In an opinion piece published in the New Zealand Herald this week, Hone Harawira spends some time discussing pre-contact and early nineteenth century Maori society. Harawira's article is a reply to the anti-Maori rant Paul Holmes wrote for the Herald in the aftermath of Waitangi Day, and it offers an explanation for the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and an interpretation of the document's meaning.
Hone's article is a lot easier and more interesting to read than Holmes' obnoxious and semi-literate tirade, but I found myself disagreeing with many of the arguments it makes about history.
According to Hone, chiefs representing a Maori nation decided, after a fair amount of internal debate, to sign the Treaty in the hope that the document would allow them to create a partnership with the British Crown, and to maintain control over their rohe. As Hone goes on to observe, though, the Treaty did not prevent the Crown from waging war on Maori for decades, and alienating tens of millions of acres of Maori land. It is hard to read Hone's article without concluding that the Maori who signed the Treaty were at beast naive, and at worst downright foolish.
The reality, though, is that neither a Maori nation nor British power existed in these islands in 1840. As Matthew Wright shows in his excellent new book Guns and Utu, iwi were not only often at war with each but internally fragmented in the 1830s, and British authority did not exist even in the Bay of Islands, where the religious and political representatives of the world's largest empire relied on the goodwill of Nga Puhi chiefs for their safety and keep.
By 1840, iwi had interacted with small numbers of Pakeha for generations, and no idea that hordes of Britons might soon descend on their rohe, and by buying up swathes of land prompt the emergence of a sense of Maori nationhood, and nationalist organisations like the Kingitanga. The chiefs who signed the Treaty were not looking into the far-off future and making constitutional arrangements – they were pursuing short-term political and economic ends as they struggled with other Maori. Nga Puhi leaders, for instance, wanted the Treaty to cement their status as the most powerful iwi, by making sure that the Bay of Islands remained the locus for trade with Europeans. They were struggling to hold on to the advantages that Hongi Hika had gained with his new-fangled muskets in the 1820s, and trying to prevent the emergence of other areas of New Zealand as ‘hot spots’ for trade with Europeans. On the other hand, some Ngati Kahungungu leaders insisted on signing the Treaty because they thought it would shift the balance of power away from the north. But Maori were not only divided into iwi: within tribes like Nga Puhi and Ngati Kahungungu there were dissident groups. Hongi Hika had been killed in 1828 not by one of the members of the many southern iwi he attacked, but by a dissident hapu of Nga Puhi who lived on Whangaroa Harbour, and who had refused to let him dictate their terms of trade with visiting European ships. With its constant struggles between and within iwi, Aotearoa was no more unified than Europe in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Hone's article for the Herald castigates Europeans not only for betraying the Treaty, but for forcing bibles, booze, and guns on Maori. These impositions, Hone suggests, helped destroy the harmony of pre-contact Maori society. Reading Hone's article, we would never guess that in the decades before 1840 iwi rapidly and eagerly transformed their economies, levelling forests and growing kumara and flax to exchange for muskets, cannons, and ammunition. Nor would we guess at the way Maori took up the Christian faith and reshaped it in the nineteenth century, as prophets like Papahurihia, Aperahama Taonui, and Te Kooti reinterpreted the bible in the light of their own experiences in Aotearoa. Hone Harawira has spent his life seeking greater autonomy for Maori. Again and again he has argued that iwi and hapu should be able to shape their own destinies, rather than remain submerged in Pakeha institutions. But Hone's vision of pre-contact and early nineteenth century Maori society denies that the indigenous people of these islands played any role in shaping their early history. Hone presents Maori society as undifferentiated and hostile to modernity, when it was divided and dynamic, and he sees Maori as the passive victims of innovations like the bible and guns, when in fact they seized upon and exploited these new features of their world in the nineteenth century.
There's a curious similarity between Hone's take on the past of these islands and a polemical booklet by an obscure New Zealand communist named Ray Nunes. I've been discussing The Maori in Prehistory and Today, which Nunes wrote in the 1980s, with some members of the Workers Party of New Zealand, which has published the text on its website.
As a socialist, Nunes was greatly attracted to what he saw as the classlessness of pre-contact Maori society. He was upset at the destruction of the 'primitive communism' of Maori society by nineteenth century colonisers. Nunes gave his booklet the subtitle The Great Unknown Past of the Maori People because he thought that contemporary anthropologists with a pro-capitalist agenda were deliberating obscuring this communist history.
