Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Secret texts and sacred weapons

I blogged last month about Michael Arnold's increasing anxiety over my labours on the 44th issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief. When Michael appointed me the guest editor of issue 44, and awarded the issue the theme of Oceania, he didn't envisage me disappearing for days at a time into archives of nineteenth century Pacific history, or scanning cartoons from books with titles like Biggles in the South Seas and suggesting they would serve well as illustrations, or transcribing and publishing free-flowing, boozy chats about Tongan philosophy with my mates, or soliciting submissions from historians and anthropologists as well as poets and short story writers.

Showing generosity, or weariness, or both, Michael has now decreed that issues #44 and #45 of brief will be published in one volume, and share the theme Oceania. He and I hope to have the double issue organised by the end of next month.

When I haven't been nosing around in old newspapers, excavating my father's Biggles collection or arguing about the ta va theory of space and time with the likes of Paul Janman and Ted Jenner, I've been conducting a series of interviews with contributors to the Oceania issue of brief. I enjoy interviews, because they give me an opportunity to impose myself on people I admire and pester those people with questions borne of my private obsessions. If I imposed myself on a distinguished writer or scholar in a bar, buying them the cheapest beer on tap, ushering them to a quiet corner, and raving on about the problems of English prosody or nineteenth century historiography or Marxist theory, then I could expect to be talking very soon to a wall, or to a bouncer with an unsympathetic glare and thick forearms. When I turn up in the e mails boxes of scholars and writers claiming to represent a journal or some other publication, though, I seem to attain a certain precarious respectability, and my questions are answered politely.

Here's an interview I've done with the Mark Derby for the forthcoming double issue of brief.

Secret texts and sacred weapons: a talk with Mark Derby

SH: You have researched both the history of the labour movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the history of Maori struggles for self-determination in the same period. Are there advantages to having this double interest? Are there points where the two subjects intersect?

MD: I’ve certainly found that it enriched both streams of historical investigation to have these parallel interests. The early labour movement and groups of Maori who sought to retain, or regain, some degree of self-determination had some similarities in that both tended to stand in the way of the country’s most powerful and wealthy interests. During the 1890 maritime strike, for example, the labour activist Arthur Desmond tried, not very successfully, to convince the radical wing of the labour movement to support the fiery King Country Maori chief Mahuki, who had physically obstructed the surveyors preparing to put the main trunk railway line through his tribal land. Desmond pointed out that the strikers and Mahuki’s people were not only confronting the same political opponents, but that exactly the same powerful land speculators and investors, men like Thomas Russell, were behind the scenes in both cases. Mahuki spoke little English so after he was arrested and taken to Mt Eden prison, Desmond used his knowledge of Maori language to try to communicate with him and offer him the services of a labour lawyer.

It was a different matter during the 1912 Waihi strike, when numbers of rural Maori were actively recruited to act as strikebreakers and thugs, and this caused a lot of bitterness between them and the non-Maori workforce at the mine. So the following year, when strikes broke out at most of the country’s ports, the Federation of Labour made sure to solicit the support of influential chiefs like Te Heu Heu of Tuwharetoa. He then announced that his people would not scab on the wharves at any price. I’ve found that hunting down and taking account of the voices of both of these intransigent groups has often provided a more complex and revealing take on key political events than simply noting the official versions of one or the other.

SH: In The Prophet and the Policeman, your study of Rua Kenana and his adversary at the top of the Kiwi police force, you use the term 'dual sovereignty' to describe the situation in some rural areas of the North Island in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Could you explain 'dual sovereignty'?

MD: I believe the term was first employed by Richard Hill whose hefty yet riveting multi-volume history of early policing has broken new ground in this and quite a few other areas of our colonial history. He describes how some tribal groups that had not sided with the government during the New Zealand wars (whether or not they actively sided against the government) afterwards chose to retreat to remote enclaves of their remaining tribal territories.

There they were generally tolerated, or at least ignored, by government agencies including the police, as long as they didn’t actively threaten major economic activity. So they were able to impose and enforce their own laws to some extent, and to reintroduce some traditional customs and activities. It was a fascinating episode of localised, limited self-determination which has been little studied but which deserves close attention for the future of Maori-Pakeha relations, I think. SH: You worked as a researcher for the Waitangi Tribunal for some years, poring over documents written by nineteenth century Maori. What was the effect of all this raw material on your interpretation of New Zealand history?

