Home thoughts from Georgetown

Histories of national sentiment

During the first half of 2009, I was privileged to teach a New Zealand history paper to 35 amazing American students at Georgetown University in Washington DC. The paper had quite a long title; ‘Last Outpost of Empire’? New Zealand’s ‘precarious’ search for nationhood in the 19th century. The notes below are based on my teaching notes.

Precarious maturity

Georgetown University, Wasington DC.

The word ‘precarious’ in the title came from the Oxford History of New Zealand which had devoted a final section of essays to New Zealand’s attaining of an uncertain sense of nationhood – a ‘precarious maturity’ – in the post Great War period.

These Oxford History essays were written our leading historians – WH Oliver, Ranginui Walker, Graeme Dunstall and Peter Simpson. They raised interesting questions as to how New Zealand’s sense of national sentiment had evolved throughout the nineteenth century.

Oxford History of New Zealand, 2nd edition published 1992, editted by GW Rice. First edition published 1992.

The ‘Last Outpost’ Course at Georgetown explored the development of this national sentiment, especially the positioning of Māori within the shaping of our collective memories and rise of ‘Pākehā New Zealand’ after the 1870s.

Discerning the origins of a sense of New Zealand’s ‘national sentiment’ is always of course likely to be quite and tenuous. Determining the place of Maori within that national sentiment can be as equally tentative. However, whether speculative or otherwise, examining the underpinnings of that sentiment, and of Māori and national remembrance in New Zealand, was interesting. It was also a way of sharing aspects of New Zealand history with such an amazing group of young American students who responded really positively. 

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Not everyone thinks that a ‘history of national sentiment’ can ever be taught, much less written – the topic is altogether much too tenuous.

I do have some sympathy with this view but, still, such an examination of our past framed this way did raise some issues which I thought might engage a young American audience interested in New Zealand’s past. Many of the class of 2009 were looking ahead to careers in international business, diplomatic service or State Department (the Centre for Australia and New Zealand Studies was based within – from memory – a Faculty of Foreign Relations).

Commemorating founding origins 

 Commemorating colonial origins and shared memories does occasionally occupy the creative energies of New Zealanders, as recently seen during our Sesquentennial Year 1990 . The Georgetown course started with a brief introduction to sesquicentenary 1990, thereafter generally following the framework below, begining with the question – where might an analysis of ‘Māori and national sentiment’ begin? 

Probably at the beginning, with an assessment of early European visitors to, and attitudes about, early New Zealand. Early Pākehā interactions with Māori were critical to later Pākehā perceptions of themselves and their new country.

Early Pākehā admired Māori physicality and enterprise but abhored their ‘savagery and capriciousness’. Customary practices like cannibalism and endemic warfare were detested by trader and missionary alike, and with good reason. Village living conditions were seen as wretched, with the treatment of captives, children and especially women seen as unconscionable.

As a consequence, early Pākehā internalised a certain view of Māori as ‘barbaric and indigent’ with many lurid accounts written for high English readers back home. Such accounts were also deeply prejudicial to Māori culture and lore which, as recent Māori scholars like Mr Justice Eddie Durie have argued, did adhere to longstanding customary patterns of ‘order and logic’. 

Māori fading from sight 

As New Zealand was increasingly settled by new Pākehā migrants after 1830, such negative perceptions found their way into governing circles, emphasising ‘barbarity and ill-discipline’, influencing government decision making. The denial of the franchise to Māori in 1852 was one example. Another was the waging of war against Maori after 1860, attacking the core of tribal authority upon which customary ‘order and logic’ were based.

After the wars, Māori pacification and ‘racial amalgamation’ continued, especially with egregious native lands legislation which, as lands were lost, effectively removed Maori from the physical landscape of New Zealand.

Māori were also observed as being ‘improvident and in decline’ with few government steps taken to alleviate the economic stress of Pā and papa kāinga. By 1890, perhaps earlier, Pākehā were working to displace Māori with a reframed New Zealand cultural landscape through the formation of native associations and a staunchly nationalist literature. This literature depicted Pākehā as the ‘rightful heirs’ of an otherwise empty country – a ‘songless land’ – establishing Pākehā as a legitimate presence at the expense of Māori who were thought to be fading from sight. Census figures seemed to bear this out.

Apotheosis of Pākehā sentiment 

After 1900, Pākehā eyes turned to South Africa, rugby and Gallipoli to shore up that Pākehā National Sentiment. Anzac Day crowned this process, constantly represented as a ‘great day of suffering’ with unrelieved public outpourings of grief, with no historical roots in colonial New Zealand. 

For Mäori however, the new century merely increased the struggles to retain possession of the land and determine avenues of effective political influence. Despite these efforts, most could not achieve economic viability with deep internal divisions following. By 1914, Maori were effectively without power and largely destitute.

Thereafter, the apotheosis of Pākehā national sentiment – Anzac Day – found Māori disempowered because of the sustained losses experienced to 1914. Further, Māori had also resisted participation in the Great War and had suffered arrest and imprisonment. Those that did enlist were used as menial labourers which had affected Māori morale. Anzac Day offered ‘some desperate glory’ to Pākehā, in the tragedy and sorrow of Gallipoli, but for Maori it simply reinforced the extent of their physical, economic, political and cultural loss.

Researching New Zealand overseas 

Discussing the origins of a distinct New Zealand sense of ‘national sentiment’ – with Māori somewhere in the mix – then, was an interesting if speculative process, especially when embarked upon so far from home.

Researching and teaching New Zealand history within the Georgetown environment was undoubtedly challenging. Such research-based teaching provided opportunities every day to reflect on the themes of New Zealand’s constructing of national memories and histories.

The American academic landscape is also quite different to New Zealand’s; it was important to ensure that New Zealand’s distant past made some sense to American students raised on their own substantial state and national histories.

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Georgetown University is a spacious and leafy campus that comprises beautiful red brick buildings and huge spires that can be seen from the Potomac River below and beyond, dominating the Georgetown community that surrounds the campus.

Founded in 1789, ‘the same year the U.S. Constitution took effect’, Georgetown University is described as America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit University which serves as a major international research institution. Georgetown reflects its founding principles in the diversity of its students, faculty, and staff.

Ngaire and Lauren visiting the Vietnam War Wall of Remembrance, Washington DC

Georgetown also values its ongoing ‘commitment to justice and the common good, to intellectual openness, and to its international character.’ As a consequence, Georgetown is widely recognised as one of the top American Universities, especially where its Foreign Service programs are concerned.

It was also a wonderful place to share a mere slice of New Zealand’s history.