The history of the n-word in New Zealand

A Pūhoi pub is refusing to remove a piece of memorabilia bearing the n-word from its walls. Dr Lachy Paterson looks at the history of the word here, and New Zealand’s complicity in Britain’s shameful slave trading past.

Content warning: This article contains racist language and images.

On a pub wall in Pūhoi, covered in bric-a-brac, hangs a pair of bullock horns. It is not the horns themselves that have landed the publican in hot water, but the board to which they are attached that sports the animal’s offensive and unfortunate name, “Ni**er”. The publican originally took the offending item down in response to Black Lives Matters, but subsequently returned it. “It’s part of the history of the pub… And I’m not taking it down again.”

The “n-word” is arguably the most offensive word in English, but was this always the case, and how was it used in New Zealand? Certainly the term appears in the names of various early tobacco brands, but from the 1860s it was commonly seen in advertising for “ni**er minstrel” shows, in which blacked-up men sang “plantation songs”, and performed stereotypical sketches of Black life in the US South. These shows were an international phenomenon and hugely popular with New Zealanders who flocked to see both local and overseas acts well into the 1950s. Older folks will no doubt remember the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show on our television screens, and touring New Zealand as late as 1979. Now an embarrassment, but hugely popular in its day.

The BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show ran from 1958 to 1978 (Image: BBC)

An analysis of occurrences of the n-word in New Zealand’s newspapers reveals that the word appears most often between the world wars, peaking in the 1920s. This was largely due to the introduction of a new colour term, “ni**er brown”, that was used to describe a black-brown colour, particularly for fashion fabrics. According to the OED this meaning for the term first appeared about 1914 in Britain, but it quickly caught on in New Zealand. It is during this time that the word became a popular name for New Zealander’s dark-coloured dogs, horses, and presumably the occasional bullock.

But how innocent was the n-word in New Zealand in the past? Everyone knows that the word (a corruption of the Latin for “black”) gained currency from the slave plantations, where it was employed to denigrate Black people, continuing in use after the abolition of slavery. The Samuel Webster US dictionary of 1874, for example, adds “in derision” to its definition. The British Supplement to the Imperial Dictionary (1855) describes it as “vulgar”. Clearly it has always been an insult or put-down of Black people in the English-speaking world.

Although New Zealand never experienced the slave economy of the Americas and people of African heritage have never been a large segment of our population, it does not mean that our country wasn’t part of the aftermath of slavery. Owning slaves ­– Black abductees and their children controlled and managed as chattels – was an ingrained feature of British society. Profits were enjoyed at home while misery was safely tucked away in the Caribbean. British slave owners, including through the pulpit and parliament, justified their cause through asserting racial difference to African people who they claimed were “by nature” inferior, debased, sexually deviant, and lazy, and for whom the discipline of plantation life was beneficial. This laid the foundation for racial theories that percolated through the empire from that time, lingering well into living memory.

When British parliament finally abolished slavery in the 1830s, it paid out enormous sums to the owners, some of which helped finance New Zealand’s colonial project. But more importantly, our country was part of a wider English-speaking intellectual world, in which a racial hierarchy was taken for granted, with white people firmly at the top. New Zealand newspapers, for example, referenced Thomas Carlyle, an English theorist (and author of “Occasional Discourse on the Ni**er Question”) who had argued the case of the inherent inferiority of Black people and the desirability of the reinstitution of British slavery.

Imported racist material went wider than just the intellectual world. For much of their history, New Zealand newspapers employed a practice of “cut-and-paste”, where articles from US, British and Australian newspapers were copied into their own editions. This included little filler pieces, of “jokes” and anecdotes, some of which related to plantation life, and to Black people and their culture. These circulated around the world’s English-language newspapers, and across the decades. Indeed our settlers were laughing at “jokes” about Black slaves in the States even before the US abolished slavery in 1865, and laughed at them again when performed as sketches in the minstrel shows.

So, how was the n-word used against Māori? Missionaries noted that Māori objected to the insult. As Richard Taylor wrote, Māori were not happy “constantly being called a ni**er and black fellow to his face, and viewed as an inferior being”.

Certainly the New Zealand Wars inflamed racial tensions. As one entry in a diary of a colonial soldier stated, “The men were told not to fire unless fired upon but they all said they would fire as soon as they saw a chance of killing a ni**er.” While insulting language was no doubt used verbally (as it still is today), this was much less likely in the press or in political debate concerning Māori. This was partly due to Pākehā settlers viewing New Zealand as a superior colony, and by extension, Māori were deemed to be superior “natives” to those of other colonies. Or perhaps, they just recognised that it was offensive.

But it did occur occasionally. In 1899 one opposition MP argued against Māori leasing land. “Fancy a free-born Britisher having a ni**er for a landlord”. He was roundly condemned, not just by Māori, but by then prime minister, Richard Seddon, and the press. The MP apologised for his “regrettable use of a common and vulgar expression”. In 1916, and again in 1923, the MP Māui Pōmare was called a “ni**er” by members on the other side of parliament’s debating chamber. On both occasions, his colleagues had to restrain him from giving his antagonist a good thump in the lobby.

The Pūhoi Pub’s staff describe their establishment as a “living museum”, saying the inclusion of the bullock horns should be seen in the context of the times, and people should just get over it. But a pub, despite its knick-knacks, is not a museum; it is a place where people wander in for a beer or a feed. That the horns have been hanging on the wall for a long time is no excuse; racism has a long history in New Zealand but it does not mean we shouldn’t fight it. Continuing to display the bullock horns and refusing to take them down is choosing to ignore the history of the word, its racialised meanings and connection to slavery and white supremacy, and means the publican is happy to offend and alienate a large number of New Zealanders. She should take it down.

See also: Can Māori and Pacific people use the n-word? 

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