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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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]