The Union Jack and the Southern Cross

Symbolic erasure of the indegene is a major promise on New Zealand's campaign trail

In 2014, Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand, called for the end of history. New Zealand’s history had lingered for too long: 174 years too long, to be precise. The history Key referred to centers on a number of unresolved breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed in 1840 between a number of tangata whenua

Tangata whenua: people of the land
and the British Crown, and which—for all state purposes—is understood as New Zealand’s founding document. When Key campaigned for election in 2008, one of his promises was to achieve "full and final" settlements between the Crown and all iwi
Iwi: tribe, extended kinship group, people
in New Zealand, who claimed that the settlers "large-scale theft of land constituted a breach of the terms of the Treaty."

"Full and final" is a legal term used in debt settlement cases, generally when it’s a case of settling for less. Rather than continuing a protracted relationship, the owing party offers a lump sum and a chance to tie the matter up, call it quits. In the New Zealand case, achieving full and final settlements for all iwi means that no further "historical" claims against the Crown may—theoretically—be made. M?ori views on this matter are as varied and complex as its practical ramifications are for iwi and hapu. But in the eyes of the settler, full and final settlements suggest a squaring of the balance sheet of colonialism. No longer indebted to his place of settlement, nor to its indigenous inhabitants, he is no longer a settler at all, simply a citizen. A happy zero. "We are impatient to stop looking in the rear-view mirror at grievances past," Key said, "and to instead shift our eyes to the challenges of our shared future as New Zealanders."

Key’s government did not manage to keep its promise. The claims of many iwi remain unresolved and are likely to stay that way for many years. But the settler’s obsession with the zero manifests itself in other, more banal ways. Just prior to his 2014 re-election, Key announced that all New Zealand citizens would be asked to participate in a referendum to decide whether to change the country’s flag. "In my personal view," Key explained, "it's time our flag reflected that we are a sovereign and successful nation that rightfully takes its place among the developed economies in the 21st Century." The desire to end history is also the desire for a new beginning, or for Key—who describes New Zealand as a "young" country—a coming of age.

In New Zealand’s current flag, a Union Jack sits in the upper left-hand corner while the Southern Cross constellation floats center-left in a sea of blue. This flag speaks of a "little Britain" under strange southern stars, an outpost of empire on the precipice of the earth. When James Cook encountered the land that would be renamed New Zealand in 1769, the stars he saw were always already oriented towards his home in the north, marking this world as "down under," an inverted and upside-down place. From here, Orion, the constellation of the giant hunter, stands on his head and the three stars that make up his mighty belt and sword form the base of what is known in New Zealand as The Pot. In the northern hemisphere, The Southern Cross is obscured by the horizon and its visibility here was, for the settler, a marker of dislocation—the nightly proof that he is out of place.

Being P?keh?, or a New Zealander of European descent, I am constituted by and implicated in the settler ideology of which I’m writing, and my knowledge of the astrological systems of tangata whenua can only ever be partial. The Southern Cross has many names for M?ori, which vary across iwi, times of year, and the interrelations between this constellation and those surrounding it. For Tainui

Tainui: Maori who arrived in Aotearoa in the fourteenth century
, however, it is Te Punga, the anchor of the waka
Waka: canoe
of Tama-rereti, who explored the Pacific Ocean. At dawn, the anchor is buried south of the horizon, but as the day turns to night it becomes unmoored from its terrestrial perch and travels with the giant waka in an arc across the sky. But while the Southern Cross might have helped to guide first and second settlers to these islands alike, its presence on the flag indexes the line of division—which is also a line of violence—between the two.

Before this partnership of the Union Jack and the Southern Cross, a decision about what should constitute the nation’s flag had already been reached. The flag of the "United Tribes of New Zealand" was chosen by rangatira to accompany He Whakaputanga, the 1835 "Declaration of Independence," which asserted the sovereignty of these United Tribes over New Zealand. At that time, the United Tribes of New Zealand was recognised by the British monarchy. Five years later, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed as a reaffirmation of independence, while delegating authority to the Crown to manage the troublesome behavior of its small settler population. In no way did the rangatira who signed this Treaty, in either its M?ori or English “version", agree to "cede sovereignty" to the Crown, as our history textbooks maintain. Nevertheless, over the following 40 years of violent settlement New Zealand became a British colony. The United Tribes flag vanished, and was replaced by the Union Jack.

