Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Alfred Domett, Maori and New Zealand Writing

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Alfred Domett, Maori and New Zealand Writing

Article excerpt

Alfred Domett came to the New Zealand Company settlement at Nelson in 1842 as a land-owning colonist. He remained in New Zealand for the next thirty years and rose to considerable prominence through his writing and his activity as public servant and as politician, both appointed and elected. In writing his prominence is in journalism, most notably in the Nelson Examiner, and in poetry, particularly his epic, Ranolf and Amohia. His public life began in 1843 with his championing of the New Zealand Company and Nelson settlers after the Wairau massacre. It continued with a period as Colonial secretary in Grey's nominated New Munster council. In the provincial era Domett had various terms as an elected political representative. From 1866 to his departure from New Zealand he was a member of the Legislative Council. For fourteen months in 1862-63 he was Premier during which time, following Grey's lead, he seized the chance to quantify a proposal for the confiscation of Maori land. As a public servant he was most influential in his work as Registrar-General of land where, among other matters, he administered the confiscated lands. He was considered so valuable in that position that the 1870 Disqualification Act prohibiting people from simultaneously holding political office and civil service employment specifically exempted Domett.1

Domett is noted for his prejudice towards the Maori, for an unwavering assumption of English superiority and for his forceful assertions of the need for a Roman imperial policy, in other words a harsh, even cruel, policy, so as to instil a fearful respect that would quash any thoughts of rebellion. Only from that base could Maori then be raised in the scale of civilization through the introduction of English ways of life. Writing to George Grey in 1861 and discussing policy towards the Maori, Domett stated, 'You know my old notions that respect for our prowess is a necessary preliminary to the introduction of our institutions - Bishop Selwyn, Judge Martin and Co. take a precisely opposite view. I think all experience of human nature and of the relations between savage and civilized peoples is against them.'2

These Old notions' were influential in New Zealand. Domett had held them staunchly since 1843 when Arthur Wakefield, the leader of the Nelson colony, and many fellow settlers were slaughtered after surrendering to Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata following the ill considered attempt to arrest the two for their resistance to the settlers' dubious claims to the Wairau valley.3 They were portrayed consistently across his range of writings, his journalism, his official documents and his poetry. The understanding he reached in 1843 was at its most influential twenty years later, when he was Premier, in his proposal for land confiscation and the introduction of military settlements. This, he said, would 'introduce and establish the permanent presence of a power sufficient to create and keep alive in the minds of the Natives that respect without which all attempts to civilise them are hopeless...' His rationale was very much in the pattern he adopted after the Wairau massacre. We are firmly persuaded that this basis of physical power is the best and only one on which to rear the superstructure of moral sway... This is the natural order of things. Until you get rid of the rank growth of savagery, how can you rear the plants of civilisation? The axe and the fire are wanted before the plough and the seed-corn. Cut down the towering notions of savage independence so long nursed by the Maoris - stately, imposing, even attractive though they be - root up their ill-concealed passion for lawless self-indulgence. Then you will have clear space and a free soil for the culture of the gentler and more useful products of the heart and the intellect.'4

Notes of an Excursion to Massacre Bay

Domett did not arrive in New Zealand with such views. In contrast we have his record of an 1842 excursion to Massacre Bay by a Nelson party led by Arthur Wakefield. …

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