New Zealand's Pacific 'empire' through French eyes

This talk was given at the National Library on March 23, and is drawn from Adrian's piece "Empire in the eyes of the beholder. New Zealand in the Pacific through French Eyes".

Find the chapter, along with full references to material cited, in Katie Pickles and Catharine Coleborne (ed.), New Zealand's Empire, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015, pp.163–178, ISBN 9780719091537.

Adrian Muckle is a Senior Lecturer at the School of History Philosophy, Political Science & International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

This talk was jointly presented by the National Library and Victoria University of Wellington.

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Prime Minister Sidney Holland, French Minister M N Henry, General Augustin Guillaume, Madame Henry and Mrs Florence Holland.Prime Minister Sidney Holland, French Minister M N Henry, General Augustin Guillaume, Madame Henry and Mrs Florence Holland, 1955. Ref: EP/1955/1341-F.

This text is notes from Adrian's talk, not a full transcript.

A more than passing interest

There is a long tradition of French writing on New Zealand and its peoples, but what has been said about French views of New Zealand's aspirations and activities in the Pacific islands in the first half of the twentieth century?

In this talk I discuss some of my research conducted in France's diplomatic archive which reveals more than passing interest in New Zealand's Pacific empire and in New Zealand as an emerging member of an 'imperial family'. Two voices stand out in the French diplomatic archive: that of the longest-serving inter-war consul, Paul Adolphe Serre (1923-31), and that of Minister Plenipotentiary, Noël Henry (1952-55). Focusing on what they reported, I sketch the various ways in which New Zealand's colonial or imperial activity was meaningful to French observers before the 1960s.

Particular attention will be paid to the 'bomb' that New Zealand Prime Minister Sidney Holland dropped on France in March 1953 – in the form of plans for self-government in Samoa – and the assessment of New Zealand's empire that followed.

Introductory points

My talk connects two distinct strands of thinking/writing about New Zealand.

One strand is represented by the 2009 New Oxford History of New Zealand and historian Damon Salesa's observation that New Zealand's Pacific or overseas empire 'has rarely been taken seriously by New Zealand's historians'.

The second strand is older – it is the long tradition of French observation of New Zealand going as far back as Dumont D'Urville (author of The New Zealanders) in the 1830s and including the most famous of all French observers, the geographer, political scientist/sociologist André Siegfried – the author of Democracy in New Zealand (1904).

As New Zealanders we in turn have been interested in what these and other French observers have said about us, but much of that commentary generally leaves outside of the frame the observations made on New Zealand's Pacific even when it is in the foreground. For example, most studies of New Zealand's French observers include a discussion of Siegfried's observations, but it is rare to see comment on what Siegfried wrote about New Zealand's nascent Pacific imperialism.

In addressing that neglect and connecting these two strands my talk this evening forms a very tiny part of the response to the kind of challenge laid out by Salesa.

The topic is one that I have explored alongside other historians in a collection of essays entitled New Zealand's Empire and published in 2015.

The particular inspiration for the research behind tonight's talk lies in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Chartres. When I visited in 2011 it still held the papers and collections of colonial administrator Louis Joseph Bouge who spent some of his early career in New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia. Bouge I thought would help me to see the ways in which colonial policies played out in different parts of the French Pacific and historical relations between New Caledonia and the wider region.

What I also found amongst Bouge's papers were the copies of a series of reports written by Paul Adolphe Serre, France's consul in New Zealand from 1923 to 1931. The reports had titles such as: "The Maori of New Zealand"; "The Chinese and the Maoris in New Zealand"; "Bloody Riot in Samoa – Natives take to the Bush"; "Report of the Royal Commission sent to Samoa". Originally addressed to France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the reports were written to inform officials such as the Governors of New Caledonia and French Polynesia about events and life in New Zealand.

