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Past tense: an interview with James Belich

The historian has gone global with his new book on the rise of the Anglo-World. And he says it is time for New Zealanders to embrace their settler past and recognise that Pakeha ancestors were not models of virtue.

Why is it, asks James Belich, that here in Wellington, 19,000km from England, we are sitting in his booklined study speaking English? "That is a staggering phenomenon. The hard fact is that the world's leading power, with the exception of a brief moment in World War II, has spoken English for the past 200 years," says Belich, research professor of history at Victoria University's Stout Research Centre. "First Britain and then the United States. These are historical realities that need to be explained."

In his ambitious new book, New Zealand's best-known living historian has gone global. Building on the New Zealand experience, he has tracked the role "explosive" settlement on frontiers in Australia, Canada and the American West played in the remarkable rise and  staying power of the Anglo-World. The book, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939, was published in the UK late last month and will be released here on August 25.

Along the way Belich argues it may be time for New Zealanders to acknowledge the sheer nation-building chutzpah of their Pakeha settler ancestors. "You don't look to these people for models of virtue, but you do look to them as models of dynamism. They created a proto-people in 40 years, from 1000 Pakeha to 500,000 Pakeha by the early 1880s.

And what about the destructive impact that settlers had on Maori, on nature? Is he suggesting we get over that? "Yes, we do need to get over that, for God's sake. Anybody who looks at their history is going to find ancestors doing dubious things. Anyone who tries to convert history into an endless record of ancestors as virtuous moral exemplars is going to be disappointed. That's any history, not just New Zealand's."

At the same time, says Belich, New Zealanders do share a collective responsibility for the dispossession of Maori. "Maori should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but they need to be given back their bootstraps first," he says.

For a generation of New Zealanders, Belich has been an opinionated, insightful guide to grappling with the question of what it means to be an independent nation forged by a British and Maori past, and anchored in the Pacific. He fronted the groundbreaking TV series The New Zealand Wars, which documented the extent and skill of Maori resistance to British rule in the 1860s and 1870s. His books Making Peoples (1996) and Paradise Reforged (2001) sketched early New Zealand as a rambunctious, frenetic frontier territory, eager to find a separate identity from Britain. This, said Belich, was followed by a "tightening", in which New Zealand emerged in the 1900s as a staid, timid nation that treasured its tight cultural and economic bonds with Mother England.

Now, Belich is exploring those insights on a much bigger canvas, telling the story of explosive settlement across various Anglo frontiers, followed by economic busts and recolonisation in which economic links to and dependency on Britain increased. Along the way he asserts that the benefits didn't flow just one way and that settlements like New Zealand were vital in sustaining British power.

Although historians have made a meal of European imperial powers and their Asian and African colonies, little has been written about the contribution Britain's settler societies made to bolstering their parent's fortunes. "There's an ongoing debate about what kickstarted Britain; was it the slave trade, or was it the plundering of India? In terms of wealth, yes, the slave trade, the West Indies, the Indian subcontinent, they're all important. That's the kind of wealth injection that empires like, say, Spain and Portugal got," says Belich.

But he argues Britain's settler societies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and its links with the US gave Britain an extra edge over European rivals. The Dominions functioned as an extension of the great metropolis of London, just as settlement on the American West increasingly fed and supplied that other great Anglo city, New York. The remarkable thing, says Belich, is that in 1890, London and New York were the only two cities in the world with more than 2.5 million people.

"To actually bulk out the metropolis so you get virtual extra Scotlands, you need an economic and ideological link of another order and that's the relationship that Britain had with the Dominions. They supplied food like they were part of the British metropolis, and they fought like they were, so they were more like extensions of metropolitan Britain than the 'black' colonies." New Zealand lamb was marketed in Britain with rosettes saying, "I'm British from New Zealand".

"Dominions give Britain extra staying power and enable it to extend its career as a superpower for 50 years or so," Belich says. "They also enable Britain not to develop exotic sources of supply for spices and luxuries and goods they don't grow at home, but to create, thousands of miles away, Britain-like acres that are then designed to supply Britain.

"The main game of the New Zealand economy was supplying London; there was no other business that was anywhere near as important as that. That meant there was a cultural link. The inverse face of that was Monopoly boards with London streets on them being played for 50 years by New Zealanders without anyone noticing there was anything odd about it."

Paradoxically, the British Empire's relentless self-mythologising and hype may have been responsible for later historians overlooking what were real achievements. Belich says it is not necessary to celebrate Anglo achievements, but neither should they be denied. "There's a kind of pendulum where it's gone from this celebration of alleged Anglo-Saxon racial superiority to a denial of English precocity."

In his new book Belich abandons the terminology of empire, and instead sweeps up both British and American West frontiers with the term "Anglo-World". Right across that Anglo-World, something funny happened after 1815. A new pattern of settlement appeared, one with crazy, manic, optimistic growth that saw towns sprout like mushrooms. By 1920, the US contained 62 million people and Greater Britain (including the Dominions) 24 million. It was a rate of demographic growth that exceeded even that of the socalled Third World in the 20th century.

