Ancient meetings of the past, Bernard Kernot

Two Worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772
Anne Salmond,
Viking, Auckland, 1991, $69.95

First meetings of Maori and Europeans varied widely in their intensity and outcome. The four dealt with in Two Worlds include Tasman’s brief but disastrous encounter with the Ngati Tumatakokiri people of Taitapu or Golden Bay in December 1642, Cook’s first voyage and his circumnavigation of both islands between October 1769 and March 1770Surville’s visit to Doubtless Bay in December 1769and Marion du Fresne’s dramatically ill-fated sojourn in the Bay of Islands between May and July 1772.

These are well known and thoroughly researched accounts but it is Salmond’s thesis that historical representations of them have been constructed on the basis of European cultural perceptions only, and they allow no place for Maori interpretations. As she explains in an introductory passage, the project began as a re-examination of the ancient Maori world through a review of the documents and records of the early explorers. It became evident to her that these were touching tribal histories in the way they identified recognisable ancestors of people living today, and in describing activities the author recognised from her own fieldwork.

The project widened to include an ethnographic interpretation of events as they unfolded at the interface of Maori and European contact. Every effort was made to understand tribal responses by reference to their political and genealogical histories. At the same time she sought to reconstruct the landscape as it was then known, by reference to archaeological records, local knowledge and from such evidence as was left by the visiting ships’ crews. Familiarity with the explorers’ accounts alerted her to the cultural metaphors by which they understood and interpreted their world and that which was opening out before them. At that point another ethnography became necessary and she began to develop what she calls mirror-image ethnography ‘in which each side saw the other through a haze of their own reflections’, and the project became a study of ‘Two Worlds’.

The treatment is expansive, beginning with broad ethnographic descriptions of pre-European Aotearoa and 17th-century Europe. These are followed by more specific historical ethnographies of 17th-century Holland, and 18th-century England and France, which have a sharper focus and identify the key concepts by which the explorers interpreted their world.

Accounts of each of the voyages are meticulously detailed. The narratives of daily events are passed through a very fine time mesh. Contacts with local people are rigorously scrutinised and analysed: ethnographic summaries round off significant segments of the story. Yet withal the narrative never loses its way in the detail. There is a story to tell and the book moves from episode to episode and voyage to voyage to the dramatic finale of the killing of Marion du Fresne and several of his crew, and the fearful vengeance exacted by the French on those they held responsible.

Even if Two Worlds has something of the quality of a James Michener novel, it is first and foremost a work of considerable scholarship and authority. The experimental application of ethnographic approach to the past in order to reveal a neglected history has at least made available some of the texts of the Maori past, in the form of whakapapa and tribal traditions (koorero) around which such histories may be constructed. The strength of this work has been in revealing the presence of another history which is still to be defined. I am not convinced it has gone further than that. Under the circumstances it is most unlikely since as the author herself argues the first Europeans were peripheral to the plot of tribal histories.

By far the greater weight of recorded evidence is provided by the ships’ crews, whether in maps, charts, illustrations, in writing or in the artefacts collected. Relatively little material derives from tribal sources. Much of the interpretation of Maori responses is that of the anthropologist. In some significant ways Salmond is the contemporary counterpart of Tupaia, the Tahitian priest who joined the Endeavour and became the interpreter for the English in New Zealand. Salmond the anthropologist is there to guide the reader through the Maori responses, but in the end it is anthropological second guessing. Much as I enjoyed Two Worlds I completed the reading with the sense of having watched the passing landscape from the ship’s deck without ever becoming a part of it or having understood the people crowding the shore. To be told what they were doing was helpful, but I still did not understand why.

Apart from the notes and references for chapters 4 and 5 which have unfortunately become scrambled and displaced, the book is thoroughly researched, well written and profusely illustrated.

 

Bernard Kernot is a senior lecturer in Maori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in History, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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