Thursday, October 06, 2016

William Massey and the apocalypse

This photograph was taken at Otahuhu library last month, when Paul Janman and I inaugurated the Toia Talks programme by showing cryptic film clips and photographs and talking about some of the odder people who have stalked the Great South Road. Our talk and the question and answer session that followed it have been filmed, and will be deposited in the public library system to puzzle future generations of schoolkids and scholars.
We spent a few minutes discussing British Israelism, the peculiar doctrine that won the support of thousands of Pakeha New Zealanders in the first half of the twentieth century. The British Israelites believed that Anglo-Saxons were the descendants of a lost tribe of Jews. Like their ancestors in the Old Testament, they were God's chosen people, and the British empire's anabolic growth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a sign of their special mission. The enemies of the Anglo-Saxons were Satanic, and were doomed, like the fallen angel himself, to suffer defeat when Christ returned to the earth and reigned over a global British empire. 
The faith healer and preacher AH Dallimore, who performed before writhing and screaming audiences at the Auckland Town Hall in the 1930s, raised a British Israelite church in Otahuhu at the end of the decade. The building was given the same dimensions as some of the inner chambers of the Giza pyramids, because Dallimore, like a lot of British Israelites, believed that those structures had been designed by the ancient Jews, and contained hidden prophecies about the destiny of the British Empire.
In 1935 a British Israelite named Laurence Beavis passed through Otahuhu on the Great South Road, pushing a wheelbarrow. Beavis was on his way to Wellington, and had stowed a banjo as well as a tent in his barrow. He planned to sing to and solicit donations from the communities along the Great South Road, until he had enough money to build a ship to take him to the Middle East, where he was expecting to see the sort of apocalyptic events that Dallimore predicted in his sermons. 
A few days after our presentation at Otahuhu, the most prominent New Zealand advocate of British Israelism suddenly became a talking point in newspapers and on social media. Steve Elers, a scholar at Massey University, suggested that the institution change its name, because of racist statements made by William Massey, who was Prime Minister of New Zealand between 1912 and 1925. Elers pointed out Massey's claim that 'Nature intended New Zealand as a white man's country, and it should be kept as such'. 
Elers' argument was ridiculed by Alan Duff and by David Farrar, who both defended William Massey as 'a man of his time' who should not be judged by standards set in the twenty-first century. To remove Massey's name from public places would mean, Duff and Farrar warned, losing some of New Zealand's history. 
But Duff and Farrar seem, in their own way, to want to forget the past. When they suggest that virtually all Pakeha Kiwis thought like Massey a century ago they stereotype the inhabitants of the past, and ignore the diversity and tumult of early twentieth century New Zealand. The tens of thousands of workers who staged a general strike in 1913 and fought street battles with the mounted special constables they nicknamed 'Massey's cossacks' did not share a worldview with the Prime Minister. Nor did the thousands of New Zealanders that Massey sent to prison for refusing to fight in the First World War. Massey's super-imperialism, as well as his hostility to trade unionism, were regularly attacked by the Maoriland Worker, the paper of New Zealand's radical left. 
Despite his political success, William Massey was in some ways an unusual inhabitant of fin de siecle New Zealand. He emigrated to this country from northern Ireland, where he had learned a sectarian contempt for Catholics and an almost parodic love of the British empire. He graduated to British Israelism from the Protestant supremacist Orange Order. 
Massey always remained a member of the Presbyterian church, but it is possible to argue his belief in the divine destiny of the British people, and the inferiority of non-Britons, influenced the decisions he made during his long tenure at the top of New Zealand politics. Massey interpreted the war against the Kaiser as a struggle against Satan, and was therefore unforgiving of men who would not fight. I have argued that his decision to allow untrained Legion of Frontiersmen to join the New Zealand army that occupied Samoa was influenced by the similarities between the beliefs of the Frontiersmen and British Israelite ideas. 

