Alfred Brown’s library – Te Papa, Tauranga

I recently spent a couple of days in the library of this important Church Missionary Society missionary in New Zealand.

What I was struck by:

  • the striking aesthetic of this nineteenth century missionary’s book collection;
  • the way in which prayer books, hymnals, and bibles – including Maori language versions of these – were given as gifts between close friends and colleagues; to the extent where these particular types of books seem invested with significant Christian sentiment;
  • the obvious importance of history and historical knowledge – especially of England and Britain itself – to Brown and his contemporaries. A selection of history titles from the library includes histories of England by Oliver Goldsmith (1823), F. Guizot (1846), J. L. De Lolme (1822), S. Turner (1828, 1835), along with memoirs and biographies of stars in the Evangelical firmament, including Sir T. F. Buxton (leader of the House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines 1836-37), William Wilberforce and Rev H. Venn (Clapham group);
  • there are also quite a few ‘political’ works, including a volume of the Protestant Magazine (1841), Henry Lytton Bulwer’s France, Social, Literary, Political (1834), and two volumes of Charles Dickens’ Household Words;
  • some curious items, including an 1803 edition of Francis Bacon’s works with an inscription ‘The Gift of Miss Georgiana Harriett Bridge’; and an 1807 edition of Hugo Grotius’ De Veritate Religionis Christianae, which is entirely in Latin and is extensively marked-up. In fact, this is about the only book that I came across that was marked-up. Unfortunately, Alfred Brown was not an annotator, however, this does not diminish the value of this collection in painting a picture of late Georgian and Victorian print culture – of course, with a strong Evangelical emphasis.

Thomas Carlyle on … Democracy

The enigmatic Victorian writer, Thomas Carlyle, who was inspired by German Romanticism, wrote some pretty fascinating lines on ‘democracy’ and ‘government’ in his Past and Present (1843):

Democracy, which means despair of finding any Heroes to govern you, and contented putting-up with the want of them, alas, thou too, mein Lieber [German: my dear], seest well how close it is of kin to Atheism, and other sad Isms: he who discovers no God whatever, how shall he discover Heroes, the visible Temples of God? Strange enough meanwhile it is to observe with what thoughtlessness, here in our rigidly Conservative Country, men rush into Democracy with full cry…

The notion that a man’s liberty consists in giving his vote at election-hustings, and saying, “Behold, now I too have my twenty-thousandth part of a Talker in our National Palaver; will not all the gods be good to me?” is one of the pleansantest! Nature nevertheless is kind at present, and puts it into the heads of many, almost of all…

Government can do much, but it can in no wise do all. Government, as the most conspicuous object in Society, is called upon to give signal of what shall be done; and, in many ways, to preside over, further, and command the doing of it. But the Government cannot do, by all its signaling and commanding, what the Society is radically indisposed to do. In the long-run every Government is the exact symbol of its People, with their wisdom and unwisdom; we have to say, Like People like Government.

Only E P Thompson could say it like this

From ‘In Defence of the Jury’, in E P Thompson, Making History: Writings on History and Culture (New York: New Press, 1994):

… Two basic propositions of democracy are so bizarre to their [UK government bureaucrats’] atrophied faculties that they really cannot comprehend them. The first is that there could be occasions when laws are judged by the public to be oppressive, or when the subject requires a defence against the Crown (or organs of the state). In our history it is at precisely such moments that the jury has interposed the power of its verdict…

The defence of the subject against the over-mighty state was once regarded – by such men as Sir William Blackstone and Thomas Jefferson – as a crucial function of the jury, elevating it to a high place among the defining institutions of a political democracy. For Alexis de Tocqueville the American jury as an ’eminently republican element in government’ which ‘places the real direction of Society in the hands of the governed’. I know of only one old judge, long retired from practice, who even understands this language today. And he – Lord Devlin – now writes in elegiac tone. Thirty years ago he could still say that ‘the jury is the lamp that shows that freedom lives.’ In 1978, he warned of the gathering signs ‘that the jury has another half-century or so of life to be spent in the sort of comfortable reservation which conquerors, bringing with them a new civilisation, assign to the natives whom they are displacing.

The second proposition is beyond the comprehension not only of our betters but of almost any of us in these latter days. It is the quaint archaic notion that anyone – randomly selected – might be able to perform a human-sized office or role. We have less sense of ourselves than villages in Medieval times, who rotated parish offices, or 18th century tradesmen who could find it in themselves to defy the Attorney-General and the Bench. The jury is perhaps the last place in our social organisation where any person, any citizen, may be called upon to perform a fully adult role. It has not been shown that our fellow citizens have failed, when placed in the jury box. They appear, when they find themselves there, to undergo some inexplicable reversion to pre-modern modes, and to find in themselves resources to fulfill the responsibility. But the very idea of it is ‘illogical’ and absurd. Only a crank could possibly suggest such a direct exercise of democracy today. Indeed, although as a historian I have to confess that the thing has worked, I can scarely comprehend it myself.

Originally published in the London Review of Books, Dec 1986.

