A day for celebration

I reckon today should have been a public holiday, to mark 250 years –  quarter of a millennium –  since these remote islands had opened to the world.  That is something to celebrate.

Maori had, of course, been here for perhaps 500 years prior to the arrival of Lt James Cook and Endeavour.   But it seems that they’d then become cut off from the rest of the world, with little or no evidence of any ongoing contact with anything or anyone beyond these shores.  Material living standards were low.   Abel Tasman had come by a bit of the coast 137 years earlier, but after the killing of several of his crew, he didn’t land and soon went away again initiating no ongoing contact (although his discoveries did give rise to the name “New Zealand” – in Dutch – shortly thereafter).

But after Cook, and the other European explorers around these shores at much the same time, the path to openness was pretty much set.   Cook mapped the island, and he himself led two more voyages that included New Zealand as a stopover.  His ships were engaged in trade, albeit to a limited extent (resupplying his own vessels).  And after Cook’s later voyages it was less than 20 years –  shortly after the first British settlement in New South Wales (another coast Cook mapped)  – before the first sealing party and the first whalers arrived.   Another decade on and those trades were getting into full swing.

Cook himself seems to have been an almost entirely admirable figure –  one of the greats.  Last night I finished reading J C Beaglehole’s great (1973) The Life of Captain James Cook, and came away both better informed and with a high regard for Cook.  That doesn’t mean he was perfect.  Human beings aren’t.  But perfection is a pretty useless standard against which to assess any of us, past or present.

But if Cook was admirable, on so many counts, and if the mandate to which he worked was both humane and judicious, yet it is also true that Cook was hardly himself a decisive figure in New Zealand history.  If he hadn’t been sent to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, with a mandate to explore onwards, some other European –  de Surville’s party – would have been the first to land here at about the same time.  And if that had happened, it still probably wouldn’t have changed the 19th century destiny of New Zealand (as British acquisition and colony of settlement) – that was about much bigger forces than one person.  But nonetheless Cook’s landing is, and should be, a powerful symbol – and should be celebrated as such –  of the process  –  essentially a technological one –  whereby these islands were opened to the world.

Was that in itself wholly a “good thing”?  Perhaps there are downsides, slight as they may be, and costs to almost any human endeavour and advance.  But lets suppose a thought experiment –  and it can only be that, so utterly detached from reality as it is – in which, somehow, New Zealand had remained totally cut from off from the world for another 250 years: no trade, no technology, no ideas, no nothing to or from the rest of the planet.   Then it seems reasonable to assume Maori life today would be much as it was then – extremely poor in material terms, low life expectancy, no metals.  Quite possibly, given Malthusian limits absent newer technologies, the population would be less than the number of people who identify as Maori today, whether here or abroad.  And one could throw in cannibalism and slavery to the mix.

The difference from that sort of society is what opening to the world meant. It is about as stark a difference as they come.  That there are gains from trade –  broadly defined – is one of the most securely established maxims of our world (probably even the North Koreans would trade more if they could).  The opening of New Zealand was always going to happen –  given developments in technology elsewhere in the world –  but it was a good thing that it did happen, especially perhaps coming just at time –  the Industrial Revolution –  when the possibilities would start to be so great.  (And if we argue, in part, from revealed preference, we see few or no New Zealanders –  Maori ancestry or not –  choosing to revert to a pre-1769 style/substance of life.)

Now, opening to world is not at all the same thing as becoming a colony of settlement, and especially not one in which at one point Maori had been reduced to only about 5 per cent of the total population.  All manner of islands in the Pacific, being opened to the world at much the same time, sometimes by Cook himself, which were never extensively settled by outsiders.  On the other hand, all the temperate climate lands of the Antarctic Rim –  Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and (more ambigiuously) South Africa were.  It is what happens when there are hugely asymmetric technological advances –  indigenous people were numerous enough nor sufficiently technologically advanced (the two not being entirely unrelated) to resist the influx, even if they had consistently wished to do so.  In New Zealand’s case, at least, it is far from clear they (taken collectively) did, even at the time.

In material terms at least, it looks like a good trade.  All sorts of places were in the Pacific were opened to the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but here are some representative numbers for real GDP per capita, in PPP terms, for some of these countries/territories.


