When the spear is thrown

J.G.A. Pocock

  • Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642-1772 by Anne Salmond
    Viking, 477 pp, £18.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 670 83298 7

A society which seriously determines, or discovers, that it is a convergence of two cultures needs a history of two cultures; and since history is a product of culture, this means that it needs two histories, the history of two experiences and two ways of looking at history. This has been the case of New Zealand since it was realised – or since the realisation was forced upon the Pakeha – that the Maori remember a different history and, in consequence, remember history differently. Courageous and not unsuccessful attempts have been made – rather often by Pakeha historians – to give free play to the Maori awareness of history and attend to the voices in which it speaks. But the difficulties are only beginning at this point, since the very word ‘history’ – meaning, as it does, not an unprocessed past, but the activity of remembering and interpreting it – takes on culturally specific meanings, and may come to signify an awareness of experience peculiar to one culture and not to the other, capable of being used by the one to dominate, expropriate and assimilate the other. In the North American context, it has been argued that ‘history’ is an ideological tool whereby Anglo-American culture destroys the sense of unbroken cosmic unity peculiar to Native American cultures, and forces them to take part in processes of change and alterations of consciousness imposed by the invading majority; and it can even be suspected to the contrary that cosmic unity is an invention of the self-repudiating Western mind, imposed upon the Native cultures by Western dissent for purposes ultimately Western.

The present book avoids such manichean pitfalls, but confronts their methodological preconditions. Anne Salmond, a Pakeha anthropologist at the University of Auckland, has spent much time with Maori informants, modern and sophisticated people – there are some formidably effective Maori jurists – who have communicated to her a sense of the depth, flexibility and variety of their culture and its capacity to articulate its own awareness of history in dialogue with that of the Pakeha. She has therefore formed the design of examining the first four contacts of the ancient Maori (te ao tawhito) with Europeans – the Dutch under Tasman in 1642, the English under James Cook in 1769-70, the French under Surville in 1770 and Marion du Fresne in 1772 – with a view to understanding, as far as can be discovered, who these groups of people were, and why they saw each other and responded to each other as they did. It is one of her convictions that ancient Maori culture was no more a unity than European culture was, and that different tribes and settlements had shaped and were shaping their world – te ao – in their own ways.

There are moral difficulties here, as well as material. As a social anthropologist, Salmond sees her ‘two worlds’ as material cultures brought into sudden encounter, and is professionally concerned to show how archaeology and excavation have altered understanding of how pre-European cultures lived, ate, built and died. But ‘worlds’ are mental as well as material constructs, and her concern to show universes in encounter, with tragically limited means of understanding one another, is motivated by the perceived needs of contemporary Pakeha and Maori to understand their own history better. Since this involves the partial reversal of a very recent hegemony, the moral burdens are variously distributed: Pakeha are expected to attend to Maori history as well as their own and to revaluate their history in the light of the complex history they learn by so doing, while Maori – assumed to have suffered a partial loss of control over their history and the imposition of Pakeha history upon them – have fewer moral demands served on their attention. They are to be empowered more and accused less. This perfectly reasonable programme can degenerate into the application of a double standard, in which the Pakeha are always the villains, shown as false to their own values, and expected to expose those values themselves to criticism. Like the better part of recent New Zealand writers, Salmond knows that this is no solution and avoids the trap of falling into it. But the nature of the evidence itself makes the trap hard to avoid.

When she considers the state of Maori culture at the moment of European contact, she speaks with the authority of an anthropologist and archaeologist. But when she turns to te ao tuarua, to the world of the strangers, to Dutch culture in the 17th century, French and British in the 18th, she relies on the work of modern historians; and the problem is not whether this is reliable, but that we know so much European history that we make a great variety of judgments about it and must ask whether those who do not have this wealth of value-loaded and conflict-loaded information think and live in the way that ‘we’ do. Salmond rightly tells us much about the disease, poverty, war, brutality and class conflict that existed in Early Modern European culture; and the point is not that these characteristics were probably absent in pre-contact Polynesia, but that we cannot escape reading them as judgments which ‘we’ pronounce on our culture and so on ourselves. Do – should – Maori judge themselves in this way, in other ways, in none at all?

The question is both a contemporary one, and one that must be asked about actors in 18th-century history. It is true that Europeans believed in their own superiority and judged others by their standards; it is also true that James Cook and Joseph Banks, Marion du Fresne and Jacques Roux, were troubled by the moral problems of their impact upon the Maori and by the uncertainty of the values by which these should be judged. We have not the information which permits us to say the same about the Maori, and we are not sure whether theirs was a culture in which such moral uncertainties were possible. In her deeply moving conclusion, Salmond quotes Lieutenant Le Dez’s expression of bewilderment at the behaviour of Maori who first welcomed Marion and then killed him – for reasons Le Dez could not possibly decode – and points out that his language might well convey the bewilderment the Maori felt at the behaviour of the French, in whom they would find an equally baffling mixture of friendliness and transgression. But what we do not know is the emotional state of the chief Te Kauri, who had treated Marion as a friend and then killed and ritually eaten him for offences Marion had not known he was committing. Did Te Kauri feel grief, regret, bitterness, self-doubt, guilt? Or was he totally reassured by a moral and cultural code which explained and justified all his actions? We haven’t the means of knowing, and for this reason the last answer suggested is to us now – as it was not to Roux and Le Dez then – by far the easiest to accept. But that is to suppose that Te Kauri lived in a closed and self-sufficient universe which it was impossible to doubt: and the supposition may be as patronising to make of him as it would be inaccurate to make of the European explorers, who could and did justify their actions but were not free from doubt concerning these justifications.