The vanishing of indigenous presence has always been the ground of the settler’s being. New Zealand only became home to settlers as they attempted to erase what had existed there before. In the 19th century, this drive towards erasing indigenous people was hidden in the diseases Europeans brought—to lands they colonized using aggressive settlement policies—to populations known to lack immunity. This drive also shaped the brutal forms of "protection" deployed against those whose lives and lands were being dispossessed and enclosed. Today the drive for erasure hides within the law that fails to test its own legality, the statistics that predict themselves into being, and the sociological analysis that is never quite able to explain patterns of incarceration with reference to a colonization that remains simply "historical." It hides, too, as Stephen Turner has traced, in dreamed settler futures that proclaim themselves to already exist. "It’s my belief," said Key, "and I think one increasingly shared by many New Zealanders, that the design of the New Zealand flag symbolizes a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed."

What does "colonial" mean here? In biochemistry, a colony suggests a point of reproduction, a mass of bodies feeding off fertile ground. The Latin root colere has a double sense: to cultivate and to settle. But the need to settle implies departure, and a colony always has a source, a set of spores flown from the motherland. Hence, the closer Latin root colonus: "people from home." Key’s use of "colonial" seems to register this ligation, as if by umbilical cord, to a former home. For him, the colonial era is an infantile phase which was lived beneath the shelter of the Union Jack and under the assumption that the "colonial protector would always be there." It was an adolescent era, in which the settler is not yet "comfortable in [his] Kiwi skin." The elimination of both the colonial and the post-colonial, an effort which seems to undo itself, suggests a desire for a new beginning that is at the same time a coming of age. This desire for a national maturation on terms not defined by our colonial progenitor sounds obscenely like a decolonization.

But whenever the settler wants to depart from the colonial form by which he is constituted, whether this is registered in the promise of "full and final" Treaty settlements, or in the prospect of a new post-post-colonial national flag, what arises is merely another iteration of his long-standing desire to "become indigenous." Before it gained purchase in discourses of art, ecology, and Deleuzian scholarship, Ani Mikaere wrote about the drive toward becoming-indigenous in her essay "Are We All New Zealanders Now?" The essay traces the fantasies of racial harmony that run through liberal New Zealand, and articulates the nation as a "coalition of the forgetful." For Pakeha to imagine themselves indigenous is, in Avril Bell’s words (also quoted in Mikaere’s essay), to understand themselves to be “'born' post colonisation out of New Zealand soil," and to "disown their parents and imagine themselves adopted." If our parentage is the Union Jack, then the wish to discard it is a wish to be orphaned in the present.

Key’s own preferred design for the flag is the silver fern on a black background, which is also the registered logo of the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team. According to Key, this icon has earned our loyalty through "long decades of sweat and effort by our sportsmen and women." But beyond this, rugby holds a special place in the New Zealand’s settler’s desire for oneness. In 1981, supporters of the Rugby World Cup stood against anti-apartheid solidarity protests, led by both M?ori and P?keh?, opposing the South African Springbok Tour. The events that unfolded during the tour were described by one P?keh? commentator as the "closest in the twentieth century [New Zealand] had come to civil war." Another P?keh? retrospective on the Tour is introduced with the byline: "everyone knew what side they were on." But the simultaneous denunciation of racism and colonialism within New Zealand by M?ori activists in the movement went unheard by many of its white anti-apartheid partisans. This omission exposed the lie of such solidarity, because in truth rugby wasn’t a side of this "war" at all. Rugby was a refusal of war and a mechanism for enforced myopia. Robert Muldoon, the Prime Minister at the time said, emphatically, "Politics should stay out of sport."

An All Blacks marketing campaign by Adidas in 2008. The website,, gave fans the opportunity to have their name literally etched onto a thread, stitched into the silver fern logo of captain Richie McCaw’s jersey

In rugby, we meet the end of politics, just as in the "indigenous" settler we meet the end of history. As for Francis Fukuyama, this end signals a consensus that is also a closure. In this version of the present, and future, there is no longer master, nor slave, nor the bloody fight, but simply the expansive "calm of economic development." The bombast of ideology dissolves into the eerie "reason" of liberal democratic capitalism. "I’d like to get on with it," says Key, on choosing a new flag. Just as for Fukuyama the end of history signaled the dissolution of divisions between master and slave, for the settler, "the end" is a figure of the unified one.

