A book reviewed recently offers an interesting perspective on how the soft bigotry of “humanitarian imperialism” bequeathed to Maori less than colonisation might have--excluding them from the benefits of full property ownership, and from being a full part of the worldwide division of labour, due to fears that the poor dears might not cope.
It’s worth pondering.
After its job was done, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society merged in 1836 with what was called the Aborigines’ Protection Society (“aborigine” here meaning “native” rather than folk who might be familiar with Redfern).
For more than seventy years, the Aborigines' Protection Society, a select group of the great and the good, fought for the natives of the British Empire and against the tide of white supremacy to defend the interests of aboriginal peoples everywhere.
At least, that’s what it says on the label.
Their generosity, though, fell short of respect, seeing native peoples as something like children, in need of protection rather than rights.
Eager readers might recall this as the height of Britain’s fascination with “the noble savage” – a mythical being who flourished in the wild but would need protection from the dark forces of civilisation now beginning to encircling it. The Aborigines’ Protection Society quickly made themselves “the principal lobby for what was called the native interest.” With the influence of “humanitarian imperialism” at its height and the settlement of New Zealand already under way, the Society saw its job as promoting “humanitarian intervention” by colonisers to safeguard and progress “the interests of natives.” Yet,
for Heartfield, the history of the APS is a warning of the unintended consequences and destructive outcomes of such interventions…
Heartfield’s conclusion [in short, was] that their humanitarian advocacy had failed.
And he seems to have a point: though the failure was not due to the brutality of colonialism, but to what we might characterise as the perils of starry-eyed altruism. Paternalistically fearful of the effects of the “dregs and scum” of empire upon these noble savages, the Aborigines’ Protection Society …
warned of ‘the contaminating influence and example of these unhappy outcasts’ on natives. To rein in the settlers’ ambitious expansion, the Crown and its governors enshrined the rights of natives to land, to be held in reserve by the Crown and so withheld from the settlers.
Heartfield’s own conclusion is bog standard anti-colonial bilge -- that “their attempt to give the project of empire a moral purpose was delusionary” -- “that the outcome of their advocacy enhanced the destructive impact of imperial power” – but add to his mix an understanding of property rights, and what they were denied by this paternalism, and his questioning appears to answer something that occurred to me when I wrote about Fiji’s poverty a few years back. Fiji’s backwardness today, I suggested then, is a direct result of the efforts of early missionaries and colonialists
to protect native Fijians from the winds of the modern world. What [they] did however was to remove any possibility of Fiji itself ever growing up and being part of that world.
Those early missionaries and colonists wanted to ensure that Fiji didn’t turn into New Zealand, and when you see the poverty produced by pre-industrial Fijian agriculture on land with only the shadow of real ownership attached, you realise how well they unintentionally succeeded. But there’s a lesson here for New Zealand too. About property rights.
In 1913, US Justice Joseph McKenna declared,
The conception of property is exclusive possession, enjoyment and disposition [by which is meant to include the right to sell]. Take away these rights and you take all that there is of property. Take away any of them and you take property to that extent.
By ramshackle tenure in Fiji and by formally collectivising Maori land in NZ, the full blessings of property rights were denied to both. In Fiji, all land was excluded from real individualised property rights; in New Zealand, in the early days, just Maori land. The motive was “pure,” you might say, if by “pure” you mean altruistic, (and is reflected in that weird second article in Te Tiriti making Crown exclusive land sharks for Maori), but on their own motives butter no parsnips. The effect is that to this day Maori land remains an outlier from the country’s formal property system, and its putative owners are still mired in the largely feudal system of land tenure of old in which the Browntable stay on top, bestowing occasional pats on the head on those below.
This is not a benefit for its collective owners, but a tragedy.
Formal property is more than a system for titling, recording and mapping assets [observes Hernando de Soto in his book ‘'The Mystery of Capital], it is an instrument of thought, representing assets in such a way that people’s minds can work in them to generate surplus value… Well-crafted property [systems] enable us to pinpoint the economic potential of resources so as to enhance what we can do with them. They are not ‘mere paper’: they are mediating devices that give us knowledge about things that are not manifestly present… The capacity of property to reveal the capital that is latent in the assets we accumulate is borne out of the best intellectual tradition of controlling our environment in order to prosper.
In his invaluable book describing the history of property rights, The Noblest Triumph, Tom Bethell enumerates what he calls
the four great blessings that cannot be easily realised in a society that lacks the secure, decentralised private ownership of goods. These are: liberty, justice, peace and prosperity.
These were amongst the blessings that Europeans brought to New Zealand as part of their Enlightenment culture, but by formally barring Maori land from the system of full, secure, decentralised private ownership, it denied to Maori their full fruits Instead,
as Heartfield demonstrates, the Aboriginal Protection Society … wanted control of land [to remain with indigenes], but its advocacy ultimately reduced native lands available to protectorates, reservations, and mission stations. These lands were inadequate for their populations, under-funded, corruptly managed, subject to settler encroachment, and marginalised from the modernising sectors of the economy.
With Maori land still collectivised, and with all those same symptoms still extant, then despite some obvious areas with which I’d disagree, it looks like Heartfield’s book may be worth examining in more detail.
- Humanitarian Imperialism in the Age of Queen Victoria – James Heartfield, SPIKED