Punch and the Maori, 1864-1865

Published in British Review of New Zealand Studies, xv (2005/6).


The pages of mid-Victorian Britain’s most celebrated humorous magazine may seem an unlikely place to find a series of passionate denunciations of the treatment of Maori by the settler population of New Zealand. Founded in 1841, Punch is remembered for its political caricatures that set the public image of men such as Lord Palmerston (‘Pam’) and Benjamin Disraeli (‘Dizzy’). However, it also carried a great deal of text, including a weekly feature, ‘Essence of Parliament’, an idiosyncratic diary of personalities and incidents at Westminster. On several occasions in 1864-65, the ‘Essence’ commented sharply on New Zealand.

It is difficult to measure the influence of any publication: wide circulation may prove equally that a newspaper or magazine shaped public opinion, or that it successfully reflected community prejudices. Historians who use Punch as source material generally take for granted that it fell into the latter category: by the 1860s, Punch had ‘moved from its initial perky radicalism to heavy reflection of upper middle class manners’.1 Punch certainly reflected attitudes conventional to that broad segment of society, mocking domestic servants and bureaucratic officials while demanding harsh punishment for criminals. Foreigners and the Irish were funny, Americans vulgar, Scotsmen narrow-minded, educated females absurd. John Bull, its epitome of England, was always comfortably right, and his soldiers and sailors were heroes who deserved unquestioning support: its condemnation of the New Zealand war did not extend to criticism of the commanding officer, General Duncan Cameron. Punch’s admiration for the Maori cut across these stereotypes.

Punch was unapologetically racist, which also makes its defence of the Maori all the more striking.2 In 1857-58, for instance, Punch had reflected national outrage at the massacres of Europeans during the Indian Mutiny. Even though its archetypal Maori in 1864-65 was ‘Sir Cannibal Tattoo’ - a combination of two surely negative stereotypes - a parallel was drawn with the national hero, Sir Henry Havelock, who had sacrificed his life putting down the barbarous sepoys.3 James Belich has argued that the wars of the 1860s swept away the earlier Enlightenment views which had ranked Maori relatively high in the racial hierarchy. He is also dismissive of the notion that conflict proved ‘a breeding ground for mutual respect’.4 The evidence from Punch tends slightly to modify this view. At the very least, it shows that philo-Maori views were not confined to a narrow group of humanitarians and ‘little Englanders’.5

The ‘Essence of Parliament’ was a forerunner of parliamentary sketch-writing in modern broadsheets. Punch did not invent the genre: Shirley Brooks, who produced the ‘Essence’, had previously covered Westminster for the Morning Chronicle.6 But the ‘Essence’ had its own peculiar flavour. It was whimsical, sometimes portraying parliament as the ‘Westminster Classical, Commercial decidedly non-Mathematical Academy’, its urbane headmaster the prime minister, Lord Palmerston. The column had its favourite characters. G.H. Whalley, Liberal MP for Peterborough, was a Protestant zealot who constantly discerned the hand of the Catholic Church behind all of Britain’s problems, including Maori resistance to imperial rule. John Arthur Roebuck, the outspoken veteran radical, was another of its licensed jesters. In the world of Punch, nothing was truly serious. Even its denunciations of the treatment of Maori - in more modern terminology, it was an indictment of genocide - was couched in terms of irony. Nonetheless, the passion behind its comments stands out.

Is it likely that Punch shaped public attitudes towards New Zealand? Should we look to the ‘Essence’ to explain why emigration to New Zealand after the 1850s no longer contained such a sizeable ‘middle class’ element, while emigration in the 1870s seems in retrospect to have been dominated by farm labourers and the socially disadvantaged? The evidence suggests that Punch was pervasive, but that does not prove that it was influential. In its early years, for instance, it denounced the death penalty without so much as denting the consensus of support for capital punishment. By the 1860s, the magazine was a massive business success.7 Nor was it as ephemeral as much of the newspaper press. Weekly issues were preserved or reissued in bound volumes, many of which still survive. Punch was the source of catchphrases which have entered the English language, although perhaps the most famous, the ‘curate’s egg’, dates from 1895,8 by which time the magazine had become a national institution.9 Ironically, the magazine itself disliked clichés, singling out Macaulay’s famous invocation of the distant future when ‘some traveller from New Zealand’ would visit the ruins of London.10 To Punch in 1864, a ‘New Zealander’ was still emphatically a Maori, and not a colonist.11