Nunes’ own understanding of anthropology was limited by his admiration for the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Under Stalin, Soviet anthropologists and ethnologists were forced to work within the confines of the categories that Engels used to describe prehistory in his 1884 book The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State.
Engels believed that the American scholar Lewis Morgan had discovered, during his researches into the Iroquois people of North America, a series of stages through which prehistoric human societies typically passed. Morgan associated these stages, to which he gave the names Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilisation, with various forms of social organisation and with various technologies. Savage societies were devoid, for instance, of class distinctions, as well as pottery, while written language was a sign of civilisation.
After he took control of the Soviet Union Stalin integrated the Morgan-Engels notion of a series of stages of prehistory into his mechanical vision of historical societies, which had feudalism being replaced inevitably by capitalism, which was in its turn replaced inevitably by socialism. History became a series of hoops that every society had to jump through.
Stalin liked the stagist model of history because it seemed to make his rule unquestionable and his policies irreversible. When he forcibly collectivised Soviet agriculture, destroying Russia's peasantry, or made a shock alliance with Hitler on the eve of World War Two, Stalin was acting as the instrument of destiny. To oppose him was to stand on the wrong side of history.
Outside the Soviet Union, though, the stagist model of the past had come under pressure early in the twentieth century, as scholars used new techniques like scientific archaeology and in-depth ethnographic research to gather evidence which showed that human societies were much more diverse than Morgan and Engels had imagined, and couldn’t be consigned to a series of tidy categories. It was clear that class distinctions did exist in many early societies, and that there were even hierarchies in some hunter gatherer societies. It was also clear that societies evolved in many different ways, and that different modes of production could co-exist in the same prehistoric society.
Stalin prevented Soviet scholars from innovating in response to this new knowledge, but in several Western countries, most notably France, Marxist anthropologists reacted to it by abandoning the categories that Engels had laid out and instead adapting the complex method Marx had used in Capital to the study of pre-capitalist societies. This new materialist approach to prehistory began to influence scholars in New Zealand in the 1970s, but because he was trapped, even in the 1990s, in a Stalinist view of the world, Nunes knew nothing about the post-Stalin rebirth of materialist anthropology.
In one part of his booklet, Nunes tries to define Maori and wider Polynesian society:
If you take the trouble to read Engels’ summary of Morgan’s three stages of savagery and barbarism in Origin of the Family, you will not have much difficulty in seeing that pre-European Maori society was much too undeveloped to reach the highest stage of barbarism, and at best lies at the border between the middle and upper stages of savagery.
The early Maori society was in many ways more highly developed than in most Pacific Islands still, it lacked certain essentials required to reach the middle or upper stage of barbarism, though their primitive agriculture along with advanced (for primitive society) methods of fishing, gives them some features of the lower stages of barbarism. What held the Maori back from further development towards slave society and civilisation was the difference between the natural endowments of New Zealand and the old world.
Nunes is arguing that the physical environment of these islands meant that Maori existed at a certain level of development, and were doomed to remain there, as long as they remained isolated.
Nunes’ claim that pre-contact Maori had a 'primitive' system of agriculture incapable of generating much of a surplus seems odd, in view of what we know about their horticultural achievements. Nunes lived for at least the last decades of his life in Auckland, a place that was, for at least a couple of hundred years, covered in a network of huge gardens.
These gardens made use of all sorts of horticultural innovations, like artificial plaggen soils, specially designed wall systems which created microclimates, and networks of canals. Although Maori, like other Polynesians and like the indigenous peoples of North and central America, lacked metal tools and domesticated animals to help them work their lands, they made up for this lack by innovative use of wooden tools like the ko, and by the intensive deployment of human labour - including, in many cases, the labour of slaves.
A fragment of Auckland's ancient gardens still exists, in the Otuataua stonefields reserve near the city's airport. Wandering around Otuataua's hundred or so hectares, one can easily see the extent to which Maori could use technology to modify the landscape and boost production.
