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.

The politics of history… J G A Pocock

I’ve been reading J G A Pocock, a New Zealander with an international reputation in the world of humanities. Initially a professor of political science at Canterbury University in the 1960s, he has become a leading scholar on the history of Western political thought, particularly of the 17th and 18th centuries. He is now Emeritus Professor at John Hopkins University, being for many years a highly regarded teacher there. From a distance he has made a number of forays into New Zealand history, or rather, has commented at some length on its historiography. This includes a number of fascinating book reviews of leading New Zealand history publications. View these at London Review of Books archive link (part only available, and some interesting letters to editor included at the bottom).

Some select quotations from his 1998 article, ‘The politics of history: the subaltern and the subversive’, reproduced in Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp 239-256:

“There is a kind of history, of great though not exclusive signficance, which is the creation of a political society that is autonomous, in the sense that it takes decisions and performs actions with the intention and effect of determining its character and the conditions under which it exists. That history is both the record of those decisions and actions (here the society both makes its history and narrates it) and the narrative and myth of how the society is said to have come into being and acquired the capacity for autonomy in the sense just stated. Together, they form what I shall term the ‘constructed history’ of the society. This construct will, of course, be the work of the dominant members of the society. But in so far as some of them are equals of others, it will record contests and come itself to be contested between the antagonist equals. And it is possible that it will record the resolution of these contests and come to be the narrative of a state of affairs in which equals rule and are ruled by one another…

“… ‘Subaltern’ is, I believe, a term derived from Gramsci, used to denote the culturally subordinate and, in particular, those having no identity except that which they can derive from the fact of their subordination. ‘Subversion’ is a strategy in which they and others may engage. We have been thinking of history as a means to the creation of identity. But it is possible that the Self cannot be created without the simultaneous invention of Others, whose history is that of the creation of the Self, but who have no part in it. Since this is an ideal type or pure case, it is hard even to imagine, and harder still to discover, as we travel in space or time, in unmitigated reality, though we shall find many cases of which it is close enough to being descriptive to make its employment urgently necessary…

“… Interesting historiographic situations now arise. Such a ruling free people will possess a history of itself as free; it will be an internal history, narrating the interactions between members of the society that make it a free political system, as well as of its attainment of sovereignty over itself that is no less necessary to its freedom. In either of these narratives, its rule over subject peoples, whose history is not the history of its freedom, will appear contingent and occasional rather than necessary. This is how the history of Britain has come to be the history of England, in which that of a non-entity called ‘the Celtic Fringe’ puts in an occasional and unnecessary appearance. But the internal history – the history in this case of England – is valid as far as it goes, and to that extent it will not be possible for the histories of the subject peoples, as they come to be constructed and written, to subvert and unmake it. It has been both enacted and written, and cannot be written out of the record. The ruling free people has to be persuaded that there is a history of its rule, which it may not know or want to know, as well as of its freedom, which it does know and wants to go on affirming. It is not necessary to persuade it, because it is not true, that the former history is the absolute subversion and negation of the latter; but what the relation between the two histories is remains to be debated, and the debate entails the self-constructed history of the ruled as well as the rulers…

I want now to consider this problematic in a particular context, that of ‘post-colonial’ politics, in which I shall suppose the presence of a free and formerly ruling people, with a history of its own, and of a people till recently subject to political and cultural domination, now asserting the autonomy necessary to resume, re-narrate and re-enact a history similarly its own…

“… Indeed, the indigenous have good grounds for regarding ‘history’ as an instrument of alien domination, since this is form in which it was proposed to and imposed upon them. European settlers came and said that agriculture, commerce and capitalism as they practised them were the means of breaking with the cosmogony of the pre-contact cultures, which they termed ‘primitive’, and entering the history of the progress of mankind. They used ‘history’ as an idealogical justification of their dispossession and disruption of indigenous cultures, though the terms on which aboriginals and tangata whenua were admitted to history, or in some cases vigorously asserted their action and autonomy within it, varied very widely from one colonial history to another.

“It is easy to say that the ejection of indigenous peoples from cosmogony and into history was effective, and that their present assertion that history has been unjust is nothing other than their means of acting within history and not cosmogony. Even revolution, were such a thing still possible, would be no more than an essentially European instrument of self-modernization on neo-European terms. Yet cosmogony remains an instrument by which modern or post-modern indigenous peoples criticize history itself even as they practise it. Europeans remember and in certain ways still practise it, and even where the indigenous are obliged to reinvest it, having lost it in the history imposed upon them, they accuse the history which has been the means, as well as the narrative, of their dispossession from it.