When the editors of New Zealand's Empire (2015) put out a call for papers in 2012 it occurred to me that here was a chance to further explore this set of papers and to look into the ways that New Zealand's "Pacific empire" had been recognised as such by French observers and in what ways if any was it meaningful to them. Finding out more about what consuls such as Serre and later French ambassadors thought and wrote about New Zealand's stake in the Pacific islands region would make I hoped a counter-point to what I thought might be the flipside of this question: what if anything did New Zealand's colonial officials know or think about France's Pacific territories in the first half of the twntieth century? What exchange of colonial knowledge was there? The short answer to that last question is "not much", but the exploration of the French perspective has turned out to be more rewarding.

The research thus took me back to France in 2013, but this time to the archives of France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Courneuve. There I was able to read in more detail some of the correspondence and reports of France's consuls and later the officials who staffed the embassy first established here in Wellington in 1945. This evening I draw on some of those materials.

There are also a few qualifications to make at the outset. The "French eyes" of my title are those of a few consular officials – certainly not all French people in New Zealand nor the wider French public. We must also remember that until 1945 official relations were indirectly conducted between London-Paris; the pre-war consuls are not key intermediaries.

The consuls in the early twentieth century

My main focus will be the 1920s-30s and 1950s, but French interest in New Zealand's imperial aspirations had been growing apace with New Zealand's own ambitions including its calls in the 1890s and early 1900s for a 'Pacific federation' and in 1901 its acquisition of the Cook Islands/Niue.

Initially the concern of French observers was not so much New Zealand's ambitions, but the potential power of a federated Australia—with or without New Zealand—and the stance that it might take towards France's interests in the New Hebrides.

When the likelihood of New Zealand joining the Australian Federation diminished, the question of how to interpret the respective imperial interests of the two countries became more acute. This was the question that faced Siegfried following his 1898 visit.

In the following decade, French consuls and observers remained alert to 'Anglo-Saxon' ambitions or jealousies, especially in regard to the New Hebrides, but New Zealand's own Pacific policies or practices were of relatively little concern. There are only very occasional references to the Cook Islands in the early 1900s.

By the end of WWI the situation had changed and France was paying renewed attention to the Pacific region including New Zealand's activities.

Also of great interest was a much expanded New Zealand. With the LON mandate of Nauru (shared with Australia and Britain) as its new northern limit, and the mandate of Samoa at its centre, post-war developments in 'New Zealand's immense island domain' attracted especial interest.

The new established Revue du Pacifique noted in 1922 that New Zealand had commenced its 'first effort at governing beyond its own shores', that already there had been complaints that it was not up to the task of colonial administration in the tropics, that affairs in Samoa were deteriorating and that Samoans had petitioned to be placed under British rule.

Paul Serre, Western Samoa, and the League of Nations

It was New Zealand's mandate in then Western Samoa – by far the most significant of New Zealand's territories – that provided the focal point for most consular commentary on New Zealand's Pacific between the world wars.

The principal observer was consul Paul Adolphe Serre who arrived in 1923 and served until 1931 as "Consul of France at Auckland for New Zealand, the Cook Islands, the Islands of Suwarrow, Penrhyn and Palmerston, and the Tongan Islands" (according to the terms of his 1922 appointment by King George V).

About Serre himself I do not know very much. Born in 1870 he was about 53 at the time of his arrival. The Hawera and Normanby Star tells us that he already had a distinguished record of work in France's consular service extending over 26 years in 'California, China, Java, Cuba, Porto Rico, Uruguay, Brazil, Trinidad (British West Indies), Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.'

What the files in Courneuve showed me was that Serre was a prolific commentator on life and events in New Zealand. The topics covered in almost fortnightly reports were wide-ranging. They include to name only a few: the celebration of Anzac day; the National Council of Women; the Salvation Army; visiting dignitaries; the censuses; 'Mentalité britannique et mentalité française'; the consular dinner for the King's birthday; politics and elections; Rotary Clubs; public health and hygiene; Māori Rugby; daylight savings; local media reporting on France and slurs on French prestige as well as imitation of French cheeses; New Zealand's "expansion" into the Ross Sea Dependency (1923) and Tokelau (1926).

