One Question Quiz
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; design by Tina Tiller
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; design by Tina Tiller

ĀteaJuly 28, 2023

How finance colonised Aotearoa

Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; design by Tina Tiller
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library; design by Tina Tiller

A new book charts the complicated yet central role of finance in the colonisation of Aotearoa. Charlotte Muru-Lanning talks to the book’s author, Catherine Comyn.

The word finance might bring to mind the technical world of banks and interest rates, The Wolf of Wall Street, or something you use in the unlikely event you can ever afford to buy a house in this country. But a new book reveals how it also had an intimate relationship to the colonisation of Aotearoa.

Catherine Comyn (Ngāti Ranginui, Pākehā) begins The Financial Colonisation of Aotearoa with the assertion that “colonisation is financial, and finance is political”. Comyn makes the argument that far from the mere technical management of money, finance and financial institutions were a key, if not dominant, player in the colonisation of this country – an argument that complicates prevalent narratives of colonisation that revolve around the British Crown and adventurous individual explorers. 

The Financial Colonisation of Aotearoa. (Additional design: Archi Banal)

I spoke to Comyn, currently a PhD student in international political economy at King’s College London, about the entanglement between finance and colonisation, the ongoing resistance to this by Māori, and the lessons this history holds for today.

What prompted your focus on financial history? 

It was connected with other research I was doing around imperialism and the expansion of the world market in the late 19th century that showed how finance is a means of expanding capitalism globally. But I had this big question around that because New Zealand wasn’t really mentioned in any of these texts. I wanted to understand whether the colonisation of Aotearoa was involved in the expansion of global capitalism in the same way, and whether finance was as central to the experience here as it has been elsewhere.

So I assume you found that it was central to the colonisation of Aotearoa?

Yep, and more than I expected. I knew what I’d been taught at school about the New Zealand Company buying land, but I didn’t realise that it basically initiated the colonisation of Aotearoa, and that the British government’s role was really quite reactionary and responsive to what this financial institution was doing. That was quite surprising because it hadn’t been presented to me in that way before. 

New Zealand Company advertisements targeting potential immigrants in 1848 (left) and 1839 (Images: Alexander Turnbull Library /records/22730739 and /records/22487040)

So was it through the New Zealand Company that financial activities really kicked off in Aotearoa?

Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company began selling Māori lands in Aotearoa in 1839 before any of its agents had even arrived in the country. So I suppose in that sense, financial activities began in Aotearoa before colonisation formally did. Before settlers had even seen the land it was already being sold as a financial asset. I’ve started thinking more recently about pre-colonial Māori forms of finance too, but it’s debatable whether these should even be called finance and whether that’s a politically useful way to think of it, given how terrible finance capital has been for Māori.

The common story about colonisation in Aotearoa is that it was prompted by British imperialism. How does reflecting on finance complicate that history?

I wanted to expand on the state-centred narrative. At first I was struck by how different the stories are. The story we’re largely told in school paints a picture of a government overseeing these processes and making decisions. But it seems the more you study the role of finance in these processes, that notion starts to disintegrate. It became really clear that there’s a different side to the story, where colonisation was being pursued by a private company. Even though what they were doing was very chaotic in practice, they had planned it consciously and were doing it without any government approval. By the time the Treaty was signed, the New Zealand Company had already sent thousands of colonists to Aotearoa. It seems quite clear that the Crown’s decision to make a treaty with Māori was primarily influenced by the New Zealand Company. 

A grroup of militia at Rawene during the 1898 Dog Tax Rebellion (Photo: Fenwick Barrett, Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: 1/2-018758-F, /records/22769594)

Were there any stories of Māori resistance to financialisation that stood out to you?

I had a lot of fun reading old newspapers. Some of the most surprising and fascinating to read were the accounts of Māori resistance as part of the 1898 Hokianga Dog Tax Rebellion.The tax was primarily motivated to protect sheep, which were the Pākehā economic units at that time, but for Māori, dogs were central to hunting, and before colonisation they consumed dogs as an important source of protein. So there’s this whole different relationship to dogs. There are many accounts of Māori who were called to court because they refused to pay a tax for owning a dog. Their explanations for why they’re not paying it show that this was so much more than an economic resistance, it was a deeply political – and even a philosophical or spiritual issue for them. I was struck by the steadfastness with which they articulated their opposition. There’s one account of a leader who basically said he would rather die than pay the tax. In economic terms, it wasn’t crazy amounts of money, but it wasn’t at all about the money by that stage. 

What about instances of Māori adopting finance as a political tool?

The best example is Te Peeke o Aotearoa, which is the Bank of Aotearoa, set up in 1889 by King Tāwhiao – they even had their own currency. There’s other examples, but this shows how Māori were directly taking finance, or financial institutions in this case, and trying to subvert its function for decolonial ends. The bank was established in the wake of the Waikato Wars and after decades of debt being used by the colonial administration as a means of dispossessing Maori. So in that context, it’s such a powerful symbol of Māori resistance to financial colonisation.

A one pound note issued by Te Peeke o Aotearoa in the late 1880s (Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: qMS-2136-36, /records/22572483)

Your book focuses on a particular period of time, but does this story of financial colonisation in Aotearoa go beyond that?

It definitely does, and it was hard to stop myself from continuing the history, so I ended up demarcating it to the 19th century – I had to stop somewhere. Financial colonisation continued well into the 20th century and continues today. One of the central threads that emerged is continuity in the way that finance and the state interact in colonisation. That relationship and tension is still very central to colonial capitalism today. We see this with contemporary examples like Ihumātao, which was confiscated by the state in the mid 19th century, and given to settlers, but then sold to one of the largest financial companies in New Zealand. 

How does this financial lens change the way we look at our history?

It helps us to see the links between the past and the present. And if we see our history as a financial history, we can see the blind spots in how we approach it. Because Aotearoa is not just being threatened now by financial interests, it has been threatened by financial interests since its founding. And this is very evident in that the very first decision of our parliament in its first session in 1854 was to bail out the New Zealand Company. There’s a lot of opposition to states bailing out banks in a financial crisis, but our country was founded on a very similar decision, which most people wouldn’t be very comfortable knowing.

In what ways do you think your book might help to colour contemporary political struggles?

It expands how we think about who’s accountable today, and I hope it contributes to an understanding where the struggles to overcome colonisation and capitalism are seen as inseparable. I also hope that it shows some of the limits to the contemporary discourses on redress and reparations. The state is continually telling Māori that their claims for financial compensation are unreasonable and unrealistic. We know that modern governments are able to come up with eye-watering amounts to bail out financial institutions. So why is it unrealistic when indigenous people request even a small amount of this money?

The Financial Colonisation of Aotearoa is released this Saturday, July 29. It will be available at Unity Books, Strange Goods, and ESRA.

Keep going!