Notes on Colonial-Imperial knowledge formation

from gt-nana’s stamp album, hand-dated 1919

A number of scholars of British India have sought to understand the ways in which British power was exercised through constructing knowledge about Indian societies, including their histories and literatures, languages and geographies. At one end of the spectrum, intellectual followers of Edward Said argue that the British imposed their own knowledge and cultural forms on India. At the other end, some historians argue that the British had necessarily to work with what they found, relied on local informants, and had to tailor any ‘exotic’ ideas from Britain to different Indian contexts so as to make their rule acceptable.

One important scholar of the second school of thought is Eugene Irschick, of University of California Berkeley. In his 1994 work Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895, Irschick presents an argument that the British and south Indians mutually constructed narratives about the past (including a Tamil ‘golden age’) in order to construct socio-political regimes, including the sedentary village-based tax system.

Irschick summarises his underlying argument that ‘structures of meaning and institutions are cultural products negotiated by a large number of persons from every level of society in a given place and time…a single individual cannot produce meaning, a cultural development, or an institution by herself or himself’ (Preface, p ix).

Irschick argues, contra Edward Said, that the response of Indian locals to the British administration, including the information or knowledge they provided about local property and tax relations, was integral to the property regime that emerged under British rule. Moreover, south Indian rulers often exercised a considerable degree of independence from the British power. Hence, British rule was not hegemonic in the sense that the governance regimes instituted were the result of an imposed and totalizing discourse of the imperial power. Nor were they institutionally dominant. Rather they were the product of complex interactions between British administrators and indigenes and involved ‘heteroglot’ features or multiple voices and the contest between different interest groups. In summary, the construction of knowledge or meaning in the imperial settings of south India was a ‘dialogic’ process. (pp 8-9) Irschick expostulates:

Moreover, the segmentary organization of local polity enabled the population to develop significant arenas of juridical power not subject to formal British authority for many years. In the nineteenth century, after the British evolved their bureaucratic structure and a system of living in specific spatial areas set apart from the local population, there were hundreds of domains on the subcontinent where British authority was altogether lacking or uncertain. The shakiness of British dominance enabled these regions to serve throughout the period as critical sites for productive epistemological projects….

In the long term, therefore, scientific [or bureaucratic, utilitarian] discourse and the institutions that represent it create a negotiated, heteroglot construction shaped by both the weak and the strong, the colonized and the colonizer, from the present and the past. Thus, it is not possible to find a single, definite origin to these meanings and institutions. They are neither ‘European’ or ‘indigenous’. We must not essentialize any of the positions held by those involved in the dialogue. Equally important, we must recognise that the voices speaking at any given moment are tied to that specific historic instant. (pp 9-10).

In other words, knowledge about the present and the past of south Indian society was the product of a number of interacting sources and interests, making the institutions produced by this dialogic process a new creation, neither native nor exotic. At the same time, the participants were responding to the real-world contexts – economic, political, ideological – of their interactions, making their institutional creations potentially quite local and particular. As Irshick articulates, ‘discourse develops to deal with new historical requirements’. (p 11)

Sir Christopher Bayly’s work on Indian information orders and the British administration of India (Empire and Information, 1996) built in part on Irschick’s analysis, seeking to describe how a new Indian ecumene or public sphere was created through information and knowledge exchange and the creation of new print cultures from the 1830s especially. Bayly’s more recent work on Indian intellectual history (Recovering Liberties, 2012) can be compared with this earlier work. Bayly’s idea of Indians responding to western or British liberal ideas from within their indigenous worldviews and contexts, in an ‘upward hermeneutic’, takes Indian intellectual and political contexts seriously, while detailing the engagement of sectors of the Indian elite with new constitutional and governmental ideas from Britain, including ideas about representative government and independent courts.

Irschick’s Dialogue and History also draws connections between the newly constructed information and agricultural orders of South India and conceptions of citizenship in a ‘modern’ state. Irschick argues that:

the privileging of sedentarization resulted from an attempt on the part of both British and Indians to define citizenship strictly in terms of a society whose members possessed given places of residence, who were embedded, and who did not move about. The focus on sedentary society emerged as part of a general development in which the British and local agricultural groups interacted to create a high place for agriculture as the basis of the state.

In essence, European and local groups shared a conception about the quintessential mark of citizenship in a modern unitary state. Agriculture and the transferability of land, then, became the basic form of economic life in India and elsewhere. (p 191)

Irschick captures this construction of a ‘normative village’ as making people residents or citizens, as ‘giv[ing] them an address’. (p 192)

In the islands of New Zealand, British missionary knowledge and culture, followed by state culture, also intersected with indigenous (Maori) knowledge and contexts to create new knowledge and ideas about politics and society. The very conceptions of ‘Maori’ and ‘New Zealand’ are arguably two of these. Such connections and processes of historical change have not been adequately considered in New Zealand historiography.

Clifford Geertz – historical anthropologist

Every now and again one reads some truly arresting prose. I’ve been reading some the last couple of days in F Inglis, ed., Clifford Geertz: Life Among the Anthros and other essays (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010) – a collection of some of Geertz’s essays from as early as 1967 and as late as 2005 (he died in 2006), published in such places as the New York Review of Books and Dissent.

