Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Smithyman and the art of war

My mate Hamish Dewe had an odd and ultimately disappointing experience at Onehunga's Hard to Find Bookshop last weekend. Hamish was climbing the old staircase of the rambling shop, heading for the poetry section he periodically pillages, when he heard someone approach the sales desk at the bottom of the stairs and make an unusual request. Hamish stopped and turned around. "It was a young guy" he remembered. "He was asking the chap who worked behind the desk if the copy of Atua Wera he had ordered a week ago had come into the shop yet. At the mention of the words Atua Wera I became immoderately excited."

Atua Wera is the name of the epic poem about religion, war, sex and botany in nineteenth and twentieth century Northland which Kendrick Smithyman spent decades of his life researching and writing. The poem has many characters and many settings, but its key presence is Papahurihia, the Hokianga prophet who in the first half of the nineteenth century fused the new Christian teachings of the missionaries with traditional Maori religious beliefs and practices, creating a sort of prototype for the movements led by later prophets like Te Kooti and Wiremu Ratana. Papahurihia was not afraid to put his ideas into practice: during the 'Northern War' of the 1840s he acted as tohunga to Hone Heke, the leader of the army which confronted British and kupapa in a series of battles in the Bay of Islands and in the country between the Bay and the Hokianga. One of the better-known sections of Atua Wera describes how Heke fortified and defended a meeting house and pa under Papahurihia's supervision:

When they were in the pa by Omapere lake
Papahurihia made them build a council house
which by prayers and powers he would protect
notably from cannon fire.
Eight chiefs sat in the house consulting.
A cannon ball sailed right through it,
smashing muskets which were piled together.
"Someone" — this is what is told, Papahurihia
said — "has smoked his pipe in here.
Gods get annoyed when men don't know how to behave."
They built another council house.
Papahurihia promised his prayers and powers to protect it.
A shell blew the roof off.
"Someone took cooked food into the house,
maybe not in his hand, perhaps he was still chewing
when he went to the council meeting.
Some men don't know how to behave properly."
They didn't do any more building.

William Gass described James Joyce's epic dream-novel Finnegan's Wake as 'a great lump of darkness'; Atua Wera is much more like a great lump of kauri gum dug out of a swamp somewhere in the backblocks of Northland, a lump of hard amber filled with minutely detailed, perfectly preserved curiousities: strange insects, and shards from antique bullets, and pollen spores recording ancient explosions, and fragments of moa cooking stones. It is a work which can be examined again and again.

Smithyman was still tinkering with some of the nearly three hundred sections of Atua Wera in the last months of his life, and the book was not published until 1996, the year after his death. Atua Wera bemused some reviewers, and it has never gained a large audience. Despite being New Zealand's only epic poem of any quality, it is still much less known amongst the local reading public than Homer's Odyssey, or Paradise Lost, or even Ezra Pound's Cantos.

Smithyman's epic has, however, gained a small group of devotees over the years. Shane Cotton has used Atua Wera as a source for some of the massive paintings in which he recreates events and reconsiders themes from Nga Puhi and Northland history; the prolific art and literary critic Gregory O'Brien has written a prize-winning essay about the poem; and the historian Mark Derby has used treated Smithyman's text as an aid to his own research into Northland's past.

Hamish Dewe is one of the devotees of Atua Wera, and at the Hard to Find Bookshop last Sunday he was delighted to think that he might be about to discover a fellow fan of such a remarkable and under-appreciated book. "I had been thinking how impressive it was to see someone from the younger generation so keen to read Smithy's book that he'd put down an order for it" Hamish told me. "I sometimes have a dim view of the youth of the digital age - they so seldom seem to read books! - but I was prepared to be surprised." Hamish was soon disappointed, though: after the shop assistant asked her customer to repeat the name of the book he'd ordered, Hamish realised that he was waiting on The Art of War, not Atua Wera.

