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From the Listener archive: Features

July 11-17 2009 Vol 219 No 3609

Cover Story

Past tense

by Ruth Laugesen

Historian James Belich has gone global with his new book on the rise of the Anglo-World. And he says it is time for New Zealanders to embrace their settler past and recognise that Pakeha ancestors were not models of virtue.

Why is it, asks James Belich, that here in Wellington, 19,000km from England, we are sitting in his booklined

study speaking English? “That is a staggering phenomenon. The hard fact is that the world’s leading power, with the exception of a brief moment in World War II, has spoken English for the past 200 years,” says Belich, research professor of history at Victoria University’s Stout Research Centre. “First Britain and then the United States. These are historical realities that need to be explained.”

In his ambitious new book, New Zealand’s best-known living historian has gone global. Building on the New Zealand experience, he has tracked the role “explosive” settlement on frontiers in Australia, Canada and the American West played in the remarkable rise and

staying power of the Anglo-World. The book, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939, was published in the UK late last month and will be released here on

August 25.

Along the way Belich argues it may be time for New Zealanders to acknowledge the sheer nation-building chutzpah of their Pakeha settler ancestors. “You don’t

look to these people for models of virtue, but you do look to them as models of dynamism. They created a proto-people in 40 years, from 1000 Pakeha to 500,000

Pakeha by the early 1880s.

And what about the destructive impact that settlers had on Maori, on nature? Is he suggesting we get over that? “Yes, we do need to get over that, for God’s sake.

Anybody who looks at their history is going to find ancestors doing dubious things. Anyone who tries to convert history into an endless record of ancestors as

virtuous moral exemplars is going to be disappointed. That’s any history, not just New Zealand’s.”

At the same time, says Belich, New Zealanders do share a collective responsibility for the dispossession of Maori. “Maori should pull themselves up by their own

bootstraps, but they need to be given back their bootstraps first,” he says.

For a generation of New Zealanders, Belich has been an opinionated, insightful guide to grappling with the question of what it means to be an independent

nation forged by a British and Maori past, and anchored in the Pacific. He fronted the groundbreaking TV series The New Zealand Wars, which documented the

extent and skill of Maori resistance to British rule in the 1860s and 1870s. His books Making Peoples (1996) and Paradise Reforged (2001) sketched early New Zealand

as a rambunctious, frenetic frontier territory, eager to find a separate identity from Britain. This, said Belich, was followed by a “tightening”, in which New Zealand emerged in the 1900s as a staid, timid nation that treasured its tight cultural and economic bonds with

Mother England.

Now, Belich is exploring those insights on a much bigger canvas, telling the story of explosive settlement

across various Anglo frontiers, followed by economic busts and recolonisation in which economic links to and

dependency on Britain increased. Along the way he asserts that the benefits didn’t flow just one way and that settlements like New Zealand were vital in sustaining British power.

Although historians have made a meal of European imperial powers and their Asian and African colonies, little has been written about the contribution Britain’s

settler societies made to bolstering their parent’s fortunes. “There’s an ongoing debate about what kickstarted Britain; was it the slave trade, or was it the

plundering of India? In terms of wealth, yes, the slave trade, the West Indies, the Indian subcontinent, they’re all important. That’s the kind of wealth injection

that empires like, say, Spain and Portugal got,” says Belich.

But he argues Britain’s settler societies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and its links with the US gave Britain an extra edge over European rivals. The Dominions functioned as an extension of the great metropolis of London, just as settlement on the American West increasingly fed and supplied that other great Anglo city, New York. The remarkable thing, says Belich, is that in 1890, London and New York were the only two cities in the world with more than 2.5 million people.

“To actually bulk out the metropolis so you get virtual extra Scotlands, you need an economic and ideological link of another order and that’s the relationship that Britain had with the Dominions. They supplied food like they were part of the British metropolis, and they fought like they were, so they were more like extensions of metropolitan Britain than the ‘black’ colonies.”

New Zealand lamb was marketed in Britain with rosettes saying, “I’m British from New Zealand”.

“Dominions give Britain extra staying power and enable it to extend its career as a superpower for 50 years or so,” Belich says. “They also enable Britain not to develop exotic sources of supply for spices and luxuries and goods they don’t grow at home, but to create, thousands of miles away, Britain-like acres that are then designed to supply Britain.

“The main game of the New Zealand economy was supplying London; there was no other business that was anywhere near as important as that. That meant

there was a cultural link. The inverse face of that was Monopoly boards with London streets on them being played for 50 years by New Zealanders without

anyone noticing there was anything odd about it.”

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