“The messy abundance”, Lydia Wevers

Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Māori, and the Question of the Body  
Tony Ballantyne
Auckland University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781869408268

Tony Ballantyne is famous throughout the world of imperial and colonial history for his invention of the very useful term “webs of empire”, which appeared in a 2001 article in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. This latest, big, detailed, rich book inserts another term into the critical lexicon. Focusing on the period before 1840, Ballantyne describes the entanglement of people, cultures, customs, beliefs and desires that grew ever more complex between missionaries and Māori before the Treaty was eventually signed. Concentrating on missionaries and the textual archives they created, Ballantyne moves across the spectrum of their preoccupations and activities – living spaces, hair length, sleeping arrangements, body decoration, slavery, fences, burials, letters and reports, languages and food, religious practice and belief, all of which indicate fluctuations of power and nests of cultural disagreement.

One of the enriching narratives of this book is that he positions Māori as agents not victims, and elucidates the ways in which both peoples shape, or are shaped by, their proximity. (He roundly attacks the word “encounter” and quite rightly so.) He memorably describes missionaries as a “kind of cultural irritant” – yes – and they are also exposed to and act as a kind of yeast, stirring things up and being stirred. In order to produce this book – the fullest and most ample consideration of the two chief actors in this early period we have – Ballantyne has undertaken huge archival and textual research, critiquing what he calls the  “blunt readings” by other historians of evangelical dynamics and, a particular bugbear of his, rejecting any simple resort to “cultural imperialism”. He shows conclusively, I think, that the messy abundance of relationships between missionaries and their hosts cannot be neatly tidied into categories of intention. “Entanglement” is likely to become a new orthodoxy, so absorb it while it’s still fresh.

Ballantyne observes in his conclusion that at the heart of the book is “a story about the exchange of words between missionaries and Māori”. This only means really that words, in texts or reported, are all we have left to survey and analyse the complex and muddly past, but he has paid them newly exhaustive attention. This in itself is an accomplishment as there have been other books in recent years about this period, notably by Anne Salmond and Vincent O’Malley. Ballantyne chooses to focus on “the body” (I have to say here that to literary scholars “the body” is by now a rather tired focal object) and the heart of the book is in fact the story of William Yate. This is approached through describing other kinds of bodily regulation, such as work and labour, dwelling and burial places, the ways in which the movement of bodies in space was managed and controlled, how the body was dressed, cleaned and cared for, the regulation of time. Ballantyne places this discussion in a broadly transnational context but also focuses on mission stations and their environs, showing that, among other things, missionaries were by and large aware of the restrictions placed on the landscape by their hosts, and avoided building on the site of a wāhi tapu or near an urupā.

Attitudes to work were one of the sharp differences between Māori and Europeans, resulting in a long flow of settled preconceptions about Māori “laziness” and work aversion, examined eventually by Raymond Firth in 1929. Much as the missionaries tried, they found it impossible to convert Māori  into a clock-watching labour force. Attitudes to sex were more immediately explosive. As Ballantyne notes, the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) was “plagued” by recurrent extramarital sexual relationships, none more scandalous than the allegations made against Yate. This, of course, is a much told story, notably by Judith Binney, Lee Wallace and Robert Aldrich, as well as in Annamarie Jagose’s novel Slow Water, all of whom read Yate’s history as a queer story. Ballantyne argues that the scandal about Yate was set in train by “broader social dynamics”, including his relationships with Māori more generally and his belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy. It is an altogether colder view of Yate than his more sympathetic queer interpreters – Jagose’s lyrical representation of homosexual desire being the most emphatically partisan. He convincingly demolishes Binney’s claim that the depositions taken by the missionaries from young Māori men were not substantial, and gives an interesting account, drawn from CMS papers, of the response to Yate’s book An Account of New Zealand by his peers in the Bay of Islands. He draws a portrait of a self-aggrandising even narcissistic man, clever, and responsive to Māori culture, but focused on his own interests, to the point where he could also dismiss Māori as a “savage people … addicted to … everything that was evil”.

In my reading of Entanglements of Empire, it is not until chapter four, “Containing Transgression”, that the book comes alive. For me, the book split into two reading experiences. The first half touches all the obligatory bases – huge array of references to secondary literature, debates with other historians, mostly laying out the well-trampled ground. But when Ballantyne gets to Yate (of course also well-travelled) his prose lifts, and the narrative starts to run. What he has done that is very interesting is to look hard at the allegations made against Yate by Māori in the Bay of Islands, which J S Polack maintained had been reported to missionaries for several years. Davis, Clarke and Wade investigated, Davis finding that “numerous Māori” testified about Yate, and Wade said “native after native has been questioned and not one jarring testimony has been found. It is of no use for Mr Y to say that native testimony is not to be depended on.” The depositions are explicit and disturbing and the numbers of sexual encounters or relationships Yate is said to have had are too, ranging from sixty to a hundred. If the depositions are taken at face value, they certainly suggest what we would now call grooming. Ballantyne’s detailed account of the legal and interpretative histories of the Yate affair puts the  emphasis on the relationships the missionaries had with  Māori and the difficult array of reactions – shame, humiliation, guilt, doubt – it inspired in them, not only because of the spiritual health of their flock of converts, but because if the allegations were true they rattled the foundations of their vocation and their belief in the institution they upheld. Binney argued that “poor Mr Yate” found himself in an intolerable position – so he did, unable to wipe away the allegations which never resulted in charges – but so did the missionaries, though it is hard to forgive them for shooting Yate’s horse. It would have been interesting if Ballantyne had speculated more on the fate of that equine body – what was Selim’s representational baggage?

Sex is followed by death – Ballantyne lays out the many points at which deathways and ritual practices illustrate huge cultural gulfs, such as attitudes to suicide. I am not arguing that Ballantyne has produced new primary materials, but his syncretic narrative produces a more expansive and integrated account of, to use his word, entanglement. He illustrates this in numerous examples, such as using Yate’s book which provided coherent and organised descriptions of tangi and burial rituals, but also compared how Māori dealt with Christianity at the point of death; old beliefs die hard. The last chapter discusses what Ballantyne calls the “enfeebled” body – the body in pain, the body that has to be “protected”.

In summary, there are plenty of things to like about this book. It offers a rich and detailed narrative of missionary-Māori “entanglement” before 1840 and focuses on key ethnographic fields (sex, death, pain) which give it a fresh take. What I don’t like about it is a set of academic practices that I think belong to thesis writing. Put simply, Entanglements of Empire doesn’t trust the reader. It takes a long time to get going, while its arguments are being laid out. Every chapter begins with a set of statements about what will be argued and concludes by recapping them – too many doughy parts. I wonder if it is a text designed to meet the expectations of the American academic audience, or sees its readership as primarily graduate students. Co-published by Duke University, the book has a schematic feel as if it is conforming to a set of required protocols. It is certain to have a wide international reception and will be a much used resource, but I would have liked it to be a more limpid and less instructive read.


Lydia Wevers is director of the Stout Centre at Victoria University of Wellington.

Tony Ballantyne won the New Zealand History Association’s inaugural W H Oliver Prize for Entanglements of Empire.

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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