An important work, Peter Tremewan

Te Wai Pounamu, The Greenstone lsland: A History of the Southern Maori during the European Colonisation of New Zealand
Harry C Evison
Aoraki Press (in association with Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board and Te Runanganui o Tahu), $58.95

A reading of the full title of Harry Evison’s book shows immediately that it is not the same sort of book as well-known North Island tribal histories like John Grace’s Tuwharetoa, J H Mitchell’s Takitimu (on Ngati Kahungunu) or J M McEwen’s Rangitane.

“Southern Maori” are Ngai Tahu (or Kai Tahu, if one wishes to preserve the local pronunciation), a slightly problematic grouping these days as different groups assert their independence from the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board or from Te Runanganui o Tahu and trace their descent back to ancestors of other South Island tribes, notably Waitaha. The chairman of the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board, on the other hand, sees Ngai Tahu as an amalgam that includes the tribes (Waitaha, Kati Mamoe and others) that intermarried with Ngai Tahu after the latter moved into the South Island in the late seventeenth century. This is the view, too, of Harry Evison.

In the early nineteenth century, Ngai Tahu territory covered Rakiura (Stewart Island) and all but the very north of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island). The traditional northern boundary claimed by Ngai Tahu runs, in a zigzag line, from Kahurangi on the west coast to Parinuiowhiti on the east coast. Under British law, tribal land boundaries were frozen in 1840. As Ngai Tahu had just suffered incursions from northern tribes under Te Rauparaha, they had to argue against the views of their hostile neighbours in their efforts to have this northern boundary confirmed. Despite various judicial rulings, disagreement has continued into the late twentieth century and the northern boundary was the subject of a hearing of the Maori Appellate Court as recently as 1990.

The lifestyle and history of Ngai Tahu were strongly influenced by their being a small tribe spread out over a large area of land. Harry Evison examines the different estimates of the size of the Ngai Tahu population, that include 3000-4000 in the 1820s and around 2000 in the Canterbury and Otago provinces in the 1850s. This is to be seen in the context of recent estimates of the total Maori population of New Zealand in 1840 as around 70,000‑90,000. Ngai Tahu had good access to fish, shellfish, eels, fernroot, kauru (from the cabbage tree), weka and titi (mutton birds). Kumara could not be cultivated south of Banks Peninsula, so potatoes were a welcome addition to the Ngai Tahu diet in the nineteenth century. Pounamu (greenstone) was a precious resource found only in the South Island, and was traded with tribes further north.

Unlike the tribal histories already mentioned, Harry Evison’s book is not a description of traditional (pre‑European) history and lore, with a few concluding chapters on the arrival of the European missionaries and settlers. It is limited almost entirely to the nineteenth century and describes the way Ngai Tahu sold their vast areas of land to the New Zealand Company or the Crown for small sums of money between 1844 (the Otago block) and 1864 (Rakiura). Ngai Tahu were then confined to small reserves which neither left them with access to traditional food sources nor provided them with an economic base to participate successfully in the European economy.

From the beginning there were individual complaints that the reserves were not large enough, that pakeha settlers were preventing access to traditional eel‑weirs, that the boundaries of land sold were not where the European authorities thought they were. People complained they had not been paid or had not been given rights to reserve land.

This led in the 1870s to concerted tribal efforts to apply political pressure to the Crown to honour the promises it had made when it bought Ngai Tahu land and to provide the destitute and often landless original inhabitants of the island with some sort of economic base. Discussions were held on different marae, a fund was set up for te kereeme (the claim) and representations were made to Parliament. H K Taiaroa, member of the House of Representatives for Southern Maori, was one of the crucial figures of this period. A number of commissions were set up to look into Ngai Tahu grievances and some were very thorough in their investigations and devastating in their judgments of the Crown, but the political will was not there to take decisive and effective action. It was, for example, no solution to give people a little more land in remote areas of western Southland where it could not be used.

