Politics | Willie Jackson

Labour MP Willie Jackson at Oxford Union debate: ‘I can smell the colonialism on your breath’

Labour MP Willie Jackson. Photo / Supplied

Labour MP Willie Jackson has channelled the famous words of former Prime Minister David Lange in his historic - and victorious - appearance at the Oxford Union debate in Britain this morning (Friday NZT).

In an impassioned introductory speech for the debate, Jackson implored the British Museum to return seven mokomokai - preserved heads of Māori ancestors - to New Zealand.

Jackson was arguing against the moot, “This house believes British museums are not very British” - he and his debating partner, American author Gary Vikan, were later adjudged the winners of the debate.

“As I speak to you now, I sense the presence of my ancestors who are trapped in your museum prison,” said Jackson.

“I stand before the brilliance and magnificent history of these most revered Oxford debates to tell the house that British museums are very British because it is very, very, very British to take from indigenous people and never hand it back!

“To paraphrase our great former Prime Minister David Lange’s famous quip during the nuclear weapons Oxford debate 39 years ago, “I can smell the colonialism on your breath from here”.

Jackson is the first Māori to speak at an Oxford Union debate, following in the footsteps of Lange.

In March 1985, Lange was arguing in the affirmative in the debate that “nuclear weapons are morally indefensible”. In one part of the debate, in response to a comment, he spoke the immortal line: “I’m going to give it [the answer] to you if you hold your breath just for a moment ... I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me.”

David Lange in action during the Oxford Union debate.

Jackson spoke of his own English ancestry, including his great-grandfather, Fred Jackson, who came from Leicester and travelled to New Zealand in 1908 to play the All Blacks for an Anglo-Welsh team.

“I’m declaring this because I want to be clear that while I am proudly indigenous, I also have the same DNA as most students here at Oxford which surely makes me completely unbiased, fair and uniquely qualified to comment on this issue given the history that the English have in terms of colonising indigenous peoples.”

He said he was a prodigal son returning to the UK, “even if you didn’t know I existed”.

“For us, the most important treasure that are sitting in foreign museums are the mokomokai – the preserved heads of Māori, adorned with moko.

“From Cook’s first visit, Europeans were fascinated by the heads, which had traditionally been preserved to remember honoured ancestors [and enemies]. Such was the level of European demand to take mokomokai back home as curios, and such was the need of iwi to barter for muskets to defend themselves during the musket wars, that an awful trade in the mokomokai of slaves grew up until it was banned by Māori and British leaders.”

He said that many had been returned but the British Museum still held seven of them.

“I implore you, on behalf of my people, to honour the partnership agreement between Māori and the British Crown, that is the Treaty of Waitangi, and let our ancestors come home.”

Earlier in the debate, he questioned who had the audacity to arrive on distant shores, and declare that they “now own everything in the name of their God, their King and their country no matter who was originally living there!”.

“The British, that’s who.”

Jackson and Vikan were debating against former UK Minister of Culture and Communications, Lord Vaizey of Didcot PC, and former Shadow Minister of Immigration Bell Ribeiro-Addy.

Editor-at-Large Shayne Currie is one of New Zealand’s most experienced senior journalists and media leaders. He has held executive and senior editorial roles at NZME including Managing Editor, NZ Herald Editor and Herald on Sunday Editor and has a small shareholding in NZME.

- NZ Herald