M. P. K. Sorrenson – Ko te Whenua te Utu / Land is the Price: Essays on Maori History, Land and Politics

Ko Te Whenua Te Utu cover

Ko te Whenua te Utu / Land is the Price:
Essays on Maori History, Land and Politics
by M P K Sorrenson.
Auckland: AUP (2014).
RRP: $49.99.
Pb, 344 pages.
ISBN: 9781869408107.

Reviewed by Matthew Hughes.

In the great expansion of humanity across the globe, from prehistory up to the empires of the nineteenth century, Aotearoa New Zealand has the distinction of being the last large land mass settled by humans; first by those who would become Māori, then by those whose European ancestors and brethren had already colonised wider Eurasia, Africa, the Americas and Australia. The great historical processes of exploration, initial engagement and conflict between first peoples and those that followed, eventual colonisation and local development of industrial modernity also played out in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, whereas these events elsewhere occurred over many centuries, here the colonising processes that alienated indigenous peoples from land and led to widespread native ecosystem destruction for agricultural development and urbanisation were compressed – happening over mere decades. Modern Aotearoa New Zealand results from the relatively recent convergence of vast historical forces and intimate dynamics between the colonised and the colonisers. Since the 1990s, this wider history has been eruditely explored in the works of James Belich and Anne Salmond, in the general histories of Michael King, and more recently in the magnificent Tangata Whenua: A History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris. In the excellent Ko Te Whenua Te Utu – Land Is the Price: Essays in Maori History, Land and Politics by M P K Sorrenson, we see some of the foundation scholarship upon which these later histories drew and that led the way in helping us understand where, as a bi-cultural society, we have come from and who we are.

Land Is the Price is a collection of Sorenson essays written over the last fifty-six years, ordered into a chronology of Māori history. The essays encompass the broader chronological themes of Māori origins, contact with Europeans, the Treaty of Waitangi, conflict and land alienation, Māori representation in the New Zealand Parliament, and the Waitangi Tribunal – to which Sorrenson has contributed significant scholarship.

After a useful and insight Introduction, the first essay, ‘The Whence of the Maori: Some Nineteenth-century Exercises in Scientific Method‘’ reveals a fascinating history of European attempts to understand where Māori came from. Nineteenth-century ethnographic scholars adhered strongly to the concept of racial classes and hierarchies, and Māori were conjectured by some missionaries and others to represent the descendants of early Jewish tribes or great Aryan migrations. As different linguistic, archaeological and comparative mythological approaches were adopted, so speculation on origins proliferated. These attempts to establish historical roots shared with Western civilisation, based in mythology, in some sense indicated a relative benevolence in British attitudes to colonised peoples at the time, a justification for the coming together of two cultures. Sorrenson writes:  “What better myth could there be for a young country struggling for nationhood and for the amalgamation of its races than this reunification of the Aryans?” Were Europeans “long-lost Pakeha ‘brothers’” of Aryan-derived tangata whenua?

The erudite scholarship of the opening chapter continues throughout. In ‘Treaties in British Colonial Policy: Precedents for Waitangi’, we learn that treaties between the British Empire and peoples in Africa and the Pacific were initially to promote commerce and Christianity, and then many became treaties of cession; our Treaty of Waitangi in this sense was not unique, and was also a response to wider geopolitical ambitions of other empires. Sorrenson writes: “As in Africa, annexation of formal colonies tended to be a last resort … often brought about by a large influx of Europeans”. In the chapters ‘How to Civilise Savages, Some ‘Answers’ from Nineteenth-century New Zealand’, ‘Folkland to Bookland […] Enclosure of the Maori ‘Commons’’ and ‘Land Purchase Methods and their Effect on Maori Population, 18651901’, the attitude and approaches of the colonial power are elucidated, and parallels to land alienation in the Mother country are explored. The devastating impacts of such alienation in Aotearoa/New Zealand on Māori populations, often through the underhand tactics of European farmers, traders and lawyers exploiting the complexities and subtleties of Maori communal land ownership, are exposed. Subsequent chapters, including ‘The Maori King Movement, 1858–1885’, ‘Colonial Rule and Local Response: Maori Responses to European Domination in New Zealand since 1860’ and ‘Maori Representation in Parliament’, present the history of Māori responses and resistance to land confiscations and cultural marginalisation, and eventual inclusion in the political process. The book closes with chapters addressing the breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi and the deliberations of the Waitangi Tribunal, an important part of the country’s modern history to which Sorrenson’s scholarship has contributed.

For those seriously interested in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, Land Is the Price is an essential compilation of rigorous historical analysis. Many of these essays were first published decades ago, and one cannot help but view them through the lens of subsequent events and scholarship. Despite this, they have stood the test of time. As Sorrenson writes in the Introduction, the first essay to be published was in the late 1950s – ‘Land Purchase Methods and their Effect on Maori Population, 1865–1901’. It has been the most cited of his works and was used many years later to support reports and submissions to the Waitangi Tribunal. This book is indeed a powerful history of Māori and Pakeha in Aotearoa New Zealand.


t. 87, MATTHEW HUGHESDr. Matthew Hughes is an Earth and Environmental Scientist (Canterbury Earthquake Geospatial Research Fellow in the Department of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, University of Canterbury). A voracious reader, Matthew is also a volunteer fire fighter in his local community of Sumner.

First published takahe 87
August 2016