Makereti: Taking Maori to the World
Random House, $44.99,
In 1911, the year of George V’s coronation, a “Festival of Empire” was staged at London’s Crystal Palace exhibition centre. A forerunner of the great mid-century expos which, in this age of global free trade, are something of an anachronism, the festival was intended as a showcase of the new monarch’s dominions. In three-quarter-size scale models of the Parliament buildings of all the Commonwealth nations, erected in the grounds around the hall, each country showed its wares. But there were controls placed on the showing of the Empire’s indigenous subjects.
The Colonial Office had prohibited what a contemporary newspaper report described as “the importation of coloured natives for exhibition purposes”. Much as we might wish to, we may not conclude that sensitivity to the offensiveness of using “coloured natives” for entertainment purposes was behind the edict. As journalist and historian Paul Diamond records in this book, the loss of the picturesque value of such shows had to be accepted: “No scenic effect”, he quotes another reporter as explaining, “could compensate for the evil done to white authority among our coloured fellow-subjects by the mingling of their representatives in London with a white population that does not understand that the ‘colour-line’ must be strictly drawn.”
The story Diamond tells here is of a woman who gracefully, if not always effortlessly, leapt across that “colour-line”. We are fond in this country of speaking of biculturalism as though it were an achievement, when it is, for most Pakeha, not even a fully understood aspiration. Maori, even if they do not live in two worlds, usually understand that two worlds exist. No one understood it better than the subject of this history.
The complicated, multi-layered nature of her life is implicit in the fact that it is hard even to know what to call her: she was born in 1873 as Margaret Pattison Thom, the daughter of an Englishman, William Arthur Thom, and Pia Ngarotu Te Rihi (Ngati Wahiao), whose ancestors were Te Arawa chiefs. She twice went by married names – the latter, the very English Staples-Browne, is the main one on her grave in an Oxfordshire churchyard. Yet Maggie Papakura, the name under which she achieved fame as a guide at Whakarewarewa, was one she assumed on a whim: when “an unusually inquisitive visitor persisted in asking for her ‘Maori’ name”, presumably because he found “Thom” insufficiently exotic, she was standing near the Papakura geyser. “She replied ‘Papakura’. ” The name stuck.
Diamond has used Makereti as his subject’s default name throughout, and it seems the aptest one: as a Maori transliteration of her English birth name, it best captures a woman who was caught between two worlds.
For Makereti’s story is, in a sense, our country’s. When she was born, the smoke had barely cleared from the land wars that her father had fought in. William Thom, who had come, via Australia, to join the Waikato militia, was rewarded for his service in that bloody and shameful campaign with confiscated land in the township of Opotiki. During the first years of his marriage, until 18 months before Makereti’s birth, he was a member of the quasi-military armed constabulary whose job was “completing the task of subjugating Maori resistance to the authority of the crown”. He acted as a scout for an expedition into the Ureweras in pursuit of Te Kooti, destroying settlements and crops and killing stock in Ruatahuna.
These were troubled times. Diamond does well to remind us that barely half of Maori opposed the British in the New Zealand Wars, but recent events have shown us how the sting of deeds like Thom’s is still keenly felt in Tuhoe.
Such strife did not blight the life of the young Makereti. In terms of cultural capital as opposed to economic wealth, it is hard to imagine a life richer than hers. Raised in a dirt-floored totara whare, she learnt at her mother’s knee to whakapapa back to the 14th century. But she would be educated at Hukarere in Napier, a school for girls which aimed to “civilise” young Maori, “teaching them the ways of the Europeans so they could [aid] the process of Maori assimilation.”
The school trained them in domestic tasks as well as in the elements of the comprehensive English grammar school curriculum, including English, Latin and algebra. Diamond quotes Jamie Belich’s observation in Paradise Reforged that this was in an era when only upper-middle-class Pakeha reached secondary school.
Thus versed in two worlds, she was a natural to be one of the star guides at Whakarewarewa where she guided notable visitors, including royalty – in the process becoming notable herself. But she was no tame dusky maiden. An early supporter of Apirana Ngata’s Maori Party, she was a vocal critic of Pakeha monocultural ignorance – in an entertaining 1901 letter to the Herald, she complained that “the Pakehas take too much trouble to attend to other people’s affairs instead of minding their own” – and she became an entrepreneur who took Maori culture to shows in Australia and England. One of the more striking of the book’s many wonderful photographs, assembled in three countries, is of a waka on the Thames in the 1911 Henley Regatta.
It was during one of these visits to England that Makereti renewed her acquaintance with Richard Staples-Browne, the scion of a wealthy Oxfordshire family, whom she had guided at Whakarewarewa. Their susbequent marriage did not last but it paved the way for her to enter Oxford University where she embarked on, though never finished, a thesis entitled The Old-Time Maori, which remains a major resource.
Diamond, a former radio journalist who told Makereti’s story on air in 2003, says in his introduction that his interest was initially sparked by a caption in a museum photograph that mentioned she had died and was buried on the other side of the world. “I remember thinking how strange and sad it was for a Maori to be buried so far away from New Zealand,” he writes.
Regrettably, however, the human dimension of Makereti’s story often struggles to penetrate the wealth of documentary information in the book. Diamond’s writing style, which perhaps reflects his broadcasting background, is more thorough than inspired and the text is full of sentences such as: “The model pa was dogged by controversy and was finally completed in 1909.” Good biography is distinguished by an ability to bring characters to life and that is in disappointingly short supply here.
What makes the story feel doubly remote is the incomprehensible decision not to reference anything. The foreword says that fully-referenced manuscripts are available at the Alexander Turnbull and other libraries, and one can understand the desire not to clutter the page with footnotes. But it is hard to imagine all readers of this book being uninterested in the provenance of any of its information. In any case, Diamond repeatedly inserts phrases in quotation marks without giving any indication of who is being quoted. He is not helped by editing that allows him, for example, to mention Sir John See on page 56 but not identify him as the New South Wales Premier until page 64.
These – and a sloppily compiled index – are the main irritations of a book that nevertheless records a fascinating story. The many dozens of pictures are in themselves worth the cover price. They depict a woman who is, in many ways, a prototype of the modern New Zealander – even if she lies so far from home.
Peter Calder is New Zealand Listener travel editor.