"It was Sun Tzu, not Smithyman!" Hamish raged. "Sun Tzu's book is the opposite of Smithyman's: The Art of War is a series of transparent axioms, a simplistic, propagandistic work, like Mao's Little Red Book, not a book for the imagination. The Art of War is a tidy ornamental garden in front of an official monument; Atua Wera is a wild, partially unexplored forest! What is wrong with today's book-buyers?"

I thought Hamish might be cheered to know that at least one person has recently joined the Atua Wera fan club. Jono, an archaeologist who comments regularly on this blog, has been bushcrashing through Atua Wera for the last few months: he's found the book both enjoyable and instructive. Hamish might be particularly interested to know that Jono has been doing an archaeological investigation of Ruapekapeka, one of the great musket pa Hone Heke's allies created during the Northern War, and that he has found Atua Wera very useful in understanding Heke's campaign. Perhaps Smithyman can rival Sun Tzu as a companion to military history?

Jono left a couple of comments here recently about his reading of Atua Wera; I've reproduced them, and added hyperlinks to different parts of the online edition of Smithyman's epic, so that you can see what some of the fuss is about:

[Last November] I gave a paper at the New Zealand Archaeological Association conference in Westport based on thoughts about Ruapekapeka which have bubbled around inside my head for several years. The abstract follows, but doesn't say much:

"Accounts of the battle of Ruapekapeka Pa have tended to focus on the size and innovation of the fortification, in contrast to typical (or classic) Maori defensive works and approaches to warfare. In her 2003 book
Taua, Angella Ballara followed the threads of Maori warfare from the mid to late prehistoric period into the early historic period and the co-called Musket Wars and described a continuity in Maori approaches to warfare, adapted to the use of muskets but by no means characterised by them. This paper identifies elements of continuity in the battle of Ruapekapeka of 1845-46 (which takes place shortly after Ballara concludes her study). It uses archaeological and historical sources to suggest an evolution rather than a revolution in Maori warfare, and that for the combatants, adaptation to fit the new circumstances went both ways"

Since then it has been fascinating to go through Smithyman's
Atua Wera, slowly, time and toddler allowing, and follow the historical threads he weaves together (I assume Fred Manning is the main source for the parts dealing with the northern war and the role of Papahurihia/Atua Wera/Te Nakahi). Especially as I hadn't previously given much thought to the adaptation of non-material cultural elements which might have been play during the war.

It seems strange to me that in my reasonably extensive reading about the northern war I havent yet come across anything which canvasses the depth of involvement of Maori prophetic/millenial religious thought. Heke's involvement with Atua Wera/Papahurihua/Te Ngakahi is fascinating given his apparantly honest (albeit troubled) Christian faith and deep and personal relationship with Henry Williams.

Its interesting to note the flag flying at Ruapekapeka as described by Cyprian Bridge featured the star and crescent moon (on a field of red and white), that prominent motif of Maori millenialism and independence.

I can say with some confidence that Jono is not the only person who's been enjoying Smithyman over the summer: the first print run of Private Bestiary, the selection of the man's previously-unpublished work I edited for Titus Books, had sold out before Christmas, after being issued in mid-November. There's a new run coming from the printers soon; I apologise to anyone who's waiting on a copy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is that gun real?

8:14 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

Yes, its an 18 pdr carronade forged in 1808, one of two big guns the Maori had at Ruapekapeka. It underwent conservation treatment in 2008-9 and was returned with great ceremony on 11 January 2010.

9:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nutters on the loose again

12:24 am  
Anonymous Jono said...

Scott, you are now making me play catch-up lest I look like an uninformed idiot! In the last couple of days I have read the earlier articles in JPS by Binney and Olsen (amazing stuff for the late sixties), as well as Binney's 2007 foray "...How many Prophets?".

I note with interest the reference in these to John Warren, the Wesleyan missionary at Waima, who thought Papahurihia was "the mainspring of Heke's war".