Paul Janman and I have been trying, without much success, to find some folk memories of AH Dallimore and the British Israelites. Our audience at Otahuhu was amazed that such a strange ideology as British Israelism ever existed, and incredulous that its adherents had raised a church locally. A few of us chuckled at the thought of what Dallimore, the prophet of a racially pure British empire, would make of contemporary Otahuhu's ethnic diversity. 
It is very easy to laugh at a creed like British Israelism. It is also easy to ignore the parallels between British Israelite beliefs and ideas that are popular in our own time. 
The notion that Britain is a divinely inspired nation may now seem quaint, but at the beginning of our century the idea that America had a special, religiously mandated destiny motivated the invasion of Iraq and was defended by powerful neoconservative thinkers. The American alt-right, with its belief in the inherent superiority of whites and its opposition to miscegnation, has unpleasant beliefs in common with the British Israelites. Some of Donald Trump's more excitable supporters have asserted that he is the instrument of a God anxious to restore America's greatness and domination over the globe. 
Instead of dismissing William Massey as an exemplar of the thinking of a bygone and irrelevant era, as Alan Duff and David Farrar want to do, we should treat him as one of the carriers of a virus that still infects some of us today. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Yes good points here for sure. Massey sound like a dubious bastard for sure. British Imperialism is over now for sure.The British got rid of Churchill almost before WWII finished. But of course he was stalwart during it. But now it is the US with Trump's supporters.

Dallimore. I know a Dollimore who in fact lived in Otahuhu: doesn't sound like the same person, but Dallimore: a strange business all this nonsense about pyramids...sounds like something crazy dreamed up by that bloke who thought the pyramids were made by Aliens!!

Trump is almost an unbelievable phenomena. But unfortunately his opposition is also a hawk, and voted was very much for the Iraq War and so on. So it is not that easy to predict the outcome of the US elections. The Trumpers don't care what he says. They hear what they decide he has said. Politics at that level is near the insane.

Neither party in the US can stop the decline of the US...It is on the way out. It will carry on (as the UK has) but either will descend into chaos or Trump or Clinton will push the Red Button and we can all kiss ourselves good-bye: or it will be business, or not business, shootings and madness, as usual in Madland.

11:22 pm  
Anonymous Ryan Bodman said...

Hey Scott,

You said: 'Paul Janman and I have been trying, without much success, to find some folk memories of AH Dallimore and the British Israelites.'

These folks ( used to have a store at 242 Dominion Road, until only a few years ago. Contact details for their NZ emissary here (, so maybe they can help.

Cheers, Ryan.

11:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Taylor, do you live in an ivory tower like other intellectuals?

10:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't rule the British Israelites out. They're on twitter:

9:09 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Yes I remember that shop Ryan, when growing up in Mt. Eden - I think it closed down some time ago. We'll may try and get in touch with them. It was an interesting night with one local man telling us at length of his own strange philosophy of seeing Buddha in rocks and clouds etc. The intersection of scientific and mythical thinking yields some weird results - usually vehicles of hidden demands.

4:47 pm  
Anonymous Ryan Bodman said...

Sounds interesting. I was sorry not to make it along, but, with a new baby in the house, spare time is scarce just now. All the best.

6:48 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous - re living in an ivory tower - this I dispute....I have never had any kind of employment in an office or anything. Most of the work I have done in my life has been either as a labourer (about 50+ jobs) or as a Lineman and a Cable jointer. I did do a degree at the Auckland University starting at 40... That I am an intellectual is under fierce debate, especially since, when my IQ was tested it was off the negative scale, it appeared I had no intelligence at all: added to that my mind has been said to be like that of "an enormous ice-cream". I hope this answers your deep interest in my self...

Nor by the way to I hob nob with intellectuals, me best mate is a mechanic who, as far as I know, lacks any interest in anything except rooting women and fixing cars etc....

1:34 am  
Blogger Richard said...

By the way, he is my only mate, I just realized (because he can save me money fixing the bombs I own, although I tinker myself) Peter Cook says in his "Ant" sketch with Dudley More...."Squatter Joss, was a great friend of fact, he was my only friend. He had that indefinable quality, I can only, with difficulty, describe it. In fact I would say it was stupidity."

1:39 am  

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