Monday, November 9, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“OUTCASTS OF THE GODS? – The Struggle Over Slavery in Maori New Zealand” by Hazel Petrie (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)

When we rise above the popularisations, and get into real intellectual activity, there are certain recognisable categories of New Zealand history book. There are the sociological histories dependent on statistical surveys (see, for example, the review of An Accidental Utopia? on this blog); there are the stately and informative political biographies (see Tom Brooking’s Richard Seddon, King ofGod’s Own); there are lively polemics, anathema to real academics, that use history very selectively to preach a social message (see Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn); there are postmodernist reconstructions of historical events, into which the author thrusts himself as a main character (see Peter Wells’ Journeyto a Hanging); and there are history books with such a skewed and wrong-headed interpretation of events that they call for a major corrective (see Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The GreatWrong War and compare it with its corrective, Steven Loveridge’s better-informed Calls to Arms).
I could continue my categorisation. But when I got to the end of Hazel Petrie’s Outcasts of the Gods?, I felt I had discovered a new category of New Zealand history book. The very defensive history book.
Let me make it very clear from the start that this is a work of real scholarship. Its 340 large pages of text are followed by 66 pages of endnotes, bibliography and index. It is a work of wide research, frequently enlightening in what it has to say, illuminating things from our history that are rarely discussed, and making some shrewd judgments. The five sections of illustrations are well chosen and relevant to the text. And yet it is still a very defensive work.
Let me explain.
Hazel Petrie is clearly riled by Pakeha and others who take limited negative aspects of pre-European and early-contact Maori history, and use them as a means of belittling or condemning Maori culture as a whole. Matters such as cannibalism or the unhistorical notion that Maori had wiped out an “earlier” race, the Moriori (this being based on a distortion of the 1835 slaughter of the Moriori on the Chatham Islands). Her subject is slavery in the context of Maori society, and her aim is to examine as closely as possible what “slavery” meant in the Maori context.
From the very opening of this substantial book, Petrie argues (in her Introduction) that most so-called “slaves” in the Maori context were really “captives” taken in battle; that it is wrong to see them as being “slaves” inasmuch as they were essentially the same people (in terms of race, language and religion) as their captors; and that they were therefore not analogous to the African slaves caught up in the Atlantic trade or toiling on the plantations of Virginia. In her view, to see Maori “captives” in the same light as the slaves of the Old South is a category mistake. It is the result of Europeans, at the height of their anti-slavery campaigns in the early nineteenth century, conflating the New Zealand situation with a radically different situation that existed somewhere else. Further, her Introduction tells us:
… while the despair, the drudgery, and the fragility of life that are said to have been the captive’s lot have frequently been stressed, oral traditions tell of slaves as faithful companions, who risked life and limb to save their masters and mistresses or facilitate the path of true love. Such stories contain their own biases, of course, but nineteenth-century accounts confirm the great variety of experience. There is also evidence that those who abused war captives could be subjected to severe censure or even banishment from their community….” (pp.2-3)
So Hazel Petrie proceeds to a systematic survey of Maori “slavery” in a way that is designed to answer the putative misapprehensions of early European observers. Skin colour, she says (in Chapter 1) was not an issue in the taking of slaves by Maori – it was not a racial thing. Yes, red was the colour associated with the chiefly classes (rangatira) and black with the captives or slaves (taurekareka), But these colours were purely symbolic of social status, not of race. She does concede that blackness could have negative connotations in the traditional Maori world, but she argues this was the universal connection of blackness with darkness, not with skin colour. Thus:
There can be little doubt that cosmology, a lack of mana and tapu, and the common physical tradition of taurekareka, or captives, were all embodied in explicit perceptions of them as black. So, conceptually, they must have been connected. However, although semiotic connotations are ever shifting, it does seem that in many, if not most, contexts black has been a colour with negative connotations for Maori. Connections between black and darkness on the one hand and white and lightness on the other are very apparent in the Maori worldview and suggest that to be ‘enslaved’ was to enter a dark and gloomy world indeed.” (Chapter 1, p.38)
More contentiously, she argues that it was early European visitors who taught Maori to be conscious of black skin as a marker of inferiority. She surmises that Pakeha treatment of “blackfellas” in Australia may have inspired Maori treatment of Moriori on the Chathams.
Petrie outlines (Chapter 2) how “captives”, generally being of lowlier social status, were not tapu and were therefore free to undertake tasks that rangatira could not undertake. Most captives taken in battle were not of the rangatira class. Petrie says some have speculated that rangatira might have been happier to die in battle than to be enslaved. But she says many rangatira were taken captive without damage to their mana, and were used as hostages or bargaining chips with enemy tribes.
