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Q + A: Paul Holmes interviews Professor James Belich

Published: 10:54AM Sunday July 12, 2009 Source: Q + A

James Belcih interviewed by Paul Holmes on replenishing the earth

PAUL Professor James Belich, our most prominent historian, has been grappling to understand the great rise and ascendancy of not so much the British Empire, but what he calls the Anglo world and its explosion of settlement, not only here but in Canada, in the States and Australia as well, and he's been quoted this week as saying 'get over the guilt about our settlers, everyone's ancestors did things that were less than exemplary'.  Well Professor James Belich's book is right here 'Replenishing the Earth - the Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World 1783 - 1939.'  There we go so there is James Belich's new book.

JAMES Thank you very much Paul.

PAUL Professor Belich, you make a distinction in the book between empire and settlement, and the settlement of course as in the title of the book you call 'Replenishment of the Earth'.  Where does this distinction lead you?

 The settlement is basically the attempt to reproduce your own society at a distance.  Empire is the attempt to subjugate someone else's.  So empire is the control of other peoples, settlement's the reproduction of your own people in new forms at a distance.

PAUL And you say that settlement was infinitely more important than empire?

JAMES Not infinitely more important but co-equal and underestimated.  If you look at the history it's all about empire, and not enough of it's about settlement.

PAUL Can I come back to that shortly.  You're quoted this week in the Listener as saying for godsake get over our guilt, we've gotta get over our guilt, what did you mean by that?

JAMES History's not about guilt, you know do we feel guilty about the Crusades, how far back does one go?  And getting over the guilt is not to say that I disagree with reparative justice for Maori tribes, but it is to say that you know that kind of process should not be guilt driven and should not be dominated by guilt and that the whole guilt issue's a bit of a beat up.

PAUL But for many people there is guilt, can they ever get over it?

JAMES Well if you're gonna be guilty about the deeds of your ancestors you may as well give up now, because you know many of us are descended from Genghis Kahn.

PAUL Okay, European empire controlled much less territory in your book you say this.  'European empire controlled much less territory in the colonies than it actually boasted' but sometimes the hinterland was not really controllable though they painted the map pink.  'European empire dominated one and a half continents for a century, European settlement dominates three and a half continents still' and then you write 'it was settlement not empire that had the spread and staying power in history of European expansion', so it was the people not empires what you're really saying.

JAMES Well yeah I mean if you look at it, North and South America, Australasia, Australia and New Zealand, Siberia a vast chunk of Russian Asia, are still dominated by people of European descent.  If you look at empire in India and Africa it wasn't there that long, and it's not the main event in Indian or African history.

PAUL You say empire actually was a splash in the pan?


PAUL It was settlement that caused the rise of the Anglo world?

JAMES In the end yes, because when you look at the Anglo world, the English speakers, you know whose rise includes things like the fact that here we are sitting 19,000 kilometres from Britain speaking English, when you look at the Anglo world you've got to include the Western United States, and that expansion into the Western United States which is exactly matched by expansion into Australia, New Zealand, Canada, which I call the British West, like the American West, that generates these two super powers, first Britain, then the United States, have been the world's leading powers for two centuries.  This is a problem we have to explain and it's a problem we have to explain in terms other than the old racial celebratory triumphalist they were superior.

PAUL So talk about New Zealand settlers then about whom we should not be guilty according to you?  What kind of people were our settlers?

JAMES They were people who took a huge risk with their own lives and with their children's lives?

PAUL Even the voyage.

JAMES They set out in the 1840s on what was much closer to a trip to Mars than your OE today, to the other end of the world where the average casualty rate amongst children was one in six, New Zealand roulette with your kids, they came to build a better Britain, and they strove to do so, and whatever got in their way, nature or natives, was in trouble.

PAUL Why were the Anglo settlers around the world so successful, I mean you pointed out the Dutch for example, they either died of malaria or they went home eventually?

JAMES One possibility is that England is an easier place to leave than the Netherlands, and that your French and Dutch village is a more pleasant place than your English one, so it's not necessarily a virtue.

PAUL But we're as dull types, New Zealand settlers dull types, so I think from high school the impression I always had was that petit bourgeoisie comes to mind and working class, dull types of people.

JAMES That was the impression we were given at school, but it's a false impression.  I mean these were dynamic folk, you know there were a thousand Pakeha in New Zealand in 1840, there were half a million by the early 1880s.

PAUL You're saying in just a matter of decades they built a proto people?

JAMES That's right.

PAUL They built a nation.

JAMES Staggering, a staggeringly dynamic achievement, with an economy to match.

