The white headhunters
Another disembodied head is coming home and will be accorded due all honor and ceremony, honor and ceremony the erstwhile owner was not accorded in life. Who was he? Well maybe the boffins at Te Papa will be able to ascertain that, probably not.
Was he an important man whose head was taken as a trophy by some neighboring tribe? Or was he some unfortunate slave tattooed then killed so his head could be traded for whiskey, blankets and muskets?
Whatever the truth - even if discovered, the true blackness of the world that the head's owner inhabited will not be discussed nor the truth that it was Europeans for all their sins that put an end to the horrors of that were an everyday reality of that unfortunate man's existence.
Nobody seems to know how the mummified and tattooed head found its way into a museum in Rouen, the town in Normandy with the cathedral that so obsessed Monet, but the details of the trade in heads in nineteenth century New Zealand are clear. Warriors of many iwi had a longstanding tradition of desecrating the bodies of their enemies - the famous Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika, for instance, liked to rip out the eyes of rangatira he killed in battle - and many of them also liked to keep the heads of defeated enemies as trophies. In traditional Maori society, though, the heads of enemies were never tattooed. A tattoo was a sign of mana, and the heads of enemies were preserved so as to be deprived of all mana.
In the early nineteenth century the acquisition of muskets, first by Nga Puhi and later by other iwi, changed the nature of Maori warfare and the structure of Maori society. Iwi were suddenly fighting large-scale battles and, if they were successful in these battles, taking vast numbers of slaves. Warfare and slavery had existed in pre-contact Maori society, but they had tended to be relatively small-scale, because in a subsistence economy there was little economic incentive for the capture of swathes of territory and huge numbers of enemies.
In the nineteenth century, though, iwi were suddenly part of a cash economy, and needed to acquire muskets and other goods from Europeans in large numbers. Slaves were put to work growing potatoes and other cash crops on captured land, so that guns could be bought and conquests defended. Women were traded with sealers and whalers for guns and cash. And the heads of some unlucky slaves were soon being tattooed, beheaded, mummified, and sold to European collectors, ethnographers, and biologists. Ironically enough, the sale of tattooed heads helped to destroy the practice of male tattooing in many iwi: the moko had once been a status symbol, but it came to be associated with slaves, and many young men of high rank no longer desired it.
Despite what certain bloggers might say, the trade in tattooed heads can't easily be associated with the whole of Maori culture and history. Like large-scale warfare and mass slavery, the head trade was a feature of Maori society for a few decades in the early nineteenth century, when that society was being violently transformed by contact with European technology and a cash economy. Given how it was a response to European demand, we could use the head trade to condemn Pakeha as easily as Maori culture.
The complicated historical context for the trade in Maori heads has been discussed by a number of scholars - Michael King, for instance, deals with it in his introduction to Moko, the famous collection of photographs of tattooed Maori women by Marti Friedlander. What is less often discussed amongst historians, let alone the general public, is the way in which Europeans participated in the 'headhunting' culture of the Melanesian part of the Pacific during the nineteenth century.
The preservation and display of the heads of defeated enemies was a traditional feature of many Melanesian societies. Leaders gained prestige as they accumulated mummified heads, and some were prepared to acquire heads through trade as well as battle.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Europeans began to visit the island groups they named the New Hebrides and the Solomons in search of sandalwood, which was valued for its fragrance and the oil it produced, tortoise shells, which were popular curios in Europe, and labourers, who were needed to help establish sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland and Fiji. Some islanders willingly traded sandalwood and tortoise shells with European ships, and volunteered to work as indentured labourers in the white man's plantations; other refused, and found themselves robbed and kidnapped at the point of a gun. The term 'blackbirding' was soon being used to describe the depopulation of Pacific islands.
In the 1860s the American Civil War put the cotton farms of that country's southern states out of business, and led settler-farmers in Queensland and Fiji to try to pick up the slack. Huge profits were made as the farmers, many of whom had emigrated from the Confederate states and brought their white supremacist beliefs with them, used thousands of blackbirded islanders to work on their plantations for little or no return.
