Art critique

The Maori historian providing a critique of New Zealand’s controversial governor George Gray

A Maori historian with links to Taranaki has been asked to critique a controversial figure in New Zealand’s colonial history as part of a project to review statues at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Keenan, Ngati Te Whiti ki Te Ātiawa, is one of 50 historians, writers, poets, musicians and theologians from around the world invited to write about the statues that are in or around the cathedral.

St Paul’s is one of London’s most recognizable landmarks and has dominated the city’s skyline for over 300 years.

The plan to examine the monuments associated with it comes at a time when statues in Britain and the United States have been pulled down or vandalized following the Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall movements.

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Both movements have sought to reevaluate certain prominent political figures in history as racists and/or key elements of racist systems.

Every writer of Pantheons: Sculpture in St Paul project, is associated with one of the statues and Keenan’s memoir was “Taking a Maori View of Sir George Gray to an International Audience”.

Sir George Gray was a towering and dominant figure in New Zealand colonial politics, serving two terms as Governor before becoming Prime Minister on October 15, 1877.

He also served in Parliament until his return to England, where he died in 1898.

While he was governor for the second time, tensions in Taranaki over land ownership and sovereignty led to the involvement of British military forces in Waitara.

He also launched the invasion of Waikato in 1863 and participated in the confiscation (raupatu) of Māori land.

The ‘Sir George Grey’ monument, which stands inside St Paul’s, was presented by the New Zealand government in 1904, following Grey’s death and burial in 1898.

Gray’s statue in Albert Park, Auckland was vandalized in 2020.

Historian Dr Danny Keenan is part of the Pantheons: Sculpture at St Paul's project.

Provided

Historian Dr Danny Keenan is part of the Pantheons: Sculpture at St Paul’s project.

Keenan said he was never too sure about the statues.

”I have read with interest St Paul’s contributions from other writers; opinion as to what happens next is really divided.

Perhaps tearing down statues is more of a political act, where the distinction between black and white seems straightforward, he said.

“When the statues were falling overseas, my cousin (Te Pāti Māori co-leader) Debbie Ngāwera-Packer and others were quite candid and unequivocal about what was to happen, and they weren’t wrong in self.

“History as a discipline, however, is really nuanced and complicated, with many things going on at once, as the St Paul writers show.”

The Sir George Gray Statue in Albert Park Auckland was vandalized in 2020.

The Sir George Gray Statue in Albert Park Auckland was vandalized in 2020.

Writing about Sir George Gray was interesting, as not much is known about him beyond New Zealand, certainly not in the context of Rhodes Must Fall, he said.

“I was interested in focusing on his early career as a British Army officer in Ireland, followed by colonial administrator in Australia and South Africa, where his uncompromising defense of the Empire was concrete. ”

Gray is remembered as a strong-minded reforming politician who mentored a later generation of radical liberal politicians who would transform New Zealand after 1891, Keenan said.

”But for Maori, Grey’s insistence that Maori could only be subjects in their own country was of course not well received.

“In particular, his pre-emptive invasion of the Waikato and subsequent punitive land confiscations, which inflicted so much suffering, dispossession and loss on the – recently improved – Maori people have undoubtedly tainted his otherwise striking legacy.”

Keenan is turning his St Paul’s play into a much larger chapter for a book to be published next year.

Maybe Grey’s legacy will be clearer then, he said.

“Or maybe not – as they say, you can lay down 100 online historians, but you’ll never come to a conclusion.”

The project, titled Pantheons: Sculpture at St Paul, was launched on December 1, 2021 in partnership with the Department of Art History at the University of York.