If Ray Nunes had visited the Otuataua stonefields, he would also have been able to see evidence for the existence of private property in pre-contact Maori society. At Otuataua and at other large garden sites around New Zealand, archaeologists have noted how walls and ditches were used not only for horticultural purposes, but also to demarcate the land which could be cultivated by individual whanau. Contrary to what Nunes claims, iwi tended to have concepts of private as well as collective ownership of land.
The rich gardens of Auckland were one of the reasons the isthmus was so coveted by different iwi. There were so many battles over the place that it was given the name Tamaki a Makarau, or isthmus of one thousand lovers. Chiefs who took control of the gardens could produce and expropriate a surplus which could be ploughed into trade, war, and self-aggrandisement.
Ray Nunes claims to have read Cook's accounts of Maori society, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed Cook’s many remarks about the sophistication of Maori agriculture, and the size of the surpluses this agriculture could produce. When he cruised along the western Bay of Plenty during his first visit to these islands, Cook called the Maori settlements he saw ‘towns’, and Joseph Banks thought that they might be the outposts of some great southern continent’s civilisation.
Ray Nunes was forced to deny the sort of evidence I have been discussing because it conflicted with the stagist model of the past he had taken from Engels. Because Maori society lacked features like pottery and a written language Nunes felt that it must occupy the stage in human prehistory Morgan and Engels called 'Savagery'. By slotting Maori society into this pigeonhole, though, Nunes had to deny some very obvious features of that society, like sophisticated agriculture, the production of a surplus, and the existence of social stratification.
At about the time Ray Nunes was working on his dogmatic booklet, the Hawaiian scholar Patrick Vinton Kirch was publishing The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms, a book which attempted to do justice to the diversity and fluidity of pre-contact Polynesian societies. Proceeding in the synoptic, materialist manner of the Annales school of historians and of French anthropologists like Godelier, Kirch's book compares the histories of all of the major Polynesian societies, including Aotearoa, and shows that Tonga, Hawa’ii and Tahiti had developed into highly stratified, economically advanced places by the seventeenth century, in contrast to islands like the Chathams and Pukapuka, where low-tech, egalitarian societies existed. Kirch advances a series of materialist explanations, including ecology, population pressure, and social conflict, to explain the development of stratification.
Kirch argues that Aotearoa was less stratified than Tonga, Hawaii or Tahiti, but claims that significant divisions still existed between chiefs and commoners. Kirch's data suggests that two modes of production operated alongside each other in most of Aotearoa: a domestic subsistence mode, which was centred on the hapu, and a chiefly tributary mode, which relied on the communal labour of many hapu – on communally planted gardens, for example – and on tribute from hapu. The fluidity of pre-contact Maori society, where iwi would go in and out of existence, and both iwi and hapu would clash militarily, has been noted by many scholars, and this fluidity, which contrasts greatly with the stability of Tongan or Hawaiian society, probably has a lot to do with the fact that two partly contradictory modes of production existed side by side.
Kirch's book is not without its critics, but it has become, for many anthropologists and archaeologists, a sort of framework within which detailed work on individual Pacific societies can be done. Kirch ought to be essential reading for anybody interested in a serious alternative to Ray Nunes' quixotic attempt at a materialist account of pre-contact Polynesian society.
Ray Nunes might seem like a marginal, eccentric figure in New Zealand political and intellectual history, but I'd argue that his little book expresses, in admittedly old-fashioned, Eurocentric language, a vision of Maori history which is very common in the contemporary tino rangatiratanga movement and on the activist left in general. Like Hone Harawira's opinion piece for the Herald, Nunes' booklet presents traditional Maori society as undifferentiated, static, and incompatible with modernity: easy prey, in other words, for the colonisers of the nineteenth century.
Because they see traditional Maori society as unstratified and essentially unchanging, rather than divided and highly dynamic, Hone and Nunes can't appreciate the speed with which Maori embraced aspects of the modern world in the early nineteenth century, the way iwi and factions within iwi used alliances with Europeans to further their own ends, and the canny, practical calculations behind the decisions of chiefs to sign the Treaty.
Hone's article for the Herald and Nunes' booklet attempt to make us sympathise with early nineteenth century Maori by presenting them as a noble, simple people who were duped by Europeans and corrupted by modernity. This vision of history is not only patronising and disempowering - it is quite false. To do justice to the complexity of our past we need the scholarship of the likes of Patrick Vinton Kirch, not sentimental dogma.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]