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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 14. 1966.

Race conflict in NZ

Race conflict in NZ

First And Last it should be said that Harold Miller's Race Conflict In New Zealand is a very good book indeed, within its limitations. But those limitations are none the less severe for being at least partly self-imposed.

Mr. Miller, according to the dust cover of Race Conflict, believes with von Ranke that it is the historian's task to describe, not to sit in Judgment, not to foretell the future. Whatever his task may be—and these suggestions can hardly be said to exhaust the possibilities—it is clear that Mr. Miller's limitation is partly due to the determination he declares, or allows to be declared on his behalf, "to keep fact and comment separate and easily distinguishable." The fact of the matter is that Race Conflict remains a description and not an interpretation, and is the less valuable for that.

Certainly it is a vivid description: the indignities and injustices which thoughtless or calculating men inflicted on the Maorl, the dignity and moderation with which some of the Maorl leaders responded, are captured with deft strokes and amount to a formidable indictment. Mr. Miller writes lucid and forceful prose, and has an uncanny ability to reflect the movement and the tensions of the action he describes.

But we do not gain from Race Conflict any wider or more profound understanding of what happened or the reason it did so. We do not gain a richer apprehension of the nature of the conflict—or indeed of how far and in what way it was a conflict of races. We gain practical insights into the character of only the most important actors: the generality of support is not examined in any satisfactory way.

It is always clear that Mr. Miller's sympathies lie on the whole with the Maori; but there is no very convincing reason to suppose that he has presented the full story. For the historian is forced to select, and selection implies interpretation. In a sense, Mr. Miller's determination to separate fact and comment inevitably means a falsification, in the discrepancy between what he must do and what he claims and seems to be doing. The result is not that we gain a clearer understanding because the facts are unvarnished, but that we are the less willing to accept Mr. Miller's point of view—the more suspicious of it—because he has not explicitly marshalled his facts to convince us. If Mr. Miller has devoted 30 years to this work, they have enabled him to describe much, but to elucidate little.

There may be circumstances in which our knowledge is so limited, or the occurrences so transparent, that description alone would prove an immense addition to scholarship. But there are vast areas, of which the Maori wars are one, where the facts are substantially known, but the motivation and implications are not understood in depth. Mr. Miller's book, for all its virtues, does not help that understanding—his occasional interpretive asides do not in themselves add up to any sort of consistent commentary of the kind we need.

We have in Mr. Miller's work a pleasing and intelligent account of important events from one point of view. In future those wanting a readable and fairly full Introduction to the subject, will need to look little further than Race Conflict. But those who wish to understand more, will have to seek out a different sort of study.

Race Conflict In New Zealand, by Harold Miller, published by Blackwood and Janet Paul, Auckland, 1966. Reviewed by P. G. Robb.