Lessons from the Chatham Islands

Morning view from Chatham Islands September 2007 (picture Ville Miettinen)

A visitor to the blog objected to my post on the thrill of power, suggesting that the history of the Chatham Islands provides a counter-argument. With due respect to the anonymous visitor, he is wrong.

First, though, where are the Chatham Islands and why are they interesting? They are Polynesian islands in the south Pacific near to (and now part of) New Zealand that supported a small population of hunter-gatherers prior to the modern age. The modern age started in 1835 when an expedition of Maoris from the North Island of New Zealand invaded and occupied, massacring and enslaving the islands’ population. The Chatham Islanders were a pacific people (as well as a Pacific people) and were unable to resist the invaders. Our blog visitor suggests that this shows the folly of federalism.

He makes two mistakes. First, federalism is not pacifism. Federalism does not seek peace through love, but rather peace through law. The rule of law in turn requires a police force to enforce it. This is not pacifism. The editorial comment in Federal Union News on 13 April 1940 (after the invasion of Norway and Denmark, before the invasion of Holland and Belgium) makes the point:

“But as we go to press, two great Neutrals have become belligerents willy nilly; two honest and well tried democracies have been forced under the “protective” wing of the German Eagle; seven million more people have had it proved to them that Freedom cannot be made secure within strictly defined national boundaries; that democracy and nationalism must be at cross purposes.”

Secondly, let us explore why the Chatham Islanders did not fight back. They followed a subsistence existence, having been isolated from any other human settlement for perhaps 500 years. They had primitive technologies and, as hunter-gatherers, no capacity to store food surpluses or to feed spare mouths, the spare mouths that might belong to government officials or soldiers. Such a community could not therefore wield a centralised power. Furthermore, there were only 2,000 of them, small enough to mean that disputes could be settled among people who knew each other, precarious enough to know that a prolonged period of fighting amongst them might reduce their numbers below viability. The resort to violence within the community was therefore abhorred, the resort to violence outside was unnecessary.

(The need to resist violence within small communities is not unusual. Ships of the Dutch East India Company would punish by nailing to the mast anyone who started a fight that drew blood. Naval discipline is tough because retaining order is so important.)

Exploring a counter-factual version of history, what would have happened if the Chatham Islanders had fought back? The answer is straightforward: they would have been massacred just the same. The Maori invaders came from agricultural communities with a long history of fighting each other over land and resources (this is why some of them sailed to the Chathams in the first place), so they had devoted resources and acquired technology for exactly this purpose. The acquisition of firearms from the British made the wars between the different Maori tribes even more ferocious. The Chathams would have simply been overwhelmed in the fight.

As a smaller, weaker community in a political environment where disputes between communities were settled by force, the Chathams were doomed. That is our blog visitor’s second mistake.

Nineteenth century history is littered with examples of powerful states with advanced technology and organisation confronting and defeating weaker peoples with lesser technology and weaker organisation. The Maori invasion of the Chathams can be understood as a war of this type; so can the war between Prussia and Austria in 1866. The experience of war of this kind is precisely why the search for a means of securing peace became so important.

How do we avoid the fate of the small, weak communities? One way is not to be small and weak. But the diversion of resources to armaments away from other, more productive uses has costs: for example, Chilean participation in an arms race with Argentina in the 1890s was paid for by the cancellation of a sewer system for Santiago.

And while spending more and more money on armaments might help to stave off the day when a larger, stronger enemy comes into view, it cannot postpone it indefinitely. A strategy based on being the strongest power is no guarantee for the future, when new powers are rising all the time. The Chatham Islands were, after all, the strongest power in their region for 500 years, but their predominance came to an end eventually.

A strategy based on being the strongest power is like a strategy based on winning at the casino. It might work for a while, but will let you down eventually.

For Europe, right now, the changing distribution of power in the world means that this matters. The rise of China and India cannot be ignored: Europe is destined to see its share of world economic output decline, and will lose some of its muscular ability to defend its interests.

Even the Americans, with all their technology and military power, find themselves vulnerable to simple roadside bombs in Iraq. What they thought was military supremacy turned out not to be quite so simple. The lesson from the Chatham Islands is that, while we need to be able to defend ourselves, we cannot in the end rely solely on armaments. We need better rules, too.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top