10 Questions with Danny Keenan


Q1: You have written books on armed conflict and passive resistance in the nineteenth century. The Fate of the Land feels like another layer of the struggle, this time in the political arena. Would that be a fair summation?

Yes, the main focus is Māori political engagement during the 20-year period of the Liberal government from 1891. However, I also lay some of the earlier groundwork for this political activity, such as Māori meeting to discuss kotahitanga in 1856; the emergence of the Kīngitanga in 1858; the creation of the ruinous Native Land Court in 1862; the land confiscations after 1863.

Q2: What happened when Māori eventually were able to vote?

Once the vote was acquired in 1867 — 27 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed — rangatira occupied the four Māori seats and Māori political engagement intensified. The best Māori could hope for — or so some thought — was to work with Parliament, highlighting inequity, advocating urgent reform, trusting Parliament’s willingness to partner with iwi and hapū to deliver fairness and justice. But not all Māori were so trusting, instead prefering to work outside Parliament through the Kīngitanga, the Ōrakei Parliaments or Te Kotahitanga (the Māori Parliament), campaigning for political independence whilst criticising the government’s ongoing land acquisition policies.

Q3: Why did you want to write this book?

Some years ago, I taught a Massey history paper on Māori politics during the nineteenth century. The course was mainly founded on primary materials sourced from the government. I always thought a publication covering the whole period would be useful, especially if its focus could also be on the determined endeavours of Māori from all walks of life who were vigorously engaging in the political process.

It was a time when we saw some of the most amazing Māori men and women emerge. While they are rightly revered by their people in local contexts, they were also active and extraordinary on a national stage. Writing this book gave me a chance to present some of their stories, many of which are little known to a wider readership.

Q4: How would you sum up its main message?

While Māori chances of protecting their lands, especially through some form of state-sanctioned tribal governance, were negligible, the book tries to show that Māori political endeavours were nonetheless multifacted, multi-layered and determined. Rangatira continued to struggle for meaningful political traction and, in the face of widespread dispossession and loss, they fought hard to safeguard their remaining customary lands and, by so doing, maintained and asserted the integrity of their te tino rangatiratanga, which is still intact.

Q5: What were the main tensions between those who sought to protect rights within the system and those who felt independence was the only choice?

The differences between groups inside and outside Parliament were sometimes very stark and other times very subtle. This is a nuanced history and the idea proposed by some historians that Māori were cleanly split doesn’t really hold up, even though, at the time, the split seemed very pronounced.

All of the Māori Members of the House of Representatives (MHRs) wanted urgent reform of the predatory Native Land Court and they used their positions to forcefully advocate for reform, if not outright abolition. They also advocated for things like development monies and other farming assistance. To attain such things, it was essential, they argued, to remain in Parliament. 

Some, such as James Carroll and Apirana Ngata, believed that operating outside Parliament at all was futile. Others were ambivalent; they supported Te Kotahitanga, but wished to do so from within Parliament, using their positions to advocate strongly for an independent Māori Parliament.

Those operating outside Parliament, such as Paora Tūhaere, challenged its role, arguing for an autonomous Māori body of equal status. So did the hundreds of rangatira who attended the inaugural gathering of Te Kotahitanga in April 1892, thereafter attending their annual meetings.

The Kīngitanga also opposed the Parliament. However, they did eventually support their own man — Henare Kaihau — to run for Parliament, and later, as a strategic move to protect his people, King Mahuta joined the Legislative Council.

Q6: What was the most challenging aspect of the research?

The complexity and length of the period covered — ultimately about 70 years — was very daunting. So much happened, it was no small challenge to figure it all out, and in particular which bits belonged in my story.

Dealing with all the people was also a little overwhelming. I wanted to include as many Māori as I logically could, telling their stories, however briefly. This entailed a lot of careful checking so that happenings, relationships, spellings, tribal affiliations and macrons were all correct.

When I write, I am mindful of the general conventions that pertain to the writing of ‘Māori history’, which emanate from the conventions of the marae. For example, there is a general convention in Māori history that you should only ‘write about your own’.

This meant I was only able to say so much about some people to whom I am not related — it’s for their families to tell the whole story. So, for example, my extended observations on James Carroll are quite carefully written, awaiting the amazing day when one of his family will write his biography, as Joseph Pere has written about his great-grandfather Wiremu Pere.

Q7: Was there a person who stood out particularly for you?

Yes, James Carroll. I think he dominates this book, even though he is surrounded by other rangatira who were equally outstanding. I introduce Carroll with a preliminary assessment of his qualities and contribution because I realised that I couldn’t go past him — on the eve of the Liberals taking office, when he was finishing his first term in Parliament, he was already commanding significant attention.

Thereafter, Carroll is never far from the action. His appointment as Native Minister in 1899 was uncontroversial, such was his talent, yet eight years earlier he had been forcefully blocked by colleagues from assuming that important position.

Ultimately, the outcomes for Carroll — and for Māori — were disappointing, but throughout this long and multi-faceted history, with its many twists and turns, Carroll looms so large and exercised such power that he is without doubt the most commanding Māori person — or any person— to emerge from this history.

Q8: How would you sum up the experience of Māori political struggle at that time?

It was very difficult, because the stakes were so high. With Māori land holdings rapidly diminishing, rangatira from all over the country tried everything they could to stem the losses. However, in the face of an unsympathetic Parliament unwilling to accommodate Māori beyond marginal political representation at best, Māori did not have a lot of options.

So, rangatira travelled monumental distances, constantly meeting, getting their heads around difficult legislation, coming to terms with ongoing losses, considering options for political responses that might persuade an otherwise intractable government, all the while dealing with, at times, sharp differences of opinion as to how Māori might emerge from all this with some asset base still in place. 

Q9: What are the impacts on more recent land rights issues?

From today’s perspective, we can see how difficult it really was to stem the losses that would continue at least until 1967 when the Māori Affairs Amendment Act gave rise to Te Rōpu Matakite o Aotearoa and the 60,000-strong Māori land march of 1972. That march constituted a sobering epilogue to the struggles of rangatira to protect the land.

We can all feel the losses and their impacts upon pā and papa kāinga everywhere. Our understanding of the Māori situation today is much enhanced by knowing a little about what happened to Māori during the Liberal era, especially where the loss of land is concerned; but also, with Parliament becoming the only option, the compromising of effective Māori political representation. But we can also draw some comfort and inspiration from the stories of the rangatira who worked so hard to stem the tide.

Q10: What are your thoughts on some of the recent Māori history debates, like the establishment of a day to commemorate the Land Wars as part of the story of Māori land loss?

Personally, the ‘New Zealand Wars’ debate was disappointing because, with such a long-established literature, very little was new. The New Zealand Wars Day, too, was also disappointing because it was set for 28 August, a date that had nothing to do with the wars. Instead, it was the date of the signing of the 1835 Declaration of Independence. To me, this meant the day was not about remembering the wars but about ongoing political leverage, which, in a sense, summed up the whole debate.

A further reason then which persuaded me to write Fate of the Land was to bring another perspective to a much longer political history of hurt, dispossession and loss than is covered by the land wars but which extends much beyond, whilst remembering and celebrating those rangatira who feature so prominently in that history.