This triggered a recollection last night of reading a similar sentiment several years ago in an abstract of an oral history project I was involved in, which included Papahuirihia's Ngati Hau whanaunga.

I reviewed the abstract this morning and, as far as Ngati Hau is concerned, Papahurihia was the source of Heke and Kawiti's actions, strategy and even their waiata (!) in the northern war.

Unfortunately the original oral history transcripts themselves are not yet available due to ongoing management issues.

However once again I amazed by the silos we find ourselves caught up in as we follow our own sometimes narrow interests - The military historians dont read the archaeologists who dont read the church historians who dont read the treaty historians who dont read the anthropologists!

9:39 am  
Blogger maps said...

I know what you mean, Jono - I'm continually finding out how much I don't know about subjects that interest me! And, like you, I find the compartmentalisation of scholarship frustrating - the way that sociologists often don't know what historians are doing and vice versa, the indifference of some social scientists to the arts, which could give them new insights into their subjects, and the lack of interest of one or another theoretical -ism in the works produced by another -ism.

I've been reading a lot of Patrick Vinton Kirch since your fellow archaeologist Edward Ashby introduced me to him, and I think that his massively ambitious theory of the nature and development of Pacific societies before contact with Europeans is a huge contribution to the historical materialist tradition of scholarship which has traditionally been associated with the left. I would almost compare Kirch's work, in its scope and in its suggestiveness, to Marx's Capital. But Kirch's work is virtually unknown, it seems, amongst social scientists and historians who devour Marx and Gramsci and C Wright Mills and so on. It's as though he's removed from consideration because he's an archaeologist. It's true that his immediate subject matter is the archaeology of the Pacific but, rather like Judith Binney, he has lessons to teach about methodology which transcend his area of interest.

Kirch is just one example, of course: I'm sure you could name a few of your own.

I think there's a tendency towards super-specialisation in academia, a tendency for people to study and write about narrower and narrower subjects, and a reluctance for them to generalise their findings.
The commercialisation of universities and the imperative to 'publish, not matter what the quality of your research, or perish' is forcing academics to keep their heads down on their own little plot of territory, instead of looking over the garden wall at what their neighbours are doing, and looking out beyond the university at and considering how their research might be popularised and used to benefit society. It may well be that, as the university system, in the west at least, continues to decay, we'll see a return to the
pre-1950s era of the 'public intellectual', when a lot of most interesting and popular scholarship was done outside the academy...

12:03 pm  
Blogger maps said...

On a slightly different note: have you ever made it up to Papahurihia's grave at Omanaia, Jono? It's an extraordinary spot, described near the end of Atua Wera. When we were there a local was doing a restoration job on the carved grave makers which are such a feature of the urupa of the Hokianga and adjacent areas. We chatted to him about Papahurirhia and he identified hismelf as a descendant. We noticed that there were several small, fetish-like objects placed on the grave (I have some photos of the grave and the site, if you're interested).

David Rankin, the self-appointed Nga Puhi elder who likes to slag off Hone Harawira and other Maori 'radicals' in letters to and opinion pieces for the Herald, claims to be a leader of a group which practices Papahurihia's religion today. I talked to a journalist who has been working in Maori news for two decades about Rankin's claims, and he told me they were nonsense, and that the real leader of the contemporary followers of Papahurihia lives up Kaikohe, and has a low profile. Apparently this bloke read and enjoyed Atua Wera! I'd love to go up north and give him a copy of Private Bestiary.

Was that gun left lying round on Ruapekapeka for a long time, or was it taken away shortly after the British got to the pa? My mate Adrian Price took great pleasure in inspecting the device during the (brief) visit we made to Ruapekapeka a few years ago; he ended his inspection by slapping the barrel and announcing 'she's still sound!'

12:14 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

I have had the pleasure of meeting Kirch and sharing a dinner of fresh venison stew and good whiskey, while helping a good friend (Mark McCoy, one of his grad students and now lecturer in archaeology at Otago) with his dissertation fieldwork in Hawaii.

