by Roger Childs

“Speeches of welcome and praise extolling the advantages of the advent of the railway were given by the principal natives in their old style.” –New Zealand Herald 15 February 1893 reporting on the Auckland railway reaching Rotorua 

Benefits, what benefits?

Radical Maori activists and their fellow travelers are loath to concede that there were any gains for Maori from colonisation. 

In a Q&A session on TVNZ in 2019 Reporter Jack Tane asked Minister of Crown-Maori Relations, Kelvin Davis, to name one good outcome of colonisation. He was taken aback by the question, and in spite of being asked multiple times, refused to identify a single benefit, instead arguing that we should be honouring the contribution made by Maori. His response is all too common.

A timely publication bases on primary sources

Adam Plover’s recently published book New Zealand, the Benefits of Colonisation is very timely as colonisation features prominently in the new history curriculum for schools, due to  be taught in 2023. The author systematically covers the many benefits for Maori in food, clothing, housing, transport, hygiene, health; ending superstition and slavery; the position of women, children; ending infanticide, tribal warfare and cannibalism; fauna and flora and the introduction of law.

His evidence is largely from primary sources — the observations of people who were present at the time – principally four perceptive gentlemen: missionaries William Williams and James Buller, the New Zealand Company’s Edward Jerningham Wakefield and W.F. Maning trader, writer and judge.

The detailed descriptions of the four, plus others, vividly illustrate the major problems facing Maori before the Treaty of Waitangi and the very significant benefits of British rule. In his first chapter the author sets the scene for the post-Treaty British approach to controlling New Zealand, and John Robinson’s quote is very apposite: It is important to recognise that this was to be new, untried effort in humanitarian colonisation. 

The British Colonial Office accepted that mistakes had been made in the past with their imperialist policies, so New Zealand was a good place to try a new approach. A key element was the granting Maori the rights of British citizens – an extraordinary measure which was guaranteed in Article 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Plover acknowledges that Maori uptake of the opportunities provided by colonial rule and the interaction with settlers was a major factor in improving their lives. On the negative side he notes that tobacco and beer were undesirable imports.

Overwhelming evidence of improvement

On the last page the author makes the critical points that It is time to put to rest once and for all the lie that colonisation was bad for Maori. It was, in fact, the most positive and beneficial thing that happened in their history. He also pays tribute to the Maori of the time … for having the wisdom to accept new ways that lifted them out of darkness and insecurity into the light and comfort of modern civilisation.

The Benefits of Colonisation is a very thorough and comprehensive coverage of how Maori life was transformed in a very positive way as a result British colonial rule. The observers of the time largely tell the story from their first-hand experience. Highly recommended.

New Zealand: The Benefits of Colonisation by Adam Plover should be in your local bookshop, however, it can be purchased direct from Tross Publishing, postage paid, for $30