Why we need Judith Binney
Nor is Binney a particularly prolific historian. While scholars like Moon and Jamie Belich seem intent on filling a whole wing of a library with their work, Binney has averaged one book a decade during her career.
Despite her relatively low public profile and her relatively small bibliography, Binney has exercised more influence over New Zealand's intellectual and arts communities than any other contemporary historian. She is revered by anthropologists and sociologists as well as by historians, and her work has energised poets, painters, and film-makers, not to mention museum curators. The news that Binney is lying in a coma in an Auckland hospital after being hit by a truck has upset hundreds of people who have never known her personally, but who owe her a profound intellectual and imaginative debt.
Binney's reputation rests primarily on Redemption Songs, the seven hundred page biography of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki she published in 1995. Ever since he escaped from imprisonment on Chatham Island in 1868 with the group of followers who would become his army, Te Kooti has been famous as a prophet and a rebel. Redemption Songs showed that he was also a theologian, a politician, a songwriter, an architect, and - for most of his life - a man of peace.
Binney's masterpiece was greeted by awed reviews, won the best book prize at the Montana Awards in 1996, and is unlikely to go out of print for a very long time. Redemption Songs is an unparalleled portrait of the most remarkable man ever to live on these islands, but it has extrinsic as well as intrinsic importance. It would not be going too far to say that the methodology which Binney brings to the book has the potential to change the way New Zealanders think and write about their past and about their identities.
I can perhaps best explain Binney's methodological breakthrough in Redemption Songs by taking a detour into my own current research interests - this is a blog post, not an academic monograph, so a little self-indulgence is surely permissible - and relating a story I recently heard about a couple of Binney's predecessors, Kendrick Smithyman and Keith Sinclair. Smithyman and Sinclair grew up together in the working class Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier during the Depression, and developed a love for New Zealand history. In the decades after World War Two, Sinclair became New Zealand's pre-eminent historian, while Smithyman slowly accumulated a reputation as a poet.
According to my informant, who knew both men well, neither the historian nor the poet was entirely happy with his achievement. Sinclair felt that books like his Penguin History of New Zealand might be a little 'dry', preoccupied as they were with economic trends and the personnel of governments. Sinclair wrote some middling poetry in his spare time, and he envied the imaginative leaps and bizarre details that his friend Smithyman crammed into his verses about the landscape and history of the North Island.
For his part, Smithyman could be a little jealous of his old friend's achievements as a historian. Smithyman did just as much reading of historical materials as Sinclair, poring over old newspapers, nineteenth century diaries, and dull amateur histories of Northland hamlets. At various times in his life Smithyman attempted to turn his research into essays, but he struggled to build a narrative and a set of conclusions out of the data he had hoarded. Smithyman loved to retell strange stories, ponder unpopular, half-forgotten ideas, and celebrate obscure people and places. His fascinations give his poems lustre, but leave his historical essays sinking under a weight of undifferentiated detail.
Atua Wera, Smithyman's posthumously-published epic poem of nineteenth century Hokianga, is a compendium of quotes from minor missionaries' journals, descriptions of the flight and song of certain birds native to Northland, dodgy stories heard late at night in pubs - my favourite is the one about Queen Victoria's secret visit to New Zealand to sign a second Treaty of Waitangi, and the footprint she supposedly left for posterity in a piece of clay - and speculations about the motives of such inscrutable men as the prophet (or prophets) Papahurihia and the oversexed clergyman William White. Reviewing Atua Wera in Landfall, the historian WH Oliver justly complained that the book was 'not history in the usual sense' because it lacked 'general statements'.
It seems to me that Keith Sinclair and Kendrick Smithyman represent two approaches to the study of the past which have gone unreconciled in New Zealand. On the one hand, we have the desire for a coherent account of the past which differentiates fact from non-fact and is unafraid to conclude with a few useful generalisations; on the other hand, we have the desire to recover the complex, sometimes bizarre ways in which New Zealanders have interpreted their world, as well as the innumerable events which did not become historically influential, yet which were important for the people who took part in them. The first type of history was the domain of Sinclair; the second belonged to Smithyman.
The problem of doing justice to the different ways in which the past is interpreted becomes especially serious when the Maori past comes under discussion. Because traditional Maori society was very decentralised and remembered events by telling stories rather than writing down facts, Maori tradition varies from place to place, and frequently involves narratives which cannot be considered literally. The 'Great Fleet Myth' which Percy Smith fashioned out of pieces of dozens of separate stories shows the consequences of sacrificing the complexity and contradictions of oral tradition to a rage for simplicity and symmetry.