I hope you have read Hawaiiki, co-authored with the late Roger Green (You may be interested to know Roger is still publishing, a year after he passed away). And the two Anahulu volumes authored with Marshall Sahlins. Their work is the epitomy of anthropology.

I have never stopped at Omanaia but will definitely add it to my list of places to visit when out and about. That is fascinating about the fetish objects on the graves and the apparant maintenance albeit underground of the movement.

Re the carronade, I have not read anythign to suggest the gun was ever removed from the pa after the battle. The Brits were gone in two days, after burning as much as they could, and I assume that given the weapon was unservicable it was left in place. The big guns were apparantly dragged there on waka towai, one of which was found near by last century (there is a photo in ATL I think), and at least one was said to have been taken during the battle at Kororareka. It may have ended up in the Bay of Islands as part of a trader or whaler's defences or even as ballast, as it is a Battle of Trafalgar era piece and was obsolete by 1845.

The other gun at Ruapekapeka is apparantly the one on display in the roadside urupa at Waiomio, just south of Kawakawa on SH1.

3:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

That issue of compartmentalization I noticed when you gave your dissertation about E. P. Thompson. I actually suggested to (some person from some academic discipline) how many areas of study were potentially involved in your thesis and in any such study (in fact we forget how potentially wide the linking of all subjects are). I am outside the University but have done various courses including engineering and some science and also a degree in literature. I can see this idea of the "isms" interconnecting but I sensed that some were (or are) quite puzzled by this. It made some of them uncomfortable.

Sometimes there are areas of study that seem almost totally hermetically sealed from other disciplines and even other colleagues...

Mathematicians for example, of certain kinds, (I read in a book about what mathematicians do by (surprise surprise) a mathematician) sometimes (in fact frequently ) have no idea what many of their colleagues are teaching or studying. (It would take years of study in some cases even for those who have concentrated on that precise subject knowing more than few areas of work in some cases is impossible). There is a tendency toward that in other disciplines. It is natural and perhaps inevitable in some subject areas.

(BUT that that book about mathematics ['The Mathematical Experience' by Davis and Hersh] is and or what it is for (or if not) etc for the general public was even written
is admitted by the authors to be
because they had come to question themselves perhaps for more or less the first time whether such "isolation" was good or not and what it "all" meant...

That is the scientific or logical disciplines started to intersect with philosophy and so on out.

Obviously archeology could not usefully be done without practical mathematics so there is a link there already (if not to the "deeper" and abstract areas of maths).

Some would claim (like many 'pure' mathematicians where only those in the areas of study know what is being talked about!) that their knowledge had no real relevance outside the subject itself.

But Smithyman is not of that kind attempts to bring all (or many) these disparate or in fact connected (indirectly or not) areas of thought or study into one "block" or "group" in his writings. I think McDiarmid attempted that also.

Having said all of which I have to say I have never got very far with Atua Wera. I must try to tackle it ... I tend to start books then that particular book might lead me to another and ultimately forget the original book! I'm as likely to read or start reading more of Gass now before I read Atua Wera...or perhaps I should read Paradise Lost...

I wonder if Smithyman read that?

Sometimes though a book or novel or a long poem or whatever can give light to subject far more powerfully than a so called factual history book. Conversely there are great historical or philosophical works etc that are like fascinating poems or novels. Talking about C Wright Mills I recall years ago reading his 'The Marxists' - it was like reading a novel, and Fanon, and Edmund Wilson's book about the Russian Revolution etc and also books about China. 'China Shakes the World' by Jack Belden and also Agnes Smedley's great book about Chu Teh (and thus about Mao and the great Chinese Revolution.

And Binney's book about Te Kooti is in that league of factional works that are like powerful novels or long poems.

