Rongotute: more than a story?
Last week I posted about the mysterious skull which was the subject of a recent coroner's report in the Wairarapa. Experts who have examined the skull believe it belonged to a Caucasian woman, and radiocarbon tests have indicated that she was alive in the middle of the eighteenth century.
Understandably, many historians and anthropologists are reluctant to accept the Wairarapa skull as proof positive that Europeans were living in the interior of the North Island of New Zealand, decades before the arrival of Captain Cook. One person who has ventured beyond scepticism is Gareth Winter, the archivist at Masterton museum, where the skull is being held. As the British Daily Telegraph reports, Winter believes that the skull may have something to with a Maori oral tradition:
Mr Winter said that Captain Cook recorded, in the log of his second journey to New Zealand aboard the Resolution in 1772-5, a tale told to him by a Maori chief of a ship having been shipwrecked many years earlier. Cook said the Maori told him that they given the ship's captain the name "Rongotute".
Early missionaries wrote of hearing the same story from Maori, who related that the survivors of the ship had been killed and eaten when they came ashore. They said that many Maori had subsequently died in an epidemic, possibly as a result of exposure to a newly introduced infection from Europe. Historians believed that the most likely site of such a shipwreck was Cape Palliser, the windswept southern-most point of North Island.
The story that Winter describes is discussed in detail in a paper Rhys Richards published in 1993 in the Journal of the Polynesian Society under the title 'Rongotute, Stivers, and 'Other Visitors' to New Zealand 'Before Capitain Cook'. Richards has published widely on New Zealand and Pacific history and cultures - I examined his latest publication, Manu Moriori, for the Scoop Review of Books a couple of months ago - and his study of the Rongotute story should serve as a model for anyone considering the
more shadowy regions of history. Where the proponents of Celtic or Phoenician settlement of these islands typically leap to the wildest of conclusions from the flimsiest of grounds, Richards is very careful not to make more than he should of the story of Rongotutute and the the tantalising pieces of evidence that might support it.
Richards begins his argument by noting that the southern part of the North Island seems to have been depopulated in the late eighteenth century; as a result, the region succumbed relatively easily to a series of invasions by peoples from the north during the Musket Wars of the early nineteenth century. The Rongotute story was told repeatedly to Captain Cook by peoples living in the Cook Strait area, but it was also relayed decades later to the Reverend Richard Taylor by the Maori who lived in the Wanganui region of the North Island.
The seas around Cape Palliser are extremely wild, and have claimed many ships over the years. Rhys Richards quotes nineteenth century reports of old wrecks sticking out of the surf near the Cape. He also notes widespread reports of smallpox epidemics in the southern North Island in the late eighteenth century. Richards points out that the Maori word for smallpox - rewarewa - was subsequently used to describe any epidemic, and even lesser illnesses like the head cold.
Did a ship run aground at Cape Palliser sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century? Richards' paper considers whether it is possible that any European ship could have come close to New Zealand shores in the century and a quarter between the fleeting visit of Abel Tasman and Cook's 'discovery' of the country. He discusses the bulky, poorly-designed trading ships known as 'East-Indiamen', which sailed from Europe around the Cape of Good Hope, and then blew east on the roaring forties, before trying steering north to their destinations in Southeast Asia. Is it possible, Richards asks, that one of these craft might have been unable to steer north, and might have blown all the way to New Zealand on the roaring forties? A similar scenario might bring a trading ship to New Zealand's shores via Cape Horn, at the bottom of South America. Eighteenth century British vessels, especially, often carried fine red blankets to trade, and the Rongotute legend mentions that red blankets were taken from the wreck of the strange ship.
Richards accepts that the evidence for Rongotute is less than definitive, but he still feels it needs to be taken seriously:
It is all too easy to dismiss...stories of pre-Cook visits to New Zealand...but an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so the only valid verdicts are 'not proven', and these, of course, are very different conclusions from 'non-existent'...it seems credible to me that, before 1770, a foreign ship introduced to New Zealand a disease that depopulated the southern half of the North Island...
What is needed now is probably not so much an intensive re-assessment of the existing fragmentary sources, on which there may never be a meeting of minds, but, rather, a determined multidisciplinary search to see whether any additional 'sources' of any kind at all can be brought in from anywhere to illuminate further these shadowy margins of New Zealand's earliest Pakeha history [JPS 102, 1993, pg 34].
Will the Wairarapa skull end up bolstering Richards' theory, as Gareth Winters apparently thinks it might? There are other, more straightforward explanations for the object. I think it is quite possible that the date given for the skull is innaccurate - radiocarbon is good for dating objects over millenia but can easily be out by a hundred years or so - or that the object was brought to New Zealand and used as a keepsake by some Wairarapa settler. Perhaps it held a candle in the lonely study of a nineteenth century cottage? Perhaps the children who inherited the keepsake thought it morbid, and chucked in a nearby river?
Occam's razor isn't infallible, though, and Winter and Richards deserve to be taken seriously. If they're on the right track, then there are a few textbooks that will have to be rewritten...