Thursday, February 26, 2015

New Zealand and the war against ISIS: a lesson from 1885

Chanting Koranic verses, the army of a grandiose leader conquers a piece of desert and a few towns, and proclaims these possessions a caliphate. Muslim prisoners of war and infidel interlopers are executed in horribly ingenious ways, and in the cities and barracks of the West politicians and generals demand a response. As expeditionary forces are assembled in Britain, North America, and Australia, New Zealanders debate whether they should join the war in the desert.
This narrative might fit with the events of the last few months, but it also describes the dramas of 1884 and 1885, when a Sudanese nationalist calling himself the Mahdi, or messiah, pushed Egyptian and British troops out of his homeland, and made Khartoum the capital of a state that he hoped would eventually cover the world. The British general Charles Gordon, who struggled unsuccessfully against his own messianic delusions, was decapitated after refusing to retreat from Khartoum. 
New Zealanders may have lacked social media and television in the 1880s, but they followed events in the Sudan tenaciously. Newspapers carried long commentaries on the fighting, and in a hall in the military settlement of Hamilton a diorama made with sand dunes and toy soldiers showed crowds of visitors a battle between the Mahdi’s army and the British.
During the first months of 1885 hundreds of volunteers learned to march and salute and shoot in a Sydney barracks, as the government of New South Wales pledged its support for the battle to retake the Sudan. But John Ballance, Defence Minister of New Zealand, was uninterested in doing his bit for the empire. When a retired colonel of the British army wrote to ask him whether New Zealand would be sending an army to Sudan, Ballance responded negatively, explaining that his sympathies were with the Mahdi, rather than with the British.
In Paradise Reforged, his history of New Zealand from the 1880s to the end of the twentieth century, James Belich argues that Ballance’s refusal to send troops to the Sudan was not some personal eccentricity, but the reflection of a distrust of Britain widespread amongst Pakeha New Zealanders in the 1870s and ‘80s. Men like Ballance had been born in Britain, knew about the inequities and hypocrisies of the place, and had crossed the world to create a new homeland for themselves. For them, New Zealand was a ‘Greater Britain’ which would, like the United States before it, become economically and politically free of the old country.
John Ballance was not some enlightened anti-imperialist – he hated Maori, and had fomented and fought in the Taranaki War of the late 1860s. But Ballance lacked the loyalty to and awe of the British monarchy and empire that had led Charles Gordon to martyrdom in the Sudan.
The story of John Ballance’s response to the war in Sudan might have surprised Philip Hammond, who is the Foreign Secretary in today’s British government. During a recent visit to Wellington, Hammond explained that New Zealand ought to contribute to the new war in Iraq because we are ‘part of the family’ that includes Britain, the United States, and Australia. Britain has, Hammond said, gotten ‘used to’ New Zealand ‘being there alongside us’ when wars are fought.
Hammond was referring, of course, to the Kiwi troops who have fought and died during two world wars and a series of smaller conflicts, like the battle against communists in Malaya and the long struggle against Pashtuni nationalism in twenty-first century Afghanistan.
But Philip Hammond’s argument did not resonate with New Zealand politicians. Cabinet Minister Peter Dunne is not known as a radical anti-imperialist, but in an angry speech to parliament he described Hammond as ‘a patronising figure from abroad’ who wanted to lead New Zealanders into a new ‘round of unmitigated slaughter’.  
John Key’s recent decision to send troops to Iraq has been condemned by the forces of the left, but also by conservatives like Dunne, the Maori Party’s Te Uruora Flavell, and Winston Peters. For the critics, New Zealand’s new military adventure is a pointless show of loyalty to the United States and Britain.

James Belich explained New Zealand’s twentieth century enthusiasm for the British Empire and its wars by pointing to changes in the country’s economy that began late in the nineteenth century. After the advent of refrigerated shipping and the beginning of mass exports of beef and lamb to Britain, New Zealand became economically dependent on the old country, and conservative farmers came to dominate the nation’s politics and culture. Links with Australia and other parts of the Pacific were half-forgotten, and Pakeha New Zealanders, at least, began to consider themselves residents of a misplaced fragment of Britain. When Britain itself came under the domination of the United States after World War Two, New Zealand became an obsequious ally of Washington, as well as London.
Britain’s economic influence over New Zealand has evaporated over the past forty years, and during the last decade and a half China has usurped the United States as an export market for Kiwi farmers. The rise of China and disastrous failure of George Bush’s attempt to remake the Middle East show that, like Britain sixty years ago, the United States is a declining power. The opposition to the new military adventure in Iraq from mainstream politicians like Peter Dunne and Winston Peters is a harbinger of a future where New Zealand governments no longer march in step with the United States and Britain. The nationalism of John Ballance is making a comeback.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Good post. It puts things in perspective. Gordon was insane to try to stay in Khartoum and paid the price. He was heroic but that isn't enough.

Overall the Muslim nations have not been more aggressive or reactionary than the European. In fact around the time they conquered Spain the (mostly but not necessarily strongly Moslemic) Arabs brought new ideas in mathematics and translated major texts from ancient Greece (the works of Aristotle etc). They also produced some marvelous architectural and other art (the Alhambra is only one example).

The abstract tesselations they did inspired Escher.

The British simply wanted power and control (hence income) in Africa. They were the first (after Cuba - the Spanish) to seriously introduce and use concentration camps in South Africa. A woman (forget her name) who was of considerable "connections" in Britain visited these terrible places to Kitchener's embarasment and question were raised in the British Parliament. Kitchener had a plan to send about 400,000 (white Afrikaaner) men women and children as slaves to the Carribean where they could work on the British plantations there.

We, as usual, followed the British as today they stupidly follow the British and the US etc in what will only increase bitterness against the West and will not achieve anything as the cartoon shows really.

It is true that many Arabs were active in the slave trade but we are probably talking about something that had been happening for at least 1000 years. The British were the first to take advantage of it in modern times (last 400 years) and the US followed, and others.

No. Key is going (sheeplike) along like most other NZ Premiers (but Ballance is an interesting counter-example). I agree with Dunne and Peters as well as the leader of the Labour Party on this.

9:55 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

That 'War in the Soudan' picture is great. I enlarged it by clicking on it. Great art work there!

9:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

9:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well researched and well written as usual, but note that in 1885 Balance was Minister of Defence, not Premier.

3:13 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Ach! Thanks so much for the correcion, anon! I checked Belich's Paradise Refoged, to see whether I could blame him, but alas!

It's embarrassing, because I'm spending a lot of time with 19th C Premiers at the moment, over at Papers Past, as I research New Zealand's involvement in the blackbirding trade.

12:44 am  
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Not all are true. Everyone has their own way of thinking but I think they have to reconsider. I like to argue for the most accurate results.

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Blogger Unknown said...

I often get emotionally involved. Like when I read your post, I can cry, laugh, sad, funny, depending on your written words. I think you are a sensitive person.

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