"You look at the growth of New York; up until 1800 it grows to a moderate size of say 20 or 30,000 over 200 years. But then you look at Auckland or Wellington, let alone Chicago or Melbourne, you find these cities sprout to hundreds of thousands in a matter of years. They are instant cities. And they're clearly a different phenomenon from the slow incremental growth of early modern settler societies. Between 1828 and 1841, the settler population of Australia and New Zealand quadrupled, increasing to about 210,000. In New Zealand, the non-Maori population rose from just under 30,000 to over 250,000 between 1853 and 1870, and then really boomed in the great influx of the 1870s.

"This impression we get of our settler forebears is as being worthy but somewhat staid, hardworking farmers; of whalebone corsets and carefully walking down the streets so you don't get your skirts dirty. But in fact these settler cities are maelstroms. They're just growing so fast that the main economic game in town is growth itself. There are animals, dogs and pigs rushing through them, and buildings going up and grand buildings right beside them. There was massive energy, but not a lot of careful rationality. It was like a great colonising crusade and the prime enemy is nature, and the incidental enemy is natives. But you cut through both like a knife through butter," Belich says.

"It's an extraordinary thing when you think about it, imagine yourself in mid- 19th-century England, as working people without much money, wrenching yourself out of that familiar context, and flinging yourself across the other side of the world. It was much more similar to going to Mars today than hopping on a plane for your OE; that massive wrench and the courage, and the willingness to risk that it must have taken, especially since the average death rate for kids on the voyage was one in six."

The turning point in Anglo history that enabled the English language to spread so decisively across the globe was a tidal change in popular attitudes towards emigration. Before 1800, most Britons saw emigration as "social excretion", as the fate of convicts or those so desperate they indentured themselves. But from about 1815, says Belich, the creed of settlerism appeared.

"It converted emigration within the Anglo-World from an act of despair that lowered your standing to an act of hope that enhanced it. It transferred a valued identity across oceans and mountains - not simply an identity as Britons or Americans, but as virtual metropolitans, full citizens of a first-world society," says Replenishing the Earth.

Closely entwined with it was an industry of boosterism, which depicted the difficult, faraway frontiers as utopias in the making. Settlerism, says Belich, had a paradise complex. New Zealand booster books were titled The Land of Promise and An Earthly Paradise, and wickedly inaccurate pamphlets about Wellington promised grapes and banana orchards. Migrants pitched in with letters back home filled with exuberant stories of plenty. Belich tells of one woman who wrote after two years in New Zealand, "My hair, from being thin and weak, is now so thick that I can scarcely bear its weight."

Everywhere across the frontiers, there were letters back home of abundance, of decent food and prime meat. Giant vegetables were a favourite. California featured cabbages seven-feet wide, and a Nebraska booster lecturing in England waved a 14-foot corn stalk. These may have been exceptional products of just-cleared virgin land, or of selective breeding, says Belich, but they were presented as the norm. Frontiers also competed against one another, with newspaper editors boosting their areas and running down others. Australia was derided as a "sheepwalk populated by nomadic burglars", New Zealand termed the Cannibal Isles, and the Great Plains of America spoofed as the Great American Desert.

Attitudes that New Zealanders regard as uniquely Kiwi in fact sprang up right across the British settler societies. One was the belief that "Jack is as good as his master" in the new country. Settlers, intent on producing a new world more to their liking, opted for egalitarianism and put limits on class deference. "We do not sit under the hedge to eat a bit of bread and cheese, but go indoors, and have the best that the country affords," one Canadian immigrant of the 1830s wrote back home. Settlers made the leap "because you believe you're going to get a life as well as a living". "You're not only going to get more reliable work and more reliable food, but you're going to get more dignity and more rights, and you're going to get access to hunting and to fishing. It's amazing how this resonates through the letters of early immigrants. And I think this notion of free public access to trout fishing and hunting and beaches is arguably a legacy of the settler transition that brought people to New Zealand.

"I think it's still quite strong among Pakeha New Zealanders, in particular. The descendant of settlerism, as I call it, was populism, and that kind of populism is still with us today and it does not like people fiddling with its access to trout streams and beaches and parks. Because these were the things that only the gentry were allowed to do in 19th-century Britain. People didn't want to be gentry, but they just wanted some of the rights of gentry and some of the privileges of gentry."

The explosive colonisation seen in New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the American West was "human history's most rapid form of societal reproduction", claims Belich. "Long-lived pioneers could and did stand in places that they had known as empty tracts 50 years earlier and watch great cities teem around them. Contemporaries compared the system's transformative power to that of a magic wand, creating instant civilisation from the wilderness."

Vital ingredients were a few early settlers, some boosters to get more people to pile in, improved transport to transfer goods and people en masse, and then crops of banks, newspapers and post offices. With the booms came insane plans and giddy hopes. In the 19th century it was said that New Zealand's ideal population would one day reach 50 million people. It was said to be an "infant Hercules" , "a nation that is to be, a giant yet in his cradle".

