Extract from The Unsettled by Richard Shaw


An extract from Richard Shaw's upcoming book The Unsettled: Small stories of colonisation:


We also stir up emotions when we begin rummaging around in our history. The affective texture of the words people have sent me sprawls across the emotional spectrum. Some carry guilt. As someone with more than a passing association with the Catholic Church I like to think I know my way around this stuff, and can distinguish between the paralysing effects of guilt and the impetus it can generate to understand what is hiding behind the historical veil. Shame, too, can be the trigger for taking responsibility for acting on aspects of our past.

At the other extreme are the words of rage, which bring to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s view that ‘all anger is a response to fear’. I don’t know what it is that so frightens people who are ‘sick of the maorification (sic) of everything’, but my sense is that it likely has something to do with an unacknowledged dread of being forced to confront what lies behind the veil; with what happens when the ways in which we have always made sense of this country crumble and we are confronted with a very different history, the consequences of which we may need to take responsibility for understanding (if not addressing).

I think about what lies behind all of this emotion, and wonder if part of it might be that many Pākehā are ‘fretful sleepers’, children of colonisation who wish to be left to live in a ‘wishfully untroubled world’. But of course the place in which we live is far from untroubled, and the anxiety seeps through in all sorts of ways.

I’m interested in this, in how we react when our sleep is disturbed. For some — including those whose stories are in this book — there is a pull, a need to apprehend both the nature of our historical foundations and how to live well on them. But those who’ve sent me abusive messages have resorted to anger, unsettled, perhaps, by what lies just beneath the surface.

There is a sort of cultural thinness on display here; a defensiveness, as if some flaw in the rough scribble of our stories has been exposed, producing an aggressive determination not to engage with — or even to countenance the possibility of — other ways of thinking about our histories.

You could call this ‘settler fragility’, as sociologist Avril Bell does — the ‘defensive, emotional responses that white people have when confronted with discussions of racism’ and which ‘work to maintain the (racist) status quo by shutting down the conversation and turning attention to the hurt feelings of the (‘beleaguered’) white person’. Or you might think of it as an instance of what Charles Mills calls ‘non-knowing’, a kind of ignorance based on a continuous process of misrepresentation, evasion and self-deception, at the end of which it becomes impossible even to accept the possibility of an alternative understanding. A ‘non-knower’ does not refuse to concede that a different point of view may exist; rather, any such perspective has become inaccessible. It is — quite literally — not knowable.

Perhaps the anger is a reaction to the threat some see to what they imagine this nation to be. Democratic theorist Benedict Anderson speaks of the nation (any nation, but let’s talk about our one) as an imagined community. Anderson would say that New Zealand is imagined in the sense that we make it up with our symbols (beaches, baches, anything Anzac) and our rituals (being sweet as and all good, trying hard not to stand out, punching above our weight), and also in the way we identify — through the constant evocation of our symbols and performance of our rituals — as part of this community. He doesn’t mean that New Zealand is ephemeral or insubstantial: he simply means that it is as much a state of mind and a collection of practices as it is a place.

I don’t know what sort of image exists in the minds of those who object to a polite exchange about colonisation. Perhaps this New Zealand would once again have exemplary race relations if only stroppy Māori and guilt-ridden Pākehā would stop talking about Pukehinahina Gate Pā, Parihaka and confiscated land and just go away. And stop holding their damn ‘slivers of mirror’ up to the ‘ordinary and the everyday’ and making everyone feel uncomfortable. Whatever that imagined place is, when its foundations are questioned — and a different imaginary community is proposed — some people don’t react well.

(The imagining of New Zealand in ways which gloss over the unpleasant bits has been going on for a long time. In 1867 Sir George Grey addressed a crowd in Timaru, and suggested that ‘this colony is what may be called a colony without blame. Our greatest enemies cannot say that anyone ever came here either to destroy the native race or to seize their land.’ This was just three years after Rangiaowhia and two since virtually the entirety of Taranaki had been confiscated by the Crown. But Grey had clearly convinced himself that it was all good — because if the land was empty, surely we needn’t feel bad about taking it?)

