Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Who's censoring Peter Wells?

In a blog post and an interview with the Herald Peter Wells has accused Creative New Zealand of interfering with his newest book, Journey to a Hanging. The book tells the story of Kereopa Te Rau, a member of Te Arawa hapu Ngati Rangiwewehi and evangelist for the syncretic, anti-colonial Pai Marire religion. After members of his family were killed by British troops during the Waikato War, Te Rau went to the Bay of Plenty, where he instigated and oversaw the slaying and mutilation of Carl Volkner, a missionary who had been spying on Maori rebels for the colonial government in Auckland. Volkner's death outraged Pakeha, and when Te Rau fled from the Bay of Plenty into the Urewera heartland of the Tuhoe people colonial troops soon followed him. Te Rau was eventually apprehended, tried and executed.

Wells says that, in exchange for funding him, Creative New Zealand insisted that he talk with the descendants of Kereopa Te Rau about his plans for Journey to a Hanging. He complains that he was made to feel ‘paranoid about getting the facts right’. He thinks that Creative New Zealand's keenness for him to consult with Ngati Rangiwewehi was a symptom of the 'political correctness' that afflicts New Zealand. This 'political correctness' has, according to Wells, made New Zealand's colonial history a 'taboo' area for researchers and writers. 

I think that anyone who is writing non-fiction should be paranoid about getting their facts right, and anyone writing about one of the most notorious series of events in New Zealand’s nineteenth century history should be particularly paranoid.

I'm puzzled that Wells thinks Creative New Zealand was somehow burdening him when it tried to get him to talk with the descendants of the man whose life he was researching. I can’t think why any researcher wouldn’t want to acquaint him or herself with the oral traditions surrounding the subject he or she was researching.

I read Journey to a Hanging a few months ago, and I remember being surprised when Wells declared that he hadn’t looked at any of the Maori accounts, either in oral tradition or on paper, of the slaying of Volkner, the hunt for Kereopa Te Rau, and the trial and execution of Te Rau. I was even more bemused when he followed this confession with some knockabout criticisims of the supposed political correctness of unnamed historians who had studied the killing of Volkner and the trial of Kereopa Te Rau. How can you decide these interpretations are biased, I thought, when you haven’t looked at half of the story yourself?

I’ve just written a short book about another terrible series of nineteenth century events, the slave raids that some New Zealanders and Tasmanians made on Tonga in 1863. I researched the book in the archives of New Zealand, looking at old newspapers and at missionaries’ letters and diplomatic despatches – but I also went to Tonga and sat around kava circles and heard what the descendants of the slave raids had to say, and looked at old Tongan publications. It’s not too hard to do all this, even if you don’t have command of a Polynesian language. Most Tongans, let alone Maori, speak English, and many oral traditions have been translated into English. Dictionaries are wonderful things.

I've blogged in more detail about Kereopa Te Rau and the killing of Carl Volkner here and here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

What a weird story. What a weird approach to research this Wells has.

9:27 pm  
Anonymous AG said...

Comment from Angus Gillies on facebook:

I haven't read the book but I read the blurb online. It talked about him exploring New Zealand's heart of darkness and going on some personal quest. It also said the Volkner incident had put race relations in New Zealand back 100 years. And yet he got stroppy when someone suggested Maori might have a perspective that could be worth listening to or at least reading. I can't see the downside in talking to Maori. It would give balance to the book and my experience is that Maori love telling stories and they're very good at it. This sounds like history written, while sipping lattes in the leafy suburbs of Auckland, for like-minded publishers and readers.'

3:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I think that if a historian does enough research it isn't necessary to "consult" with Maori or anyone. After all, most history is subject to error and opinion. There is de facto nothing outside the text. The important thing is that Well's book be entertaining. I find Geoff Moon's books entertaining and the book about the Maori Pakeha and also 'The Prophet and the Policeman'.
I read a book of stories of remembered lives (mostly European) and there are others by Maori, and other nationalities.

It would add to the book perhaps. I haven't read it. Perhaps Wells wants to be free of outside influence.

9:25 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

My text started jumping around there (literally I mean, some fault or glitch). I meant that it depends on the perspective and also the purpose of the writer.

It is sometimes a bit tedious this political correctness.

