The Establishment of Sovereignty
The most notable myth about the New Zealand past arose in the attempt to explain, and at the same time to glorify, the process by which this country became British, as a matter of law and as a fact of human settlement. It is a myth at once radical and conservative: radical because it selects as villains the most notable representatives of State and Church in early New Zealand; conservative because it canonises those who, in the long run, successfully opposed officialdom at home and in the United Kingdom. Here it will be referred to as “the myth of origins” and “the myth of the possessors”.
The basic assumption of this myth is that Great Britain was a nation with a manifest imperial destiny. Her own leaders sought to thwart this destiny in the early nineteenth century by retiring from expansion after British fingers had been burned in the War of American Independence. At the outset this theory ignores the not inconsiderable British expansion accompanying the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). Cook, on this reckoning, is shown as having annexed New Zealand in 1769, and the likelihood that he exceeded his instructions in so doing is forgotten. From 1769 to 1840 British policymakers, statesmen, and officials, are described as “reluctant” to make British sovereignty actual in New Zealand, men who were timid where they should have been bold, men who wilfully neglected a golden imperial opportunity awaiting Great Britain in the South Pacific. The mere fact of the matter is that Great Britain was not “reluctant” to expand into New Zealand: such a description implies that such expansion was seen as a possibility and rejected. For the greater part of this period Great Britain was neither reluctant nor anxious to take New Zealand; the possibility did not enter the realm of the practicable. In the past overseas territories had been annexed for concrete reasons, such as strategic considerations, the presence of eagerly sought raw materials or treasure, the settlement of a substantial number of British inhabitants. At no time did the first two conditions apply in New Zealand; the third came to apply in the later 1830s and British annexation followed without undue delay.