Dancing with the King:
The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885 by Michael Belgrave,
Auckland: AUP (2017).
RRP: $65. Hb, 452pp.
Reviewed by Michael Reilly.
Michael Belgrave’s Dancing with the King is a classic diplomatic history, focusing on the political negotiations between the colonial government and the Kīngitanga for control of Te Rohe Pōtae, the King Country, the autonomous Māori state to which the King, Tāwhiao, and his peoples had retired following the end of the Waikato wars in 1864. Over the following decade, the Pākehā government accepted peaceful co-existence, avoiding any state intrusions that might spark renewed outbreaks of violence along the aukati, the frontier separating the two states. A succession of government ministers in the 1870s proposed recognition of Te Rohe Pōtae’s independence but Tāwhiao, still smarting from Waikato land confiscations, rejected these offers. By the late 1870s his hosts, Ngāti Maniapoto, anxious to safeguard their lands, began negotiating with the government, accepting a land survey (which introduced the despised Native Land Court), and the main trunk railway line built through tribal lands. Although Te Rohe Pōtae lost its political autonomy, iwi leaders had forced the government to accept some significant restrictions and conditions around the survey, Land Court reform and rail corridor access.
An important part of these negotiations concerned the king’s role. By the early 1880s the government was keen to marginalise Tāwhiao as the figurehead of resistance; an attitude perhaps reflective of a growing trend in Pākehā writing to whiten New Zealand’s landscape: a form of orientalism, as Belgrave explains, that dismissed contemporary Māori agency while praising the virtues of their dead ancestors. Far from disappearing as an oppositional figure to colonisation, the king became more visible. He toured European towns in Waikato and then Auckland, where Pākehā entertained him as a royal visitor. He followed these with extensive visits to North Island Māori communities, beyond the traditional Kīngitanga domain, to talk about shared grievances. In 1884 he headed a chiefly delegation that took these concerns to London and laid them in a written memorial before the imperial government. Predictably, the colonial government and media angrily dismissed the delegation’s claims, but the British newspapers and government took the visitors and their memorial much more seriously. Tāwhiao successfully remade himself into ‘a critic and conscience of the colonial government’s relationship with Māori’, ‘a focus of Māori protest’ and ‘the social and cultural centre’ for Kīngitanga identity; roles he bequeathed to his successors (pp 278–79).
The book is based on the growing body of digitally available historical documents, most notably newspapers. Pākehā newspapers extensively reported on Māori activities, but there are blind spots in their coverage that affect Dancing with the King, notably in their understanding of the figurative language frequently used by Māori orators and their failure to record speakers’ waiata. Whereas Māori used waiata accompanying speeches to reinforce important messages, the reporters apparently viewed them as superfluous entertainment. Tāwhiao’s visits to European centres are more extensively described by Belgrave than his parallel tours of Māori communities, perhaps again reflecting a bias in the original sources. Belgrave does, however, pay attention to examples of Māori cultural experimentation, such as incorporating European protocols and practices in welcoming ceremonies, or the wearing of Māori or European clothing by leaders, like Tāwhiao, to communicate which practices or identity they were presenting at an event.
Typical of historical practice, Belgrave’s prose is accessible, even plain, devoid of any jargon, but punctuated periodically by memorable flourishes of phrasing, spotlighting inequities or reorientating perspectives of key institutions or people: the Native Land Court as ‘colonisation’s bulldog’ (p 76) and ‘the dark satanic mill’ (p 158); ‘the leviathan of European civilisation’ (p 199); Te Rohe Pōtae’s surveyors as ‘centurions of civilisation just waiting for the opportunity to tame and provincialise a barbarian world’ (p 253); and London’s journalists ‘like bluebottles’ competing for interviews with Tāwhiao (p 308). The book has a few minor errors; for example, misplaced macrons in Rohe Pōtae (p vii), a wrongly capitalised word (l 34, p 63), incorrect punctuation (l. 16, p 73), misspellings or mistranscriptions (l. 11, p 128; l. 4, p 189; l. 10, p 242; l. 32, p 248; l. 29, p 331), missing words (final sentence, p 200; n. 4, p 396) and repetitions (l. 9, p 237; ll. 22–23, p 275). The nine accompanying maps helpfully locate key places and events in the text. Overall, this is a well produced and designed book, testimony to the exertions of the author and the Auckland University Press team.
Michael Reilly is a Professor in Te Tumu, School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo. He writes about oral traditions and indigenous histories in Mangaia (The Cook Islands) and Aotearoa New Zealand and has published various articles, chapters and books including, War and Succession in Mangaia from Mamae’s Texts (Polynesian Society, 2003) and Ancestral Voices from Mangaia: A History of the Ancient Gods and Chiefs (Polynesian Society, 2009).