They are part of a well-established consular/diplomatic genre: the frank and confidential report. But if there had been a wikileaks in the 1920s they probably would only have incurred minor embarrassment. By today's standards his style, tone and witticisms would be decidedly unfashionable and often objectionable.

Amidst all this was a series of reports on Samoa. In July 1923, within 6 months of his arrival, Serre undertook to keep France's office at the League of Nations abreast of 'the polemics that the exercise of the mandates might generate in New Zealand'. As we now know there was to be no shortage of polemic. By 1923 Samoan dissatisfaction was beginning to be heard.

When "serious troubles" emerged in 1927 (as the Samoan protest movement, the Mau, gained strength and as New Zealand's attempts to suppress it became more severe) Serre expressed satisfaction that New Zealand faced difficulties if only because it might help deflect criticism of France. Serre noted that the daily newspapers had published 'numerous articles in which France had been given a rough time concerning the mandate that it exercises in Syria' (where it had faced a widespread revolt since 1925) and that 'Now it is New Zealand's turn to have some difficulties'.

He went on to write that developments in Samoa seemed 'as complicated as in Syria' and that the:

problems in the mandated territories (whether Syria or Samoa) arise from the fact that those fishing in troubled waters hope to create discord among the great powers who distribute the mandates. Furthermore, they have deluded themselves as to the power of the League of Nations. If Syria and Morocco were French, and if Western Samoa were New Zealand's, there would be fewer agitators.

Underlying these and other comments was a presumption that New Zealand and France were both pursuing annexation as the endgame: 'tutelage means possession at some time in the future. This is what we think in relation to Cameroon and Togo in particular, and this is how they think, in New Zealand, in the case of Samoa.'

So long as the France's Pacific territories were excepted, New Zealand's lingering aspiration 'to administer all the island groups between New Zealand and Hawai'i' was not mocked.

Serre's emphasis on the predicaments shared by mandatory powers suggests the existence of what might be called a community of racial sympathy, interest and interpretation. In his reports on Samoa, he aligned himself with the New Zealand administration's view of the movement.

Ultimately, if we were to distil a general picture of New Zealand's colonial administration from the more than a dozen reports that Serre wrote on Samoa – as was required of those who received them in Paris, Geneva, Tahiti and New Caledonia – then it was largely a sympathetic portrait which accepted the self-claims of New Zealand officials that the administration was progressive and well-meaning and that Samoans had been led astray by Olaf Nelson.

To these might be added Serre's more critical assessments – many of which were shared more widely.

The post-war period to the end of the 1950s

In the next post-war decade, New Zealand's efforts to divest itself of its 'colonies' troubled France much more than had their original acquisition and generated much greater interest in them than previously.

At the close of WWII, the development of direct diplomatic relations between Wellington and Paris, and the establishment of the South Pacific Commission, allowed for a greater level of French attention to New Zealand's Pacific presence.

The spur to greater bi- and multilateral diplomatic engagement was the Canberra Pact of January 1944. Instructions issued to the French Embassy in London in December 1944 stressed that France's invitation to New Zealand to step up diplomatic relations should be couched in terms of the recent invitation issued to Australia as well as 'the brotherhood of arms' in North Africa and 'the community of interests bringing the two countries together in the Pacific'.

The invitation was shaped by a French assessment of the Canberra Pact as an act of 'Australasian regionalism' and 'a turning point in the political history of Australasia'. Using the language of imperial family, an early French report on the Pact concluded that the young 'white colonies' had attained their 'majority' and were 'claiming what they consider to be their natural rights based on their geographical position'.

They also could not be ignored because, although the Pact had acknowledged/affirmed France's position in the region, there had been a resurfacing of annexationist ideas and renewed talk of a 'Pacific Federation'.

The French report on the Pact noted that the latter had been publicly aired by New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister and representative on the Pacific War Council, Walter Nash. It also outlined a 'secret' New Zealand report on the 'Future of the South Pacific Islands' which it attributed to Hienrich Ferdinand van Haast, unofficial adviser to the New Zealand government'.

