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New book supports Taika’s claims about racism

New book supports Taika’s claims about New Zealand racism

• Maori needed a special card to move around the country
• Maori were banned from public bars in South Auckland
• Pukekohe magazine elocal with 50,000 circulation still publishing racist content

Taika Waititi made headlines recently when he called New Zealand ‘racist as f**k’. The author of a new book thinks he’s found evidence for Waititi’s claim.

‘During the twentieth century Maori suffered from a range of policies that remind me of apartheid South Africa’ historian Dr Scott Hamilton says. ‘If you were Maori you sometimes needed a special card to move around the country. If you were Maori you could be banned from bars and from other businesses.’

Hamilton makes these shocking claims in Ghost South Road, a book he wrote with funding from Auckland’s Mayoral Literary Grant. ‘I was the first recipient of the mayoral grant’ Hamilton says. ‘I told Len Brown, who set it up, that I wanted to expose the secret history of Auckland and New Zealand.’

Hamilton’s book tells the story of the Great South Road, which was built from Auckland into the Waikato and beyond by the British army that invaded Maori lands in 1863. After the British and local Pakeha soldiers had defeated Maori in the Waikato War, more than a million acres of Maori land was confiscated.

‘The invasion of the Waikato was legitimated by racism’ Hamilton says, ‘and it has cast a long shadow. I looked at archives and old newspapers and discovered that Maori were treated as enemies of the state long after the Waikato War had finished.’

In one chapter of his book Hamilton shows how, during a series of epidemics, Maori were banned from moving about the country, because their brown skin was equated with disease. When smallpox broke out in 1913, Maori villages were sealed off, and Maori were banned from the roads and from trains unless they had a special certificate showing they’d been immunised. ‘No Pakeha was ever subjected to these rules’ Hamilton says, ‘they were blatantly racist, they made life almost impossible for Maori, and they were in force for many months’.

Another chapter of Ghost South Road describes the exclusion of Maori from bars, cinemas, and barber’s shops in South Auckland. ‘For much of the twentieth century it was hard to get a drink in places like Papakura and Pukekohe if you were the wrong colour’ Hamilton says. Hamilton describes the experience of Rongomanu Bennett, a Maori psychiatrist who went into the Papakura Tavern and ordered a beer in 1959. ‘After he was refused service, Bennett began a campaign, and his case made headlines not just in New Zealand but around the world’ Hamilton says. ‘The New York Times called Papakura ‘the Little Rock of New Zealand’, after the Arkansas city where African Americans were fighting segregation’.

Bennett eventually got the support of the Prime Minister, and Papakura Tavern agreed to serve Maori. But this civil rights struggle in South Auckland, and the racism that prompted it, has been forgotten. ‘If more of us knew about what happened in the past, then we’d understand the historical context for Taika Waititi’s complaints about continuing racism’ Hamilton says.

In Ghost South Road Hamilton argues that racism continues today in the towns that settlers built along the Great South Road. ‘Papakura is still not the most friendly place for Maori’ Hamilton says. ‘The local board there made it difficult to build a marae in the 1970s and ‘80s, and recently the community board rejected attempts to set up a Maori advisory committee to help it learn from the mistakes of the past.’

Franklin elocal, a magazine published in Pukekohe with an advertised readership of 170,000 has for some years been promoting the ridiculous notion that Europeans rather than Maori were the first people to reach New Zealand, and frequently calls for the scrapping of legislation that refers to the treaty of Waitangi. Franklin elocal has defended Allan Titford, the anti-Maori activist who was jailed for twenty-four years in 2013 for rape and burning down his own house and blaming it on Maori.

Not all of Ghost South Road is about racism and injustice. The book also includes stories about friendship across ethnic lines, and it celebrates the cultural diversity of twenty-first century Auckland.

‘One of my favourite characters in the book is a man called Michael O’Connor’ Hamilton says. ‘He was an Irishman who in the 1870s created his own private army and rode into the remote area where the Maori King Tawhiao had taken refuge from British forces. O’Connor told Tawhiao that as an Irishman he also opposed the British Empire, and proposed they form an alliance. O’Connor sold ammunition to Tawhiao, and also to the legendary guerrilla fighter Te Kooti.’

The story of Michael O’Connor shows how strange and rich our history is, Hamilton says. ‘The more we know about history, the more liberated we feel’ he says. ‘The past is so diverse that it doesn’t demand we act and think in a particular way today. If you’re a Pakeha, then you may have had ancestors who conquered the world with the British Empire, but you probably had other ancestors who were rebels, like Michael O’Connor. You’re free to identify with whomever you like.’

Ghost South Road features photographs by Paul Janman and Ian Powell as well as Hamilton’s text. It is published by Atuanui Press with help from Creative New Zealand.

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