MD: For a period from about the 1850s, as an outcome of the mission school programme of Maori education, a large proportion of Maori were highly literate in their own language although they may have had little or no knowledge of English. Government archives from this period have huge amounts of material – letters, reports, court records, circulars, all kinds of documents – that are written in Maori and generally have no translation provided. Very little of this material seems to have been drawn upon by historians, probably because of the language barrier, and also because equivalent documents in English by non-Maori officials were perhaps seen as more historically authoritative.

I’ve barely begun to read this material but I’ve found it fascinating from all sorts of angles - partly just because of the language of the documents themselves. Most Maori language in print today is written by and for people whose first language is English, and this tends to affect the spelling, syntax, and all sorts of other features. Whereas these early Maori clerks and correspondents wrote in a language almost entirely uninflected by English. It’s usually very difficult to read at first, but you get a feel for it after a while, and the voice that comes through is remarkable and unlike anything else in our primary historical record. I’m a long way off being able to posit what effect this may have on our overall interpretation of 19th-century history, but I’m keen to pursue the question.

SH: You have researched the life of Mahuki, the prophet who staged what were perhaps the last acts of aggressive resistance to Pakeha authority in the King Country, and who was eventually incarcerated in a mental hospital. You've argued that Mahuki was not mad, despite what Pakeha doctors and journalists wrote, but is it possible that, by the end of the nineteenth century, any strong Maori resistance to Pakeha rule was considered automatically to be a symptom of insanity? Is the treatment of Mahuki a measure of the stability and smugness of fin de siecle Pakeha society?

MD: Mahuki was a lifelong and devoted follower of the pacifist Taranaki leader Te Whiti, who is today almost universally revered by Maori and non-Maori alike. But in his own lifetime Te Whiti was frequently described in the settler press, by government officials and in contemporary Pakeha accounts as a ‘fanatic’, a ‘madman’, a ‘dangerous Messiah’ and so on. Much the same terms were used of Mahuki once he began to actively obstruct the government agents trying to overcome the King movement’s opposition to selling their tribal lands. He was several times imprisoned and finally transferred to the Avondale Mental Hospital, where he died. I’ve looked through his patient records, and although I have no medical training I think there’s good reason to at least question the universal Pakeha assumption that he was hopelessly mentally ill. For a start, when he was facing sentence for the last time, aged in his 60s, the judge raised the issue of whether he should be sent to prison or a mental hospital. His jailer, who had been able to observe him closely in the weeks before his sentence, said that he could see no evidence of mental instability at all. So he was sent to prison. There he was reported to disturb other prisoners by loudly addressing the sun in Maori at morning and evening. This was taken as proof of his developing insanity, but it is also a description of the practices of the Pai Marire faith, to which he adhered throughout his life. Another ‘symptom’ of his insanity was that he was known to masturbate. Just as the Soviet Union, in more recent times, found that a lengthy spell in a state mental institution was an effective way of silencing even the most defiant of dissidents, so I think that a combination of public derision, cultural ignorance and official hostility is more likely to have placed Te Mahuki in Avondale than the true state of his mental health.

SH: You have a longstanding connection with the Hokianga, and have used Kendrick Smithyman's epic poem Atua Wera in your research into the history of the region. As a historian, do you read Smithyman differently to, say, a literary critic?

MD: I love Atua Wera as a work of literature, but I also admire the careful and extensive historical research that underpins the writing. The poem references many obscure documentary sources that almost no historian seems to have noticed. At one point Smithyman introduces the term ‘wahu’, explaining (in rather more elegant language than I am using in this précis from memory) that it means a special kind of tohunga or spiritual advisor who was employed by Hokianga chiefs to wage tribal wars through supernatural tactics. The most effective of these wahu, Smithyman notes, came from Hawaii, and although this sounds improbable, he references relatively impeccable sources for the information. Although Smithyman doesn’t press the point, the name ‘wahu’, of course, suggests the Hawaiian island of Oahu. And the possibility that these tohunga were deliberately contracted by Maori to travel from their homeland to the Hokianga to serve as secret weapons in inter-tribal conflict raises questions about South Pacific trade, travel and polity in this early-contact era that have not even begun to be answered by historians, that I’m aware of. The wahu were, surely, the first Pacific migrant workers to arrive in this country. Did they return home when their contracts expired, or are their descendants still living here? I think I’ll never get to the end of the historical questions that Te Atua poses.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What did Mahuki say to the sun?

1:35 am  
Blogger Jared Davidson said...

Good to see Mark's getting the coverage he deserves!


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Blogger Linda said...

When I first read the title of the blog as secret texts and weapons, I thought maybe it was some detective blog. The author seems very creative because the entire meeting process and discussion is described in such a fun way that it amuses the readers.

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