It is not only Pakeha scholars who have struggled to reconcile complexity and coherence when they have considered New Zealand's past. A decade before Redemption Songs astonished reviewers, Witi Ihimaera published The Matriarch, a long, ambitious novel which examined the life of Te Kooti and tried to relate the prophet to the situation of Maori in the late twentieth century. Ihimaera drew on the oral histories preserved by members of a number of East Coast Maori communities, and also consulted - and in some cases plagiarised - a number of texts by Pakeha historians, but he was unable to do justice to his materials.
Instead of acknowledging the complexity of Te Kooti's story, and the many perspectives on that story, Ihimaera presented the prophet as a near-flawless figure, the heroic representative of a monolithic Maori nation oppressed by colonialism. In a splenetic but occasionally just response to The Matriarch in the London Review of Books, CK Stead pointed out that Ihimaera had edited Te Kooti's massacres of Maori civilians out of his narrative, and had presented the mostly-Maori army which pursued the prophet as a wholly Pakeha force. Ihimaera's method in The Matriarch is not all that different from the procedures of Percy Smith.
Judith Binney did not achieve the breakthrough that is Redemption Songs overnight. Her first book, which grew from a PhD thesis, was a biography of Thomas Kendall, the early Anglican missionary who 'went native' and became an ally of the Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika. The Legacy of Guilt is written in the self-conscious, slightly fusty style common in PhD theses, but its adroit handling of a mass of primary texts showed that the young Binney had already mastered the traditional techniques of the academic historian.
The trajectory of Binney's research changed after she took a tramping holiday in the Ureweras in the mid-70s, and found herself wandering into the semi-abandoned Tuhoe settlement of Maungapohatu, which had been the capital of the utopian state that Te Kooti's successor, the prophet Rua Kenana, had tried to build in the Tuhoe heartland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Binney sensed the history behind the overgrown gardens and listing whare of Maungapohatu, and began to conduct interviews with Tuhoe kaumatua.
In the 1970s, Binney's embrace of oral history was a departure from academic orthodoxy. Even leading figures in the study of marginalised peoples had frequently deemed oral history an untrustworthy medium for research. EP Thompson, whose masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class had helped make the study of poor and pre- or semi-literate communities respectable, always distrusted oral tradition, preferring to seek out old documents like court records and police reports and 'interrogate' them through the eyes of the oppressed. Henry Reynolds, who had begun in the '70s to wake white Australians up to the history of oppression that Aboriginal peoples had suffered, preferred slogging through nineteenth century newspapers to wielding a tape recorder.
Binney was an innovator, then, when she published Mihaia, a short biography of Rua Kenana, in 1979. The book draws extensively on interviews, and includes much material that had previously been off-limits to non-Tuhoe New Zealanders, but it is deliberately cautious in its treament of this material. The firm assertions about Thomas Kendall's intellectual and moral universe which were a feature of The Legacy of Guilt do not find their counterparts in Mihaia.
Perhaps Binney was still struggling in 1979 with the question of how to reconcile the messy richness of oral history with the tidy hierachies of detail and confident generalisations common to academic history. How could Binney do justice to stories about Rua Kenana's discovery of a huge diamond on the summit of Tuhoe's sacred mountain, or of Te Kooti's riding of his famous white horse straight up a cliff, without either treating such stories literally or else dismissing them as mere colourful embroideries of history?
In an essay published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1984, Binney found a way beyond the contradictions of academic and oral history. In 'Myth and Explanation in the Ringatu Tradition' Binney took some of the stories and symbols associated with Te Kooti and Rua Kenana and showed how, even if they seemed bewildering to outsiders, they were easily interpretable within the culture of the iwi who had created them.
By entering the intellectual universe of the people who created and transmitted the stories and symbols she was studying, Binney eschewed a common Western approach to the religious life of indigenous and pre-industrial peoples. In early works of ethnography like James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the fantastic stories and magical rites of pre-industrial peoples are considered as primitive attempts to analyse and manipulate the environment - that is, as primitive approximations of what we call science. Frazer's approach to myth and ritual assumed that every human society thought in the same way as the industrialised West, and therefore inevitably treated non-Western peoples patronisingly.
Though Binney rejected the Eurocentrism Frazer represents, she did not simply invert it, by adopting the sort of epistemological relativism that gives a free pass to truth-claims made in non-Western cultures, on the grounds that 'belief in reality confers reality'. Binney does not claim that Te Kooti really rode his horse up a cliff, or that Rua Kenana really found a diamond on the top of a mountain; instead, she explains that these stories express important truths - about Te Kooti's elusiveness during the years he waged guerrilla war, about Rua Kenana's appointment as the successor to the great prophet - for the people who hear and transmit them.