Captives (Chapter 3) were often well-treated and were allowed to move freely among the tribe that had captured them. They were not allowed to be killed at the mere whim of their captors. Nevertheless, it is clear that the killing of a slave was no cause for utu (atonement; restitution; revenge). Slaves could be killed if they entered into adulterous relationships with married non-slaves. And “less painfully than being killed or shipped overseas, captives might be gifted as utu for crimes committed by others or for loss of face.” (Chapter 3, p.98) Some slaves rose to eminence in the tribe that had captured them, and there is evidence that vassals / captives / slaves were allowed to cultivate their own allocated land. But runaways were treated very harshly and the children of slaves could be killed if they stole kumara or other essential food sources. Also:
Captivity had important spiritual ramifications but they were not necessarily permanent ones. Before the practice of captive taking ended altogether, it is clear that there was no one way in which captives were treated and that the lives they led and the status they occupied while in captivity were closely related to their rank prior to capture and their usefulness as members of their conquerors’ tribal group afterwards. They were expected to help rather than hinder.” (Chapter 2, p.75)
The most openly revisionist chapter is Chapter 4, wherein Petrie argues that the taking of captives in large numbers was an historical aberration, which happened to occur at the time Pakeha were arriving. It was therefore (wrongly) assumed by Pakeha to be the ancient and established custom of all tribes. In her view, there had been little inter-tribal warfare in the first six or seven hundred years of Maori settlement. Only when the easily-caught and edible fauna had been exhausted (moa driven to extinction etc.) did a warrior culture arise and pas get built, circa 1500 AD. Iwi became competitors for dwindling food resources and protectors of precious lands for cultivation. Even then, Petrie surmises, the taking of captives as slaves was practised only on a limited scale. It was only, she argues, when Pakeha introduced firearms, and the inter-tribal “musket wars” of the 1810s and 1820s took place, that large numbers of captives were taken.
What we should remember… is that the ‘musket wars’, which began late in the 1810s and continued to the early 1830s, were an aberration in Maori warfare: in captive taking, numbers killed and eaten after capture, and in many other ways, too. It is important to keep that in mind because the end of the wars saw the release of many captives and, to a large extent, the end of captive-taking by Maori. Yet, despite it[s] being a brief interlude in Maori history and a very atypical one, most of our historical accounts concerning Maori ‘slavery’ are based on primary source material from that period.”   (Chapter 4, p.154)
[Petrie reiterates this theme in more detail in Chapter 8 at pp.243-244.]
By this stage, too, some tribes began to deliberately seek out and take captives to undertake skilled work which was no longer undertaken by their own tribes. (For example, the Nga Puhi had lost the art of carving in the 18th century, and therefore often captured skilled craftsmen from tribes further south.)
When she tackles the theme of Maori women interacting with Pakeha sailors and others as prostitutes (Chapter 5), Petrie argues that in the early stage of contact, such women were often willing participants, seeing sexual relations in the light of the tradition of an exchange of services for gifts. They were not slaves, even if missionaries came to see the prostituting of Maori women as one of the consequences of slavery. Often sexual relationships with Pakeha were more in the nature of “temporary marriage” than real prostitution. Only later did a real “sex trade” evolve, involving slaves – and again Petrie says this was under the impact of the “musket wars”, as tribes sought a cheap and easy way of getting cash for firearms.
Directly addressing how early Pakeha observers saw Maori slavery (Chapter 6), Petrie stresses that many such observers were missionaries who had been involved in the contemporaneous campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade and the use of slaves by British planters in the West Indies. She claims that when they wrote their accounts of New Zealand, such observers often played up the idea of Maori slavery (a.) to discourage commercial speculators, such as the Wakefield company, from settling in New Zealand; and (b.) to create a sense of alarm that would encourage the British government to intervene and annex New Zealand on civilised and humanitarian principles (leading to the Treaty of Waitangi).
Now moving away from a direct engagement with the topic of Maori slavery, Petrie proceeds (Chapter 7) to examine the mentality of the missionaries, positing that many of them saw the concepts of “slaves” and domestic servants as being interchangeable in Maori society. Further, she claims, the missionaries’ idea of redeeming slaves – in the literal sense of freeing them from slavery – always involved the slaves’ redemption in the spiritual sense. In other words, missionaries tended to believe they were “freeing” slaves by converting them to Christianity. They thus took great credit for the diminution of slavery in the Maori world. But Petrie insists that such credit was not really due to the missionaries (Chapter 8), because the “musket wars” were already ending before the missionaries had made much impact. Therefore, she claims, slavery would have decreased anyway. While noting examples of missionaries genuinely brokering peace between hostile tribes, Petrie comes close to saying (like a latter-day Nietszche) that Christianity was essentially the religion of slaves – after all, it freed slaves from the burden of tapu and their inferior social status.
