To explain why Judith Binney – who died in New Zealand in February – is a major figure in contemporary historiography it is necessary to explain why the history of her country has become a field of which contemporary historians do well to take notice. They have not always done so. New Zealand has been considered a safe, dull Anglo-democracy, with a welfare state 75 years old and reasonable race relations, small and remote enough – even in times of world war – to be dismissed as happy in having no history; none at least, to which historians need bother to attend. Within living memory, even New Zealanders sometimes felt like that. Since the 1960s, however, two major changes have caused them to reassess their history and the histories of which it has formed part, so that they now have things to say which call for the attention of others. Judith Binney was an actor of genius in at least the second of these changes.
The first – about which she did not write, though it is necessary background – was the termination of ‘Commonwealth history’ by the decision of the United Kingdom British to consider themselves, however half-heartedly, Europeans. Commonwealth history had been a lesser aspect of the history of empire, always sidelined by the greater theme of the Raj; a history of colonisation, further sidelined by the still obscure process of replacing the old term ‘imperialism’ with the term ‘colonialism’, meaning empire over culturally different peoples, which could happen without colonisation in the sense of settlement playing much part. Finding themselves marginal to the history of both empire and Europe, the settler-descended peoples of the former Commonwealth or ‘white Dominions’ might, and in some cases have, set about reconstructing the history of settlement and the historiographies it has generated. In this, a major figure among New Zealand historians has been James Belich, a historian of the ‘Angloworld’, the massive emigration of English-speaking peoples who changed global geography by their settlements in North America and the southern hemisphere; Belich continues the history discerned by J.R. Seeley, the great 19th-century historian of the empire of settlement, now that Seeley’s historical world has disappeared. The owl of Minerva follows many flight paths.
Binney and Belich should be mentioned together when we turn to the second transformation of New Zealand historiography. ‘Colonisation’ denotes the occupation of lands by emigrant peoples desirous of maintaining the culture they bring with them; ‘colonialism’ seems predominantly to denote the domination, by means of empire, of at least one culture by people of another. Since there was no case in the history of European or British empire of the colonisation of lands altogether empty of human inhabitants, the two phenomena were inseparable and the term ‘colonialism’ will have to remain, however confusingly, in use. It will denote the experience of the colonised rather than the colonisers, who have other things on their minds and may be unaware – may even deny – that they are subjugating indigenous peoples (the tangata whenua in New Zealand Maori). In recent history – including the history of historiography – it has been necessary to remind them.
Te iwi Maori – to employ another term for the tangata whenua – were originally themselves colonisers, arriving perhaps less than a thousand years ago at the southern limit of the Pacific world settled by Polynesians and others, in sailing vessels for which no English word better than ‘canoe’ has been found. Though mariners of extraordinary skill, they did not become a maritime culture; two-way commerce did not endure so far south, and though each kindred traced its genealogy to the canoe in which the first ancestor arrived, they displayed skill in populating new lands with mythical figures, spirits and ancestors, which linked them with the cosmos through the land where the ancestors were present. Whenua may mean either ‘land’ or ‘placenta’ and for Maori the past is spoken of as ‘before (not behind) us’. To simplify an oral consciousness of vast complexity and sophistication, the central concept has been that of mana whenua, the identification of a particular kindred’s sacred identity and – a word we now use – sovereignty, its power to be and speak itself, with ancestral lands acquired through occupation or war (a significant addition).
