Mist and myth, Julia Millen

Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143008422

Until the early 1960s the source for almost everything we learned at school and read in The School Journal about the pre-Pakeha Maori came from Elsdon Best. He was the presumed authority on Polynesian forebears, origins, voyages of Kupe, Toi and Whatonga, the Great Fleet of whaka and Maori customs – some, like cannibalism, very controversial.

Even though readers nowadays cringe at such adjectives as “barbaric” and “savage”, Best’s The Maori as He Was and Tuhoe: The Children of the Mist (1925) are eminently readable, major sources on Maori lore and language. Best also provided a vast quantity of material for Herbert Williams to greatly expand the fifth edition of the Dictionary of the Maori Language (1917).

Best’s pervasive presence in the literature and subsequent challenges to his presumption and assertions provide the foundation and motivating force for Jeffrey Holman’s doctoral thesis and this current work. Because of this academic basis, Holman’s is not a conventional biography, as is apparent from the first sentence of chapter one – which unfortunately contains a typo. The narrative style and prose, while at times clean and clear, is often as impenetrable as the mist-shrouded Te Urewera forests, where only an occasional shaft of sunlight relieves the green gloom.

The reader faces a considerable task in unravelling significant points of Best’s career, and following Holman’s line of argument and investigation.

Holman notes in chapter 10:

Since the 1980s the enthnographer has attracted a share of criticism from Maori and Pakeha alike for his role in the government’s handling of Tuhoe and their lands. Best has been accused of writing primarily for a European audience, fragmenting Tuhoe history by sifting facts from unbelievable ‘fancy’, writing badly by mixing genre, of stealing whakapapa from the Native Land Court sittings, of being a government agent – that is a spy – and as a man, being whakahihi proud and boastful.


In particular, criticism has focused on Best’s relationship with his major Maori informants, the Tuhoe chiefs. Holman for his part has attempted through the study of Tutakangahau’s life to “balance the books”.

General background on Best can readily be found in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography or Elsdon Craig’s biography Man of the Mist. The former stresses a significant turning point in Best’s career not noted as such by Holman. In 1891 Best received a letter from S Percy Smith inviting him to Wellington to help found the Polynesian Society. From this came, in 1896, its Journal, a landmark in New Zealand history. A major contributor until his death in 1931, overall Best achieved a remarkable publishing output: more than 20 books and monographs plus numerous magazine articles.

From a structural viewpoint, Holman – better known as a poet – presents his reader with a difficult task. In the first few chapters he extensively examines the background and underlying philosophy of both Best and the chief Tutakangahau, that almost forgotten man. In so doing, Holman is attempting to show their relationship as a more equal partnership than otherwise. Tutakangahau, although elderly when he met Best, and a follower of Rua Kenana, was not an “old-time Maori” – gone by the 1870s – and, while steeped in ancient oral history, was mission-educated, literate and worldly-wise. By the time the two have met – in chapter seven – Holman has traversed respectively their philosophical thinking, spirituality and beliefs. Central to Holman’s thesis is that it was ideas “that had the most profound effects in changing Maori society in the nineteenth-century”.

Even for his time, the career of Best, born 1856, was extraordinary. He spent his earliest years, a “bush-happy farm boy” in Tawa Flat (which had no school) and in later years never took to office or domestic routines. Whether Best’s lifelong fascination with things Maori, his early desire to be a tohunga, was also a consequence of boyhood near the Porirua pa is a dubious assumption. (My Mexted ancestors from that milieu exhibited no such proclivities.) Clearly there were other influences – particularly his wide reading and interest in anthropology and evolutionary theories.

Work experience on the East Coast, where he began learning Maori more systematically, followed by service with the Taranaki Armed Constabulary, continued to broaden Best’s knowledge of Maori. Contrarily, taking part in the invasion of Parihaka appears not to have moved his views towards liberalism or socialism.

In New Plymouth, however, Best made the most important contacts of his career – Pakeha authorities on Maori – Edward Tregear and S Percy Smith.

Tregear and Smith were motivated by the widely held late-19th century belief that, as a result of wars, famine brought about by land confiscation, and exposure to Pakeha diseases, the Maori were a dying race. A particular concern was the loss of the Maori language, tradition and culture. Knowledge of Maori was not uncommon among Pakeha – especially those working in the Native Land Courts or as prospectors, surveyors and government representatives. (My own grandfather – an inspector of native schools in the 1920s – could speak and write te reo.) But Tregear and Percy Smith went a step further, seeing that with Best they could make good this opportunity to record and preserve “what was left of esoteric Maori knowledge before its last authentic holders made their final spiritual leap beyond Reinga”.

Best was intelligent, battle-hardened, could speak te reo Maori fluently and was well read in the latest anthropological theory. He would be their field worker.

Officially, however, Best was employed by Smith – the Surveyor-General – to act as a mediator between government road-making teams and the Tuhoe occupying the Urewera District Native Land Reserve. At the same time he was a man with a mission, taking possibly the last opportunity to gather information about pre-European Maori society in an area that was still relatively isolated. In so doing he formed close relationships with many Maori in the district. Smith later arranged for Best to be appointed to the Urewera Commission.

References to the meeting of Best and Tutakangahau, assumed to have taken place in 1895, are scattered through the text. Although there is no description of the initial encounter, it was supposedly initiated by the old chief himself. As Judith Binney also points out, the Tuhoe leaders were fully aware that they were up against government forces with not only massive power but infinite capacity for duplicity. Best’s official role may have made him suspect, yet he was taken by Tutakangahau on an incredible journey into the Tuhoe mists. Camped beside Lake Waikaremoana, the two men sealed their partnership and, according to Holman, “the old man commissioned Best to this very work.” With a mission and an agenda, Best developed his own form of shorthand for recording material.

In 1907 after the death of all his old “Mohios”, Best returned to Wellington and – again at the instigation of Tregear and Smith – he later became the government ethnologist, based at the Dominion Museum, where much of his written work was produced. By the end of his life, Best had become Te Peehi, respected by Maori, Tuhoe in particular, for his unique connection with their elders.

Best, as Holman notes, grew up and was active in the period following the land-hungry settler years and was “unique in that he was the first and last of the Maori-speaking, field-working anthropologists working on a disappearing frontier.”

Not until chapter 12 do we find another significant comment from the author: “The subtext of this study has all along been the way in which literary cultures colonise and change societies relying on the oral transmission and retention of vital information.” Criticisms of Best’s methods, as Holman writes, have validity when it comes to material on Maori origins and spirituality, and his relationship with later informant Te Whatahoro Jury lacked the integrity of that with Tutakangahau. But, as Holman writes, in his way Best was saying “I give the stories as they were told to me… most of the information … I owe to the friendliness and patience of native friends.”

An important and timely work, the presentation does not always do justice to the material, especially the photographs, and a glossary would be helpful. Holman’s research provides rich rewards for those prepared to work hard and persistently.


Julia Millen is a Wellington writer and historian, author of biographies of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Guthrie Wilson.  


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