).

It's a refreshing take on an old subject. Scholars of colonialism tend to focus on examining the colonial process and its outcomes, but Ballantyne – who, I should add, is no stranger to that framework – shifts us away from the conventional and sometimes cold analysis of impersonal categories like imperialism and towards an analysis of the cultural forces that shaped everyday relations between Maori and early missionaries. 

From "questions of the body" (like the rituals of death) to differing conceptions of time and space, Maori and missionary understandings were in tension. Yet it was Maori, at least in those early years, who set the terms of engagement. Mission stations, which had to be approved by rangatira (chiefs), were often boxed in by infertile land, a deliberate strategy to ensure that missionaries remained dependent on the sponsoring tribe.

This dependence meant that missionaries were in no position to "impose" their norms upon Maori, as is popularly imagined. Instead the missionaries had to adapt and exchange. Yet, as Ballantyne reveals, they were not passive fools. Missionaries expertly manipulated Maori deference for tapu in order to reorder Maori conceptions of time and make the Sabbath a sacred day.

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Yet this power relationship was not to last. Missionaries would begin to portray Maori as an exhausted "race", threatened by lawless and diseased Pakeha. This portrayal was effectively a public denial of the previous decades of interdependence and a crucial step in justifying the formal colonisation of New Zealand and, in time, a reverse in the original power relationship between Maori and those first representatives of the British Empire.   

 - Stuff

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