Judith Binney reflects on the origins – and intended readership – of her prize-winning Maori histories.
Every book I have written had its origins in a gift – in some form, from someone. It might have been an unexpected conversation, a story or an act of kindness. A few years ago, I wrote a short essay, “Encounters Across Time”, in which I tried to evoke the spirit within the gift – the hau – and where it originated. I would like briefly to trace that debt.
My first book, Legacy of Guilt, has, astonishingly, come back into my life after nearly 40 years, with a revised edition (2005), and a new book on the poignant Kerikeri Basin is about to be published. My great debt here is to Keith Sinclair, who first asked in a poem, “Memorial to a Missionary”, what it was that Thomas Kendall, the earliest missionary to New Zealand and overwhelmed by the Maori world, had “learnt from the south”. Keith’s question as poet – as much as my history mentor – took me to the heart of the matter.
For what I like to call the “unexpected trilogy”, Mihaia, Nga Morehu and Redemption Songs, it was a gift of trust. It began with a big box of old photographs. Many came from the Auckland Weekly News and were taken in 1908 and 1916, the last being of the armed police expedition – judged a legal assault – on Rua’s community at Maungapohatu. In 1977, I took these photographs to Rua’s children. Most of the images they had never seen – and the old people, in particular, talked directly to them, often in tears.
This was an “unplanned act of intervention” in others’ lives, and my own life was, in turn, transformed. Rua’s children sent me – and photographer Gillian Chaplin, who is co-author of two of the books – to other families. They knew whom we had to see. And it was not only the Tuhoe families who were so generous. Rua’s legal counsel, Jerry Lundon, Auckland’s greatest criminal lawyer at that time – 1916 – had his career destroyed by the case. His children entrusted me with their father’s records of the trials and recalled the impact these events had on the family.
It was on one of our visits to Rua’s marae at Matahi (the name means “to open your eyes wide” – there, at the beauty of the place, but it acquired other layers of meaning for me) that Rua’s son suddenly shared an unexpected story about Te Kooti as the man of peace, not war. Mau told how Te Kooti turned his gun down, thrusting the barrel into the earth, saying, “With this gun I return war to the great nations of the world. There will be no more war in New Zealand. The last will be with me.” This story was seminal in the Maori world – and utterly unknown outside it.
Another history opened up. We were sent by Tuhoe to Te Kooti’s family in Gisborne. His great-granddaughter Tihei, who died less than two years ago, told me how her lineage had been deliberately hidden from her by her mother and grandfather, Te Kooti’s son. My responsibility grew as these family stories were entrusted to me.
It was Ringatu elder Reuben Riki, from Muriwai, near Gisborne, who observed that telling their stories had to have some purpose, some benefit, for him and his mokopuna.
An historian writes for an audience, as well as for the fun of untangling the evidence. These conversations, more than my academic life, made me aware of the importance of writing for a New Zealand audience, one that had to include Maori. Our entwined histories had to make sense to them, as readers, too.
Most academics write for an international audience – and indeed are expected to. My prime responsibility, however, became to write for us. As an historian, I have tried to convey narratives previously untold – the hidden stories of, and in, our past – and, while sustaining the rigour of historical research, to convey them to as wide an audience as possible.
This is the meaning of the gift – the hau – briefly entrusted so that these stories might be shared and, hopefully, better understood. That was the responsibility that Reuben Riki – and others, too many to name – laid upon me. That is the debt of gratitude I owe them.
This is an edited version of a speech given at the 2006 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement, in which Judith Binney won the non-fiction award.