Smithyman and the art of war
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.