Harry Evison on Walter Mantell, Ngāi Tahu and the making of racism in New Zealand

by Susanne Kemp

Following on from a short weekly series on aspects of New Zealand working class history in the 1900-1951 period, the Canterbury Workers Educational Association is now running a monthly series on wider aspects of history and contemporary politics.  The new series kicked off on Friday night (April 27) with a talk by veteran educator and author Harry Evison.  Harry is probably best known for his many years of work on Ngāi Tahu history and for doing a lot of the spade-work that ended up in the Ngāi Tahu claim.  His latest book is New Zealand racism in the making: the life and times of Walter Mantell and he divided his talk into two parts, Mantell and the origins of racism especially in New Zealand, taking questions after each.

Mantell was a major figure involved in essentially swindling Ngāi Tahu but later appeared to have regrets and tried to seek redemption.  This was the conventional view of Mantell and one shared by Ngāi Tahu and Harry personally.  However, more recently Harry turned up a load of stuff here and in Britain that showed Mantell had never really changed. He simply chose to present himself in a particular way to Ngāi Tahu.

Harry indicated that Mantell was a liberal and had some admirable personal characteristics; the issue was not about Mantell as an individual.  Rather, he was acting as an agent of the government and the government was operating a capitalist approach to land.  When one of the audience asked if the problem was different attitudes to land on the part of Maori and pakeha, Harry said no, because they didn’t have different attitudes to the land; their attitudes were the same.  The problem, he noted, was capitalism.  In the British isles and other parts of Europe, the “common people” were being dispossessed of common land – for instance, enclosures and clearances were still going on in Scotland and Ireland when the British state was taking over these islands.

Sir Tipene O’Regan, who was sitting in the front row, seemed not to be enthusiastic, however, about the linkage between capitalism and the dispossession of Ngāi Tahu.  During the discussion he said he had never had any problem with the capitalists in his fifty years of representing Ngāi Tahu; his problem had always been with the left and was due to the left’s universalism.  Sir Tipene also said that he’d dealt with 12 prime ministers and the most racist was Walter Nash and the most accommodating was Jack Marshall.  The meeting chairperson, Philip Ferguson, pointed out that it was a mistake to see Labour as part of the left and that there was no contradiction between universalism and recognising that there were different cultural practices among different peoples at different points in time.

In the second part of his talk Harry dealt with the arrival of colonialism in New Zealand, again making clear that it was a specific kind of colonialism, namely capitalism.  He talked about how the early pakeha here – whalers, sealers and so on – weren’t racist.  He also mentioned how he’d looked at the diaries and journals of people like Cook and Banks and didn’t find racism in them. Racism in NZ, he argued, was the product of the dispossession of Maori that was essential for capitalism.  It wasn’t a ‘pakeha thing’, it was a capitalist thing.

Harry also pointed out that Ngāi Tahu, while doing some cultivating, were primarily hunter-gatherers.  He noted that local capitalist/landholding pakeha upper class folk like Rolleston were appalled by their “primitive communism” and talked about how they needed to be “civilised” (ie dispossessed of the land on which they did their hunter-gatherer primitive communism and be turned into wage-slaves).  And that this had been going on in Europe itself for a few hundred years, so was about capitalism and class, not about people’s skin colour or ethnicity or cultural beliefs.

He also noted that prejudice predates colonialism (and capitalism), but these prejudices were all over the place and were mainly about strangers; they didn’t involve a systematised pattern of ideology and practice centred on arguing that there were different races with biological characteristics and a racial hierarchy.

Harry pointed to the end of the 50s/start of the 60s as the turning point for Maori rights, recognition of inequality and starting to tackle it.  He pointed to research done by a visiting American academic around 1959/60 which showed systematic inequality, the ‘No Maoris, No Tour’ campaign (apparently Tipene got batoned by the cops during those protests – unfortunately, it didn’t radicalism him, however) and the Hunn Report.  Harry seemed to quite respect Jack Hunn and he said that Hunn had identified 82 laws and bits of laws that didn’t treat Maori and pakeha equally.  He said the Hunn Report was a watershed because it rejected assimilation and advocated integration and integration was progressive because it meant Maori culture could be supported – ie integration was not just another word for assimilation if you took out the power equation.

About 35 people came, which isn’t bad for a central city event in Christchurch after the quakes, especially on a Friday night when the area is dead; we sold all 12 copies of Harry’s book that we had and took orders for four more.  People seemed to be very stimulated by the talk and discussion.  Although Harry is only a few years off 90 and is fairly deaf, he remains a fine speaker and educator.  It was certainly the most interesting political or historical meeting I’ve been to in the city for some years.

To find out about further forums in the series, you can contact the WEA at cwea@xtra.co.nz or directly contact the series organiser at philipferguson8@gmail.com