When parliament assembled in February 1864, the ‘Essence’ summarised the Queen’s Speech under seven headings. Protocol required that the birth of ‘Mr and Mrs Edward Wales’s little boy’ (Prince Albert Victor) should be mentioned first. Then followed the war between Prussia and Denmark, and an incident with the Japanese that had culminated in British ships bombarding Kagoshima. New Zealand ranked fourth, ahead of the Ionian Islands and social and ecclesiastical conditions at home:

... the New Zealanders continue, in the most strange way, to dislike having their lands settled upon by settlers who will soon settle the tattoed [sic] people out of the way altogether, but ... the English are enforcing this Law of Settlement in a vigorous manner, and will soon have shot so many tattoed [sic] folks, that the others will see how wrong it is to object to civilisation and Christianity.12

The Law of Settlement had underpinned the pre-1834 Poor Law with its principle that everybody ‘belonged’ to a parish, either by birth or accepted residency, and so had a claim upon that community for welfare support. Hence its satirical use as part of a picture of dispossession.

In an item in March, Punch celebrated the incongruous development that ‘good news from New Zealand’, where the war seemed to be going well, had enabled the government to reverse planned expenditure cuts on the Yeomanry, a reserve cavalry force which was the butt of much humour.13 But the fighting was not yet over, nor were the moral issues resolved. On 26 April, the House of Commons discussed the distant colony:

SIR CANNIBAL TATTOO gives us a deal of trouble. To-night long speeches were made about the war in New Zealand, and as to the way we ought to treat the natives. The fact is, that we are in a false position, and must make the best of it. The New Zealanders have found out that a small nation of savages must be gradually improved off the face of the earth by the settlement of white men in the territory, and instead of accepting the situation and resigning themselves to their fate, which we would make as easy as we could for them, if they would only be quiet, they revolt, as we call it, and propose to expel us. As this, of course, is flying in the face of Civilisation and Progress, they at once become outlaws and criminals, and in the interest of humanity we must bring them to a proper sense of things. The colonists are for doing things very abruptly, and have passed a strong Confiscation Bill, and our gallant soldiers are doing their best to enlighten the New Zealand mind. The falsity of our position will be rectified in a few years by the absence of all who should challenge it, but those who know the progress of the colony will not paint its early history in very glowing colours.14

Ironic banter was giving way to angry sarcasm. A month later, the tone became even more censorious, with barely a hint of humour to mask the harsh condemnation. On 26 May, it was the House of Lords which discussed the fate of the Maori, and Punch concentrated on a speech from Lord Lyttelton, one of the aristocratic figureheads involved in the founding of Canterbury:

A nation with a virtue which all nations admire, bravery, and doubtless with other virtues which are not so apparent to the eye of JOHN BULL, with his constable, taxes-paying, and general decorum ideas, as they might seem to a less rational person, is in course of extermination. There were, a few years ago, 100,000 Maoris in New Zealand, there are now about 50,000. In a few more years there will be none, and against this loss there are to be set two items, the comfort of the colonists, who covet quiet possession of the Maori lands, and the extinction of Lord MACAULAY’S abominable New Zealander. LORD LYTTLETON [sic], speaking tonight, considered that we had not behaved altogether humanely to those aborigines, with whom we are now waging a warfare that means something as like extermination as the usages of polite war will permit. As nobody knows anything about the colonies, it may not be superfluous to mention that while England ruled the New Zealand settlers, the natives got tolerably fair play, but now that we have given the settlers a Constitution, they not only seek to have the Maoris put down altogether (and it is very natural that they should) but they make English folks carry on and pay for the war. In Punch’s spirit of the most impartial justice he ought to add, that there are many Volunteers, among the colonists, who are extremely ready to aid in serving out the New Zealanders, and that the latter war after a fashion which they think fair, but which we call murder. This was the subject of the Monday night conversation in the Lords, and the Government had not much to say, but thought that the first thing to be done was to subjugate the natives. This work the gallant GENERAL CAMERON is doing with all desirable vigour.15

