Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Best Books I Never Wrote

[Originally published on]

Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History

In the 1990s postmodernism ran rife in academic history departments across the globe. Scholars supposedly committed to studying the past all too often denied the possibility of any meaningful knowledge of it. Richard Evan’s robust and concise defence of history as a discipline tasked with striving for something approaching the truth could not have been timelier. Aimed not just at fellow historians, Evans’ book also provides lay readers with powerful insights into why history matters. 

Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850

Captivity narratives are as old as empire. But they have rarely been analysed with the kind of intellectual sophistication and subtlety that Linda Colley displays. For more than two centuries, the British strove for pre-eminence with powerful, non-Christian and non-white rulers across the Mediterranean, North America, India and beyond. Many of those taken captive were enchanted by the new cultures they encountered, preferring them to their own. A powerful antidote to assumptions that early European travellers invariably looked down upon other societies and peoples.

James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict

In 1986 a young historian published his first book, based on a doctoral thesis completed at Oxford University. Immediately hailed as a tour de force, Belich’s work overturned long-ingrained beliefs about the wars fought on New Zealand’s own shores, highlighting Maori military achievements and explaining why these had for so long been forgotten or suppressed. Signalling not just the intellectual coming of age of a brilliant new scholar, this book also confirmed the potential for exciting new readings of New Zealand’s past.  

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies

Synthesising 13,000 years of human history into a highly readable work of just 500 pages, Jared Diamond explains why western Eurasian societies have historically come to dominate the globe. Diamond shows that this had nothing to do with these being superior cultures or societies. Instead, much rested on key environmental, geographic and other advantages such as the elongated east-west axis of the European continent, which made it easier to transmit new crops, animals and technologies. A work of astonishing scale and ambition.

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815

When different peoples and cultures meet they sometimes do so on a ‘middle ground’ in which new meanings and practices that draw from both sides but belong to neither become possible. This deceptively simple model of cross-cultural interaction and encounter has been widely adopted since Richard White’s book was first published in 1991. It was an argument I applied to pre-Treaty New Zealand in my own work The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters, 1642-1840.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Clashing Cultures - Abel Tasman's Bloody First Encounter with Māori

The first encounter between Māori and Pākehā was characterised by what can only be described as mutual incomprehension. Neither party had any prior awareness of the other. They had no means of communicating with one another and no understanding of each other’s cultural values. Like so many other first contacts in the Pacific, the result was deadly, in this case especially so for the Europeans.

Whereas in the sixteenth century it was the Spanish who dominated exploration of the Pacific, in the 1600s it was the Dutch, who had established a base in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). It was from there that Abel Tasman led the two ships Zeehaen and the Heemskerck on a voyage of discovery in 1642. After charting the coast of what is today known as Tasmania (initially named Van Diemen's Land), Tasman sailed on to the east, into unknown waters, until on 13 December 1642 he sighted a ‘large, high-lying island’. The Dutch had reached the west coast of the South Island. They sailed up the coast and anchored in Golden Bay on the morning of 18 December.

Tasman and his men had already seen fires lit along the coastline. But that evening two large waka (canoes) came out to take a closer look at the newcomers. They issued a ritual challenge to the strangers, blowing on a shell trumpet. Tasman, thinking this was some kind of musical tribute or call of welcome, ordered his men to play some tunes in response.

The next morning a single waka with 13 men on board again approached the two ships. The men on board called out to Tasman and his crew, probably warning them to leave the district. But the Dutch were unable to understand a word of what was said to them.

Tasman called the officers of the two ships together, and, fatally misreading the situation, decided to push on with plans to head towards the shores. He recorded that the people of Golden Bay ‘apparently sought our friendship’.

Isaac Gilsemans, A View of the Murderers' Bay, 1642, PUBL-0086-021, ATL

But the local iwi, Ngāti Tumatakokiri, were actually preparing to kill the intruders and seven waka set out from shore for these purposes, one of them paddling furiously in the direction of a small boat returning to the Heemskerck from the Zeehaen after the meeting of Tasman’s officers. Four of the Dutch were killed in this exchange and Tasman’s crew opened fire, killing at least one man in retaliation.

Tasman had finally got the message that they were unwelcome, naming the spot Murderers Bay and setting sail for the north. Their only further encounter with Māori was on Three Kings Island, off the very north of the North Island. Here the Dutch eventually abandoned an attempt to secure supplies of drinking water in the face of threats from men brandishing clubs and spears.

