Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Sexual Frontier - Contrasting Māori and European Attitudes towards Sex and Nudity in the Colonial Era

In pre-contact Māori society young unmarried men and women had a high degree of sexual freedom. With the exception of a few high-born women who were ceremonially bethrothed, pre-marital sex was considered socially acceptable, though blatant promiscuity was frowned upon and a certain level of discretion expected. 

Sex was considered a normal and healthy part of every day life, with no particular taboos around it. Copulating couples were depicted in carvings and bawdy stories and waiata concerning sexual exploits or the size of men’s penises were common.

Te Puawai o Te Arawa, 1905, 1/1-003279-G, ATL

That relative openness extended to same-sex relationships, of which there is ample evidence from waiata and other traditional sources. Tutanekai, for example, who famously swam to Mokoia to be with Hinemoa, was also known to have had an initimate male companion known as Tiki. (By contrast, in the eighteenth-century Royal Navy death was the mandatory penalty for anyone found guilty of sodomy).

In Māori culture, female genital exposure was considered indecent, though women would sometimes deliberately expose themselves through whakapohane intended to riducule or insult those witnessing it. There are early examples of European visitors who described what they thought were lascivious gestures on the part of Māori women exposing themselves to the newcomers, when it fact they were demonstrating not arousal but contempt.

On the other hand it was perfectly natural for women to remain naked above the waste, especially in hot conditions or when working or dancing. Under the influence of the missionaries that eventually changed. By 1840 it was said to be fashionable for young Māori women in the Bay of Islands to cover their breasts in the European manner, though this new trend was fiercely resisted by older women and it took some time before it became standard.

Amoko, Eana, Hepee, 1838, PUBL-0015-010-a, ATL

Because women were regarded as noa, or free from tapu, it was common for the female vulva to be depicted above the entrance way to meeting houses, in this way removing the tapu from anyone who passed underneath. Penises, sometimes erect, were also depicted in wood carving as a sign of virility and strength. In some cases copulating couples were also depicted.

All of these things were deeply troubling for European missionaries, and even Victorian museum curators, who went out of their way to have the offending carvings altered or removed, and depictions of sexual organs or acts obliterated, in accordance with their own sensibilities.

In British society, and especially in the Victorian era, sex was regarded as something shameful and not to be discussed. Although pre-marital sex did occur, it was not considered socially acceptable. Chastity was expected and unmarried mothers were social outcasts. Prostitution was rife, especially in some of the port towns that those who sailed to New Zealand with James Cook came from. That was part of a weirdly repressive double-standard that assumed men could not help themselves while fallen women were the victims of men’s sinful lusts.

So to arrive in the South Pacific and find the old rules thrown out the window, and semi-naked women not only free from shame but keen to engage in sexual relationships was a revelation for early visitors from Europe. 

Solider asleep in a whare, being watched over by a Māori woman, c.1845-1858, A-113-034, ATL

The crew of the Endeavour readily entered into multiple sexual encounters with Māori women. It was customary within Māori society for important visitors to be offered sexual hospitality, though married women were strictly off limits, and the early encounters with British and French explorers were consistent with this pattern. (Later, many missionaries visiting Māori settlements were themselves offered sexual hospitality). By the 1820s, at the Bay of Islands and elsewhere, there were extensive sexual contacts with visiting whalers. In some cases this could be quite coercive, involving young women captured from other tribes and prostituted to provide a source of trade for local people.

But in many other instances young unmarried women entered into relationships with the sailors of their own accord, in what some observers described as ‘temporary unions’ or marriages that tended to last the duration of the whaler’s stay in the district. These kinds of relationships were consistent with the high level of freedom that unmarried people had in pre-contact Māori society.    

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.