Ani Mikaere traces this desire for wholeness in terms of recently revived "70s fantasies of "a “multi-cultural melting pot” future whereby we will all be merged into one people," a notion which "would almost be entertaining were it not so blatantly assimilationist." The settler’s assimilationist dream suggests a melting of the divisions his own acts of dispossession have carved. In this dream, his presence is the inhabitation of one who has been offered a place to stay, rather than the occupation of another’s land. To mistake these lines of violence for those of "race" or "ethnicity" is to suggest that all tauiwi partake in the supremacy specific to the settler, or that settlement is no more than an act of relocation. Rather, we might follow what Fred Moten calls "the civil union of settlement and enclosure" to understand how the desire to become-indigenous registers a denial of enclosure, and a blindness to the fortifications that keep it sealed: the school, the office, the prison. For Key, it is as though the walls guarding privilege might simply be liquefied beneath the blazing silver fern. It is with this in mind that he reminds us: “This is a decision that is bigger than party politics … a flag that unites all New Zealanders should be selected by all New Zealanders.”

The post post-colonial settler colony seems, then, a long way from the "world cut in two" that characterised Frantz Fanon’s Algeria on the eve of its independence. That was a world in which "the two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity," and in which the markers of their opposition are the barracks, the police, the statues of the general. Rather, the settler’s world is a world of amnesiac beautiful souls, embracing each other’s difference, cross-pollinating happily, because diversity is the sustenance of any 21st century economy—and New Zealand’s "rockstar economy" no less. If we consider the implications of this settler desire for unity in the light of the global environmental catastrophe, one of the most direct consequences of empire, we might follow Marina Vishmidt’s words in a recent talk with the Former West project regarding the proclivity of ecological discourse towards

perpetuating the illusion that the scale is such as to encompass us all equally, to be equally urgent for an undifferentiated humanity, insofar as we are alive– that is, the crisis is assimilated, domesticated to a "we." But this "we" does not exist. So long as life is a commodity, survival will have a differentiated market.

For Vishmidt, the production of this "we" relies on a forgetting of the constitution of the entity called the "West" through the subjugation, exploitation, and genocide of indigenous peoples, such that "what is in crisis, supposedly a way of life, and an economic system that guaranteed it […] has lived off the crisis much of the world has been sustaining for decades." Crisis does not address itself to a "we," above all the ongoing crisis of settler colonialism.

The settler coloniser and the coloniser meet in their refusal of the history by which they have been constituted. For the settler, this refusal is grounded on a crude sort of empiricism: what is spatially and temporally present counts, and what this same logic has rendered absent or invisible – an indigenous population, a language, an alternative map of the land – does not. In majoritarian democracy, which is blind to the way the majority has been historically constituted as such, this empiricism and its justification come full circle. Rather than a M?ori folding of time where, in the words of Moana Jackson, time "turns back on itself, to bring the past into the present, and then into the future," the settler enacts a folding of thought that erases time. Such presentism is surely the ground of any dream of national unity—or post-coloniality—in a colonial state. But of course it won’t be more than a dream. As Stephen Turner puts it, "Everybody becoming indigenous, even for the survival of all, suggests a new colonisation."

The Southern Cross was visible to the Ancient Greeks. For Ptolemy it formed part of the constellation Centaurus. We know the earth spins daily on its own axis, but this axis is also rotating, such that the North and South Poles draw invisible circles in the sky about every 26,000 years. As a result, certain constellations slip slowly in and out of view. The strangeness of the Southern Cross to northern eyes, a constellation truly impossible to see from the northern hemisphere, is really a strangeness brought about by forgetting. But in the settler colony, the impossible and the forgotten are not so different after all, for if there is one thing that it seems impossible for coming-of-age New Zealand to be, that is a M?ori place. To confirm this we need look no further than the response from the Crown lawyer, Chris Finalyson, to the Waitangi Tribunal’s November 2014 ruling that M?ori did not in fact "cede sovereignty" to the Crown in signing the Treaty: "There is no question that the Crown has sovereignty in New Zealand. The report doesn’t change that fact." The question of sovereignty is no question because, like the stars to the settler, it stands on its head. It begins on impossible grounds.