The legacies of history, B J Poff

Te Waimana, The Spring of Mana: Tuhoe History and the Colonial Encounter
Jeffrey Sissons,
Otago University Press, Dunedin, 1991, $39.95

Kinds of Peace: Maori People After the Wars, 1870-85
Sir Keith Sinclair,
Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Unsung Hero: Barzillai Quaife
Peter Kennett,
Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1991, $29.95

The ‘mountain fastness’ of Tuhoe country is for many Pakeha a sort of original New Zealand, and in Te Waimana Jeffrey Sissons is both a traveller and a commentator on that pilgrimage of scholars who have gone in search of it.

One past result of this has been the appropriation of Tuhoe history by Pakeha, notably Elsdon Best, so the New Zealand nation could ‘extend its history back beyond its colonial beginnings’ (p21). Best separated ‘facts’ and ‘myths’, and rearranged them to produce an objectified and integrated tribal history intelligible to Pakeha but incapable of transmitting mana Maori. This history was made over to Pakeha, ‘Bound between the covers of a book’ (p21) at that time (around 1907) when attempts were renewed to commodify and make over Tuhoe land.

Sissons is not Tuhoe, has no place within the genealogical order from which to view its past, so what does he provide that Best could not? The first thing is a clear and satisfying analysis of how Best’s Children of the Mist came to be written, what Best was trying to do and how he went about it.

Then the body of the book comprises narratives of four sets of relationships: of iwi and hapu, of whanau, of Rua’s community, and of individual lives. The narratives become more personal and Sisson’s account of his own visits to Te Waimana are interwoven. But, paradoxically, this apparent contraction of the field of discourse to personal reminiscence has an enlarging effect. Best’s integrated history is disaggregated, but each narrative field becomes whole as the stories of relationships between people, and between people and land, are unfolded.

All these are shaped by the colonial encounter: by war with the Pakeha, by the operations of the Land Court (detailed here from the documentary sources); but what is carried in the narratives is the actuality of the relationships (which are the sources of identity and power) rather than these external activities which might be thought, in a more conventional historical sense, to have ’caused’ them.

The book has a satisfying coherence: ‘The Spring of Mana’ of the title is both ‘Te Waimana’, the place, and the spring, or source, of the Tuhoe historical tradition of that place and its people. Their history is their mana. In this richly complex and, to me, very moving study, Sissons seems to approach a position advocated by Witi Ihimaera in a recent Landfall: instead of Maori being seen as part of a Pakeha historical narrative in the manner of Best, Pakeha are part of a Maori narrative. Of course, whether or not Tuhoe feel this way about it remains to be seen. (I noticed among the odd errors that the land confiscated from the Tuhoe is given on p35 as 1,400 instead of 14,000 acres).

For Sir Keith Sinclair history is not about what people think now, but about what happened then. He opens his Kinds of Peace with a re-statement of positivist history, even quoting von Ranke’s ‘all ages are equidistant from God’. He will attempt to describe, not analyse, he says; and will offer no thesis. Whatever gave rise to this profession of faith, it is (inevitably) not held to. Interpretation abounds. The argument is that the way of the kupapa was the right way for Maori. This is never stated explicitly. Judgments are leached into the text in phrases like ‘the relatively aggressive Ngaati Maniapoto … got off scot-free’, (p20); or, with 220 Maori in secondary schools in 1877 ‘a good start had been made’ (p35) (‘Start to what?’ Te Whiti may have asked.) The most explicit statement is to be found on the cover, which has two portraits of Paora Tuhaere, the Ngati Whatua kupapa. Paora plays only a minor role in the book, compared with Tawhiao, for example, who tried war, then withdrawal, before ‘coming in’.

This theme of ‘coming in’ also shapes the book. The Prologue opens with the end of war: in 1872 ‘the last shot … was fired’. It concludes with Tawhiao ’emulating the kupapa in trying to make the European system work for him’ (p126). There may be much force behind this argument; the options open to a colonised people being worn down by guns and numbers are not infinite. But to suggest that this is not an argument, not an interpretation, nor a thesis, is to be disingenuous.

Whether to fight, withdraw, or collaborate were choices Maori faced, but as means, not ends. To what was Tawhiao ‘coming in’ in 1881? How far ‘in’ was he coming? Rather disapprovingly, Sinclair concedes on his penultimate page: ‘In effect they were asking for a separate Maori government’.

There is much that is valuable in Kinds of Peace, on Maori in parliament and on the Repudiation Movement, for example; and it is good to be reminded of the extensive interlocking of lives, lands and politics of Maori and some Pakeha in 19th-century New Zealand. But the author’s refusal to recognise his own point of view, let alone argue it, deprives the book of any power.

The sort of thing Sir Keith is rightly concerned to avoid, the jumbling together of the present and the past, is a fault of Peter Kennett’s Unsung Hero: Barzillai Quaife, an otherwise interesting, if quirky, biography of Barzillai Quaife, a Congregational minister who arrived in the Bay of Islands in May 1840, two days before Hobson declared British sovereignty over New Zealand, and battled the Crown Colony government as a newspaperman for four years before withdrawing to Sydney.

Quaife had much to say about the Treaty of Waitangi and indigenous rights, and Kennett draws him into our own 1990s debates on these issues, where he is made to represent an enlightened liberal attitude. As the rights Quaife was particularly interested in were Maori rights to possess, and therefore to sell, landed property, it is not being too ungracious to his memory to inquire about his own property aspirations. Quaife himself probably never acquired land in New Zealand, if only because he was too late to buy from the Maori and too poor to buy from the Crown; but Frederick Whitaker was his lawyer and his newspaper associates were McLennan, G F Russell and William Baker, all of whom had big claims to land bought from Maori before 1840. Quaife’s views on private property were of a pristine 18th-century sort: private property was the basis of civil society, and government existed primarily to uphold it. If the Maori had transferred sovereignty to the Crown in 1840 they must have possessed property rights in land before that date and thus been able to sell them. This was the gist of Quaife’s attacks on the Crown.

There was principle involved, but one would like to know how much it coincided with principal, and this is a question Kennett never asks. It could be said of his book what was said of Quaife’s life: it contains obvious weaknesses, but is enterprising and independent. The reading is extensive; and if Quaife’s worthiness gets a little tiresome there is occasional relief in a quote from the Daleks (‘Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!’}, or some Freudian slip-ups which have George French Angas sired by ‘George Fife Angus’, and Bishop Selwyn by a ‘Queen’s Council’. Kororareka always was a rough town.


B J Poff teaches history at Massey University.


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Posted in Biography, History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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