- The Matriarch by Witi Ihimaera
Heinemann, 456 pp, £10.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 434 36504 1
My grandmother, who was born about 1880, was proud of the fact that both her parents were born in New Zealand. It made her, she used to say, ‘a real Pig Islander’. A story she told me more than once was of how my great-great-grandfather John Flatt, a lay catechist, had fallen out with the Church Missionary Society by suggesting that its missionaries in New Zealand were acquiring too much Maori land. Twenty years ago, in the British Museum, I looked up evidence Flatt gave, while in London in 1834, to a Select Committee of the House of Lords looking into ‘the State of the Islands of New Zealand’. I found that he had defended the acquisition of land by missionaries, saying – a familiar argument later on – that they had no other way, in that remote place, of providing a future for their children.
Of course my grandmother’s story and my research may not really contradict one another. Flatt may have first defended the acquisition of land, and later thought it was becoming excessive. But at least my anecdote demonstrates something relevant to Witi Ihimaera’s novel: that family mythology likes heroes and prefers them simple. It also demonstrates that the argument over land, which is at the heart of The Matriarch, goes back to the beginnings of European settlement in New Zealand, and that although the Pakeha – Europeans – have progressively taken the land, they have always argued about the rights and wrongs of it. That remains true even today. Many Pakeha New Zealanders sympathise with the view, which is taught in schools, that the Maoris have been shamefully dispossessed. They join Maori land marches and protests. The present government declares itself sympathetic to the Maori case, and looks to compensate where past wrongs are manifest. But Pakehas go on buying Maori land. And though Maoris insist that for them the land has a spiritual value which the Pakeha does not understand, they go on selling it. Their sense of its spiritual value is always sharpest once the material value has been realised – and that has always been the case.
If the conquest had been by force of arms, the history would be easier to understand. There was a period in the 1860s when wars did occur: but even then, Maoris fought against as well as with the insurgents. The Maoris were never one people: their identity was tribal, and the tribes were always warring. They had no conception of a single ‘Maori nation’, a phrase Ihimaera uses frequently, nor of a single state called Aotearoa. That Maori name for New Zealand appeared first in the 19th century. A common adversary has forged some kind of unity, but the idea of Maori nationhood is more European and intellectual than truly Maori: just as the strongest moral arguments Maoris can summon against the Pakeha are those of a European liberal tradition. If there was one principle Maori culture always recognised, it was the right of the strong over the weak.
In recent years radical young Maoris and Pakeha liberals have tended to join in an alliance the justice of whose case is seldom challenged, perhaps because in practical terms it constitutes no threat. Ihimaera’s novel can be read in large part as a restatement of that case, which goes briefly as follows. The Maoris are the tangata whenua – the people of the land – and have, therefore, a moral right and precedence in Aotearoa. That right has been trampled on by the Pakeha, who have progressively, partly by force of arms, but much more by trickery, bribery, and legal and financial chicanery, dispossessed the tangata whenua of their birthright, imposing upon them a law, a culture, a religion, a system of values, an education and a language alien to their own. Justice demands recompense and a reversal of this process.