Te iwi Pakeha – as Maori call the Anglo-British settlers with whom they began having to deal about two hundred years ago – were both agricultural and industrial. They looked on land with no less veneration than the tangata whenua, but saw its cultivation as necessary to exchange between individuals, and exchange as necessary to human society and the creation of intelligence and personality. (Their Christian missionaries believed that until food-gatherers became farmers, they would be unable to understand the Word of God in the Scriptures.) This ideology, as powerful in its way as mana whenua, underlay their often ugly avidity for Maori-occupied land and their belief that there was no sin in deceiving ‘natives’ too uncivilised to understand what was happening. New Zealand, however, is rendered a special case in the history of colonisation by the resolution of the Crown to make itself sovereign over the transfer of land to the Pakeha, which led to the drawing up of a treaty offered to the chiefs (rangatira) of several iwi or ‘tribes’ at Waitangi in 1840, and to others afterwards. This recognised that Maori possessed rangatiratanga over their lands – a word translatable as ‘sovereignty’ and near in its meanings to mana whenua, the use of which would have been unthinkable in this context. The treaty offered to guarantee rangatiratanga in return for Maori recognition of the Crown’s kawanatanga, a Maori spelling of the English ‘government’, meaning sovereignty over the sale of land. It granted Maori sovereignty in the sense of property, but withheld the implication that property entailed a capacity for alienation; yet to alienate one’s mana was unthinkable. The history of Maori-Pakeha relations for the next 70 to 80 years is one in which the Crown found itself increasingly the instrument used by the settlers to impose by law a concept of land as individually alienable on the mana whenua which held Maori identities together.
The second revolution in New Zealand historiography – and politics – has happened in the last half-century as Maori, a people increasingly urbanised and modern, have obliged the state to set up a tribunal to hear claims by various groups that the treaty’s promise of rangatiratanga and by implication mana whenua has not been fulfilled. It is vital to understand that these have been claims not of right but to sovereignty, implying that the treaty was, and is, an agreement between two modes of sovereignty. There are other lands, mostly in the Angloworld, where indigenous peoples claim to retain sovereignty in some sense akin to mana whenua, but only in New Zealand has national sovereignty been held conditional on the observance of a treaty of this kind. This has pressed New Zealand towards a condition unusual in both politics and historiography, and has generated an extensive literature, not yet widely known outside the country. It is from this point that one should begin considering Binney’s work – among the work of many others, both Maori and Pakeha.
Though she was briefly associated with the work of the Waitangi Tribunal, Binney was not primarily a treaty historian. After her first book, The Legacy of Guilt, a study of an English missionary whose not very well thought out Evangelicalism collapsed utterly in the face of Maori cosmogony, she began her involvement in the history of Tuhoe, a small but persistently resistant people in the east-central North Island. She studied the career of Rua Kenana, who divided Tuhoe by claiming to be the messiah (mihaia) foretold in the 19th century by Te Kooti, a prophet and war leader in the land wars of the 1860s and 1870s. The root cause of these wars was the insatiable demand, reluctantly supported by the Crown, of Pakeha settlers for Maori land; but at the political level it was emerging that there had also been wars among Maori themselves, some thinking their mana whenua best preserved by engaging in land sales and trying to control the process, others resisting sale altogether, and all of them claiming to act under the treaty. Tuhoe, a small people, were caught up in these divisions, but the growth of prophetic movements that reinforced ancestral mana with the language of the Old Testament, and often but not always challenged the authority of hereditary rangatira, had a greater impact on them. Te Kooti had been the Moses of such a people – not identical with Tuhoe but powerful among them – and Rua claimed to be the messiah of the church he had founded. The enemies of Tuhoe and Te Kooti had been not only the Pakeha government but their powerful neighbours, the Ngati Porou, who aimed to control land sales and uphold hereditary rangatiratanga against upstart prophets from nowhere. That rivalry was over by Rua’s time, for reasons that would be important in Binney’s later work.
These themes in political history took shape as she thought about the 20th-century figure of Rua, but she also began thinking about the nature of histories themselves. Binney and the photographer Gillian Chaplin, her collaborator on the book Mihaia: The Prophet Rua Kenana and His Community at Maungapohatu (1979), had a cache of photographs dating from a police assault on Rua’s community in 1916, which they took to the Tuhoe townships in the Urewera district to see if the living could help interpret them. They got more help than they had expected. To Maori like the Tuhoe people, the pictures were more than information about people in the past, more even than the recovery of a past; they were the presence of a ‘past before us’, entailing a narrative both ancestral and prophetic in which the people in the picture, the people looking at them, and Binney and Chaplin themselves, were participant.