Punch had over-simplified the evolution of colonial self-government. The New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 had evolved into responsible government in 1856, but control over relations with Maori had been formally reserved to the governor until late in 1863. Thus while conflict in both Taranaki and the Waikato had been the product of settler machinations, fighting had nonetheless broken out under imperial responsibility. With grievances stretching back to the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori would have challenged the notion of ‘tolerably fair play’ under Crown Colony government.16

Perhaps because the question arose so soon, and Punch did not want its readers bored, the controversial legislation guaranteeing a £1,000,000 loan to the settlers received only passing notice in the ‘Essence’ two weeks later:

We guaranteed a New Zealand loan, and were told that GENERAL CAMERON was pounding SIR CANNIBAL TATTOO in great style.17

The impression that imperial forces were winning this distasteful war made Punch all the more ready to romanticise the Maori foe, a tendency perhaps fostered by the publication, in March 1864, of J.E. Gorst’s sympathetic book, The Maori King. Reporting the Commons on 14 July, Punch chronicled an exchange between the colonial enthusiast, J.A. Roebuck, and the veteran free trader, Richard Cobden, in which the magazine’s innate racism was subtly inverted. Roebuck was branded, not as a ‘thug’, in the lower-case modern meaning of ‘violent criminal’, but in its upper-case version, a member of a fanatical cult on the Indian sub-continent which turned murder into ritual:

We then had a New Zealand debate, in the course of which MR ROEBUCK expressed his opinion that the natives must be exterminated, and Mr COBDEN expressed his that MR ROEBUCK was no better than a Thug. SIR CANNIBAL TATTOO is fighting very hard, and cleverly, for his own and his father’s land, and not only are his military tactics able, but he manifests a spirit which makes it very painful to feel that we are shooting him in the interests of land-speculators. One of the gallant old chiefs, believing that the English had surrounded him, summoned his warriors, read them some portions of our Prayer Book, offered up a short prayer of his own, and then said, “Now let us die by the hands of brave men." He and his followers dashed upon us, and cut their way into a place of safety. If HAVELOCK or any other of our own fighting Christians had done this, we should have had a burst of plaudit, and acres of bad poetry in his honour. The war ought to be brought to an end, or left to the colonists. However, we guaranteed them a loan, by 92 to 55.18

In November 1864, Frederick Weld was to form a ministry pledged to ‘self-reliance’. Punch did not explain how an immoral imperial war could become acceptable if waged by the settler population on its own behalf. Later in the proceedings of 14 July, G.H. Whalley, the scourge of Catholicism, ‘got a great shout by charging the New Zealand Rebellion upon the Papists.’ On 18 July, he returned to the attack:

We had another New Zealand debate, and again did WHALLEY THE WISE announce his conviction that the natives had been stirred into rebellion by the POPE. A wonderful thing is fanaticism real or affected. ... We guaranteed a loan to carry on a war which every one wishes at an end. Government declares that it is only a small portion of the natives who are opposed to us, and also denies that the colonial merchants supply those natives with arms. No, but they sell them to so-called friendly natives, who transmit them to their fighting brethren, and anyhow the result is, that the obituary in the Times when the Australian mail has arrived, contains announcements of the deaths of English officers by Birmingham rifles.19

Punch may have been a humorous publication, but the ‘Essence’ had dimly grasped the nature of what Belich has called the ‘shift system’ behind Maori tactics, by which small numbers of active fighters were tacitly supported and eventually replaced by tribes that were ostensibly neutral.20

As the session drew to a close, parliament mopped up its New Zealand business:

The Lords forwarded a Bill for the New Zealand Loan, but LORD MALMESBURY thought the Colonists ought to do their own fighting, and that the War was an unjust and unholy one. So thought LORD LYVEDEN, formerly VERNON SMITH. The DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE denied that our troops felt disgust at the War, and declared that they were only too happy to kill anybody and everybody whom they might be instructed to slay. LORD ELLENBOROUGH believed that the Colony might not be able to meet its pecuniary engagements.21

