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Jason Brown: Even now, it’s hard to pooh-pooh Scott’s work

Sunday January 12, 2020 Written by Published in Opinion
Governor-General Lord Ranfurly reading the annexation proclamation to Queen Makea, with the British Resident Walter Gudgeon looking on, at the Cook Islands annexation ceremony in October 1900. Governor-General Lord Ranfurly reading the annexation proclamation to Queen Makea, with the British Resident Walter Gudgeon looking on, at the Cook Islands annexation ceremony in October 1900. 20011066

OPINION: Years of the Pooh-Bah remains a landmark publication decades after it was published. Richly written and sourced, the book casts a clear eye over more than a century of island experiences with colonialism, from early missionary times to self-government.

Released in 1991, the Dick Scott book got wide praise. For many Pooh-Bah remains a clean window into what helped form a nation. 

Anyone who has ever thrown old family papers onto a fire will understand why few documents survive outside archives held by former colonial powers. So strong framing for the book’s history comes from papa’a correspondence on Maori sovereignty. Such as former colonial administrator, Walter Gudgeon, subject of sharp review by the author’s account.

About the book itself? Concerns centred on perceived conflicts of interest, with the book being commissioned by a major company with equally historic interests. Both author and company promised full editorial independence.

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The book launch came just two years after the launch of a state investment programme in nationwide public television, from 1989 onwards. Major revelations of colonial abuses of power fired a major rethink on official history, long uncritical of New Zealand legacies.

Decades of keep-quiet and leave-it-to-the-Lord advice from elders just built lots of dry tinder for a slow burning post-colonial awareness that Scott's book helped stoke into open, public flame.

Five years later, by 1996, government was presenting its final supplemental findings from the first ever commission of inquiry into tenure. Simply proclaimed as the “Commission of Inquiry into Land”, the final report was presented to the head of state five days before a year-long deadline imposed in 1995. One year for a report to review decades of public complaint and policy silence. 

Like that inquiry, and the book that helped prompt it, land issues continue to burn like low ember. Stepping on one can be painful. Criticism of the book itself? Mostly low key.

One don't-quote-me critic offered a somewhat chilling document: a photocopy of an official record. An official record not featured in the book: Gudgeon writing home to head office in New Zealand, warning that corrupt officials, including judges, were failing to prevent wholesale land alienation, bordering on theft. So bad, Gudgeon wrote, future descendants might not even know who they are or what they owned.

Lots of questions remain unanswered, but Scott also inspired many with the cheeky book title – poohbah is a not uncommon mockery to this day.

I didn't know Dick Scott personally myself, but as a writer his book inspired me to try and build a stronger window-frame – the story about the story, not just claim and counterclaim. 

Any gaps in Years of the Poohbah may be significant, or simply one of many aspects that never made it to publication.

That questions and gaps remain only proves intergenerational impact from a simply told, still comprehensive review, critiquing Cook Islands ‘modern’ history.

* Jason Brown is an independent journalist currently based in Auckland, New Zealand, after living 29 years in the Cook Islands and one year in Samoa.

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