Ngai Tahu had just cause for grievance, and yet their initiatives to right matters were repeatedly knocked back over the years. A very thorough examination of the Ngai Tahu claim was undertaken by the Waitangi Tribunal between 1987 and 1990. Extensive submissions were made by tribal elders and by lawyers, historians, anthropologists and other experts on behalf of the Crown, the Ngai Tahu tribe or the tribunal itself. This led to the tribunal’s Ngai Tahu Report in 1991 and a sea fisheries report in 1992. These found very largely in favour of Ngai Tahu, but by no means agreed with all of the tribe’s submissions. Nevertheless, the finding has left Ngai Tahu feeling hopeful that a definitive solution will be reached this time.

Harry Evison’s book is a history of the Crown’s injustices to Ngai Tahu and of Ngai Tahu’s attempts to have these righted. The story is recounted very well. It is incisive, dramatic and often points up ironies of history in a telling manner. Harry Evison has read an enormous amount and brought together material from an amazing range of sources. Where sources are in disagreement, he will often attempt to tease out the truth in a lengthy footnote. His information is rigorously sourced and can be relied upon as accurate. The maps are numerous and excellent, with the notable exception of map 17, which omits many Maori settlements, including those in Nelson, Marlborough, the West Coast, Otago and Murihiku.

Material is brought into the book if it has some relevance to advancing an understanding of the Ngai Tahu cause. One could regret that, in a book which claims to be a history of the southern Maori during the period of European colonisation, there is not more about the social and political organisation of the tribe, its runanga, the relationships among the different hapu that make up the tribe, demographic trends (urbanisation, intermarriage with other tribes and with pakeha), life on the marae, the degree to which old traditions and language have continued or been influenced by Christianity and other pakeha institutions and values, the sense of tribe which does or does not persist. The emphasis on Ngai Tuahuriri hapu of Kaiapoi might well be regretted by Ngai Tahu people from other areas. But all this would be to ask for another book and to fail to see the valuable things in this one.

There is no doubt Ngai Tahu have been shabbily treated by the Crown in the past. Harry Evison shows this convincingly. The major reservation I have is that the book does not put the Crown’s case well enough before demolishing it. If you do not do this, your opponents can unearth material which they can claim contradicts your conclusions. Even-handedness was the strength of the Waitangi Tribunal’s hearings and findings.

Someone who does not wish to accept Harry Evison’s findings might, for example, ask him to explain why in September 1861 the Kaiapoi runanga expressed its gratefulness to Governor Gore Brown for, among other things, “arranging our outstanding land claims and for giving us a fair payment”. When the Crown did get something right, it is taken for granted and dealt with in a sentence. Nearly all the people acting on behalf of the Crown are given cynical ulterior motives. The Maori sellers are represented as men of honour with no private agendas.

Harry Evison is very hostile to missionaries like J W Stack and J F H Wohlers. In order to be so, he has to be selective in his use of source material. It is curious, for example, that he should say that Wohlers “had no sympathy for the Maori way of life”. In fact, on the windswept island of Ruapuke where he devoted some 40 years of his life to the Ngai Tahu people, Wohlers listened to the tribal elders and recorded, in Maori, probably the best collection of Maori myths from any area of New Zealand. Harry Evison sees Stack (described by Teone Tare Tikao as “the best pakeha speaker of Maori he knew”) as reviving a Te Ati Awa curse in using the word “Kaiapohia”, instead of “Kaiapoi”, for the Ngai Tahu pa, when the matter is less black and white than this. He risks perpetuating a curious error in another place‑name, by calling Banks Peninsula “Horomaka”. This error is becoming common and probably originates in a misreading of an article by J M McEwen in the Journal of Polynesian Studies, vol 55 (1946), p223. A sectional heading reads “The origin of the name Horomaka (Banks Peninsula)”. Reading one sentence on makes it clear that Horomaka is a little island off Banks Peninsula, not the peninsula itself. If it needs to be corrected, it is because Harry Evison’s prize‑winning book is going to be seen as an important work for some time.

Peter Tremewan lectures in French at the University of Canterbury, and is the author of French Akaroa: An Attempt to Colonise Southern New Zealand.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in History, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more