Three of these august peers were big names indeed. The Duke of Cambridge, Queen Victoria’s reactionary cousin, was commander-in-chief of the Army. Lord Malmesbury had twice served as Foreign Secretary. Lord Ellenborough was not only a former governor-general of India, but had energetically expanded its frontiers. His annexation in 1842 of the province of Scinde, in defiance of orders from London, had prompted a famous Punch joke, in which Ellenborough was claimed to have announced both his conquest and his disobedience in the Latin word, ‘Peccavi’ (I have sinned). Since Malmesbury and Ellenborough were both Conservatives, their criticisms could hardly be dismissed as the anti-imperialist posturing of disaffected radicals. As Punch’s aside indicates, the veteran Whig Lord Lyveden was the least known of the four. As Robert Vernon Smith, he had served as parliamentary under-secretary at the Colonial Office from 1839 to 1841. Although he ‘had little impact on New Zealand history’, he was vigorously pro-Maori, a reminder that there was no firm division between debates at the time of annexation and the controversies of the 1860s.22

Friday 29 July marked was ‘the last day of a do-nothing session.’ The ‘Essence’ summarised the government’s prorogation speech in twenty increasingly fantastical paragraphs. At number nine, Punch indulged one of its more regrettable weaknesses, the repetition of a jest that was not very amusing in the first place:

New Zealand is not quieted. But only a part of the natives are in revolt. It is to be hoped that among those who will be finally obliterated will be LORD MACAULAY’S eternal New Zealander, who is now becoming a nuisance of which the police should take notice.23

Mid-Victorian parliaments took long holidays, and without debates to report, Punch was not likely to bother itself with a distant colony. However, a whimsical item in January 1865 once again reveals a sentimental view of Maori as worthy foes destined to become trusted allies. In the torrid atmosphere of the American Civil War, Northern newspapers often indulged in bombastic threats to punish Britain by annexing Canada. In his capacity as ‘Head Swaggerer to the British Nation’, Mr Punch decided to treat the ‘Yankee Braggarts’ to a typically topsy-turvy prediction that a united Empire would overrun the United States and make it an appendage to Canada. As the plot unfolded:

... Swan River Volunteers would occupy Texas, the brave Van Diemens would clear Missouri, the New South Welshers would answer for Arkansas, while the New Zealand natives, amnestied and thirsting to show their love for England, would sweep like a tattooed torrent through Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.24

A month later, Punch rendered the Queen’s Speech at the opening of the new parliamentary session into blank verse. On the world scene, the Danish and American wars and confrontations with the Japanese were the major subjects for concern, followed by:

Not quite submissive yet on earth is laid

The tattooed brow of the New Zealander.

But he hath learned a lesson, learned as well

The easy terms might bring him to our grace. 25

On 10 March, the ‘Essence’ reported a New Zealand debate in the Commons:

... chiefly notable because MR ROEBUCK vomited flames against the Maoris, and declared that civilised man did a service to humanity by killing all wild beasts, of whom the worst was the wild man. The House, to its credit, was indignant at this display of Christian philanthropy, and the Colonial Secretary bore testimony both to the valour and the chivalry of the Maoris, many of whom behaved, he said, in the spirit of true gentlemen.26

The minister was Edward Cardwell, who aimed to reduce the imperial garrison in New Zealand but wished to avoid dictation by the colony’s critics in parliament.

One year later, as a new parliament assembled after a general election, Punch once again summarised the Queen’s Speech, this time in staccato prose. Number 14 in a list of 26 noted simply:

Nearly all our soldiers are to come back from New Zealand.27

So far as Britain’s leading humorous periodical was concerned, that marked the close of the New Zealand issue.

In October 1864, Weld had warned his fellow settlers that ‘the English newspapers... [were] filled with attacks upon the colony and charges against us of being greedy and desirous of getting the lands of the natives’.28 Punch was not unique in its disapproval. Rather, the significance of its comments lay in the fact that criticism of New Zealand had penetrated even this mass-circulation, escapist periodical. Punch was a complaining rather than a campaigning publication, one which voiced grumbles rather than fought campaigns. It directed its fire against an undifferentiated ragbag of abuses, of which in 1864 the nuisance of unregulated musicians on the streets of London was the most vociferously argued. In any case, its humour worked for contemporaries (if not for posterity) because it was gentle, ironic and forgiving. In its criticisms of the fighting in a distant colony, Punch probably reflected rather than shaped the driving forces of British public opinion, although it undoubtedly advertised the moral uncertainty of the conflict to a wider circle of the public. Particularly striking was the ‘noble savage’ view of the Maori, which happened to fit well with the filter of chivalric unreality through which Punch invariably viewed the innate nastiness of the world. But one point is abundantly clear: in 1864, the New Zealand colonial project had a severe image problem in Britain, serious enough to be traceable in a highly unlikely source.
[1] Geoffrey Best, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875 (Frogmore, Herts, 1973 ed.), p. 124.

