The killer was an Australian. But New Zealand has a long history of white supremacist ideology, writes Scott Hamilton.
Content warning: this article contains descriptions of racist behaviour and quotes racist language.
The young man wandered the world. By the time he arrived in New Zealand he was obsessed. He tried to warn his fellow whites about the aliens who were invading their country, about the perils of differently coloured skins and exotic religions. He wrote a long manifesto, full of self-pity and paranoia, then picked up a gun, hoping that murder would give him the audience he craved.
I have been describing not only the man who massacred 50 Muslims in Christchurch last week, but Lionel Terry, who shot and killed an elderly Chinese disabled man named Joe Kum Yung on Wellington’s Haining Street in 1905. Terry grew up in England, and travelled through much of the British Empire before settling in New Zealand. He wrote and published The Shadow, a white supremacist, anti-immigrant manifesto-in-verse, and in the winter of 1905 walked from Mangonui to Wellington selling it. In the capital’s Chinatown Terry found his victim.
After the murder of Joe Kum Yung, Lionel Terry was sent to a mental hospital, but he became a hero to many white New Zealanders. Three thousand of them signed a petition calling for his release, and when he escaped and hid in the Otago bush for months in 1907, local farmers and shepherds hid and fed him. A policeman hunting for the killer reported that “almost everyone” he encountered was “in sympathy with Terry”.
The support for Lionel Terry should not surprise us. By 1907 white supremacism was well-established in New Zealand. It had been a force since the 1850s, when the first colonial governments began to pursue Māori land aggressively and import huge numbers of settlers from Britain. As the Māori King Movement formed to stop land sales, the politicians and journalists of the colony began to make arguments for the superiority of the white race, and its destiny and duty to dispossess and rule darker skinned peoples.
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and quickly became one of the most famous books in the world. Colonists like Alfred Domett, a poet and colonial administrator turned politician, seized on Darwin’s text as supposed proof for the superiority of some races over others. Domett became Premier of New Zealand in 1863, and soon invaded the Waikato realm of King Tāwhiao. As his army burned the Kiingitanga’s churches and looted its pātaka, Domett was unapologetic. “It is unthinkable” he wrote in a letter, “that savages should have equal rights to civilised men”. Māori, as a lower race, had to be “ruled with a rod of iron”.
By 1868, when the British army had gone home and the Māori military geniuses Titokowaru and Te Kooti were defeating colonial forces in Taranaki and on the East Coast, the rhetoric of white politicians and newspapers became even more extreme. In an editorial written after Titokowaru had smashed an expeditionary force and killed the Prussian counter-insurgent Gustavus Von Tempsky, the Wellington Independent argued that “certain West Coast hapus” needed to be totally exterminated. They were, the paper explained, “wild beasts”, who deserved to be “hunted down and slain”. The newspaper suggested employing mercenaries to do the job, and paying them for each of the heads they brought back from the Taranaki.
By the last decades of the 19th century, Māori had lost their wars of resistance, much of their land, and much of their population, but the genocidal white supremacism of the 1860s persisted. Now Māori were seen as doomed rather than dangerous; as an inferior race, their extinction was inevitable. The journalist and poet Arthur Adams claimed that “in Maoriland, all winds whisper one word, ‘Death’.” In New Zealand and around the world, Adams wrote, “brown warriors” were dying; “nations white” were taking their places.
But in the 1880s and 90s white settlers perceived a new threat to their supremacy. In 1885 Muhammad Ahmad, a Sudanese holy warrior whose followers called him the Mahdi, or guided one, captured the fort-city of Khartoum from a British army commanded by the famous General Gordon. Gordon was beheaded; the British Empire was humiliated. New Zealand papers ran long and lurid reports of the fanaticism and bloodthirstiness of the Mahdi’s ‘Mohammedan’ followers; many colonists demanded that a local army be raised and sent to Africa. In Hamilton a huge diorama, which used toy soldiers to depict the battle between the Mahdi and Gordon, was set up in a hall. Townsfolk queued to see it; some became faint at the sight of a defeated British army. Like Te Kooti and Titokowaru before him, the Mahdi challenged the myth of white supremacy.
