Captured by Maori: White Female Captives, Sex and Racism on the Nineteenth-century New Zealand Frontier
Nineteenth-century writers of broadsheets would have had a field day with the title and cover of Trevor Bentley’s new study of colonial New Zealand: “Captured by Maori!”, “White Female Captives!”, an image of hapless Europeans meeting a gruesome end at the hands of grinning natives, and a portrait of a sad-eyed lonely little white girl awaiting some hideous fate. You can imagine manly English chests heaving in righteous indignation at this depiction of the savage isles.
Yet this image of 19th century New Zealand was, Bentley argues, a state of mind, an imaginary country where Maori were assumed to be cruel and rapacious, carrying off, enslaving or devouring white women and girls. Using the stories of nine women – seven adults and two children – Bentley explores a complex world of culture-crossing and encounter on the New Zealand frontier. Maori encounters with missionaries, whalers, traders and sealers are the usual stuff of our perceptions of racial interactions in early colonial New Zealand, so this addition of sex and danger certainly spices up the frontier experience.
Captivity was part of life on the frontier, in New Zealand as elsewhere; these are national as well as international stories, and Bentley draws on the strong North American literature on the topic to point up differences and similarities between New Zealand and other frontier societies. Captivity was a by-product of European contact, settlement, and land exchange. Races abducted each other in a range of circumstances and for a variety of purposes: following violence or shipwreck, as retribution, or for reasons of curiosity, public exhibition, sex, cheap labour or ransom. Bentley estimates around 140 Europeans were captured by Maori in the 19th century, including 21 women and girls, although he notes the “true” number of captives, male or female, will never be known.
The nine studied here were, Bentley argues, a cross-section of 19th century frontier society. (The stories of two Maori women – Bentley calls them “mixed-race” – captured by Te Kooti in 1868, are included “to provide comparisons and insights”. Their tales sit awkwardly in the wider analyses of racial interaction, imperialism and the power of narratives, and Bentley might have been wiser to omit them.) The European women – wives, mothers, daughters – came from farms, trading posts, mission stations, whaling settlements or convict backgrounds. Some, like Ann Morley and Betsy Broughton, were captured following clashes between Maori and Europeans; others, like Agnes Grace, were scooped along in the wake of inter-tribal warfare; Caroline Perrett was caught up as displaced Maori roved the country following land confiscations. Periods of captivity lasted anywhere from Eliza Benson’s few days to Charlotte Badger’s 10-year stay with Ngapuhi (during which time she refused “rescue”), and Mary Bell’s permanent residency with Ngati Toa.
What we know of these captives comes from a mix of sources. Maria Bennett and Caroline Perrett either wrote or dictated their stories. Editors of newspapers and publications compiled the tales of Ann Morley, Elizabeth Guard and Agnes Grace, the only one of the women who was literate. Eliza Benson’s story is retained primarily in family memories, while sea captains and colonial officials constructed the narratives of Charlotte Badger and Mary Bell from fragments the women offered.
Rescuers and editors were not above embellishing the stories the women provided, and Maori could be made to appear more lustful and brutal than the women had indicated. The published stories were crafted into captivity narratives for a 19th century reading public eager to seize on tales of helpless white women and Maori cruelty; they allowed “British readers to enter imaginatively into the ultimate boundary situation”. There is a sense of the salacious and a frisson of prurient excitement in some of these stories, as Bentley points out. Tales of North American captivity abounded, and New Zealand stories added to the whirl of a dangerous and sexual frontier: “these accounts were required to convey and perpetuate stereotypes about dark races that reinforced ideologies of white supremacy while justifying the annexation, colonisation and confiscation of their lands.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the captive women who chose not to deliver a tale of unmitigated suffering at the hands of Maori – women like Charlotte Badger – were regarded almost as a species apart. The notion that they may actually have come to enjoy life in the Maori communities where they lived for a number of years, sometimes in comfort and security, sometimes as willing partners in sexual liaisons and relationships with Maori men, was incomprehensible to the white men who had come to save them. Bentley does a good job in exploring the complex attitudes to many of these captive women, and in showing the give and take of life on the frontier.
I would have liked more about the production, reproduction and circulation of these narratives at the time, the process of storytelling, and the role of such stories in the public imagination. These were a type of pulp fiction-cum-morality tale in the 19th century, and like others of their kind – stories of white women abducted into harems or Chinese opium houses, tales from travellers to exotic parts – they were meant as much for entertainment as elucidation. Fact and fiction, supposition and exaggeration, sex and race, danger and curiosity sat together in these tales. Bentley touches on these issues in passing, but he is more concerned with trying to present the most accurate and true picture of cultural encounter in frontier New Zealand.
The stories of the individual women, spanning the years 1806 to 1874, are presented chronologically. For each woman or girl, Bentley gives as much context as possible to background the story of their capture, life with Maori, and their release or rescue (or decision to remain with Maori). Some of the stories – Betty Guard’s and Caroline Perrett’s – are worthy of the term narrative, and there is a sustained report of their experiences, compiled by others or themselves.
Others are much thinner. The story of Ann Morley’s capture – not her experience of captivity – is rendered in a few sparse sentences by her rescuer, Alex Berry. It is, Bentley notes, told “largely by omission”, and Morley is simply referred to as “the woman”. Betsy Broughton, captive for six weeks as a two-year-old, has no “narrative”, but rather several sentences in a report made of her by a friend of her father’s.
Aware of the pitfalls of making generalisations about the many from the one, Bentley pushes for a broader reading of these individual life stories to open up views on 19th century Maori society and racial interaction. He is wise to do this with such thin material at his disposal, and he provides a useful context on cross-cultural encounters in which to read these fragments. But the need to extract meaning from fragments has him frequently telling us what things must have been like or what might have been, and, in the process, we get modern imaginary tales of life on the frontier.
Morley’s story is eked out with suppositions: that she became “not unwillingly, the mokai or concubine of Te Ara”, that “it is likely” during her captivity she began to “see the possibilities that life among Ngati Uru offered”. “Had Ann Morley described her captivity”, Bentley suggests, “she would probably have offered a narrative in which a white woman found considerable physical, sexual and economic space.” These are long bows indeed to draw from such sparse material.
Bentley’s good understanding of cross-cultural encounter moves to more shaky ground as he tries to frame these women as our founding mothers or even “proto-feminists”, as in the case of Charlotte Badger. The stories of some of the women have been forgotten or lost, and it is fair enough to restore them to our understanding of the past. To claim that their presence on the frontier explodes the myth that early settlement and race relations here was pioneered solely by white males is to set up a straw woman, particularly when we move from the mid-19th century.
Bentley cites American sources for this statement, but a glance at any New Zealand literature would show that our stories of frontier and settlement have been more gender-aware than that. The Book of New Zealand Women, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, countless local and family histories and two decades of women’s history already give us a more complex reading of frontier New Zealand.
Captured by Maori is the companion piece to Bentley’s study of male captives, Pakeha Maori: The Extraordinary Story of the Europeans Who Lived as Maori in Early New Zealand (1999). With this new work, he has made the study of cross-cultural encounters all his own.
Bronwyn Dalley is a cultural historian interested in gender, sexuality and narrative. Her most recent publication, edited with Margaret Tennant, is Past Judgement: social policy in New Zealand history (University of Otago Press).