PAUL I was amazed at the picture in the Listener of Hokitika, 102 hotels, an opera house, Hokitika was going to be the new Melbourne.

JAMES That's right, and some of those hotels had three storeys and lifts you know, they weren't tents.

PAUL Tell me this, why when I drive in from Sydney Airport into Sydney do I notice that the 19th century government buildings are so very big, and our 19th century government buildings are much smaller, did we always think small compared to Australia?

JAMES  Well I don't know.

PAUL Is that a good point, it's quite nice isn't it?

JAMES Well it is quite a good point, but actually New Zealand did think big, that's even more surprising, New Zealand thought it was gonna be the leading super power in the Pacific.  New Zealanders thought there were gonna be 100 million of us by today.

PAUL And then suddenly we've become a staid place round about 1900, why?

JAMES Well the boom busted in the 1880s and suddenly you know great futures diminished, and the notion that we were going to have 100 million people faded away, as it did in Australia, they were hoping for 500 million, and so we turned to a new game, which was pumping protein into London through the refrigerated ships that more or less made us part of Great Britain.

PAUL So even though we were fiercely independent and our settler had built a new people with the kind of Jack's as good as his master mentality, we stayed close to the UK because of this?

JAMES Once the massive growth plan proved you know not to be workable, we then shifted to a new strategy which was to become a virtual hinterland of London, and that wasn't a bad strategy, it mean that New Zealanders lived as though they were first world industrial people, you know, it mean that we had a first world living standard.  It means that our people could be rocket scientists even though we had no rockets.

PAUL Yeah that's right, we had the growth of universities early because we had first world living standards.

JAMES That's right, because we thought we were entitled to everything the British at home had.

PAUL  You think that we didn't really become independent till what 73 when the British went into the common market?

JAMES We didn't disconnect from Britain until then yeah.

PAUL Go back to the 19th century, when did trouble really come between Pakeha and Maori?  There was a lot of cooperation early on wasn't there?

JAMES Yes, I mean for the first 50 years of Maori Pakeha interaction it was reasonably successful, I mean the number of Maori killed by Pakeha and Pakeha killed by Maori was very small in those first decades of contact, and this is at a time when the musket wars are raging, inter tribal warfare's raging, and Pakeha you know they got on pretty well, that's the surprising thing about Pakeha Maori relations until 1860.

PAUL When it got simply too much when we had this settlement explosion?

JAMES The settler boom you know, suddenly changed gear, suddenly you weren't talking about hundreds of settlers, you were talking about tens of thousands.

PAUL You also point out that Maori resisted until much later, you know resisted their destruction, resisted assimilation until much later than we perhaps were taught.

JAMES Yeah well I mean there were great chunks of independent Maoridom late into the 19th century, and you could date the end of Maori resistance to the Urewera mountains in 1916.

PAUL As late as that?

JAMES You could yeah.

PAUL  The settlers again go back to them, what kind of people did we develop into in that very short time, 50 or 60 years?

JAMES  An interesting people, one of the characteristics of the people who took that huge risk of going to places like New Zealand, they wanted a life as well as a living, they wanted a greater degree of equality, they wanted access to hunting and shooting and fishing which was the reserve of the gentry and the elite in Britain.  They wanted Jack is as good as his master.

PAUL Yes, which may be one reason why the descendants of the settlers are so protective about guarding their right to the Foreshore and Seabed, and I'm talking about the Pakeha.

JAMES Yeah, that may well be, I mean the thing is that part of the deal for settlers to come to New Zealand and places like it was that we wouldn't have restrictions placed on us as we used to have in 19th century Britain where the parson and the squire ruled the roost.

PAUL What have we inherited from the settlers do you think, Pakeha New Zealanders particularly, I mean is there such a thing really as Kiwi ingenuity, did that come from the settlers?

JAMES There is Kiwi ingenuity, but you'll find Australians and Australians also say there's American and Australian ingenuity.  Now that doesn't mean we're copycats, it means that we're co-owners of a kind of settler ingenuity which is as much Kiwi as it is anything else.

PAUL Well for the Americans to get to the moon of course in ten years.

JAMES With some New Zealand help of course.

PAUL  Yes that's right.  Sometimes you know Professor Belich I feel I have no culture, but I come from a mild little country at the bottom of the earth and the only time I feel special, that I have any real national identity, is when I see the haka before a test.  What do we share, Maori and Pakeha do you think?

JAMES Well the haka's not a bad thing to share, but we also share this country, and we're gonna continue to do so, Maori aren't gonna go away, Pakeha aren't gonna go away, and we need to get over it and find ways of working together.

