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The Unsettled: Small Stories of Colonisation
by Richard Shaw

A 'courageous book' on Pākehā ‘journeying back into the map of memory'.

By April 5, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

Richard Shaw’s 2021 memoir The Forgotten Coast was a powerful meditation on the lives of three men in his family. The death of his father Bob in 2012 prompted him to look further into his family history. Shaw researched the story of Dick Gilhooly, a maternal great uncle, who left Pungarehu in South Taranaki to study for the priesthood in Mosgiel and then Rome. Bob and Dick’s stories were overshadowed by what Shaw discovered about his great grandfather, Andrew Gilhooly. Andrew arrived in Aotearoa in 1875 from County Limerick in southwest Ireland. He joined the Armed Constabulary and in 1881 was among the troops at te pāhua, the invasion of Parihaka, the Māori village in south Taranaki. Later, Andrew and his wife Kate purchased three farms on land confiscated from Māori. As Shaw writes, ‘what was a beginning for them was an ending for others’.

It is an understatement for Shaw to write that Andrew Gilhooly’s story ‘got people going’. Following the publication of The Forgotten Coast and an essay on the Conversation website, Shaw received sustained feedback – from detractors, but also many people who had been similarly disturbed by aspects of their families’ histories in Aotearoa. These ‘small stories of colonisation’ from across the country, make up The Unsettled. Some contributors have agreed to their first names being used; others are quoted but unnamed. It is a credit to Shaw that he manages to pull these testimonies together in a coherent form. His own story does dominate, but the ‘shared threads’ of these other origin stories reinforce his argument about how history resonates in the present.

The ‘unsettled’ of the title refers not only to the unease felt by Shaw and his collaborators, but also to an awareness of ‘the unsettling effects the arrival of their settler families in this land have had on those who were here before’. The people whose voices Shaw presents, ‘reject the lazy tropes about the civilising effects of colonisation’ and want to change the conversation about the past and its impact on the future. This is not about judging or blaming antecedents, who need to be seen in their own context, but acknowledging the impact of their actions.

After The Forgotten Coast was published, Shaw was contacted by Eddie O’Dea, a local historian in County Limerick. Largely thanks to O’Dea, Shaw has amassed a large amount of new information about the Irish background of Andrew and Kate Gilhooly. Not knowing about his family history meant Shaw did not have to confront the paradox of his great grandfather, born on land confiscated by the English, travelling to the other side of the world to take part in the confiscation of land from another community. At the same time, Shaw acknowledges his family were both caught up in and integral to, the Crown’s efforts to occupy and settle land confiscated from Māori. As the historian Vincent O’Malley has noted, many of the lands confiscated became central to this country’s booming pastoral economy. As a result, Shaw and his correspondents enjoy privileges that are not necessarily material, or immediately obvious. Sometimes, it is a sense of place and identity that comes from long generations of a family’s presence in and on land.

Shaw’s attempt to quantify the inter-generational economic benefit of the three farms formerly in his family’s ownership was one of the most interesting and novel things about The Forgotten Coast. He returns to this theme in his new book, joined by other voices, like Kiaran, who succinctly notes: ‘land, money, education: all these things were made possible by the confiscation’. The same argument was made by Dr Pounamu Jade Aikman in last year’s Ngā Kupu Wero anthology of nonfiction writing by Māori. Aikman wrote that Māori had been denied the opportunity to build up wealth in the same way as Pākehā from settler families ‘because it was their dispossessed land that generated such wealth in the first place’. Another recent book, The Financial Colonisation of Aotearoa by Catherine Comyn, makes a strong case for the significance of financial capital (and its impact on Māori) in the story of colonisation in this country.

Having identified these personal histories in The Unsettled, which have been shaped by the ‘big C’ colonisation story, what next? Just bearing witness, Shaw argues, can be ‘a decidedly active thing to do.’ Talking about the has hitherto hidden histories has the potential to change conversations. In one chapter, Shaw cites myriad actions taken by his informants, making a difference in their communities. The response can also be about not doing things, backing off and leaving space for others. As an example, Shaw writes about his questioning using tūrangawaewae and pepeha to describe where he is from.

Shaw’s willingness to confront the anger sparked by the discussions he and his group are fostering is a strength of this book. The strong emotions stirred ‘when we begin rummaging around in our history,’ are evident when Shaw reviews the submissions after students from Otorohanga College presented a petition calling for New Zealand history to be taught in schools. Perhaps, he argues, this reluctance to see history as anything but blameless, bygone and settled, is related to fear of some sort of reckoning or retribution. At the same time, Shaw is not suggesting courses of action ‘beyond gently encouraging others to think about their own small stories’. As two nuns suggest to him, for Pākehā there must be:

A letting go of things gathered in the past. This is an ending without loss, an unencumbering, a setting aside in order to become something other … [We] need to let some things go. Old ways of knowing and thinking. Old anxieties and old behaviours. Old stories. We need to put some things aside that we might become something new.

This courageous book is an addition to a growing literature by Pākehā ‘journeying back into the map of memory’. Just as the new Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum was the result of a group of New Zealanders who thought knowing about our own history was important for our collective future, this small but potent book will foster different conversations about the past and its connection with the present. For example, the SH45 South Road in Taranaki is no longer neutral once Shaw knows its backstory as an invasion road, delivering the Armed Constabulary to Parihaka and severing the relationship between Māori and their land. Ignoring it, he argues, is short-sighted:

Nothing about this is inevitable, of course. If I shun or turn away from those difficult aspects of my past, or reduce my backstory to some stock pioneer orthodoxy, then that is what will inform my present and set the trajectory of my future.

In that future the South Road is simply a road and Maxwell is just another small Taranaki town. That future is known and will never change. But if I choose otherwise — if I reach for the hem of a different garment of knowledge — what lies ahead remains unwoven. Historical retrospection is powerful because it can shape what we become.

The Unsettled: Small Stories of Colonisation

by Richard Shaw

Massey University Press

ISBN: 9781991016683

Published: March 2024

Format: Paperback, 224 pages

Paul Diamond

Paul Diamond (Ngāti Hauā, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is Curator, Māori at the Alexander Turnbull Library. His most recent book is Downfall: the Destruction of Charles Mackay (Massey University Press, 2022), a nonfiction finalist at the Ockham NZ Book Awards.