The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

25
Southern Islands: New Zealand and Polynesia

RAEWYN DALZIEL

In the mid- nineteenth centuryNew Zealand became the furthest frontier of the British Empire. It was not uncommon for writers to use the colony as a metaphor for distance; the New Zealander as an analogue for the stranger, the outsider with the puzzled gaze. Yet, as with all colonies of settlement, the purpose was to shrink distance, to eliminate strangeness, imposing British civilization and control on a land viewed as a wilderness and on an indigenous people seen as barbarous. Coming within the Empire at a moment of liberal humanitarianism, New Zealand experienced a colonialism and colonization less brutal than some. Maori, a tribal people who had occupied the country for over a thousand years, were settled agriculturalists with powers to resist, negotiate, and adapt. For years British control was fragile as the migrant aspiration for material prosperity and control conflicted with the Maori desire to retain land and autonomy. Nevertheless, annexation and colonization were acts of possession and dispossession, settlement and unsettlement. By 1914 New Zealand's humpbacked, mountainous, but fertile land had been traversed by Europeans, renamed, and domesticated. The radical transfer of ownership and control over land and resources, the creation of a grassland, exporting economy and a state system modelled on that of Britain seemed to prove the success of the colonial experiment. Their cost to Maori and race relations had been enormous.

New Zealand was annexed by Great Britain in 1840, at a time of supposed low interest in Empire. Direct rule followed some fifty years of contact by sailors, traders, missionaries, and officials, the advance guard of an Empire being fatally led, as Lord Melbourne said, 'step by step over the whole globe'.1 While the violence of some early encounters and British antipathy to formal expansion in the late eighteenth century meant that the claims to parts of New Zealand made by Captain James Cook in 1769 were never validated, the British foothold in Australia ensured that New Zealand and its people would be incorporated into Imperial strategic and economic designs. By the 1790s British naval vessels were visiting

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1
Melbourne to Howick, 16 Dec. 1837, cited in Peter Adams, Fatal Necessity: British Intervention in New Zealand, 1830-1847 ( Auckland, 1977), p. 110.

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