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Richard Shaw’s The Unsettled: Small Stories of Decolonisation (Image: Tina Tiller)
Richard Shaw’s The Unsettled: Small Stories of Decolonisation (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksMarch 30, 2024

What we find when we dig up the past

Richard Shaw’s The Unsettled: Small Stories of Decolonisation (Image: Tina Tiller)
Richard Shaw’s The Unsettled: Small Stories of Decolonisation (Image: Tina Tiller)

Richard Shaw’s latest book, The Unsettled, explores the truth behind his and other Pākehā families’ ‘settler’/’pioneer’ histories and considers what to do with them. In this excerpt Shaw reveals how, once family facts come to light, the places around us look and feel different as our view of our place upon the land transforms. 

As I read through my great-grandfather’s military service record and learned that he had been present not only for the invasion of Parihaka but also for the subsequent occupation, a sense of discomfort settled inside which has never left me. This stuff registers in the body. It might then shift to the brain or the heart or wherever – but, in the first instance, learning something that forces a past is felt in the stomach. 

Sometimes, too, the excavation is messy, incomplete — for even if the detail is not known, we can sense that there are bits missing. Rachel Buchanan calls this “the presence of an absence”. The blank spaces are hinted at when people express the feeling that something in their backstory is not quite right, or keep picking away at those troubling questions about how things really were. We may not know the full extent of what has been forgotten or misplaced along the way, but we know something is waiting to be found.

And sometimes digging up the past can leave us feeling unsteady on our feet, the trick of standing upright here proving more difficult than it sounds. The endless moving on, putting the past behind us and fantasising about our blameless history – perhaps this is simply what happens when the land to which we lay claim is unquiet. Perhaps, too, these unacknowledged facets of our pasts are part of the reason so many of us are constantly upping sticks, always on the prowl for a bigger house or a better piece of real estate.

We talk of this in the language of progress and of getting on in the world, but might it not also be that our constant need for movement issues from a sense of existential impermanence; from the unease that comes from knowing, deep down in the unacknowledged parts of ourselves, that we stand on shaky foundations?

The work is slow, laborious, often frustrating. Neither does it really seem to end, taking on the raiment of a process of becoming rather than a state of being.

Richard Shaw’s books, both published by Massey University Press (Photo: Supplied)

There are moments when something clangs into place, and you wonder how you could possibly have missed it before. I have long known that the Irish were unsettled by and because of the poverty created by centuries of English colonisation. I have not long known that, long after the Tudors and Cromwell, my great-grandparents — still impoverished, still landless, still dispossessed — sailed to the other side of the world where, unwittingly or otherwise, they contributed to the unsettling of mana whenua on the Taranaki coast. I do not understand why it took me so long to understand that what is an Irish staple — valorising the heroic position of the downtrodden, the oppressed, the colonised — is not extended to the tangata whenua of Aotearoa.

Six hundred years after the confiscation of land in Ireland my ancestors were still living in poverty, scrabbling about on small pieces of dirt owned by absentee English landlords; still bearing out Sir William Martin’s warning that “the claim of the dispossessed owner is remembered from generation to generation”. And here we are – some of us, anyway, including people with ties to Ireland who harbour strong views about perfidious Albion – telling Māori to get over it and move on. 

There is a double standard at work here, and the only explanation for it is that it justifies our (my) place here and conveniently absolves us (me) of responsibility for Māori disadvantage. And “the worst of it”, as Susan says, “is that it was so recent — not 500 years ago, but the middle of the 19th century, a time when the British people who were directing the massacres here were well educated and knew exactly what they were doing”.

When we begin digging around in our past, familiar places – the “tiny landscapes” that carry the memories of earlier times – start to look different. Our relationship with them can start to shift, too. St Joseph’s Church in New Plymouth is an important place for me. I served on its altar when I was a schoolboy (having figured out that having stuff to do — ringing bells, carrying the wine up to the priest and generally ferrying the paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic mass around the stage — was how you made it interesting); I sang alongside my great friend Bernard Leuthart in its choir; and generations of my dead – including my father –have had the Requiem Mass said for them in that church. It is part of the backdrop of my life.

I don’t spend a lot of time there these days, but I like visiting it when I return to New Plymouth to see Mum. There is a quiet sense of peace to be found in sitting there, alone, thinking about how the different threads of my past come together in that place. Tucked away on the left-hand side as you enter the church is a mural by Michael Smither depicting the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. It is one of three that Smither completed for St Joe’s in the 1970s, and is saturated with his light, sharply defined edges and lush blues and greens. I have looked at that mural for nearly 50 years, but rarely up close and never with much thought. Late in 2022 I went into the church with Mum to water the flowers she had prepared for that Sunday’s mass. I stood in front of Smither’s mural, and aspects of it I had glanced at a thousand times but never seen came into focus.

Smither’s Baptism is taking place not in the Jordan but in Taranaki. You can tell from the shape of the rocks — they are the ones you find in the Waiwhakaiho and in the Hangatahua. (You can also tell because Jesus is wearing stubbies and a daggy muscle shirt.) The Holy Spirit is descending in the form of a tūī, while a tuna swirls around the feet of those standing in the river. And Smither’s Baptist is Māori. I can see all of it clearly now, but for half a century I saw something else entirely.

The Unsettled: Small Stories of Decolonisation by Richard Shaw ($40, Massey University Press) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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