The panic over events in Sudan coincided with the arrival of a new set of migrants to New Zealand. They were Lebanese and Syrians, whose homelands were part of the Ottoman Empire, and they made a living as itinerant salesmen, pushing carts loaded with clothes and jewellery and medicine bottles along New Zealand’s muddy roads. The new arrivals were denigrated as “hawkers” by newspapers, and were accused of a variety of vices and crimes. They were supposedly dirty and lazy, spied on white housewives whose husbands were at work, shortchanged their customers, sold bootleg liquor, cheated “legitimate” white shopkeepers out of business, and were loyal to a foreign nation and religion.
In 1896, Premier Dick Seddon drove the Undesirable Hawkers Protection Act through parliament. The law banned ‘hawkers’ from trading in New Zealand, unless they could get four ratepayers to swear to their honesty. Seddon claimed the bill was needed to stop the “Syrian hawkers who…have swarmed down on the colony in large numbers”. His cabinet minister William Pember Reeves supported the law, telling parliament that “the so-called Assyrian hawker is as undesirable as Johnny Chinaman himself … They do not lead sanitary lives. They are not a moral people. They are not a civilised people, and in no sense are they a desirable people”.
White New Zealanders may have feared an Islamic invasion, but by 1918 it was their army that was occupying a Muslim nation. Hundreds of New Zealand horsemen were part of the Egypt Expeditionary Force that invaded Palestine in 1917, took the territory from the Ottoman Empire, and lingered there after the war. In December 1918 the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, a unit that Palestinians had nicknamed “Devils on horses”, was camped near the village Surafend. After a local stole a bag from one of the horsemen, about 200 New Zealanders attacked Surafend on the night of December the 10th. Worried about being heard by other Allied forces in nearby camps, they used long sticks and bayonets against the Arabs. Military historians estimate that between forty and one hundred Palestinians died that night. The Surafend massacre was investigated by Field Marshall Allenby, the New Zealanders’ nominal commander, but the perpetrators closed ranks and no charges were ever laid. Allenby was angry. In an address to the horsemen he said they had turned from “brave soldiers” to “cold-blooded murderers.”
After the war, white supremacism remained strong in New Zealand. The White New Zealand League formed in 1925, and its campaigns against “coloured” migration and miscegenation soon won the support of politicians of the right, as well as some trade unions. Although it spread through much of the country, the League was founded in Franklin, a district with a relatively large number of Chinese and Indian market gardeners, and it succeeded in enforcing a system of segregation in towns like Pukekohe and Papakura. Pukekohe’s barber shops and pub were whites-only zones, and Asians and Māori had to sit upstairs if they visited its movie theatre.
Papakura’s tavern was reserved for whites until 1959, when the Māori psychiatrist Henry Rongomau Bennett walked in and asked for a beer. After being thrown out, Bennett began a campaign that made international headlines, earned Papakura the nickname “the Little Rock of New Zealand”, and eventually forced the intervention of Prime Minister Walter Nash and the backdown of the town’s hotelier.
In the 1960s and 70s the old white supremacist movement was complemented by a set of neo-Nazis. Like Lionel Terry, these Hitlerites used violence as well as words to make their case. In 1967 Colin King-Ansell, the founder fuhrer of New Zealand’s National Socialist Party, was jailed for firebombing a synagogue. Kyle Chapman, the sometime leader of the National Front, a successor to King-Ansell’s organisation, was convicted for trying to burn down a marae. In the 1980s the Nationalist Workers Party, another neo-Nazi outfit, republished Terry’s The Shadow, to support its arguments for militant action against migrants.
The Fourth Reich was a gang formed in Paparua prison in 1995; its members blended fascist ideology with robbery and extortion. Between 1997 and 2003 the gang killed three people who offended its white supremacist ideals. A young Māori man named Hemi Hutley was dragged one hundred metres down a Westport road then thrown in the Buller River to drown; James Bamborough, a gay man and cross dresser, was choked then held down in the same river; and the Korean tourist Jae Hyeon Kim was strangled in the back of a Fourth Reich vehicle.
After 9/11, white supremacists turned their attention towards Muslims. A series of mosques were vandalised. In 2005 five Auckland mosques had their walls tagged and their windows smashed in “retaliation” for the terror attack in London. An activist for the National Front was later jailed for these attacks.
The Christchurch killer may be an Australian, but he has supporters in New Zealand. Last Friday night and Saturday morning, a series of comments celebrating the Christchurch massacre appeared on the National Front’s website. Lionel Terry still casts a shadow over New Zealand.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.