History impressive but driven by a purpose

16:00, Dec 26 2009
Judith Binney

JUDITH BINNEY is well known for her work on Maori history, including a sympathetic biography of religious leader and colonial-era bogey-man Te Kooti. Her latest book, "Encircled Lands", takes us into Tuhoe territory, the Urewera – a name with earthy meaning and long history.

This is a physically impressive volume, case-bound, marvellously illustrated and printed to a very high standard. It is well worth the money as an example of the book-maker's art alone.

In more than 600 close-printed pages, Binney traces the history of Tuhoe's relationship with Pakeha from first contact in the 1830s, through to the 1920s. She presents an impressive depth of research; she has immersed herself in Tuhoe and their land.

Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921, Judith Binney, BWB, $79.99

By Binney's account their history is a litany of invasion, loss, betrayal and broken Pakeha promises. Tuhoe had to endure George Whitmore's scorched-earth effort to destroy their livelihood in the mid-1860s.

As the fighting ended, they attained a form of independence, a status given formal standing by Richard Seddon in 1896 as the "Urewera District Native Reserve". But by 1922 that had been abolished.

Meanwhile, Pakeha launched further intrusions, including the 1916 arrest of Rua Kenana in 1916, ostensibly for sly-grogging. The police expedition had all the appearance of a large-scale military raid.


Binney gives us blow-by-blow accounts of land court hearings, political battles and efforts by Tuhoe to assert their rights. She explores divisions within Tuhoe, as in 1895 when a splinter group emerged in the face of a mineral survey. She also examines Tuhoe relationships with other Maori such as Te Kooti and Ropata (Rapata) Wahawaha.

Her coverage of these aspects is as complete as it is possible to get in a single-volume book.

However, we have to take Binney's litany of white shame with caution. Pakeha are portrayed as villains at every turn – engaging in "fraudulent purchase", "bullyboy tactics" (p307) and eager to "put in the boot" (p247). It is true that there was a lot of bad behaviour, but I am left with the impression that the value judgement devolves to a duality: settler = bad, indigenous = good.

Of course, this is a book with purpose. Binney tells us her text was developed from the reports she wrote for the Crown Forestry Rental Trust to support Tuhoe claims before the Waitangi Tribunal.

To me, that renders Encircled Lands an involved account. Despite professed impartiality, "treaty history" is purpose-driven by nature, particularly if designed to support one side of a judicial argument.

Binney's contemporary spin seems particularly clear in the last pages, where she suggests Tuhoe perhaps deserve the autonomy they were promised, as part of the social contract for the land she calls "Aotearoa New Zealand".

Binney is too careful a historian to overtly judge the past by modern standards – a flaw of much "industry" work. However, while we cannot excuse the behaviour of colonial officials, we do need to place what they did in context of the standards that applied when they made their decisions.

To me, Binney's book is a way-point, intellectually impressive, a necessary account that explores one aspect of the Tuhoe experience. I feel, however, that it will be more valuable in the longer term for what Binney's selection of material and arguments say about today's priorities, than for what she says about our history.

Matthew Wright is one of New Zealand's most published historians. His book Two Peoples, One Land: the New Zealand Wars is published by Raupo.

Sunday Star Times