[2] Compare its attitude to the Taiping rebels in China, ‘marauding savages .. cruel miscreants’, Punch, 19 July 1862, p. 22.

[3] Havelock’s iconic status is reflected in the naming of settlements on both islands of New Zealand, which date from around 1864.

[4] James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (Auckland, 1986), pp. 311-35.

[5] The classic humanitarian statement was Octavius Hadfield, One of England’s Little Wars (London, 1860, facsimile ed. Hocken Library, Dunedin, 1967). Keith Sinclair, The Origins of the Maori Wars (Auckland, 1961 ed.), pp. 19-25 and 207-25 discusses the weakness of missionary and humanitarian opposition to the land grab. For the archetypal ‘little England’ criticism of the New Zealand colonists, see Ged Martin, ‘"A System of Sponging and Cozening"; Goldwin Smith on New Zealand, 1862’, BRONZS, 13, 2001/2002, pp. 39-57. Punch was emphatically not a ‘little England’ publication, and its general outlook was sentimental rather than humanitarian.

[6] For [Charles William] Shirley Brooks, see Dictionary of National Biography.

[7] The Dictionary of National Biography reports that cartoonist John Leech, who died in 1864, made £40,000 from Punch. Mark Lemon, its founding co-editor, had an annual salary of £1,500 by the time he retired in 1870. These were impressive sums for the time.

[8] The nervous curate having breakfast with the august bishop cannot bring himself to admit that he has been served a bad egg: ‘parts of it are excellent’.

[9] Gladstone dined with its staff in 1889, and Lord Salisbury contemptuously recorded that he had known one politician who wanted to resign every time he was lampooned in its pages, and another who regarded his career as a failure because he was never caricatured at all.

[10] Macaulay’s ‘New Zealander’ made his appearance in 1840, the year of the Treaty of Waitangi. T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Contributed to the Edinburgh Review (3 vols, London, 1854), ii, p. 540. It was ‘a throw-away line’ which ‘had absolutely nothing to do with New Zealand’. James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Auckland, 1996), p. 297.

[11] But on 22 March 1862, p. 112, a passing reference to ‘New Zealanders’ had apparently referred to colonists.

[12] Punch, 13 February 1864, p. 62.

[13] Punch, 26 March 1864, p. 131.

[14] Punch, 7 May 1864, p. 187.

[15] Punch, 11 June 1864, p. 239.

[16] Punch was by no means hostile to settlers as such. In July 1864, the ‘Essence’ defended the ‘noble colony’ of Australia against alleged British mismanagement of international postal rates. On 29 October, its full-page weekly political cartoon showed a hard-working colonist warning John Bull not to dump his convict rubbish in Australia. Punch, 2 July, p. 2; 29 October 1864, p. 25.

[17] Punch, 25 June 1864, p. 259. W.P. Morrell, British Colonial Policy in the Mid-Victorian Age (Oxford, 1969), pp. 302-5 for the debate on the loan.

[18] Punch, 23 July 1864, p. 32. On 23 May 1863, p. 207, the ‘Essence’ had described Roebuck as ‘exceedingly Roebuckian in his language’.

[19] Punch, 30 July 1864, p. 42.

[20] Belich, The New Zealand Wars, pp. 102-3.

[21] Punch, 6 August 1864, p. 52 (column 1).

[22] Peter Adams, Fatal Necessity: British Intervention in New Zealand 1830-1847 (Auckland, 1977), pp. 210-15.

[23] Punch, 6 August 1864, p. 52 (column 2).

[24] Punch, 21 January 1865, p. 25.

[25] Punch, 18 February 1865, p. 63. This ‘Idyll of the Queen’ was a heavy pastiche of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, published in 1859.

[26] Punch, 18 March 1865, p. 106.

[27] Punch, 17 February 1866, p. 63.

[28] Quoted, Morrell, British Colonial Policy in the Mid-Victorian Age, p. 317.