Colonial crossover

Prof Tony Ballantyne.
Prof Tony Ballantyne.

The University of Otago's Centre for Research on Colonial Culture is about to host its inaugural conference. MIKE HOULAHAN reports.

Once, colonialism was a fairly black and white subject: Europeans came to New Zealand, Maori were dispossessed of their land, and a new country was founded.

However, reality was more complex than that. The colonial experience of a merchant like John Logan Campbell was different from that of a Irish miner's wife on the West Coast, an American sealer on the East Coast, a Chinese miner in the gold fields, Nga Puhi or Ngai Tahu.

Colonial history has long been a fertile area for researchers, and the University of Otago has brought many diverse strands of endeavour together under the banner of the Research on Colonial Culture.

"There has been a very long history of collaboration on research in our department, which is actually quite unusual," head of the University of Otago's History department and director of the centre Professor Tony Ballantyne, said.

"There were several of us working on 19th century New Zealand history from different angles, not just history but Maori studies, gender studies, education. We thought it would be great to formalise what was already an informal sharing of knowledge and work in to something that had a bit more shape."

Last July the university agreed to fund the centre for an initial five years. Next week the first of what are intended to be annual conferences on colonial history will be held in Dunedin, from February 11 to 13.

"We hope through the centre we can build some new networks and connections for discussion, beyond Dunedin and also overseas, to produce more research, and research of a higher standard," Ballantyne said.

"We have several Australians coming to the conference, and we have a whole panel on Australia. Last year we hosted Anna Johnston from the University of Tasmania and Isabel Hofmeyr from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, so we are working very hard on developing those international connections. That allows us to export our research, but we can also talk to international scholars to see if they are doing things we could be doing here, or are they finding things we should be looking for and testing here ourselves."

Identifying common aspects of the colonial experiences in countries like Canada, Australia, and South Africa helped delineate what was unique about New Zealand's own place in the British Empire and the experiences of those who came here, Ballantyne said.

"We are interested in thinking about New Zealand in a variety of different ways," he said. "The perspective of people working primarily in Maori history may be different from those working on imperial history. We are interested in multiple paths and multiple experiences."

Hence, the theme for the inaugural conference: Colonial Objects. One shared aspect of all New Zealanders is we collect keepsakes and heirlooms, many of which have remained within families since colonial times. With the newly-refurbished Toitu Otago Settlers Museum as a venue, there will be plenty of tangible reminders of the past for participants to observe.

"Family objects help form our relationship with the past, so we thought objects would be a great way for people to reflect on the variety of experiences, and the relevance of the colonial past today," Ballantyne said.

"It shapes our lives and our communities to this day."

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