Hokitika was a small boom town with big ideas. In 1864, it had nothing, but by 1867 it had 102 hotels, an opera house, three theatres, a skating rink and a waxworks.

"Hokitika thought it was going to be the new Melbourne," says Belich. It's impossible not to smirk at the preposterousness of that, isn't it? "Or the courage. You see what I mean about a crusade," he says. The big booms were 1855-67 and 1870-86, led by huge investment first by provincial governments, and then by central government and rich settlers. Settler economies were fuelled by growth itself and by confidence there was more growth to come. Australia, too, had big dreams.

"Australia was on target to be the new United States, Victoria was as rich and populous as California, and Melbourne was building a full-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower and saw itself as the future de facto capital of the Pacific. And it was on target, it already had half a million in 1890, from zero in 1835. Then bang. These people somehow seriously thought that New Zealand and Australia were going to be the size of Britain and the United States by now. They weren't kidding, they believed it."

Belich, building on the Maori experience in New Zealand, says indigenous people could co-exist with settlement until it reached this turbo-charged boom period. The competition for land and resources became intense, and settlers swamped all in their path. Everywhere, sooner or later, the boom years of growth building on growth were followed by bust. Trade links back to Mother England then became crucial to survival, and the bonds tightened.

With the busts came a crushing reduction in settler societies' dreams, and in New Zealand's case, the transformation into a far duller and staider society. Instead of striding the world as some sort of South Sea Hercules, New Zealand "accepted a more modest role as an exemplary paradise, as 'the world's social laboratory'".

And with this change of role, our big-talking, driven, dreaming Pakeha settler forebears seemed out of place. "Amoral but dynamic explosive colonisation was written out, and a new past, starring sober, steady and virtuous pioneers, was retrospectively written in," says Belich in Replenishing the Earth.

Strangely, right across Canada, Australia and New Zealand, none have a clear date on which they could say they became independent from Britain. After starting off as feisty, bullish settlements straining for independence, the tightening of economic links back to Britain brought a renewed dependence. The Dominions had to make do with the consolation of sharing in the reflected glory of Empire as provinces of a great superpower. There were real benefits, though. White New Zealanders could come to small towns of this remote country and have a First World standard of living as well as sharing in the cultural and economic life of Greater Britain. "The links with Britain enabled New Zealanders to, for example, have serious universities quite early. Ernest Rutherford and Katherine Mansfield were probably unique at one level, but at another level they were flagships of a fleet. New Zealand punched above its weight partly because of this connection. We could have rocket scientists even though we had no rockets, because we had Britain."

It wasn't until Britain signalled in the 1960s it was intent on joining the European Economic Community that the tight bonds began to loosen. Greater Britain was to be euthanised. So, if Belich was to pick an independence date for New Zealand, he would pick 1973, when Britain joined the EEC. But in some ways, he says, New Zealand still hasn't come to terms with its independence.

"Well, do we need the constitutional umbilical cord still?" he says, referring to the fact Queen Elizabeth II is still our head of state. He doesn't agree with those who suggest Anzac Day and the commemoration of Gallipoli as an alternative national day to Waitangi Day. "New Zealanders were dying in a British-led attack on people they had never heard of and at a place they had never heard of, and lives were being wasted through military incompetence of various commanders, including their own. How you earn your nationalism that way; it baffles belief. Why not choose the day with the most sunshine in the country, maybe the first of March, and let's declare a republic on that day and make it that day."

Here, as elsewhere in the former Dominions, Belich says there is embarrassment at the closeness of the relationship with Britain pre-1973, much like a shameful secret about a protracted adolescence, with ties to mother's apron strings. And he thinks it is time we put that cringing behind us.

"New Zealand's experience of the British embrace was, for white New Zealanders, a pretty good one most of the time. But it did have a high price, through two world wars, and during the Depression where our economy was more vulnerable because it was so narrowly based," says Belich. "But when that embrace stopped, we didn't quite know what had happened to us. Partly because we didn't recognise that our links with Britain were so tight and so peculiar, we didn't always take the right measures in terms of handling a new era that had been thrust upon us."

He argues, although not in this book, that the Rogernomics reforms of 1984 may have misdiagnosed the problem of this shattering uncoupling from Britain. "It was not only a question of over-regulation in the New Zealand economy but also the loss of our main export market. Therefore at least equal effort should have gone into developing exports in new markets as went into dealing with over-regulation." Belich feels particularly proud that he has managed to do what he has preached for a long time - put New Zealand history on a much larger stage.

"It takes New Zealand history to global issues and in doing so I think casts a fresh light on them. What that should tell New Zealanders is that the notion that our own history is somehow parochial navel-gazing is a load of bullshit. New Zealand history is the intersection of the two most expansive peoples the world has ever known, the Polynesians and the British. How much more global can you get?"