Now if someone is going to discuss the incident and present it as he has, and states they want to present their own view, that is good. He is, I presume, relying on other books. Nothing wrong with that. It is just another approach. Also his own opinion, which can of course be problematic, but by "consulting" someone who is perhaps sypathetic one way or the other, will certainly be influenced to move toward a preconceived view. It is nearly impossible for anyone to be "objective", and in fact there is really no such thing, anywhere: history is only one area where truth is, in many ways, quite relative. There is very little certainty especially given the time lapse.

9:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This bring back memories Taylor? https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/new-zealand/nz-family-tree.pdf

3:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps Wells preferred to choose his own sources or didn't wish to be morally accountable to CNZ. Perhaps he saw the 100k as a poisoned chalice of politically correct expectation. I find it ironic that having said this you have chosen not to listen to the Tongan oral testimony that one of their family Paula Vila may have been responsible for getting the 'Atans on the slave ship. As a writer he like you, is entitled to select the sources he wants, but must expect to be held accountable for those choices.

5:56 pm  
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4:12 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Hi anon, you write:

'I find it ironic that having said this you have chosen not to listen to the Tongan oral testimony that one of their family Paula Vila may have been responsible for getting the 'Atans on the slave ship'

I did listen, again and again, to the story about Paula Vehi helping the slavers who raided 'Ata. It is a story that has been believed even by Vehi's descendants. But I believe the story is false, because I don't think it fits with the facts surrounding the raid. Listening to oral history doesn't imply accepting it, just as reading an old document like a letter doesn't have to mean taking it at face value. What I think is odd is Wells' decision not to hear the oral history. I would have thought that sheer curiosity, let alone a sense of responsibility toward history, would have made him supremely eager to sit down with Kereopa Te Rau's descendants.

11:40 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Hi Richard, you write:

'There is de facto nothing outside the text'

I agree, but I think that oral history is part of the text!

11:41 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott. I've been busy elsewhere.

The trouble is the illusory struggle for 'reality'. It is always a particular point of view. Of course, most desirable, is a deeply researched book, with notes, a bibliography and so on. And I have read oral histories (one of old NZ men and women in the SI mostly). Oral history is part of the text but only part.

Maori probably all disagree on what happened to Volkner and why. We know that the Historian and political chap Chris Trotter thinks that it was a terrible event (while he is more liberal in other areas). Binney's book on Te Kooti is certainly and ideal, a kind of masterpiece: but despite everything, it too, is a kind of fiction. In reality this is what the social nature of knowledge does: history is always fiction.

That said, the motivations of Wells give one pause. He bats for the other side, but I don't suppose this is a factor, as he shares this with Ashbery and many other great writers and artists etc!

But I wonder if it doesn't affect his stance. If he was writing it 'as a fiction' and there is no indication clearly given, then misconceptions arise, or can do. The less research (oral or other) he does, the more fictionalised his factionalisation becomes (or visa versa).

That is, we have to assume or act as if we had free will and there is a reality. That assumed our reality doesn't like his philosophic approach especially if the fictionalisation drifts off to, say, how inherently terrible Maori are, as within this world, albeit a perilously constructed one, and language hinged so to speak, certain logical things can be shown.

Assuming such a provisional reality, such as Bodmer can show us that it is not true. The trouble is what people believe.

Wells has done a service. He has shown, perhaps an extreme example, of how history and knowledge are always limited and provisional: relative in fact, as is morality. We take an emotional-moral position. This is how we act, as we feel this is best.

Wells maybe racist, or short sighted, but he reflects what we have in all texts:

For those who are not concerned (or 'halted' by the complexities of) about epistemology etc, then the lesson is 'check it out for yourself' (ex World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov on chess openings and ideas circa 1979).

Read everything doubtfully, but not cynically, as much can be learned.

The extreme cases are those of Doutre and sliding (down?) we get to Hitler and his companions inventing nonsense: almost everything is revealed to be not so much a chase of or 'slide' of signifiers, as a kind of insane circle of ideas like Goyas or Van Gogh's madmen walking in circles...

Also, if we read the book by Wells, what can we learn from it? Even if it is that we need to be much on the alert it has done something.

I probably wont read his book, although I might if I see it at a library. The best thing would be for those concerned with these issues to read it, then form an opinion.

My feeling is that anyone writing on the subject should listen (skeptically) to local Maori and others as well as do a lot of research on such a subject: but no matter how much we do that, there are still questions: there are no innocent texts as the almost cliched phrase goes. A useful idea though.

The ticket would be for someone to write a 'reply' in the form of a book, researched orally and in other ways.

12:24 am  
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