Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 28 (September 1959)
– 56 –

BOOKS

UNFLATTERING PICTURE

Early Victorian New Zealand by John Miller, Oxford University Press, 1958, 217pp. 30/-.

John Miller's much-reviewed book, Early Victorian New Zealand describes the first twelve years of New Zealand's history as a British colony as seen through the eyes of an upper-middle class, Oxford-trained, English churchman devoted to philanthropy. The description is both fascinating and elegant. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to a study of the racial tensions which arose as a result of the influx of immigrants, the response of the Maoris to the unexpected invasion and the incompetence and dishonesty of the New Zealand Company.

These early years as described by Dr Miller did not provide a promising start to the Maori-European partnership. The New Zealand Company may have originated as a vision of empire, but if soon degenerated into an unsavoury attempt by a group of speculators to make fantastic profits. The Wakefields and their cronies appear to have been staggeringly incompetent and totally devoid of personal integrity. In fact, about the only thing that can be said in their favour is that when they cheated, they cheated impartially both Maori and European without discrimination as to race or creed.

The Wakefields as described by Dr Miller did not view people as individuals so much as objects for exploitation. This is even more apparent than their incompetence and lack of scruple. There is a chilling story of their behaviour on the voyage out from England. Jerningham Wakefield hypnotized the eighteen year old Charles Heaphy with the most dire effects for the unfortunate youth. When Jerningham repeated the experiment three weeks later, Colonel Wakefield dismissed the incident with the casual comment, “Heaphy magnetized. Nearly same effect as before.” The failure of Heaphy's well-being to weigh with the Colonel against Jerningham's entertainment does not illustrate the eccentricities of the founders as the author assumes, it illustrates something which is significant in all their relationships. Edward Gibbon Wakefield's plans included the complete redistribution of tribal lands, including villages, gardens and burial grounds on the basis of a ballot held in London, regardless of the fundamental nature of men's attachments to their homes and land.

Dr Miller gives the Wakefields credit for little except a fighting spirit: Governors that stood in their way were maligned; the inconvenient Treaty of Waitangi was held in contempt; the Maoris who did not fit in with the plan would be “crushed like a wasp in the iron gauntlet of armed civilization”. Edward Gibbon Wakefield's devotion to theory was only equalled by his disinterest in the welfare of individuals.

It is hard not to suspect that the picture of the events described by Dr Miller is over-simple. Rarely in real life are the villains so villainous and the heroes so virtuous as he would seem to suggest. The “noble savage” role of the Maoris is also likely to cause some uneasiness in the minds of those who feel that the acknowledgement of racial equality implies that Maoris share with the Europeans a generous measure of human perversity. If the author's account of Early Victorian New Zealand seems partisan, it is, however, vivid and alive. There is never a dull moment. Dr Miller has made an important contribution to our knowledge of the early history of this country.

—RICHARD THOMPSON

⋆ ⋆ ⋆

The Whangarei tribal committee has set up an educational subcommittee which will attend parent-teacher meetings and encourage other parents to do likewise, and find ways of assisting in the home the work done in schools.

Picture icon

MODERN BOOKS

48a Manners Street, Wellington C.I.