So to her last three chapters (9, 10, 11) in which Petrie constructs a moral argument against the British colonists. She asks whether the British treated their own prisoners of war any better or worse than the Maori did. She suggests that British horror of what they construed as “slavery” in New Zealand really reflected their own revulsion at the genuine slave trade in which they had for so long been involved. She says that by undermining tapu and mana, the British undermined the foundations of chiefly authority and therefore the very bases of Maori society. Christianity swallowed tapu and the Pakeha taking of land swallowed mana. Therefore, she concludes, the British in effect destroyed real Maori freedom and enslaved Maori. The obvious implication is that if anyone was guilty of practising slavery in the New Zealand context, it was the British. In her final chapter she revisits the semantics of the various terms associated with slavery and bondage, and repeats her opening arguments on the misperception of these things by Pakeha observers.
I hope I have made it clear that this is a weighty book of real scholarship, drawing on a wide variety of sources.
But inevitably it presents us with a number of problems.
First, like anything that deals with pre-European (and pre-written language) Maori life, it has to rely on much speculation to sustain Hazel Petrie’s thesis that the taking of captives was on only a small scale prior to the “musket wars”. She is thus forced frequently into statements such as the following [I have added the emphases]:
 Because there is limited specific evidence for times before European contact, it may be impossible to make a sound judgment as to whether tribal groups were always reluctant to be rejoined by kin previously captured in battle.  Nor is it clear whether captives were too humiliated to return or whether their kinfolk would not have welcomed them if they had. Men were the warriors and, therefore, more directly implicated in military defeat, so women and children may have suffered less shame and loss of mana from being captured.” (Chapter 2, p.56)
It seems safe to assume that prior to the 1810s, only a modest number of captives were taken and that these were most often women and children rather than men.” (Chapter 4, p.127)
There are many other examples of a similar nature.
Second, there is this very defensive tone throughout.
On the evidence of Petrie’s own text, it is clear that Maori at various times did use “captives” as slaves, did consign such captives to an inferior social position, did sometimes send slave women to be prostitutes and did rigidly enforce their slaves’ servitude. Certainly mitigating things can be said – that some slaves were treated well; that there were gradations in types of slave; that some rose to high social position; that they were allowed the wherewithal to live. But many of these same things could be said of slaves in other parts of the world – including the Deep South of the USA. There were some “kind” slave-owners there, too. The bottom line is the one I have highlighted in the following sentence: “Dealing with one’s own captives was one thing, but since their status was similar to that of other belongings, it was not lawful to punish, let alone kill, someone else’s.” (Chapter 3, p.103)
It was not lawful to punish or kill somebody else’s ‘property” in the Deep South, either.
I am not equating the long, established Atlantic slave-trade, practised on an industrial scale, with the more piecemeal Maori practice of slavery. But I am saying that the two phenomena had many things in common.
Under all her real scholarship, what Petrie is really attempting to do is to deflect that sort of Pakeha ignorance, which would claim that slavery (like the equally historical cannibalism) was somehow the defining mark of pre-European society. It was no more that than the Gulag and Holocaust were the defining features of European society. And after all, one could say that the Holocaust was an “aberration” in German history just as the “musket wars” and large-scale slavery were, in Petrie’s view, an aberration in Maori history. Should we therefore take a benign and forgiving attitude towards them? And does slavery somehow cease to be slavery because the people enslaved were of the same race, colour and religion as those who enslaved them? One could make a strong case, from Petrie’s own text, that social caste acted in the Maori context in much the same way that colour and race did in other situations of slavery. I have to note too that, by sheeting this grim aspect of Maori history home to European influence (Pakeha brought muskets and distorted Maori society etc.), Petrie is in effect stripping Maori of responsibility for their own actions. This is the very denial of “agency” that is so often deplored by historians who deal with “first nations”.
Petrie often deploys the Lytton Strachey variety of historical sarcasm when she refers to missionaries’ motives, but this can sometimes reach an absurd level. Thus she says: “Missionary writings were at their most colourfully vitriolic when reporting the practice of eating enemies, but they failed or chose not to comprehend its full significance.” (Chapter 2, p.58). Does this mean that missionaries were foolish to condemn cannibalism or foolish to be appalled by it? Or that they would have had totally different attitudes had they only realised that eating enemies was a means of destroying their mana?
Much of the sarcasm, I fear, is misplaced.
It is good to inform us of the varieties of slavery as practised by Maori. It is salutary to be reminded that Europeans at various times practised slavery on a far vaster scale. But Petrie’s tone too often suggests that she is offering a sort of apologia for Maori slavery rather than seeing it as the degrading thing it was.


  1. Fascinating review! Thank you, Nicholas!

  2. Thank you. I appear to have annoyed one reader who, despite my careful wording, is apparently under the impression that I have somehow slandered the Maori race.

  3. Great point about Maori agency. Needing to 'defend' them from Eurocentric interpretations seems paradoxically Eurocentric...

  4. re the alleged missionary failure to understand the "full significance" of eating enemies, she then goes on to refer to a variety of writers, including well known Maori, giving quite differing accounts of the meaning of eating enemies. Why should we think there was only one particular meaning to the action? RTL