Or perhaps something altogether more elemental and far more unsettling is going on. ‘In ancient Scotland’, I learn from Gillian, one of those whose voices are heard in this book, ‘the sluagh were the damaged souls of the dead who had not been laid to rest, and they roamed the land, seeking out those amongst the living who were susceptible, who had no firm ground of their own. The sluagh could visit upon these people their own broken souls’. Gillian has heard the voices of the sluagh in this country many times over the years. She heard them ‘when Dame Naida Glavish said kia ora’, and ‘again after Judy Bailey said pō marie, peaceful evening, on the television news, and once more after Dame Hinewehi Mohi sang the national anthem in te reo’. She sees the sluagh, too, in the early settler-colonisers’ greed for other people’s land. Sees in this the behaviour of ‘broken-souled people’ estranged from the numinous and torn from the clan. People who were — and whose descendants perhaps still are — fretful sleepers.

I think about Gillian’s words in the context of some of the language used in the stories we tell about our pioneering pasts. At the heart of these accounts there is a rupture between the land and those who walk it. We talk of breaking in the land, clearing the bush and controlling the gorse — as if the land is the adversary that needs to be subdued lest it rise up against us. As if it recognises us for what we were (and perhaps still are): interlopers who sundered the land’s ties with the first people. But what those ‘short, small, heavy words’ of domination — cut, chop, slash, burn — obscure is everything that was here before the survey pegs, the fence line and the boundary markers; before we erased the bush and burned ‘the very surface of the earth’.

Deep histories of the land. Stories of those displaced from their whenua. Other lives lived before we arrived, and which were fractured so that we might become these new things, New Zealanders. We use this blunt, bludgeoning language without thinking much about it, but when we do we are not only invoking an imaginary New Zealand but we are also — carelessly or by design — obliterating an earlier Aotearoa.

This, too, is a form of violence, and I suspect most of us don’t give all that much thought to the material impacts it has had. But Kiaran, another contributor to this book, has. ‘Speaking to my grandfather,’ he reflects, ‘I think they saw purchasing land from the government which had been confiscated was just the natural order of things. There was (is) a line of thinking that “the Maoris weren’t using the land in any productive way so we might as well have it.” Ironic that so many Irish were driven from their land but they felt ok about taking it, albeit indirectly, from Māori.’

Kiaran has identified the two most powerful logics that people deploy to justify the historic alienation of Māori land. First (putting aside the small matter of determining what ‘productive’ looks like), isn’t there some natural, immutable requirement to put land to productive use? And second, if the land has already been taken by the state, you are not actually doing the taking when you buy the farm. What you’re doing is making the most of an opportunity, which is an altogether different thing. The mouths of gift horses and so forth.

Here are a couple of examples of what this sort of thinking can lead to in the real world. In the interests of opening up ‘non-productive’ land owned by Māori for (productive) settlement, the Native Land Settlement Act 1907 entitled Maori Land Boards to compulsorily vest ‘unutilised’ Māori land in themselves, and to require Māori landowners to sell half the vested land. Forced sales, in effect, that left even less land for the mokopuna. The view that land must be productive — that this is somehow the natural way and that people who haven’t got that memo deserve to lose their land — hasn’t gone away. Neither has governments’ appetite to impose it on Māori. In 2013, the panel reviewing Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 ‘proposed significant changes to the administration of Māori land, including a diminished role for the Māori Land Court, new categories of owners (“engaged” versus “disengaged”), [and] the provision to appoint external managers for land owned by “disengaged” or absent owners’. These days there are plenty of Pākehā who chafe at government intervention: can you imagine their response if they had to endure this kind of intrusion?

. . .


The Unsettled: Small stories of colonisation ships 14 March. Order here.