Truth thus becomes complex as one aspect of literature that annoys many scientists its ambiguous nature in many cases. They see how Smithyman could name events in history, facts about rocks and birds, but don't see the emotional depth and also the big importance of pure language and even of his proto-Postmodernism and even of his Modernistical Romanticism and his dark fears or even the sometimes Gothic or "weird" nature of his works etc (hence his interest in religions) in all writing including that of Smithyman.

11:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But regardless of my last probably quite "invalid" rave! It is great to hear that your book is selling so well Maps!

One other thing. I have noticed that the "voice" of Smithyman (except in those cases where he pauses, and plays with double meaning etc etc) is sometimes,as in the quote you give from Atua Wera, eerily (almost deliberately too) "matter of fact"* and sometimes sounds like it has the voice or "timbre" of some of Leicester Kyle's writings as in his book about Anzac Days 'Five Anzac Liturgies'

* There was always a certain amount of irony in that "matter of fact" tone though.

12:26 am  
Anonymous Jono said...

Richard, you should go out right now and find a copy of "Son of the Morning Star", Evan S. Connell's book about Custer's last stand/the Battle of Little Big Horn.

I rave about this book to anyone who will listen as it is simply outstanding. I have never read a work of non-fiction that reads so much like literary fiction, or a work of history/biography that gets so far into the minds of its protagonists.

Regarding your other comments about compartmentalisation and isms, thats exactly why I ended up an archaeologist/anthropologist - it's such a broad chuch, jack of all trades discipline (master of none-criticism notwithstanding). Archaeology is especially collaborative due to the labour involved in the field, and the array of specialists which may take a part in reporting and analysis.

In New Zealand in particular we are like one, big, happy/
dysfunctional/incestuous whanau, and conference is like a family reunion. The downside is the possibility that the smallness and familiarity of the community has handicapped the potential for intellectual growth. While there is plenty of personal friction at times, the lack of academic or scholarly distance has perhaps meant that there has been less room for new ideas to spark argument and growth.

9:38 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

Interesting comparison on Kirch there Maps, never thought of it like that, and the tendency for ideas or approaches to be lost to some areas of academic [over]specialism re: Richard's comments. The recent media blunder by Doc Moon shows such. Also, while I'm a relative newb to archaeology, (I haven't earned solid shovelbum status yet) I couldn't agree more with Jono, with regard to both the appeal of anthropology/archaeology and the intellectual challenges NZ faces. That said we do occasionally get new blood (like the aforementioned Dr McCoy whom I had the pleasure of helping on Urapukapuka once).

10:41 am  
Anonymous Jono said...

I had a quick look through the index of Paul Moon's Hone Heke yesterday while I was in Books of Oceania in Whangarei. No Papahurihia/Atua Wera/Te Nakahi. Make of that what you will, given what is known about his apparent relationship with/influence on Heke.

11:08 am  
Blogger maps said...

I think Kirch is a good example of someone who is crossing disciplinary boundaries. I get the impression that he is most influenced by the French school of Annales historians, with their ambition of seeing the 'long duree' of the past. In The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms and the even more broad-ranging Nomads of the Wind he pulls together evidence not only from archaeology but from ethnography, history, environmental science and half a dozen other discplines to create a theory of how Polynesian societies (and, in the case of the Nomads of the Winds, Melanesian and Micronesian societies as well) changed over centuries and millenia. My big problem with these books is that they seemed to provide insufficient explanations for change, and for the different forms different societies took. Why did Tonga become a feudal, extremely hierarchical society when Samoa did not? Why did Kanak society splinter into forty separate ethnic groups when Fijian society did not? And, on the other hand, why were there so many commonalities between different Polynesian societies, and even between all Pacific societies?

Kirch does seem to go, a lot of the time, for environmental determinism - he tends to reach for island type and climate and plants for explanations. At other times he reaches back, in The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms at least, to appeals to the notion of a 'foundation Polynesian culture' which he defines unclearly, and which he seems to think was embedded somewhere deep in the brains of all Polynesians, even after many hundreds of isolation on one or another island. But no one can create a theory as ambitious as Kirch's without creating question marks too.