Clearly the Dutch had been spooked by their encounters with Māori and their descriptions of Māori as a fierce and formidable people probably went some way to explaining why there was no further contact with the outside world for the next 127 years.

From the Māori perspective, the Dutch, with their massive sailing vessels, strange clothes, absence of women and unfamiliar complexion, were clearly not like any normal invader. It seems quite likely that they were regarded as supernatural, and probably malignant, spirits, who had to be warded off in order to avoid dire consequences for the local community. As discussed in The Meeting Place: Māori and Pākehā Encounters, 1642-1840, there is also some archaeological evidence to suggest that local Māori might have been seeking to protect an important area for the cultivation of crops and especially kūmara (sweet potato). 

Either way, it was not an auspicious beginning to Māori and European encounters. The Dutch had arrived clutching a guide to Solomon Islands vocabulary. If (like some later travellers) they had come armed with a basic understanding of a language closely related to Māori such as Tahitian (or even, as with James Cook's first expedition to New Zealand in 1769, an actual Society Islander - in that case the high priest Tupaia) then the chances of avoiding conflict might have increased. Even then, however, there was no guarantee: Tupaia was unable to prevent further bloody clashes during the Endeavour's voyage around New Zealand.   

Monday, 22 June 2015

Māori Musicians

I came across this rather striking image of a group of unidentified Māori musicians in the most recent Turnbull Library Record. According to the Turnbull Library's accession information not only are the musicians unidentified, but so is the photographer, while the date is also unknown. My best guess for the latter would be late 1940s/early 1950s. There must be people who recognise the musicians, perhaps their descendants. It would be great to learn their identities. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Whanganui Māori Meeting with the British Royal Family

Following Prince Harry’s recent visit to the Whanganui region, where he met with local iwi representatives (and impressed Tariana Turia), much older connections between local Māori and the British royal family are worth remembering.

In my recently-published book Haerenga: Early Māori Journeys Across the Globe I tell the story of Whanganui chief Hoani Wiremu Hipango, known to many Europeans as John Williams.

In 1855 Hipango accompanied the Whanganui-based missionary Richard Taylor on a journey to England. During the course of his stay, the young Whanganui leader and Taylor met with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace.

Hoani Wiremu Hipango (right), with Richard Taylor (seated) and his son Basil, PAColl-5185, ATL

Hipango presented the Queen with a prized pounamu weapon, a large cloak made of kiwi feathers, and other items. Victoria took a great interest in the gifts and assured Hipango that she had the welfare of the Māori people in her heart.

He became just the second Māori after Tamihana Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa known to have met with Queen Victoria. However, it was said that the Queen was so plainly dressed that he did not realise it was her, later scolding Taylor for failing to tell him.

Hipango was killed in battle in February 1865 leading an attack on a Pai Marire pā at Ohoutahi. Two years later his son, Hori Kingi Hipango, also travelled to England, where he spent the next four years, before dying there in 1871.

The stories of Hoani Hipango and his son are just two of many told in my book, published by Bridget Williams Books, as part of its popular Texts series.  The book explores the history of Māori travel from the late eighteenth century through to the early twentieth century.

Hipango and his son reflected an almost insatiable Māori appetite to travel and explore the world, although many of these stories of voyaging are today little known beyond the immediate descendants of those involved.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

'Recording the Incident with a Monument': The Waikato War in Historical Memory

As I have been researching the Waikato War one topic that I have devoted considerable attention to is the question of how the war has been remembered or forgotten historically. This was the main focus of my J D Stout lecture in 2014, as well as various other public talks and presentations.

I have now made my first published foray into the field of memory studies with a paper on the same topic. It is published in a special issue of the Journal of New Zealand Studies 'James Cowan and the Legacies of Late Colonial Culture in Aotearoa New Zealand', edited by Annabel Cooper and Ariana Tikao.

This paper charts changing perceptions of the Waikato War in national memory and consciousness. The recent sesquicentenary passed by most New Zealanders largely unnoticed. Historical memories of the war that once (in part thanks to James Cowan) fed into larger nation-building narratives cut across them today. A century ago it was possible for Pākehā to believe that the Waikato War had given birth to fifty years of peace and that mutual respect forged in battle had provided the basis for “race relations” of unparalleled harmony. By the 1970s such a notion could no longer be sustained, leaving a kind of uncomfortable silence about one of the decisive events in New Zealand history.

The Journal of New Zealand Studies is an open access publication, committed to making research freely available to the wider community. Here is a link to the full text of my own paper.