Eventually Polynesia as well as Melanesia was targetted by blackbirders: in 1862 and 1863 twenty-two different islands were raided by ships determined to supply wealthy Peruvians with domestic servants and plantation workers. Easter Island lost two-thirds of its population to the blackbirders and the diseases they brought. (I've blogged about my visits to Tonga's wonderful 'Eua Island, which was a haven for some of the survivors of blackbirding.)
New Zealand was continuously and intimately involved in both the blackbirding trade and the theft of natural resources from Pacific islanders. 'Bully' Hayes, the most notorious of all the blackbirders, was born in America but frequently used New Zealand as his base of operations. Hayes boasted openly of his 'adventures' cruising the tropics seizing slaves and raping women and girls, but he was never molested by New Zealand authorities, even after he sailed out of Lyttleton in 1869 and kidnapped one hundred and fifty Niueans to sell to cotton farmers on Fiji.
Many New Zealand captains and crewmen joined in the pillaging of the Pacific. In December 1869 the British consul in Fiji made a list of eighteen vessels involved in the local blackbirding trade; ten of them were owned and crewed by Kiwis. As more and more ships began to raid Melanesia, and sandalwood, tortoise shells and slaves became scarcer, Europeans discovered a macabre new way to acquire the goods they craved. They began to remove and preserve the heads of islanders, and to trade these heads with chiefs who could supply tortoise shells or sandalwood or large numbers of slaves. Melanesians began to differentiate between 'catch catch ships', which seized workers for the plantations in Queensland and Fiji, and the 'kill kill ships' which came headhunting.
By the late 1860s the Anglican Melanesian Mission had launched a campaign against European depredations in Melanesia, and the letters and journals of Coley Patteson, the head of the Mission and the first Bishop of Melanesia, are filled with accounts of the raids of both 'catch catch' and 'kill kill' ships. In a message written late in 1870 Patteson relayed news of a 'kill kill' raid which two of his own staff had witnessed on one of the Florida (nowadays Nggela) Islands group in the Solomons. Five of Patteson's Melanesian converts had taken a canoe out to a vessel named the Water Lily, intending to trade with its crew. At first the ship's crew had appeared friendly, but soon one of them had leapt into the canoe, capsizing it, and others had begun beating the islanders with oars. One islander escaped, but not before he had seen his four friends beheaded with tomahawks. Their heads were taken aboard the Water Lily; their bodies were thrown to the sharks.
In 1870 the British government made a belated and ineffectual move against blackbirding, by sending the HMS Basilisk to the Pacific to investigate the trade. The Basilisk's captain was John Moresby, the navigator whose name was given to what is now the capital of Papua New Guinea. Calling at the Melanesian Mission headquarters on Norfolk Island, where many natives of the Solomons and the New Hebrides were being trained as priests, Moresby was greeted with stories of atrocities committed by white headhunters. In the account of his journey published a few years later, Moresby remembered that:
One lad from the Solomon group told me, with truth in his face, that he had seen his own brother's head cut off by white men belonging to a schooner that ran down his canoe...Another...had seen five islanders beheaded by the crew of a brig...The heads of the murdered men were doubtless to be used in bartering for slaves or sandalwood, with chiefs who rate their greatness by the number of skulls they possess. It is difficult to believe such atrocities were common - but the evidence compels belief.
The bloggers at New Zealand Conservative would have us believe that the trade in heads was a symptom of the barbarism of the indigenous people of the Pacific, and that it disappeared after the intervention of the more civilised peoples of Europe, but this view is based upon ideology, not upon the complexities of the historical record. In New Zealand the demand of European markets led to the tattooing and sale of heads; in the Florida Islands and other parts of Melanesia, white headhunters removed, preserved and traded the heads of natives, many of whom were Christians. A minority of whites, like Coley Patteson, joined the many Melanesians who fought blackbirding and the trade in heads; a minority of indigenes supported the practice. As I've noted before on this blog, it is always foolish to try to make history into a morality play, especially when the role of hero or villain in the play is assigned to something as diverse and discontinuous as a culture or people.