I'm reading Kirch's The Wet and the Dry, which compares irrigated and non-irrigated agriculture in the Pacific, at the moment, and I find that this volume, which is less broad in its scope that The Evolution... or Nomads..., fills in some blanks in the arguments of those books. The Wet and the Dry seeks to deny the applicability of the 'hydraulic hypothesis' whch harks back to Marx and Engels' more or less discredited theory of an Asiatic mode of production to the Pacific. According to the hydraulic hypothesis, societies with large-scale irrigation tended to become hierarchical and expansionist, in a way that 'dry' farming societies often didn't.

Kirch shows that the most hierarchical and expansionist societies in Polynesia were actually dry farming societies. He zeroes in on the island of Futuna, which was divided into two kingdoms, one of which was on irrigated land and the other of which practiced dry farming, to make his point clear.

I think that Kirch as created a superb, very materialist, general theory of pre-contact Polynesian history, but that it is still prone, despite the refinements of The Wet and the Dry, to environmental determinism. I wonder whether a more Marxist focus on social conflict within societies as a driver of change and also an acknowledgement of the role that ideas can have as independent agents of change might supplement Kirch's theory.

Kirch's theory might be especially in need to revision if the new dates for the exploration and settlement of East Polynesia announced late last year turn out to accurate. If Eastern Polynesia was settled only a thousand years ago, then the changes which Kirch assumed took millenia, and which he thinks were made in response to environmental factors, occured much faster. Perhaps social conflict might be brought in to explain the more recent-than-thought settlement of Eastern Polynesia and the faster-than-expected changes in those societies? I intend to write something more serious about on all this when I've got a better sense of where Kirch is coming from, but I'd be fascinated to hear what others think about the man's work.

12:46 pm  
Anonymous Richard C. said...

Fascinating post and thread.

And Jono - just wanted to second your recommendation of 'Son of the morning star'.

Happened upon it last year - quite by chance - in an essay by Larry McMurtry.

It's superb...

2:07 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Jono - thanks for that link. I might get it form the library.

I've known about Dee's "Bury Mt Heart ..." for years but never got to read it. But not that book you mentioned. I sell books by the way via I am Aspect Books.

Just sold a book about the brutal history of Norfolk Island.

More anon...interesting stuff here.

A scientific book that had wide aspects - biography, science, war - moral dilemma, drama - was Richard Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" - fascinating book. It won the Pulitzer.

I've read few anthro and archaeological books over time. I studied Ancient Iraq and Egpyt at Uni and I did Anthro one also I read some of my then wife's stuff she was studying...a book about the evolution of humans. Also I recall "What Happened in History" by Gordon Childe. I also read Mead (I think I only read part of her book about Samoa though) - think her analysis of Samoan society etc is pretty good as I knew quite lot of Samoan people (and I lived in Ponsonby in the early 70s where they (and other Polynesian and other ethnic groups were... were, until rich whites bought up all the slums, and houses owned or rented by workers) and also worked in many factories where they also worked) and once learnt Samoan (not well, I've forgotten most of what I learnt in any case but it was interesting) much of Mead's work rings true. I have biography of her life. I think she has been wrongly (over) criticized.

Childe is interesting.

But aside from that aside, there are many of those works that "bridge the divide" to speak.

12:47 am  
Blogger maps said...

Ouch! I just realised that I've been talking about a book by Kirch called Nomads of the Winds, when no such book exists! It's The Road of the Winds, isn't it?

10:38 am  
Blogger David George said...

Hmmm.... doing some learning on Atua Wera. Smithyman mentions a 'lost hapu' Ngati Hau
in the north. A hapu of that name appears on the Whanganui.

A northern ope, at Moutua was attacked during the musket wars. There were blood links and land later apportioned.

Is there a possibility of a causal link between Ngati Hau in both places?

8:24 am  

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