Understandable, but not excusable
The revelation that former Prime Minister William Ferguson Massey made racist remarks about Chinese people, while also espousing white supremacist views, has sparked an intriguing debate about how we view historical figures, especially those whose indiscretions were aligned to the mainstream thinking of the time.
Correspondence from Massey, which was unearthed by Massey University academic Steve Elers, includes a number of abhorrent statements such as: ‘‘Nature intended New Zealand to be a white man’s country, and it must be kept as such’’ and ’’I am not a lover or admirer of the Chinese race.’’
Elers has called for a discussion about a possible name change for Massey’s eponymous university, which has campuses in Palmerston North, Wellington and Auckland.
University management has so far sought to distance itself from the debate, an understandable stance given its leading position in the international student field and its strong ties to China and other Asian nations.
As Elers himself quite rightly admits, the Massey University of today is a diverse, multicultural and accepting institution, which is in stark comparison to the views held by the former prime minister.
The public reaction to Massey’s words seemingly reveals little appetite for a name change, with many people saying it is unfair to judge him for holding views that were, sadly, quite prevalent in New Zealand during his lifetime.
Prime minister between 1912 and 1925, ‘‘Farmer Bill’’, as he was colloquially known, was a controversial and divisive figure even in his day.
He was known to be a shrewd politician who guided the country through World War I, but some will also remember him for the special constables, branded Massey’s cossacks, he used to violently regain control of the wharves during the 1913 waterfront dispute.
Historical context is relevant, as it provides some understanding of the political and social climates that may have fostered such thinking.
Were his words reflective of widely-held sentiments of the time? Yes.
Does this make them excusable? Certainly not.
There can be no denying that Massey’s statements were racist, and, given their emphatic and frequent nature, it would be easy to argue the man himself was a racist.
Whether or not Massey’s legacy should be completely tarnished will come down to the subjective viewpoints of New Zealanders, but the history books most certainly need to reflect that a man who led our country and whose name adorns schools, parks and a suburb held such reprehensible opinions.
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A portrait of William Massey hangs at Massey University.