Bracken – from god-laden anthem to racist poem

Thomas Bracken wrote the words that have become the lyrics of New Zealand’s second national anthem, which is laden with references to God and Lord’.

“Our anthem is so focused on religion it’s not funny! Get away from all the god talk and start talking about something that actually means something to everyone in this country. Make it even easier, have it in our native tongue – Te Reo Māori!”

– Hemi Ruru, Papakura

Bracken also wrote a racist poem – it was about Chinese people. If he was found to have written something racist about Māori the maybe there would be an outcry and calls to condemn everything he wrote, like the religist anthem.

Michael Tull: Anthem writer Thomas Bracken’s anti-Chinese rhetoric ‘racist to modern eyes’.

There’s a danger in elevating historical figures to demigod status.

Last week’s editorial ‘Our anthem ‘God Defend New Zealand’ is a radically subversive challenge to tradition’ veered close to elevating New Zealand national anthem writer Thomas Bracken to a similar inviolate status.

Its staunch defence of his lyrics was, in part, a response to a discussion I started earlier this month on social media about whether it’s appropriate to have an undisguised Christian prayer as our anthem.

What I proposed was a revision of the lyrics, in order to address the religious elephant in the room.

Removing 13 direct references to ‘God’ and ‘Lord’, plus a further eight indirect references (such as ‘thee’ and ‘thy’) would underline the separation between church and state which is fundamental in a modern democracy.

While the anthem is often criticised there is no apparent drive to deem it as inappropriate and dump it.

Revising the lyrics might also make the anthem more relatable to, and reflective of, the increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith mix of people who make up our country.

Bracken wrote at a very different time.

It would need more than ‘revising the lyrics’ – it would have to amount to a major re-write.

But Bracken, while a good man by most accounts, was no paragon of virtue, and his works are not time-proof.

Another of his published poems, Chinee Johnny, is so racist to modern eyes that strict limits were set on which bits can be quoted here.

Written in a mock Chinese accent, it includes lines like “cook him puppy in him pan”, “steal him fowley nighty come”, and “Chinaman no wifey bling/ No good women, all same ting/ Play on tom-tom, ching, ching, ching!”

Okay, let’s be kind and say perhaps this was “of its time”.  But even by the kindest interpretation, it still reads like the worst Benny Hill sketch ever.

More viscerally, Bracken’s poem sits mightily uneasy in the modern world.

Couldn’t the same thing be said about baking a prayer into the song through which we express our national pride?

If Bracken had written something that was as racist against Māori as is his his poem against Chinese then it would lead a modern movement to have a relevant anthem.