Twenty or so years ago, a small and comely twentysomething blond American stopped over in New Zealand on the way from her hometown of Boston to graduate school in Australia. She ended up spending an evening in a pub near Auckland where she met a group of Māoris and so liked what she saw -- the country in general and a hulkingly handsome Māori by the name of Seven in particular -- that it eventually would lead her to write one of the most unusual travelogue and history books of the many that I have read.
The blond was Christina Thompson and the book is the recently published Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
Thompson's accomplishment is no small feat because she didn't stay in New Zealand nor ever lived there. As it was, there were several instances where I found myself learning more than I wanted to know about she and Seven (so named because he was the seventh of 10 children), with whom she shacked up before marrying and having children.
But just when I would become frustrated I turned the page and Thompson gobsmacked me with a penetrating observation about the effects of colonization on the Māori, as well as how even the most well read of us pretty much consistently misunderstand these people best known in the popular American imagination for a single movie -- Whale Rider -- and the beautifully ornate facial tattoos of their ancestors.
* * * * *The points of the so-called Polynesian Triangle are Hawaii to the north, New Zealand to the south and Easter Island to the east, a vast area of 10 million square miles that is virtually all ocean.
Scholars long believed that the Polynesians must have drifted to these far-flung islands, and it wasn't until fairly recently that they became convinced that it was no accident but rather a logical consequence of a profound understanding of Mare Pacifica.
"There are marvelous accounts of crossing the Pacific written by Europeans who sailed in ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sentiments they express are a mixture of wonder and fear, amazement at their own insignificance, humility in the fact of the sublime. For the voyaging European, the Pacific was a vast, inscrutable emptiness, an endless horizon, a sky full of light. It was the opposite, in every respect, of the place he called home, a cozy, terrestrial cluster of cities and farms, busy with human activity. . . .
"To the voyaging Polynesian, however, it must have been quite different. . . . the ocean, far from being a 'trackless waste,' as so many Victorians had it, was crisscrossed by sea roads and pathways. Over every horizon lay islands, some near, some far, some big enough to be colonized, some barely big enough to offer respite on the way to somewhere else. For two thousand years knowledge of these islands, where they lay and how to reach them, constituted the core of their arcana. Traveling in large, double-hulled sailing canoes, they navigated by the stars and the ocean currents, the winds, the swells, the birds, the look and feel of the sky and water. They knew hundreds of constellations, identified dozens of winds, could feel the interaction of as many as five different swells through the deck of an oceangoing canoe. They knew which birds flew out from land in the morning and returned to it at dusk. They knew that a high island would disrupt the trade winds, and that the lagoon of a low island would cast a greenish glow on the underbelly of the clouds."
The Māori came to New Zealand from eastern Polynesia before the year 1300 and developed a distinct culture, including those facial tattoos, that baffled the first European explorers and since then many a Pākehā (in Māori, a person of European descent).
To those explorers the Māori were as warlike as their kin on Tahiti were peaceful, and while that is not necessarily untrue, they fundamentally misunderstood the Māori from the outset.
The title of Thompson's book, which is said to have been uttered by Māoris from canoes when Captain Cook first approached the North Island on the Endeavor to water in 1769, is typical of this misunderstanding.
As Thompson deconstructs "Come on shore and we will kill and eat you all," what the Māoris in all likelihood shouted out was their usual greeting and not a declaration of intent:
"The emphasis is less on a particular outcome (the violent death of the visitors on shore) than on the initiation of negotiations. In other words, while the Māoris clearly intended to intimidate their visitors, they did not necessarily plan to kill them. And there is no mention anywhere of anyone eating anyone -- which, in Māori terms, would certainly have been insulting."
To add further insult, Cook's original account was mangled beyond recognition by John Hawkesworth, the editor of Cook's Endeavor journal and those of several other English explorers of the time. He added the cannibalism reference and so distorted what Cook had written that the good captain was mortified when he returned from his second voyage two years later and read the rewrite.
Mind you, the Māori did occasionally dine on their enemies in a post-combat ritual, but because of Hawkesworth, with an assist a century later by naturalist Charles Darwin in the course of the Beagle's circumnavigation, the cannibalism meme became firmly established and the stereotype of the Māori a violent and godless people was further cemented.
* * * * * In the days before the eventual subjugation of the Māori by European settlers, there were periodic tribal wars involving clubs and spears, but no projectile weapons like bows and arrows and slings.
That changed with a bang with the introduction of the musket as an object of barter. The consequence was the Musket Wars, three decades of internecine warfare that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of whole tribes. What firearms couldn't do, tobacco and alcohol did, and the loss of land to settlers accelerated at a dizzying pace.
"At first the sales were piecemeal, but toward the end of the 1830s acreage began to fly out of Māori hands, nearly ten million acres between 1837 and 1839 alone. Fifty acres here for a double-barreled fowling piece; a hundred there for a musket, a mirror, four blankets, some powder, and a razor with a strop. Six hundred acres for eleven pounds case, eleven blankets, ten shirts, six pairs of trousers, a gown, two pieces of print, a velvet waistcoat, three Manila hats, one pair of shoes, eight pairs of earrings, five combs, a musket, a double-barreled gun, five fowling pieces, two bags of shot, three casks of powder, scissors, knives, razors, one hoe, and a hundred and fifty pounds of tobacco, divided among eleven chiefly signatories to the deed. That makes one pound and one blanket each, plus a share of the other trade goods. Who got the velvet waistcoat is not recorded."
At the beginning of the 19th century, there were about 150,000 Māoris in New Zealand. Fifty years later, only 50,000 were left.
* * * * * It is easy to say that the Māori shot, smoked and boozed their culture away. That pretty much is the Pākehā view and helps explains why so many New Zealanders exclaim that some of their best friends are Māori but believe that they are prone to violence, lazy and disinterested in going to school or otherwise bettering themselves.
Dissecting and correcting this simplistically racist mythologizing is the greatest accomplishment of Come on Shore.
Thompson acknowledges that some Māoris wallow in self-pity, but epidemics of measles, influenza and whooping cough periodically decimated entire communities well into the 20th century, while the injustices wrought by colonization have never really been addressed. How else to explain why Māoris have much lower life expectancies and high unemployment, and many live in poverty in one of the most affluent societies anywhere?
There also is a double whammy of a sort at work here: As Thompson writes, calls for Māoris to get educated and work hard often have been misinterpreted as a call for assimilation to mainstream Pākehā society.
In the end, she writes:
"The most painful aspect of colonization [is] that more has been lost than has been gained and yet, what is there to do but soldier on?"
Thompson closes Come On Shore with a musing on her own ancestry, which includes an overly long section on a prominent forebear on the American frontier who eventually concluded that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. She writes a letter to the three sons that she and seven have raised to be read after her passing that she tucks inside a life-insurance policy.
The letter begins:
"In each of you is a little bit of the conqueror and the conquered, the colonizer and the colonized."
"I hope you boys will not feel cheated out of what you might have had -- money, land, a turangawaewae, 'a place,' as the Māoris say, 'to stand.' But you come from a long line of unconformists. Your maternal grandmother, as you may recall, was a Communist in the thirties, a fact which absolutely horrified the maiden aunts. And your father's side goes back like an arrow to Tareha, who was virtually alone among the northern chiefs in refusing to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. This history is alive in you. It is your birthright, a kind of shadow DNA, in which the great house on Grand Avenue is encoded, with its aspidistras and its soup tureens, along with the huia feathers that your great-great-great-grandfather wore and the carved canoes of the tangata whenua, the people of the land."
Image: Māori sculpture at Waitangi, Bay of Islands