In the following two decades, France's wariness of direct and indirect challenges to its sovereignty and interests guided its engagement with the emerging South Pacific Commission as well as with New Zealand's post-war plans for Samoa.

In 1946-47 anxieties ran high over the potential precedent established by New Zealand's presentation, to the United Nations Trusteeship Council, of a Samoan petition requesting immediate self-government, and the special UN visiting mission that New Zealand proposed to invite in response. France feared that New Zealand's willingness to allow such "special" visits would create pressure for similar visits in its territories.

New Zealand sought to reassure France that it had 'no desire to take any action which would be a source of embarrassment to the French government'.

Six years later, however, Prime Minister Sidney Holland unwittingly dropped a 'bomb' on France. The bomb took the form of his March 1953 statement on preparations for self-government and for a constitutional convention in Samoa.

The bomb caused considerable alarm among French officials and resulted in three reports by France's senior diplomat in Wellington, Noël Henry. The reports examined 'New Zealand's tutelage of Western Samoa', 'New Zealand's colonial Empire', and the possible measures by which New Zealand's plans for Samoa might be countered.

The reports show that France's own policies in the Pacific were not developed in isolation from thinking about wider French imperial and metropolitan problems. They also show how Zealand's post-war Pacific plans were perceived by France as a threat to solidarity among the imperial powers in the Pacific region.

Dangerous precedents

Noël Henry's main concern was 'the danger of contagion and the example set' by Holland's announcement. Not only might it have 'disagreeable repercussions' by awakening demands for similar reforms in France's Pacific territories, but New Zealand's willingness to place the interests of the European and 'Euronesian' minority second to the Samoan majority risked exposing France to criticism for its reluctance to allow similar developments in France's protectorates in Tunisia and Morocco.

Leon Pignon, France's representative at the UN Trusteeship Council, considered that 'the danger is in the method'. Henry concurred that since 1946 'New Zealand has accustomed us to imprudent initiatives … which threaten to unleash a most unfortunate agitation in our overseas possessions.' The danger was 'in the word rather than in the thing':

It happens that New Zealand, lost at the end of the world, at the extremity of the southern oceans, has forgotten that it lives with others on the same planet. No country is more insular than she is. She is certainly well disposed towards France, even extremely so. But if we ignore her, as we do too often, we risk seeing her create the most serious difficulties even if she does not really wish to cause them.

A particular feature of New Zealand's empire that troubled Henry as he cast his eye about for potential ways to slow down Samoa's advance to self-government was 'the profound indifference of New Zealand public opinion to the problems of the Pacific'. Looking for signs of division as potential leverage, Henry regretted the lack of New Zealand press coverage and debate following the March 1953 announcement and the April 1953 visit by the Trusteeship Council: 'New Zealand public opinion shows itself to be radically indifferent to these matters.'

In 1955, bemoaning the same public indifference to Pacific issues, Henry informed Paris that New Zealand 'does not have any imperialist mentality'; the only issue that appeared to raise any imperialist spirit or sympathy was the situation then facing France in Indochina.

As with Serre's reports several decades earlier, Henry's observations were also bound up with implicit appeals to a sense of racial or imperial community and attempts to draw parallels with France's own colonial predicaments. Surveying the possible local and international repercussions of the 1953 proposals, Henry had 'no doubt but that at the bottom of their hearts [Māori] consider the New Zealanders to be intruders', but the population balance meant that the New Zealand government had nothing to fear and that it would never face the same problems that France was confronting in North Africa. New Zealand also seemed oblivious, he noted, to the apparent double standard of promising self-government to Samoans but not to Māori.

Lessons to be learned

Much to the surprise of the official who annotated his reports, Henry also argued that there were significant similarities between New Zealand's actions in Samoa and France's actions in North Africa.

However, there were, Henry conceded two critical differences: nearly everyone in Samoa was Christian, and the European minority was so small that there really was only one community and no need for a bipartite development or special measures to prevent a more evolved minority from oppressing a less evolved majority (as Henry feared for North Africa).

