Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The lost book of Tonga

[I regularly bother Brett Cross, the publisher of Titus Books and Atuanui Press, with proposals for far-fetched literary projects. This is an e mail I sent Brett last year, when I was deep in Tongan research. I won't have time to take up the project it suggested, but perhaps somebody else can investigate William McKern's lost book...]
Hi Brett,
I'm always casting around for interesting unpublished manuscripts, as you know, and I've discovered an immense collection of pages that is preserved - as a photocopy; the original is in Hawai'i's Bishop Museum - at the Turnbull library. The manuscript is referred to, again and again, in published texts about Tongan supernatural beliefs, healing, and spirit possession, but is almost never discussed at length, or quoted. The author is a man named William McKern, who was part of a 1920 expedition to the Pacific funded by a Wall Street millionaire fascinated by lost civilisations. The Bayard Dominick Expedition saw a large group of scholars steaming to the central Pacific, then breaking into small teams and heading in different directions. 
McKern and Edward Gifford were both young students in anthropology at Yale University when they were dropped on Tonga shores and left to work without supervision. Gifford went through the archipelago collecting stories, and eventually turned his research into three valuable books (the interviews he did with survivors of the slave raid on 'Ata Island have been particularly important to me). 
William McKern became the first archaeologist to break the soil of Tonga. He dug in many locations, and should have made a significant discovery when he found pottery of the Lapita people, the first settlers of Tonga and the ancestors of Polynesians, on the shores of Tongatapu's lagoon. But the young scholar misinterpreted his find, and decided that the pottery had come from Fiji, where a tradition of pottery survived from Lapita times, and was a couple of hundred rather than three and a half thousand years old. 
After he returned to Yale McKern published a small monograph called Archaeology of Tonga, which has become notorious for its apparent blunders and lacunae. In a famous essay on the perils of Tongan oral history, Sione Latukefu noted that McKern gave scatological names to some of the sacred sites he surveyed; these names were supplied by local Tongans who knew the young American didn't speak their language and perhaps enjoyed making fun of him.
In 2013, when I was teaching at the 'Atenisi Institute, I showed my students McKern's book. I remember them being particularly bemused by the descriptions of Anapusi, or the Cave of the Cats, a site where, McKern solemnly reports, a group of ancient pussy cats with telepathic powers once lived. Since cats only arrived in Tonga with palangi, McKern's history is rather suspect. 
And yet some parts, at least, of McKern's book are accurate. On the atoll of Pangaimotu I used McKern's map and descriptions to locate the overgrown foundation mound of an ancient pagan godhouse. Pangaimotu's godhouse is particularly important, because it was described by Wiliam Mariner, the castaway and memoirist who was one of the first palangi to put Tonga on paper. Mariner watched as his captor-host Ulukalakala consulted a delirious shaman-priest in Pangaimotu's sacred fale. 
And there are Tongans who insist that ancient kings and queens did sometimes have scatological and otherwise obscene names. According to the linguist Lose Jenner-Helu and the artist Ebonie Fifita, such names were meant as a mark of their owners' mana. Only someone of great prestige, they say, could possibly have such an unsavoury handles! Ebonie regards the ancient obscene names of Tongan rulers as a partial, and perhaps half-conscious, inspiration for the scatological antics of the Seleka Club. 
Was McKern a dupe, or just an assiduous researcher who took down names and recorded sites that had become embarrassing to conservative and powerful Tongans like Sione Latukefu? Did places like the Cave of Cats come from his imagination, or from the stories of Tongans, or were they traps into which he wandered? 
McKern wrote a much longer book called Tongan Material Culture, which he could never get published, even after he graduated from Yale, got a good job at a museum, and became an important figure in the study of American Indian culture. Tongan Material Culture runs to nine hundred and fifty pages, and a succession of scholars have come to drink from its waters. If the Turnbull's catalogue entry can be believed, the book describes almost every facet of Tongan life.
I've been thinking about the idea of getting a copy of McKern's book and studying it in the light of the politics of the 1920 expedition, the ideologies that McKern and other palangi scholars carried around, and the situation in post-war Tonga. 
I'd love to take the book back to the people, by letting Tongan artist-artisans like Sio Siasau and scholars like 'Okusi Mahina respond to its details, and by revisiting the places it describes, and the descendants of the people who gave McKern information. 
I've gotten particularly interested in faito'o faka Tonga, or traditional Tongan healing, and related beliefs about the supernatural and spirit possession, and McKern reputedly gives a lot of attention to these subjects. (Incidentally, there is a whole genre of Tongan book, pepa faito'o, which consists of remedies and spells designed to deal with illness and possession. Pepa faito'o are normally kept secretly in families, like the tohi hohoko (genealogical and historical books) that also reputedly hidden in many Tongan villages.)
What do you think of all this? There would be worse reasons for escaping an Auckland winter! 
Cheers,
Scott

8 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Interesting idea. Did Brent leap into action with great excitement on this one Scott?

12:27 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

He was intrigued but I reckon someone else needs to check out the manuscript!

6:44 am  
Blogger Richard said...

John Herbert who used to compare Poetry Live in about 1990 - 92 also was in the Archaelogical or maybe it was the Anthropological society. He might know someone if the is still with us. He used to talk about the Lapita culture.

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1:16 am  

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