My MA thesis of 2007-08 on New Zealand parliamentary debates of the 1850s-60s emphasized the way history imbued the consciousness of the Victorians. In particular, when conceptualizing the history of the indigenous people Victorian New Zealanders encountered, they placed them in their own civilizational history: as Europe’s history had once been peopled by savages and barbarians who were civilised over time by the influences of religion, law, science, arts and commerce (in varying degrees depending on the perspective), so Māori could become civilized through similar influences. It was not a racial/ racialist discourse, rather an historical and jurisprudential one.
This ‘civilizational perspective’ (ref. Peter Mandler) was reiterated to me again today when looking at catalogues of early New Zealand libraries. I was struck by the prominence of history as a category. In fact in the 1861 catalogue of the Auckland Provincial Council library, and in the 1867 catalogue of the Canterbury Provincial Council library, history was the first category of arrangement. Photos of the first pages of these are appended.
And then I was reading historical anthropologist Bernard S Cohn’s analysis of colonialism’s forms of knowledge. What leads his list of modalities of knowledge? Answer: history, or the ‘historiographic modality’:
In British India, this modality is the most complex, pervasive, and powerful, underlying a number of the other more specific modalities. History, for the British, has an ontological power in providing the assumptions about how the real social and natural worlds are constituted. History in its broadest sense was a zone of debate over the ends and means of their rulership in India.
Bernard S Cohn, ‘Colonialism and its forms of knowledge’, in S Howe, ed., The New Imperial Histories Reader (Routledge, 2010), p 119.
I’ve also been reading J G A Pocock on history and the subaltern. But that should wait for another post.