Notice any patterns?   The people in the countries towards the left of the chart have gained somewhat from an opening to the world, but the really prosperous parts of the region are –  to put it bluntly –  those where the institutions and cultures of highly-productive economies were imported pretty comprehensively (in the forms of peoples, not just laws) and came to dominate and shape how those countries/territories operate and produce.    Cultures matter.   The differences aren’t as stark for, say, life expectancies –  a benefit from opening that all these societies have had –  but those of, say, Samoa and Vanuatu are still perhaps 10 years less than those of New Zealand and Australia.   And we could go through the things that people here –  or in Australia or Hawaii –  have which typical people in the Pacific territories that weren’t heavily settled simply don’t.   And don’t give me climate or remoteness stories –  many of these places are a bit less remote than New Zealand, and Singapore (and even Malaysia now) prosper in equatorial climes.

Now, of course, these New Zealand numbers are aggregates averaged across the entire population.  And we know that those self-identifying as Maori tend, on average, to do less well than, say, the European population.  But no one supposes that New Zealand Maori do less well materially than the typical person in Samoa, Tonga or Vanuatu.  There are substantial economic/material benefits to the physical presence of a large European population in New Zealand, and it is most unlikely that average Maori GDP per capita would be anything like it actually is had large scale European settlement been avoided.

Curiously, where one might now mount an argument is that the descendants of the European settlers haven’t gained from the trade.  For a long time, New Zealand (and Australia) were among the very richest countries in the world.  But these days, New Zealand in particular in poorer than the UK.  I think it is quite conceivable that –  much as I like New Zealand, sitting here looking out on Cook Strait –  people like me might have been better off had New Zealand never been opened to the world.  But I can’t hold that against my ancestors, or Captain Cook and his peers –  since countries largely make their own prosperity and I’ve been running a decade now a story about how the New Zealand establishment –  itself dominated by European New Zealanders –  has been systematically, though no doubt unintentionally –  corroding the economic fortunes and prospects of all New Zealanders.   But there is a long way to go before New Zealand would be anywhere near as poor as, say,  Samoa.

Of course, important as material things are, as significant as gains in life expectancy probably should be thought of as, they aren’t the only thing that matters to people.   I’ve written here previously about how I could understand a degree of Maori ambivalance about large scale immigration, even allowing for the fact that (almost?) every self-identified Maori today is descended from both non-Maori and Maori ancestors.   Perhaps in some that really would outweigh the huge economic gains, but I rather doubt it –  isn’t the evidence of Samoa that a really large proportion of the population would come to New Zealand (where they are outnumbered, in a different culture, by both Maori and other non-Maori) if they could?  And since I’m a Christian I’ll count it an unalloyed “good thing” that the gospel came to New Zealand.   That didn’t depend on immigration –  see those numerous Pacific islands where the church is often stronger than it is in New Zealand –  but it was a real, and voluntary choice.    Not many Maori worship tree gods –  they leave that to the Irish/Cook Islands Reserve Bank Governor –  and for those declaring a religion, Christianity is the religion of choice.

There are no perfect human societies or human systems or human beings.  But that shouldn’t stop us celebrating our past, our heritage, our culture –  the things that, by opening to the world, made this country, for all its faults and failings and relative economic decline in recent decades, one of the more prosperous and safe countries on earth.

But our politicians seem embarrassed by our heritage, our origins.  The Prime Minister eschews events in Gisborne today, fleeing back to Auckland and burbling –  very on-message –  about “commemorations”, but never celebration.  The Opposition leader is, as far as I could see, invisible and unheard.  As for our major newspapers, the Dominion-Post didn’t have even a mention of Cook in the paper today (there was a not-wholly-bad article yesterday) and in the Herald you have to get to page 12, and even then the article seem embarrassed by our heritage, rather than embracing and celebrating it.  Weirdly, there was more coverage a few months ago of the 50th anniversary of the moon landings –  by another country –  than now of the opening to the world that made modern New Zealand possible.

As for me, somewhere around the house I still have the set of commemorative stamps I bought in 1969, when the powers that be weren’t so embarrassed by their heritage, and found on the bookshelves yesterday the Herald’s 1969 60 page publication “With Captain Cook in New Zealand”, which I guess my parents must have bought me then.  Glancing through it seems both informative and fair, unashamed.