With Chaplin, Binney went on to produce Nga Morehu: The Survivors (1986), a book of conversations with women from various tribal and religious fragments. Morehu can mean ‘remnants’ as well as ‘survivors’, and Binney and Chaplin were dealing with people whose histories had been shattered and reassembled by alien forces. But their book is not victim or subaltern history; the women are active tale-tellers, narrating loss and survival in terms often mythical and hermetic but conveying memory of what happened. (It became a concern of Binney’s later work to show that Maori women as well as men could be tapu and exercise mana, forms of spiritual power still active in the shattered but recovering world of ngamorehu.) This is history being reconstructed and reimagined, not history being rewritten by historians according to criteria of verification and falsification. Large and frightening issues arise when one asks under what cultural and political circumstances history in the sense of critical historiography can exist, and what happens when it is applied to history formed in other circumstances. The Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand has found itself dealing with these questions.
All her life, Binney remained concerned with people who had had to rewrite their history and themselves, but simultaneously obliged herself to write their histories as a Western historian practising what we call historiography. In 1995 she produced the massive Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, about the prophet Rua Kenana had claimed to succeed. It contains great insight and information concerning the land wars of the 19th century, but is a challenge to the reader, who must recognise that nearly all Maori action and behaviour was symbolic and often ambivalent, encoded in ways hard to decipher. Escaping from an altogether unjust exile, Te Kooti returned at the head of a warband to whom he was already a prophet, seeking retribution that entailed the killing of some Pakeha, as well as some Maori, women and children. This made him an Osama bin Laden figure in settler histories, and the Pakeha did not reply to the claim that such acts were normal in Maori warfare by saying that the retaliatory massacre they carried out was equally normal in theirs. They tended rather to conceal this action, as we tend to blame it, because we live with the Legacy of Guilt and are inclined to think that Maori did not. The counter-killing, however, was as much the work of Ngati Porou fighting for the Crown as of vengeful Pakeha, and we need to ask how they saw what they were doing.
Though these killings determined the history in which settlers saw Te Kooti, they did not define the history in which he continued to act. He went on as a warchief to confront his prophetic mana with that of the Maori ‘King’ Tawhiao, both a prophet and a hereditary chief whose mana outweighed his. Failing utterly in this, he sought ‘the shelter of Tuhoe’ – not his own kindred – and his Garibaldian adventures as an outlaw and guerrilla became part of his legend. The brutality of Ngati Porou and Pakeha pursuit compelled Tuhoe to cast him out; but it is vital that he is said to have prophesied that this would happen, beginning his metamorphosis from Moses-figure to Christ-figure, a man acquainted with grief betrayed by his disciples as he abandoned the practice of war for a gospel of peace and universal love. Moving to ‘the shelter of Maniapoto’ – a powerful and conservative federation that protected and partly neutralised him – he founded the Ringatu Church, embracing Tuhoe together with morehu fragments of many other peoples, including his own tribe and even some Ngati Porou.
All this is the narrative prelude to Binney’s Redemption Songs: the waiata, chants improvised on particular occasions by individuals or groups, became in Te Kooti’s mouth (‘wherever he goes he’s singing’) ways of integrating the wairua or ‘prophetic mission’ with the mana threatened by dispossession from ancestral lands. This is as true of Ringatu, the religion of nga morehu, as it is of Tuhoe, the people threatened with land sales and confiscation; but Binney saw both as mobilising memory and prophecy into new histories, statements of the history the dispossessed and threatened now found themselves living in. She insisted that myth was not just compensatory fantasy, but made metaphorical statements of real experience, and her work became increasingly concerned with oral history as both memory and re-creation. In spite of its strong Hebrew and Christian content, the ‘redemption’ offered was not from the burden of sin, but from the loss of identity and sovereignty. Neither Ringatu nor any other Maori church became a universal religion or ended in an eschatology. What Binney claimed was that the oral history recounted by individuals and small groups was valid history: a means of stating what had happened and was happening to them, from which others might learn a good deal, about them and about themselves (especially if Pakeha).
