I think, therefore I theorise

January 16, 1998

A five-part series in which leading academics and their postgraduates describe how theoretical approaches derived from French philosophy have transformed their subject

Tracey Byrne is completing doctoral research in geography at Queen's University on Victorian representations of New Zealand, focusing on the way British missionaries imagined and "constructed" New Zealand identity.

The geographical knowledge produced in Victorian Britain of faraway places and people was enormously influential. By focusing on the way missionaries "constructed" New Zealand during the late 19th century, I came to appreciate the tremendous significance of geographical knowledge beyond the narrow confines of academe, for the serials in which these missionaries' depictions found expression reached a far larger public than any of the learned periodicals.

These missionaries' unofficial geographies of New Zealand had real consequences. They were hugely important in moulding the attitudes of a large sector of Victorian society to the cultural politics of the South Pacific and had serious consequences for the fate of Maori peoples. Missionary representations kept New Zealand on Britain's domestic cultural and political agenda.

No straightforward "scientific" recounting of the physical and human geography of New Zealand can begin to uncover the intricate web of power, passion and cultural interchange that characterised relationships between missionary, Maori and settler in that crucial phase. By attending to the contested character of anthropo-geographical representation, I came to question the assumption that the missionary imperative was the naive accomplice of imperial aggrandisement.

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