Because of the non-reciprocal character of our information, Two Worlds is inescapably a journey through the mental world of the Europeans, counterpointed by a series of reminders that the Maori possessed a mental world of equal coherence (but equal capacity for alienation?). To read it in 1992 is to be struck by the realisation that Europeans no longer lived in the mental world of Columbus, rich in prophecy, myth and correspondence, which is described by Anne Salmond’s Auckland colleague Valerie Flint in The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus.[*] This is the world of Enlightenment, and Cook, Marion, and even the less reflective Tasman and Surville, were voyaging through the state of nature. In this state, before law and perhaps before property, individuals encountered one another in a social vacuum, with nothing but their common human nature to guide them; and there was the possibility that individuals who had not yet appropriated and given themselves laws were still pre-human, feral or ‘savages’. Even without the premise of savagery, there was the Hobbesian possibility that individuals in natural encounter had nothing to obey but the power to kill and the fear of being killed; and the intelligent, responsible and humane James Cook can be read as a man who knew how easy it was to kill, was determined to avoid killing wherever possible, and found killing even harder to avoid than he had anticipated.

I should do wrong to identify the eminent anthropologist (now deceased) whom I heard tell an audience that Cook ‘shot the Maori down like pigs’ because he was only there to gain markets for the products of the Industrial Revolution. I fear that I laughed the speaker to scorn, before all the congregation: but moral crudity of any kind is a serious matter. The Maori understood the Hobbesian situation well enough; what Cook and his company found hard to learn was how closely Polynesian encounter rituals equate the greeting with the challenge. To brandish a spear, even to throw one, could be an invitation to further parley: but in Hobbes’s gunpowder world the trigger is pulled when the spear is thrown, and Cook’s best endeavours did not at first prevent unnecessary (but sometimes unresented) killings. There was a more complex incident when a Maori engaged in canoe-to-ship barter snatched back the goods for which he had just received equivalents, and Lieutenant Gore fired and killed him. Cook (the documents declare) was angry with Gore for using ball where non-lethal smallshot would have been enough: but the dead man’s kin (tradition affirms) held a council on the beach and resolved that he was a notorious thief who had asked for what he got, and that no utu or compensatory revenge was called for. Here the law of nature was beginning to work: but it could happen that to withhold goods even after payment was a signal for further haggling.

The moral truth was that encounters do not occur between individuals in a state of nature, but between cultures that encase individuals in a many-coded history. What one of Salmond’s chapter headings describes as ‘the death of the noble savage’ is better described in a book title of Anthony Pagden’s as The Fall of Natural Man. The question of anthropophagy brings this out. Salmond a little over-emphasises her view that the hugely strong European taboo on cannibalism was a relic of popular beliefs about witches; there was also the belief that it was the ultimate denial of common humanity, a sin against nature of the same order as sodomy. Europeans showed themselves obsessed with the subject whenever they were in encounter situations; it was considered a sign of depravity, an indication that ‘savagery’ stemmed from the fall of man, and enlightened philosophes wanted to deny its existence. The level-headed Cook explained its presence among the sociable Maori by pronouncing it no more than a ‘custom’ – that is to say, a product of culture: but neither scientists nor sailors in his crew found this easy to accept.

The condition of ‘savagery’, which Enlightened social science was beginning to substitute for the ‘state of nature’, was perhaps a little more complex than Salmond acknowledges. It now stood for the hunter-gatherer stage, the condition of man before appropriation of either herds or lands: but since Polynesians were not hunters, herdsmen or ploughmen, but fishers and horticulturalists, they did not fit easily into the Scottish four stages. The notion of social personality was so tightly linked to appropriation through agriculture by means of the plough that one wonders what Spöring, Solander and Banks, scientists in Cook’s crew, made of the large and complex hoed gardens whose contours they sketched on the coastal hills. What manner of property, and of society, would these suggest to their minds? But the negative image of the ‘savage’ had its counterpart in Rousseau’s idyll of the natural man not yet distracted by property, articulacy or consciousness of self; and the tragedy of Marion du Fresne is the tragedy of a Jean-Jacques in the South Seas. He believed that men were naturally good, and that bénévolence and sensibilité would carry him through all encounters in the state of nature; and all the time that he moved among the Maori with a naive friendliness to which they responded, he was trampling on prohibitions of tapu and delicacies of mana of which he could have had no idea and which we must construct complex systems and grammars in order to understand. Therefore Te Kauri killed him – did the chief feel that custom had compelled him to an act he would have preferred to avoid?

Something very similar brought the prudent and long-headed Cook to his death in Hawaii a few years later; we must balance Marshall Sahlins’s attempts to recover the complexities of Hawaiian politics against J.C. Beaglehole’s conviction that Cook was at last fatigued and beginning to make mistakes which he had enjoined others to avoid. There remains the problem of how far insight operates across cultural frontiers. An intriguing character in the history of Cook’s voyages is the Tahitian aristocrat Tupaia, who took passage in the Endeavour out of curiosity (and because he had made Raiatea a little too hot to hold him). When he died of fever at Batavia-Jakarta, Cook wrote in his journal: ‘He was a shrewd, sensible, ingenious man, but very proud and obstinate.’ It is a judgment on a man Cook respected, if he found him hard to understand, and worth many pages of disquisition upon savages noble and ignoble. But these encounters between individuals occur in the state of nature; the encounter between cultures sets the processes of history in motion.

[*] Princeton, 233 pp., £16, 31 August, 0 691 05681 1.