“The political dialogues now going on in lands of settlement where indigenous peoples are reasserting their identity and claiming autonomy are, therefore, of considerable theoretical interest, since they entail debates between histories and counter-histories. Suppose that the history of one’s society (one is tempted to say ‘one’s country’) is revealed to have been that of interaction between two peoples, each living in a history not reducible to the terms used in recounting the history of the other; so that the citizen (and with the citizen the historian) is required to live, speak and act in two non-reducible histories at once, and in the interactions between them. Can there be a politics, a citizenship, an autonomy and its history, as means to identity, in a life lived on these terms? And will its political form be that of a commonwealth or only a confederation? The problem is that of autonomy, identity and sovereignty in a multiplicity of histories – and we have to consider the possibility that these histories may be a means to their own undoing…

Barbarism and Religion - Pocock

“… These counter-histories [of Enlightenment] interpenetrate one another. As the Enlightenment history imposed upon the tangata whenua is both antagonist and protagonist in the histories they must construct of themselves, so the cosmogony of their animist past and present finds resonances in Enlightenment thought. It finds them in Rousseau, who thought of a natural innocence against which all civil society and its history were an aggression; it finds them in Herder, for whom history resided in the many self-imaginations of disparate cultures through incantation and myth. These Counter-Enlightenments, I argue, arose within what we call Enlightenment rather than from opposed sources, and they arose precisely as Enlightenment history [i.e., agriculture, commerce, capitalism] was being imposed on the tangata whenua and Enlightened minds were wondering what this meant. I am in need, then, of some narratives of what is going on in Enlightened historiography, additional rather than opposed or even alternative to that narrated by Isaiah Berlin [The Age of Enlightenment: the eighteenth-century philosophers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956)] or John Gray [Enlightenment’s Wake: politics and culture at the close of the modern age (London: Routledge, 1995); and Endgames: questions in late modern political thought (Oxford: Polity Press, 1997)]. To relate these narratives will serve various purposes as well as illuminating or complicating the matter of indigenous historiography. It will bear on the problem of the definition of Europe, and of Britain’s place in Europe. It will bear out, and put into practice, my contention that historiography consists in the multiplication of narratives, between which there may exist a variety of relationships, many of them political. And it will lead back to the problems of living in a world where one finds oneself involved in a plurality of histories, each one of them potentially the means of defining a sovereignty, and yet both sovereignty and history are widely regarded as marked out for demolition.” [article ends]

My thoughts:

Pocock highlights some fundamental problems in constructing history or histories in a post-colonial environment. First, that history is itself a political activity, in that histories often serve the purpose of explaining the origins and nature of political societies. Second, that a political society that has imposed itself on another will, at the same time, have imposed its history – a history that both legitimates the former’s existence, but also serves to legitimate the imposition by recourse to categories that are understood to explain a universal history of human progress, viz., in the case of Western European colonialism/imperialism, such categories as agriculture and capitalism, and in particular individual property and the democratic liberal franchise (or perhaps, colonial ‘self-government’). Third, the imposition of that history in the course of carrying out the colonial project, thus rendering the histories of the subject people as ‘subaltern’ or subjugated, means that it may be difficult today to recover or reconstruct a history of the subjugated peoples that does not also utilise the modes and idealogies of the colonizer – perhaps, for example, in the use of the language of political liberties or rights including the right to participate fully in the colonial polity.

Yet, Pocock seeks to problematize the binaries of this picture – colonized/colonizer, western/eastern – by indicating that Western histories are themselves the product of contest and even the melding of different modes of thought: Europeans themselves still possessed older ‘cosmogonies’ and folk traditions that have survived the supposedly imperious and subjugating march of modernity. The biography of Britain’s great Liberal politician, William E Gladstone, is one reminder how ‘liberal’ sentiment could entirely coexist with a Christian moral lens. This accords with what Chris Bayly argued in his seminal global history The Birth of the Modern World (2004), that in many ways the growth of organised religion and religious sentiment and ideas, were more formative of the 19th century world than the idealogies of free trade or democracy.

So we need to problematize even the idea that the 19th century was ‘Enlightened’ if by that we mean the march of capitalism, science and liberal democracy. There were many enlightenments and many modernities, such that the term needs to be stripped of its essentialist baggage. And, of course, there were many and varied ways in which indigenous peoples engaged with these multiple modernities. This varied engagement must mean, then, that many and varied histories ‘happened’ or were produced through this engagement. It cannot be that we have just two histories – colonized/colonizer – but rather, as Pocock suggests, a multiplicity of histories. In Aotearoa is it clear than different tribes/iwi/hapu engaged with British imperialism and colonialism in varied ways, along a spectrum ranging from outright rejection to outright embrace. The task is to discover the internal cultural logics that explain these varied responses, in such a way that the significance of tribal discourse and cosmogonies are maintained but without marginalising the displacements that took place through encounter with European Others. The other task is to explore the multiple meanings of colonialism to those that lived or enacted it, in the context of many texts and histories that suggest different or even conflicting meanings.