Elizabeth Heritage examines a new book on Aotearoa's past.
There is a strange uneasiness in being white: we can be comfortable only if we don't think too hard about our own racial identity or how we came to be in this land. As a Pākehā of English descent and tangata tiriti, I want to address this silent avoidance at my centre. I'm looking to the literature of Aotearoa to help.
Jerningham is a new historical novel by Cristina Sanders (Pākehā of Norwegian descent). It is told from the perspective of the fictitious Arthur Lugg, a white Englishman who immigrates in 1839 to the settlement that would become Wellington. The other main character is Jerningham Wakefield, the real-life son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, director of the infamously exploitative New Zealand Company. The main action of the novel takes place in the years following the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, culminating in the violent conflict at Wairau in 1843. There are some minor Māori characters but Jerningham is mostly concerned with the feelings and actions of white people.
As the narrator, Arthur functions as the lens through which we experience the historical world imagined by Sanders. Arthur starts out as a white supremacist in the most basic and literal sense: he straight-up believes that white people are better than brown people. It therefore follows that the enaction of colonisation is a good idea.
As the story progresses and he gets to see first-hand how the colonial sausage is made, Arthur becomes squeamish. Could colonialism be … bad?
"I couldn't imagine how I would feel if a foreign contingent arrived in the countryside in Somerset and spilled out endlessly over our hills, trampling over the graves of our forebears." Could it be that te ao Māori is already a complex civilisation, rich and thriving on its own terms, rather than a degraded form of white society in urgent need of rescue?
"The natives entwined all this physical activity of the earth into ancestral stories, earnestly explaining their chiefs' descent from physical objects, and I grew to understand this belief as a leap of faith, in much the same way we believed our Queen was appointed by God."
Notably, however, Arthur's squeamishness never translates into a real change of heart – nor does it stop him from taking up arms against tangata whenua when his fear of brown people overcomes his slightly troubled conscience. He just learns a bit of te reo and calls that enough. By having Arthur dial his racist ideas back just a little, and having him wring his hands over the plight of the poor natives just enough, Sanders renders him palatable to the modern white reader.
In Jerningham, we can feel pretty okay with our history. Sanders writes in her acknowledgments: "The Wakefields were scoundrels, but they founded a wonderful city." The central premise that white society is, on balance, better than te ao Māori rests unchallenged: white racial comfort is thus maintained.
Sanders' excuse for this equivocating is historical accuracy. In her author's note she writes: "Please know that the attitudes to race … in this novel are not designed to offend or provoke, but to illustrate the common perspective among 1840s colonials. They weren't bad people; this is what they knew … above all, I have aimed for authenticity."
This kind of pleading gives me considerable pause. White supremacy was what they knew, sure, but it wasn't all they knew, or all they were capable of knowing – nor should it be all a creative writer is capable of imagining.
It strikes me as profoundly disrespectful to assume that our white ancestors were unable to recognise the brutality of colonialism for what it was or to choose to work against it. White supremacy is something we know now, too, but it does not follow that we are incapable of critical thought or action. Jerningham ultimately feels like a failure to engage in the best creative possibilities of historical fiction.
This matters because the kinds of histories we choose to remember and the kinds of stories we choose to tell are important. Before we can do the essential work of truly reckoning with our colonial past and redressing past and present wrongs we have to first imagine the ways in which that mahi is both possible and desirable.
In Imagining Decolonisation, Moana Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, Rongomaiwahine) writes about how narrative shapes the world around us. "History became a kind of rebranding in which colonisation was not seen as a violent home invasion but a grand if sometimes flawed adventure … These colonial stories may have helped explain the taking of power, but they could not give the colonisers the comfort of a place to stand."
Aotearoa is my home and I want a good place to stand here. We have to imagine – and then build – something better.
Jerningham by Cristina Sanders
The Cuba Press, $37
by Elizabeth Heritage