Geertz was one of the most influential anthropological thinkers of the last half century, developing an approach to the anthropology of culture that he called ‘thick description’ (an idea he borrowed initially from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle). Thick descripion is exactly that: a fulsome description of human behaviour in all its multifarious and complex contexts. It is, in fact, more an interpretation or construction of behaviour – in fact, often, others’ interpretations of behaviour – than it is ‘description’. In the same 1973 essay in which he explored ‘thick description’, he also characterised his understanding of ‘culture’ as ‘essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’. Reflecting a type of speech-act theory that has also animated intellectual history (or the history of political thought) since at least Quentin Skinner and, before him, Wittgenstein, Geertz elaborated further on his concept of culture:

Once human behaviour is seen as … symbolic action – action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies – the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense … The thing to ask is what their import is: what it is, ridicule or challenge, irony or anger, snobbery or pride, that, in their occurrence and through their agency, is getting said…

Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse. That is not, of course, its only aim – instruction, amusement, practical counsel … are others … As interworked systems of construable signs (what, ignoring provincial usages, I would call symbols), culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly – that is, thickly – described.

(The Interpretation of Cultures, (Fontana, 1993 (1973), pp 5-6, 9-10)

An essay title that particularly caught my eye in the 2010 collection was ‘What Is a State If It Is Not a Sovereign?’ (pp 200-218). A few select quotations:

Whatever directions what is called (in my view, miscalled) “nation building” may take in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, or Latin America, a mere retracing without the wanderings, the divisions, the breakdowns, and the bloodshed of earlier cases – England, France, or Germany, Russia, the United States, or Japan – is not in the cards, nor is the end in compact and comprehensive identities, hypostatized peoples. History not only does not repeat itself, it does not purge itself, normalize itself, or straighten its course either… (pp 201-202)

The standard characterization of a “state” as (in Max Weber’s formulation) a vested authority possessing a monopoly of legitimate violence in a territory and that of a “nation” as (in Ernest Renan’s) the spiritual fusion of a collection of particular ethnë into a grande solidarité, a common and transcending conscience morale, seem increasingly difficult of application to such tangled conglomerations as these [states in the ‘postcolonial’ world such as India, Indonesia, Nigeria…], where not only is legitimacy dispersed and contested but an enormous catalogue of hybridized and shape-shifting parochialist groups – ethnic, religious, linguistic, racial, regional, ideo-primordial – rub up against one another in almost continuous friction and “the narcissism of small differences” (to use again Freud’s overused phrase) seems the major driving force of political struggle. Compacted sovereignty, centered and inclusive, is hard to locate and rather looks like remaining so. (pp 203-204)

Later in the essay he applies this anthropological vision of state formation more widely to history:

… What is a state if it is not a sovereign? The institutional projection of an ongoing politics, a display, a delineation, a precipitate, a materialization.

The state in Indonesia and Morocco, as in Nigeria and India (or, for that matter, in Canada, Colombia, Belgium, Georgia, or the United States) is less the shadowing forth of a quasi-natural peoplehood, the summarized will and spirit of a pluribus unam nation, neither of which seems more than wishfully or residually to exist, than a rather hurriedly concocted social device designed to give form enough and point to a clatter of crossing desires, contending assumptions, and disparate identities. (p 212)

That might, or might not, be a good description of the New Zealand colony, colonies and tribal polities in the period c 1830-1865. The intent is still to seek out an answer to the question of whether, in this period, a single political society was created or imagined that transcended the various white settlements and tribal polities of these islands – such that the wars of the 1860s can be seen as a ‘civil war’.

(For an obituary of Clifford Geertz in the New York Times, see here.)


New faith, new law

I was in Ōtaki recently. One of the aims of my thesis is to explore the origins of the Kīngitanga on the Kāpiti coast. At Ōtaki is one of New Zealand’s oldest churches, Rangiātea. In wandering around the urupā there, I came upon the memorial to Matene Te Whiwhi-o-te-Rangi who, with Te Rauparaha’s son, Tamihana, went to the Bay of Islands in 1839 and brought back Octavius Hadfield (‘Harawira’) as a missionary. Te Whiwhi and Tamihana took the Christian message of peace and forgiveness (the new ‘law’) to the South Island, to Ngāti Toa’s enemies, and made peace. They acted as peacemakers in other contexts.

Te Whiwhi’s memorial stone tells this story and ends with an injunction to his people: ‘Kia mau ki te whakapono me te aroha’ – Hold fast to faith and love.

… and more books

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted. I’m still busy collecting and reading relevant historiography. Just took a photo now of the latest arrivals.


I’m also starting to frame up my first chapter. It’s been nice to see some ideas come together even though quite rough and tentative.

In other history news, I was quite happy to pick up James Belich’s Paradise Reforged (2001) for $3 – out of the ‘withdrawn’ bin at Hutt City Library. In case you were wondering, this was not the Library’s only copy – Belich lives on in the Hutt.