PAUL Do you make the claim or do you have the feeling that the settler mindset who those settlers are, influences us today?

JAMES  I think it does, I think elements of the egalitarianism, you know some could argue the tall poppy syndrome, you know the notion that you mustn't get above yourself, we're not gonna doff our cap to anybody, we don't call anybody sir, you know.  I think these things are legacies.

PAUL Are there things the sons of the settlers and the sons of the Maori can never really understand about each other?

JAMES I don't think so, I think that the two societies don't fully understand each other yet perhaps, but I think they could.

PAUL What have we got in common then, Maori and Pakeha, sons of the settlers?

JAMES We share New Zealand.

PAUL You also talk about the values, what are the values?

JAMES Fairness, egalitarianism, giving people a chance, you know there's a whole list of them.

PAUL You also point out in the book that the Anglo settlers and the Maori being Polynesian are the greatest migrating people the world's ever known.

JAMES That's right.  This is what enrages me about people saying that New Zealand history is navel gazing, when New Zealand history is the intersection of Polynesian expansion and British expansion.  You know how much more global can you get?

PAUL Will our race relations always be intense, will they improve?  You say perhaps at the moment we don't fully understand each other but we do share a country.

JAMES  I think that one could argue they are improving, over the last 15 years or so.  I think that you know Maori tribes have to pull themselves up by their boot straps, but they have to be given their boot straps back first.

PAUL What does that mean, is that having a bob both ways?

JAMES No it means that people - you know Maori tribes are gonna be with us.  One thing the last 150 years of history's proved is that there's no way you can crush them by summating them or amalgamating them, I mean that's what history tells us.

PAUL Maori at large - is there any evidence that Maori at large are benefiting from the Treaty settlements?

JAMES There is beginning to be evidence that that is so, not as fast as I myself would like, but you know if you look at the number of Maori doing PhD degrees for example you'll find it's risen massively as a consequence of some of these Treaty settlements.

PAUL So why should we love our settlers, why should we look back without guilt and applaud our settles, in summary?

JAMES Because they created a dynamic New Zealand from a standing start.

PAUL And I suppose the fact that both Maori and the Anglos were migrating peoples indicates they are adaptable peoples.

JAMES  That's true.

PAUL  And we can be adaptable to each other.

JAMES  Yeah well I mean that is true, you know we're both sets of migrants.

PAUL  So what you're saying in the book is we all share the same history, the Canadians, the Yanks and the Australians, the Kiwis?

JAMES Not everything, but a lot, and what we tend to do is try to sort of break it down into national packages and you know the point to stress here I think is that when we say okay so you're saying we're similar to Australia and similar to America, it's not that we're copycats, we co-own those elements.

PAUL Professor James Belich I thank you very much for you time.  Professor Belich's book is called 'Replenishing the Earth - the Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World 1783 - 1939'.  Thank you very much for coming in.



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  • daved said on 2012-11-04 @ 11:01 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Saddly enough we seem to be really living in another world not the real New Zealand. We are good at farming and the industries relating to this industry. We need to become the best in the word instead of focusing on 1.5 million people who live in Auckland and their housing problems. Be proud we are different to countries like China and America. Our inovation relating to farming and horicuture is sort by the world. We are inovative, clever and pioneers. Not apprieciate so we leave!!

  • 4awinner said on 2012-05-27 @ 09:47 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Retirement. Crazy raising the age! Why because this means more unemployment for the new generation. What is a better investment giving young people the dole or retiries a pension. Pension recievers do not ushally cost the country in crime and all the othe social woes that sucks this cuontry dry. BECAUSE young people NEED a job and future. We have 4 children in Australia all doing very well. The wages give them hope for the future which New Zealand could not but they still love this country.

  • Yady said on 2011-11-28 @ 09:41 NZDT: Report abusive post

    the country is full of complacent morons who love to complain but dont get of there arse to vote.... cant beleive where this country is headed, where just like the yanks, maybe worse because we think we are better than them....shame shame shame..... who can blame us for moving to aussie... the nz government is for the nz rich list, they dont care about the poor..... shame shame shame..... and the media should be held accountable.... they done this... i want to hear the tea tapes!

  • Yady said on 2011-11-28 @ 09:35 NZDT: Report abusive post

    those who didn't vote should be ashamed of themselves.... this country is full of moaning couch potatoes..... just what national needed... shame shame shame....

  • cheekychick said on 2011-11-27 @ 10:03 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Michelle Boag calling Winston names is disgusting and offensive Jan

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