‘Webs of Empire – Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past’ by Tony Ballantyne

Tony Ballantyne 'Webs of Empire', Bridgid William Books, April 2013

Tony Ballantyne ‘Webs of Empire’, Bridgid William Books, April 2013




Tony Ballantyne,

Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past,

Bridget Williams Books, 2012

ISBN 978-1-927131-43-5


In chapter 10 of this important collection of essays on New Zealand’s colonial past, Tony Ballantyne records a Damascene experience in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Examining the Polynesian Society Collection he discovers correspondence about the origins of the Maori between Samuel Peal – a naturalist and ethnographer living on India’s northeast frontier – and the leading founding members of the Polynesian Society, Percy Smith, Elsdon Best and Edward Tregear.  This opened his eyes to the connective nature of early ethnography and to the extensive web of imperial debates about racial origins.  From this moment (the year was 1997) he began to question whether New Zealand’s colonial history could be adequately understood within the framing narrative of the bi-cultural nation state.   The correspondence between Peal and the Polynesian Society was an example of how individual colonies developed within a larger imperial system in which the creation and dissemination of knowledge was central. The bi-cultural tradition of New Zealand historiography which has been dominant since at least the mid-twentieth century, Ballantyne came to realise, had marginalised those ethnic and religious identities and intellectual connections that lay outside the boundaries of the nation state.

All Ballantyne’s subsequent research and writing has grown out of this insight, and has developed into a powerful attempt to bring about a paradigm shift in New Zealand historiography.   As he writes in the first essay of this volume:

‘The unquestioned use of the nation state as an analytical framework for historical analysis [has] … worked to downplay New Zealand’s place within the empire and the ways in which imperial ideologies and racial thought were transplanted to New Zealand, contested by a variety of groups, and reworked into novel arguments in response  to local pressures.  The template of the ‘island story’ … [of] splendid isolation and internal development, which has had such a powerful purchase in British history, has also provided a popular model for the writing of colonial histories.’

This opening essay, ‘Race and the Webs of Empire’, brilliantly demonstrates his case.  Ballantyne shows that the Aryan theory of the origins of Maori, widely discussed around the end of the nineteenth century and seen by later New Zealand historians as a somewhat quaint theory of solely national provenance, was part of a much wider imperial debate about the place of the Indo-European or Aryan family within the evolution and spread of humankind.

Subsequent chapters provide further examples of how bi-cultural narratives of the nation state and national identity have resulted in a kind of tunnel vision that fails to see the significance of other ethnicities and influences.  Chapter 4, ‘India in New Zealand’, demonstrates that exchanges between New Zealand and Asian societies have long complex histories and are not simply a recent phenomenon driven by modern Asian economies.  Chapter 8, ‘War, Knowledge and the Crisis of Empire’ discusses the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s alongside the Indian Mutiny / Rebellion and other colonial uprisings of the 1850s and 60s.  Time and again Ballantyne suggests that the investment of New Zealand historians in the nation state, and their preoccupation with race and land as the key nodes around which a national history has been organised, has isolated them from developments within the larger historiography of Britain and its empire.   New Zealand historiography, he implies, has some catching up to do.

Ballantyne is an exponent of the ‘new imperial history’.  He and others of this tendency, Antoinette Burton, Catherine Hall, and Ann Stoler for example, are concerned with the complex patterns of cultural traffic that constituted both the colonies of empire and Britain itself.  For them, the emergent nation state can only be fully understood in the context of its colonial relationships.  Metropole and colony defined each other.  Ballantyne’s own distinctive contribution to this approach has been to bring the relations between the constituent parts of empire as well as the relation of imperial centre to colonial margin into the analysis.  In his work, both here and in his monographs Orientalism and Race (2002) and Between Colonialism and Diaspora(2006), the image of the web or the network has replaced that of the hub and its spokes.

Another aspect of Ballantyne’s critique of how ‘national histories have colonised too much of New Zealand’s past’ is to bring the local as well as the trans-national into his re-framing of New Zealand history.  Chapter 13, ‘Thinking Local’, examines the township of Gore in the second half of the nineteenth century to argue that local histories have been too readily sidelined or assimilated into narratives of the aggregated nation.  Local and regional traditions and identities were often as strong as national ones, and uneven development and geographical isolation often ensured their persistence.  Think of the West Coast of the South Island, for example. Rather than assuming that the nation is the ‘default or natural unit for historical analysis’, Ballantyne re-examines New Zealand’s colonial history in terms of other spatial units, the local as well as the global.  Throughout this collection he insists that the analytic primacy of the nation in the established traditions of New Zealand history has detached the colonial history of the country from its imperial contexts, its connections to Australia, the Pacific, Asia and the Americas, and marginalised the significance of the local.

Ballantyne’s critique of what he sees as an inward-looking, nation-bound tradition of historical writing resonates at this moment.  In Britain, a government hostile to Europe and to immigration is introducing a new school history curriculum with an insular national narrative as its spine.  This morning, as I write, the Muslim Council of Great Britain has publically criticised the new curriculum for ignoring the part played by Muslim people and cultures in Britain’s island story.  Around 10% of children in British schools are Muslim but the history they will be taught will take no account of the role of Muslims in shaping a multi-cultural Britain and Europe.  To John Donne’s most famous lines, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’, I would add, nor for that matter is an island.  The reframing of New Zealand’s history that Ballantyne urges is appropriate and necessary for a moment when the bi-cultural narrative that has dominated New Zealand’s island story is no longer adequate to the task of explaining the past to the present.

There are holes in Ballantyne’s web.  The Pacific is almost totally ignored, and with it the work of its leading scholars such as Nicholas Thomas and Epeli Hau’ofa.  Chapter 7, for example, which deals with missionaries, is weakened by its failure to take any account of the connections between missions in the Pacific islands and those in New Zealand, with Sydney at the heart of an extensive Oceanic missionary network.  Australia, too, is strangely under-represented in Ballantyne’s great web.  Chapters 2 and 3, which deal with the Chinese in nineteenth-century New Zealand, would have been strengthened by taking account of the toxic discourse on Chinese immigrants across the Tasman. These are criticisms from within Ballantyne’s method, examples of where he insufficiently practices the approach he advocates.

Webs of Empire is nevertheless a defining contribution to New Zealand historical writing and thinking.  It breaks decisively with a tradition of national histories stretching from J.C. Beaglehole and Keith Sinclair to James Belich (though Ballantyne does tend to homogenise this tradition) and lays out the prospectus of a different kind of history.  The problem for him and others now practicing a similar kind of history will be how to communicate their vision, based as it is on fine-grained and intensively researched analysis with an off-shore sweep, to a wider New Zealand reading public familiar and content with the tradition of national histories against which Ballantyne sets his face.


Rod Edmond

April 2013