In Redemption Songs, Binney follows Te Kooti across Wharekauri and Te Ika a Maui, describing battles he fought, sermons he gave, verses he sang, and meeting houses he raised, and interpreting his activities through the stories that are still told about him. The meta-narrative of the prophet's life is balanced against the proliferating mini-narratives told by kaumatua in villages and little towns - Muriwai, Matawhereo, Ohura, Waituhi - which once saw great events.
Although Binney's method is relatively easy to describe, it is immensely difficult to turn into a seven hundred page book. As EP Thompson liked to point out, neither history nor the study of history can be reduced to a formula. Thompson believed that, no matter how well-intentioned or theoretically informed he or she is, a historian must ultimately rely upon his or her ability to make continual small judgements - judgements about what source to cite, what detail to flourish, what attitude to take to two conflicting interpretations of an event - that cannot be pre-determined by a set of rules.
To read Redemption Songs is to be impressed again and again by Binney's judgement, as she handles her material. Consider, for instance, the following passage, chosen at random, which describes Te Kooti's flight into the King Country, whose rulers King Tawhiao and Rewi Maniapoto were not keen to host him, after his defeat at the battle of Te Porere near Tongariro in October 1869:
Te Kooti had fled Taumaranui. Three days later Topia, Te Keepa and the combined force of 600 men finally reached the settlement, to find him gone.
Staff-sergeant Samuel Austin, who was with Topia's expedition, said that they were told by some women that Te Kooti had with him 90 fighting men, and about 200 women and children. He had also announced that he was going to the King, but after a short distance he had 'changed his route and took another direction'. This remark may well give the historical context for the oral story which Henare Tuwhangai narrated concerning Te Kooti's failure at Taumaranui. This story, in its structure, is very similar to that of Te Ra Karepa's earlier challenge, related in the previous chapter. This time, however, it concerns the mana of Rewi Maniapoto and a challenge at Taumaranui.
Te Kooti went to Taringamotu, a little settlement north of Taumaranui...and raised up two posts. One he named Rewi, and the other he named for himself. He ordered his men to fire at the post named for Rewi, and all 12 volleys missed. But the post he named for himself was smashed by the firing squad. The omens determined, he went [away]...
Here Binney moves carefully between her fact-based meta-narrative, an exposition of an oral tradition relating to Te Kooti's appearance in the King Country, and an interpretation of that tradition which is neither literal nor dismissive. Pursued by Crown forces, Te Kooti travels into the King Country, which has been off-limits to Pakeha since it became a sanctuary for Tawhiao and Rewi Maniapoto at the end of the Waikato War. Te Kooti talks of meeting the King - he often talked of making an alliance with the King movement and opening another front in his war - and goes to Taumaranui, an important part of the King Country, but there, according to a local story, his mana is tested, and found wanting beside that of Rewi Maniapoto, the host of Tawhiao and the ultimate authority in the region. Te Kooti retreats, and his long journey through Te Ika a Maui continues. Binney manages to combine historical fact with allegory without ever confusing the two, or disrupting the flow of her book.
Binney's prose style is an important part of the achievement of Redemption Songs. Her sentences stretch out elegantly, as their main sections are carefully introduced and qualified by subordinate clauses, but they are never confused or showy. There is a calmness to Binney's writing which is perhaps appropriate, given the dramatic and sometimes fantastic stories she is telling.
Redemption Songs is a book about a nineteenth century Maori prophet, but its method makes it very relevant to twenty-first century New Zealand. Binney's transcendence of the barrier between the objective and subjective sides of our past -between the tidy narrative of Sinclair's Penguin History and the rich chaos of Smithyman's Atua Wera - suggests ways in which we might overcome some of the confusions and divisions in our contemporary culture.
We might, for instance, be able to use Binney's method to find a way beyond the dismal 'Culture Wars' which pit conservative, religious Kiwis against their secular, liberal counterparts when issues like the separation of church and state and the content of school curricula are raised for public debate. Might Redemption Songs show us how to acknowledge the importance of religious stories and symbols to our history, and even to our identity, without forcing us to take these stories and symbols literally?
Is there a lesson, too, in the way that Redemption Songs tells the stories and affirms the mana of the Maori who fought against Te Kooti? By telling the stories of kupapa, yet refusing to treat these stories as the only true account of the war against Te Kooti, Binney finds a constructive alternative to Witi Ihimaera's simplifications. Can we not learn from Binney's approach when we discuss Pakeha soldiers and settlers, and thus allow contemporary Pakeha a measured pride in their history?
Binney's just-released book consumed much of her energy over the last decade, and it certainly appears to compare in size and scope to Redemption Songs. It is a tragedy that Binney is lying in hospital only a few days after the launch of Encircled Lands, instead of helping guide us into her book, and through another part of our country's history. Get well soon, Professor Binney - we need you.