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CHRIS TROTTER: The Pakeha Quest

THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT the words “Pakeha theologian” that causes my hackles to rise. Not because I am averse to discussing theology – far from it – but because today’s Pakeha theologians almost never talk about the God of the Old and New Testaments. Their deity is te Tiriti o Waitangi. A god from whom all Pakeha New Zealanders are expected seek absolution for the colonial sins of their fathers.


In an article entitled “Pakeha Identity And The Treaty”, posted on the E Tangata website, “Pakeha theologian” Alastair Reese argues that those New Zealanders who are not tangata whenua can put an end to their “Pakeha existential dilemma” by acknowledging themselves tangata Tiriti – people of the Treaty.


Reece contends that: “Pākehā are gifted an identity in the Treaty, along with associated rights and responsibilities. Māori identity is affirmed in the Treaty, as are their rights and responsibilities.”


Did you spot the not-so-subtle distinction in Reese’s formula? Māori identity is “affirmed”, but the identity of Pakeha is “gifted”. Whatever the nature of the relationship Reese sees emerging from the Treaty “covenant” may be, it is not a partnership of equals.


There is something deeply offensive in the image of Pakeha New Zealanders, wracked with existential angst, drifting, like so many rudderless colonial ghost-ships, twelve thousand miles from “Home” in the terrifying vastnesses of the South Pacific. It is an insulting caricature of the men and women (my own ancestors included) who put all those dangerous miles behind them to find a better life, and to build a new and fairer society – one very different from the society they left behind.


Like many of the Scots who settled in Otago, my great, great, great, grandfather abandoned a Scotland whose hereditary clan chieftains were betraying and harrying their own people. While in the salons of London these great lords spoke movingly of the indissoluble bonds of duty that bound them to their dependents, their agents were busy evicting thousands of crofters from their homes to make way for the considerably more profitable flocks of Cheviot sheep.


This quest for a just society informs the history of Pakeha settlement in these islands. The impulse to build a “Better Britain”, where the injustices of the Clearances, and the state-sponsored violence of the “Peterloo Massacre”, could never be repeated. High on a hilltop, just 50 kilometres north of Dunedin, stands the memorial to John Mackenzie, Lands Minister in the Liberal Government of John Balance. It was Mackenzie who oversaw the breaking-up of the great landed estates belonging to the wealthy elites who historian Stephen Eldred-Grigg dubbed the “Southern Gentry”. Mackenzie had witnessed at first-hand what landed “gentlemen” could do.


Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his New Zealand Company may have dreamed of replicating Mother England, and all her proud injustices, in the South Pacific, but the story of Pakeha New Zealand is the story of the seekers, dreamers and political campaigners who constructed what foreigners would come to call (with a mixture of admiration and surprise) “the social laboratory of the world”.


Back in the 1980s my wife and I rented the upper-floor of the St Andrews Presbyterian Church manse, once home to Rutherford Waddell, the clergyman whose sermon against sweated labour, “The Sin of Cheapness”, sparked the formation of the Tailoresses Union of New Zealand. The Otago Daily Times itself led the campaign which culminated in its creation.


The quest for social justice, for a nation better than the benighted realms of Europe could ever hope to be, is woven into the fabric of Pakeha New Zealand. That it is being unpicked now by the very forces the Mackenzies and Waddells struggled against is the true tragedy of our times.


So, no thank-you, Mr Reese, Pakeha New Zealanders have no need of te Tiriti’s “gifts”. What we need is to break the neoliberal spell under which this country continues to languish – drifting without purpose or direction. That awakening will not be assisted by “historians” writing the achievements of the Mackenzies and Waddells, the Seddons and Savages, out of our children’s textbooks, and replacing them with decontextualised horror stories of colonial murder and mayhem.


The greatest gift of the Treaty of Waitangi was its pledge of equality for all New Zealanders. My identity as a Pakeha New Zealander is bound irrevocably to the fulfilment of that historical promise.



This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 March 2023. Chris Trotter blogs at Bowalley Road

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