Henry's broader-ranging analysis of 'New Zealand's colonial Empire' drew attention to some of the problems that faced New Zealand as an imperial power, as well as the lessons that it provided for France in its handling of colonial citizenship and migration. The first lesson for France in the New Zealand solution to these problems was the need to respect the 'exigencies' of distance; each of New Zealand's colonies – even each island, in the case of the Cook Islands – was treated as a separate political entity. The 'lilliputian' empire was united to some degree by its mainly Polynesian and Christian populations (and almost non-existent European population), but its isolation and dispersal militated against centralising imperatives.

Henry's second lesson was that 'the New Zealand colonial political system was graduated as a function of the degree of evolution of the islanders.' After Samoa, the Cook Islands were at the top of the scale, with an 'embryo' of representative government, followed by Niue and Tokelau. While all their inhabitants were citizens with 'equal access to public employment, provided that the candidates meet certain criteria', there were 'certain restrictions' on electoral rights (notably the absence of representation in Wellington), migration to and from the islands, and the right to trial by jury.

For Henry, the New Zealand model of citizenship, with its graduated or hierarchical distribution of political rights, presented an admirable example for France as it grappled with questions about the rights of its own colonial citizens including how much freedom of movement they could have:

This diversity in the institutions must reflect the status of the inhabitants. Common citizenship cannot be absolute. To affirm that it can be is nothing but hypocrisy. It is pushing the notion of citizenship to the point of absurdity to claim that it prevents the regulation of the circulation of people: vagabondage must not be raised to the level of a national institution. Feeding the army of crime and revolution by throwing Algerians out on to the footpaths of Paris will have tragic repercussions for France.

New Zealand had its colonial priorities right, according to Henry; what 'natives' needed above all was development; citizenship was meaningless for the hungry, he wrote:

New Zealand has understood. She has not multiplied industrial culture at the expense of agriculture; basically she has preoccupied herself with cultivating the land. She is fighting against the "shanty towns".

She has reaped what she has sown. Her colonies are calm. Let us hope that a false humanitarianism, an unrealistic messianism and unfortunate initiatives such as in Samoa do not cause her to miss out on the rewards of her generous and enlightened actions and do not compromise her fate with those of others.

Henry's wish was not, however, to be fulfilled in the terms in which he saw it; preparations for Samoan self-government proceeded, and his own suggestion that France might block or slow down the process by engineering pressure on New Zealand to deliver greater democracy or universal suffrage – so as to in turn create a backlash from the Samoan chiefs – was not realised.


This overview of French perceptions of New Zealand's empire ends on the eve of the 1960s. In that decade the two countries' postcolonial paths diverged significantly. France's Pacific territories lost much of the autonomy they had attained by the end of the 1950s, while New Zealand stepped up moves towards the formal political decolonisation of Samoa in 1962 and the Cook Islands in 1965.

With the development of French nuclear testing by 1966 the New Zealand critique of France's Pacific colonialism would grow while its own Pacific colonialism remained largely forgotten or ignored. No longer indifferent to the Pacific, New Zealand public opinion would become the bane of French officials.

In the first half of the 20th century, New Zealand's colonial or imperial activity had been meaningful in sometimes surprising ways to the likes of Serre and Henry. New Zealand's empire was 'lilliputian', but it was not isolated from larger issues or questions; its Samoan 'troubles' might help deflect attention from France's own colonial problems; its empire formed a 'microcosm' from which lessons for France's own territories might potentially be drawn. They had been occasionally admiring of New Zealand's colonial administration, and often sympathetic in regards to the challenges it had faced, but in Henry's case they were also highly concerned at the prospect of a retreat from colonial administration and imperial responsibility. New Zealand's decolonisation attracted much greater concern and interest than its original expansion and annexationist or federationist ambitions.

By Adrian Muckle

Adrian is a Senior Lecturer at the School of History Philosophy, Political Science & International Relations at Victoria University.

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