Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Rent Due for a Skull

This is a political parable,
a harbour at low tide.

Like most self-absorbed bookish people, I was a particularly narcissitic and introverted youngster. Who am I? is, naturally, every teenager’s favourite question, and one with a particular charge for those of us located in social formations shaped by white settler colonialism.

This painting helped with that query, and it still does.

Dunedin Public Library bought McCahon’s Otago Peninsula in 1947, shortly after it was first shown at Modern Books, and it’s been with them ever since. In the late 1990s and early 200s I worked at the library and, each day, made sure I’d look at this painting. It moved me intensely then, and still does, as much for what it represents as for its own artistic achievement.

What it represents is where, more or less, I’m from, and is the part of the world I feel the greatest attachment to, but McCahon’s appeal as a tool for teenaged myth-making suggests other, more symptomatic, affiliations for me now.

Most obviously, there are no people. That’s self-absorption again, sure (“people seemed rather profane”), but also it indicates a choice in political fantasies: South Island myth instead of “natural occupancy”. The fit between personal story and wider ideology seems so neat now, the gestures of affiliation so dishonest, I’m struck by how strongly they’re still felt.

Because, of course, this isn’t a landscape without people at all. The road out along the peninsula was built by convict labour and those convicts were prisoners of a one-sided war, victims of the government’s attack on the settlement at Parihaka in Taranaki. Prophets Te Whiti O Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi led resistance to land confiscations and the assaults of the Crown on their people’s land.

The response, as today’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage gloss it:

In 1879 the government began to survey 16,000 acres of the confiscated Waimate Plain without setting aside Maori reserves. In response, Maori, led by Te Whiti and Tohu, began ploughing land occupied by settlers. Arrests followed, but the pace of protest continued to grow. Parihaka became a symbol for many Maori, and its people received food and other supplies from many tribes throughout the country – including those as far away as the Chatham Islands.

On 5 November 5 1881 a force of almost 1,600 Armed Constabulary and volunteers, led by Native Minister John Bryce, invaded Parihaka. The Maori inhabitants, numbering about 2,000, put up no resistance. Instead they greeted Bryce and his men with bread and song. They were dispersed and Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested. The soldiers then systematically wrecked the settlement, and Maori tradition speaks of brutality and rape.

We visisted the memorial to the fallen on our way out to Taiaroa Head.

Their followers were scattered in convict gangs around the country. In Otago they were kept, in what must have been awful - and awfully cold and dark - conditions, and many of them died building the road out to Portobello.

You can still see the secure doors into the hillside, reminders of this act of confiscation and war.

I’m shocked, and chastened, to think how often I’ve been driven unthinking past these signs of colonialism’s recent - and unresolved - foundational acts of violence.

In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.

Colonial violence manages to be both pervasive and invisible. Here is the memorial to the dead and their unmarked graves, in the Northern Cemetery not far from my parents’ house, and on the way to my old high school.

Recognising that, and reflecting on its implications for what comes next, is essential. Most of the sneering done against white liberal guilt is part of a rear-guard action opposing not guilt but recognition of historical wrong (cf local variations on what Paul Gilroy calls postcolonial melancholia). You can’t feel for this part of the world and not learn to see it historically; I can’t think back on my earlier veneration for McCahon’s Otago Peninsula without seeing now some unconscious evasion.

But this isn’t enough, is it? Guilt paralyses, disabling more productive political responses (to say nothing of ‘white’ or ‘liberal’, two other terms I’d reject for reasons I’ll leave for another day). And I still love that painting, and for some of the reasons I first loved it too. Recognition of historical wrong-doing is essential, as is reparation from those responsible and, within our movement, support for the struggle which continues. Remembering all the variations on “the stain of blood that writes an island story” is one task but isn’t, on its own, enough.