What it had – has? – not yet become was public history, one of a number of languages of debate in which the citizens of a complex state dispute their past and present. Because Tuhoe have been a small and marginalised people, they claim that their sovereignty – including their ways of stating their history – must be recognised before they are open to such debate; but even in the present century this tempts the state to regard them as potential rebels, while the treaty mechanisms offer other Maori other means to public voice. Fourteen years after Redemption Songs, Binney published Encircled Lands, her last major work. It is a history in which Te Kooti and Rua Kenana play major roles, but it is more Tuhoe than Ringatu or morehu; a history of how a people who never took arms against the Crown endeavoured to preserve an area of land under their mana whenua – the Maori term is rohe potae – against the determination of successive governments to survey it, reduce it to individual tenancy, and open it to gold prospecting and land sale. Behind her narrative of resistance and the language of resistance, two themes emerge. One is that English common law presumes individual tenure and single sovereignty, so that towards the end of the 19th century, and in the hands of Liberal governments, law became the enemy of mana and a means to its dissolution; whereas towards the end of the 20th, Maori judges skilled in the common law and sitting on the Waitangi Tribunal sought to return it to its ancient function of recognising ancestral custom as an original authority. There are tensions at the heart of common law history.
The second theme is that two leading assailants of Tuhoe’s Rohe Potae were modernising Maori: James Carroll and Apirana Ngata, leaders of what historians have called the Young Maori Party, credited with the recovery from a demoralised condition of many peoples after the confiscation of their lands. Both rose to be cabinet ministers, and continued the policy of adopting land sale and individual tenure as the means of survival and retention of identity, which had led iwi to fight on the Crown’s side in the 1860s. And Ngata was himself Ngati Porou, so that as a liberal lawyer of the 20th century in a sense he succeeded Ropata Wahawaha, the ruthless warrior who hunted Te Kooti through Tuhoe lands in the 19th. There is an obvious historical dialectic here; we need a Ngati Porou historical narrative as we need a Tuhoe, to see in what terms that people has recognised itself.
Postcolonialist and feminist, Binney did not neglect, but was not primarily concerned with, the public history in which policies contend with one another in an arena which is either that of war or is defined by (and as) the state. She studied the besieged Tuhoe and the dispersed Ringatu and morehu, to see how they had told, sung and otherwise depicted the ‘stories without end’ that narrated and maintained their group identities over time, and are still doing so. It did not matter if these stories were myths – many were not – because myths were metaphors, and known to be such, that had a great deal to say about the worlds in which they were formed. It is true that she was more concerned with histories as means of affirming identities than criticising them, but she was herself a first-rate practitioner of modern critical historiography, and was confident of the ability of the ‘stories without end’ to survive in the world where the liberal state maintains itself by constantly rewriting the history in which it lives. That was exactly what the myths were doing; they were not closed systems doomed to the death of the past.
There remains the warning that all this is political, and therefore under threat. History and sovereignty are linked and nearly interchangeable. To narrate, renarrate and even question a society’s continuous existence is to affirm that it has an existence, is a society active and articulate to the point where it can suggest answers to such questions. New Zealand historiography goes on in the world of James Tully’s Strange Multiplicity (1995), where many histories and modes of sovereignty have to talk to one another. There was more than liberal benevolence and multiculturalism to Binney’s insistence that we need to tell our histories to each other, knowing that we shall not fully understand them. This is difficult, and frightening, but it is fortunate that the need Binney describes will probably survive the current project of abolishing history and sovereignty altogether so as to leave only the instantly vanishing memory of the consumer. Here is another reason – there are several already – for looking into the surprisingly rich literature she did a great deal to shape.