UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Unfit for publication" : rape, assault, and assault with intent in colonial Aotearoa New Zealand, 1842-1872 Cunningham, Caitlin Ann


In Aotearoa New Zealand between 1842 and 1872 British colonial judges, juries, and reporters expressed their particular understandings of what constituted “rape” in the contexts of Supreme Court trials. Both white and Maori women encountered scepticism in court and a share of the responsibility for provoking the crimes carried out against them, although Maori women faced particular vilification. While judges frequently declared their strong aversion to the crime of sexual assault, they rarely backed their rhetoric up with strict sentencing practices, even when the male perpetrators were Maori. As a result, an important distinction arose between hypothetical scenarios of rape, characterized by judges and the press as egregious, and real life cases, which rarely met the high standards of rape according to definitions recorded in the press. Through the primary use of newspaper reports on Supreme Court trials contained in the Papers Past database, this thesis explores the contours of these hegemonic definitions of sexual violence in a formative moment of British colonization efforts in New Zealand. It traces the struggle between British masculinity and Maori resistance efforts, and how this struggle played out in heterosexual rape trials tried according to British colonial law. While Maori tribes successfully resisted the British colonial take-over of both their cultural autonomy and land, the British responded by softening the boundaries of race and strengthening the bond of masculine power. In this moment, rape became a symbol of both social chaos through a failure of controlled Victorian masculinity, and representative of men’s nearly limitless access to women’s bodies.

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