Another peninsula memory suggests itself. This season last year, just back from Tokyo, in Dunedin for a friend’s wedding, we stayed overnight at a crib (holiday house) at Ōtākou. It was a marvelous night: swimming in early evening sunlight, enjoying a barbeque, drinking and talking with friends under the stars. It’s hard to think of many other situations where people of the kind I know could afford a beach-front holiday house. That party and that largely Pākehā gathering’s relaxed sociability was possible, though, because we were on Maori land. I mean this quite literally: it's Ngāi Tahu land. Te Runaka o Ōtākou administer the land on which the cribs are leased, and it is their conditions - no fences, no expensive developments, accessibility - which makes the area so affordable and friendly, a centre with a rich history of working-class holidaying and recreation (my own grandparents in the 1960s had something similar). Ōtākou is a centre for Kai Tahu, of course, and, from it, they’ve created quite special possibilities for Pākehā.

That particular hospitality is not an experience from which I want to generalize too glibly but, given the status of the foreshore in current New Zealand politics, it feels like one which matters.

So that, readers, is how I spent my summer.

A Note on the South Island Myth

Since it’s deployed in the more-or-less orthodox fashion above, I’m putting a wee note here to indicate it’s more complicated than all that (all that being, among other things, Stephen Turner’s line from Quicksands we all seem forever to be quoting about how “the will to forget the trauma of dislocation and unsettlement has taken the form of a psychic structure”). There’s much more at work. See Richard Reeve’s very thoughtful piece on the myth and contemporary poetry.

I should also make it clear here, if the text above isn’t, that what I’m criticizing is my own initial imaginative investments in McCahon, not McCahon’s own relationship with Te Ao Maori, some of the tragic complexity of which Ian Wedde has explored elsewhere.


  1. I too remember that painting very well. A timely reminder Dougal thank you.

  2. Yes, thank you for that. It's also a reminder that claims such as Maurice Shadbolt's in the Shell Guide to New Zealand - that the country was unique in that its infrastructure hadn't been built with recourse to slave labour - need to be heavily qualified.

    I was just commenting elsewhere about the New Zealand entry in The Onion's altas, which is all about the nation being a film location for Hollywood based studios, and includes the following caption: "The beautiful landscape of New Zealand, digitally enhanced by the removal of the aboriginal Maori". That we are so keen to exploit the ways in which our landscape can be made to resemble a vacuous English pastoral is depressing, of course, and the processes of elision here are so much more crass than in the McCahon, where the cultural dimension was certainly not lost, the absence of people or man-made structures notwithstanding. But you could analyse our landscape painting tradition within that continuum, with its attendant historical amnesia.

  3. Thank you too, cuz! Glad you liked it.

    @Giovanni: interesting points, reminding me also of how the tourism slogan "100% Pure" has taken on a life of its own and pops up in strange places doing some pretty heavy ideological spade-work.

    The point about English pastorals is central to the current moment with The Hobbit etc, but there's something else at work in the older South Island tradition, yes? The anti-pastoral nature of those myths is what makes them so powerful: that we're face-to-face with Timeless Land (as the Graeme Sydney book glosses it), terrifyingly adrift from history and social markers.

    Thanks for the typo-spotting too!

  4. Charlotte Chadwick9 January 2011 at 21:51

    Thanks, Dougal, for another deliciously thought-provoking piece and for all those fascinating footnotes/links to chew. And throughout, the raspberry ripple of that beautiful McCahon. Yum yum-happy summer!

  5. Thank you for this, on which I have been musing for much of the week. I'm currently winding up a final unit in a general introduction to the humanities for bridging-level students, in which we do some cultural studies and go to the museum. We've been talking about history as narrative and the museum as the theatre of national identity, and I've been thinking about the way in which migration is foregrounded as the common element of all ethnic histories here. When I suggested to the students that some Māori might not want to see it that way, or participate in that particular national narrative (itself to my mind a younger cousin of Sinclair's apotheosis-of-the-Pākehā-welfare-state version), there was some confusion. This post better articulates at what I was getting. (Or, in the TL;DR version: Slavery OMG!)

  6. Thanks for the comment, Harvestbird, and I'm pleased the piece was of some use.

    I learnt something looking up TL;DR. I've half been hoping for a comment somewhere on colonial history ending up as ROTFW (Rolling on the floor weeping) but no luck yet.