The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters, 1642-1840, Vincent O’Malley (Auckland University Press, 2012), 284 pp., $45.
Vincent O’Malley’s meeting place is a common ground where members of different societies can find ways of interacting which bridge their cultural differences. He has borrowed the notion from an American historian Richard White whose term for it is ‘middle ground’. People have adopted it but often misapplied it. They use it to refer to situations where one society overwhelms the other. In a true middle ground, or meeting place, each group adjusts its own social practices in light of the other’s, but doesn’t abandon its own culture.
It is O’Malley’s contention that in New Zealand the Bay of Islands was such a place between 1814, when the missionary settlement was founded, and 1840 when New Zealand became a British colony. He offers this as an alternative to what he considers ‘the conventional wisdom at one time’: that, after a period of initial resistance, Maori culture changed profoundly – it more or less collapsed – and Maori were assimilated into Pakeha society. He sometimes calls this the ‘Fatal Impact’ view and identifies Harrison Wright, an American who wrote on the subject in 1959, as its leading exponent.
Early in his book, at page 71, O’Malley, says there was another middle ground in southern New Zealand, in the very far south, Murihiku. But when concluding, at page 228, he seems less sure. He makes a good case for his main thesis but is much weaker on the south where there was briefly a middle ground at Otago and where there was indeed a fatal impact.
We get a brief account of Tasman’s, Cook’s, De Surville’s and du Fresne’s bloody first encounters with Maori, convincingly illustrating the lack of common ground, focused on the north of the North Island and the north of the South Island. Later eighteenth century explorers are merely listed before we turn to commercial visitors.
The first, Captain Eber Bunker of the William and Ann, is mentioned at page 57 as approaching Doubtless Bay from the north. This is a confusion. He went to Dusky Sound and probably then called at Akaroa in the summer of 1791 to 1792 before getting to Doubtless Bay. O’Malley’s extensive bibliography includes sources which would tell him about this.
His account of the incidents of the Sealers’ War, sparked by a theft and murder at Otago Harbour in 1810, is still without benefit of the Creed manuscript, discovered in 2003 and reproduced in Gaining a Foothold, a book he lists in his bibliography. There are sources he doesn’t list, including my 2005 biography of William Tucker, who settled at Whareakeake in 1815 and fostered a trade with Europeans in hei-tiki before dying in the conflict, as well as my 2010 account of the Dunedin district in the period Behold the Moon which covers the Sealers’ War and other matters. As a consequence we get a number of dubious claims and mistakes.
According to O’Malley, southern New Zealand saw no obvious milestone matching the 1814 settlement in the north. Actually, the Weller brothers’ Otago establishment, founded in 1831, not ‘after 1832’ as O’Malley says at page 91, is clearly comparable though admittedly different in character. At page 90 the Matilda’s lascars were apparently ‘taken in’ by Maori, despite having probably been enslaved. On the same page, despite O’Malley’s statement, James Stuart’s aboriginal wife was not seized by the General Gates at Kangaroo Island but came with her husband voluntarily. O’Malley’s offered conclusion on pages 89 to 90 that Caddell was not so enamoured of New South Wales as to want to stay is undermined by records that show he later settled and died at Parramatta. Similarly, the General Gates did not sail down and sink a canoe in Foveaux Strait. The waka suffered a natural disaster, which Maori saw as supernatural punishment for having attacked the General Gates’ gangs.
O’Malley then discusses commercial, sexual, religious and political relations separately, still heavily focused on the Bay of Islands. And this is where his case is most convincing. He makes the point that, contrary to some writers’ beliefs, in pre-contact Maori society there were economic as well as ceremonial forms of exchange. While the latter could be commercially dysfunctional, indeed ruinous, because they required accepting unwanted things and responding with gifts of greater value, the former were not. They involved exchanging goods plentiful in one group’s area, say the birds and rats of an inland people, for fish and other seafood from a coastal district. It wasn’t difficult to adapt this to trade with Europeans and didn’t entail any great change to Maori or Pakeha culture.
Sex is more problematic. In pre-contact Maori society, with a few exceptions, unmarried people were free to take lovers without stigma. No special value was placed on virginity in contrast to European, and especially missionary, expectations. On the other hand married people, especially women, were expected to be faithful. There was also a tradition of providing sexual services as a part of hospitality. Intercultural sexual relations soon developed to include prostitution, which was a change for Maori, enthusiastically embraced by many. There were also affectionate relationships and arranged marriages but it is the character of prostitution which is hardest to gauge. The missionaries of course deplored it. But was it beneficial or destructive to Maori society?
O’Malley cites mixed reports and delivers a mixed verdict at page 156; and at page 154 says accounts of a more exploitative trade are mostly confined to the Bay of Islands. This is not so.
One of his sources for the Bay of Islands in 1827 was sailing with Dumont D’Urville, and O’Malley lists the account of the latter’s later voyage in his bibliography. That account gives his and his officers’ vividly condemnatory accounts of prostitution at Otago in 1840, which confirm that it had become more widespread and coercive and reflected a great decline in Maori customary life. Whereas it was formerly only slaves who were coerced, now daughters and wives were preyed on; they were paid little and that taken by their men. These were not missionaries but French naval officers whose accounts cannot be similarly dismissed or ignored. It is remarkable that O’Malley has chosen to overlook their testimony.
Similarly, at page 141, O’Malley says alcohol consumption was not reported as a problem among Maori until well after 1840 although D’Urville in that year reported that at Otago the purveyors of ‘brandy’ got all the little money made by Maori and Pakeha alike.
O’Malley makes a convincing case that Maori conversion to Christianity did not involve the abandonment of all, or even much, of prior religious belief. He is right that it is only if one supposes that chiefly power was previously autocratic that the relatively participatory and egalitarian forms of self-government apparent among Maori by 1840 at the Bay of Islands seem a radical change. He is convincing, too, that while the Bay of Islands’ Maori population had diminished by 1840 it perhaps had not gone down by half and that the 1837 influenza epidemic can’t have been the cause.
He is also surely correct in stating, at page 210, that the most compelling evidence for the ‘fatal impact’ argument is the effect of disease and rapid depopulation. It is just this which can cause a society to abandon its gods, lose its social cohesion and come to believe it is doomed. But he is wrong when he says, at page 212, that the evidence of the devastating impact of disease is ‘both anecdotal and unsatisfactory’, at least so far as Otago and Murihiku are concerned.
This seems an echo of Atholl Anderson’s remark in The Welcome of Strangers, which O’Malley sources, that the relatively large figures for Maori population in the far south of New Zealand before the 1840s are hearsay. They don’t come from reported first hand contemporary witnesses. In Behold the Moon I cited contemporary reports of the epidemics and witness reports, some admittedly later, whose numbers represent a devastating decline.
This would indeed produce something like the effect of the Black Death in Europe in the fourteenth century. At page 213, O’Malley quotes a Hokianga missionary’s concern that Maori faced either extinction or becoming so merged with Pakeha ‘as to lose almost all characteristics of being a distinct people’. It seems clear that that hadn’t happened in the Bay of Islands or Hokianga by 1840, but also that something like it was well in train in the far south by then. The Meeting Place is a useful review of the far north’s contact period history, but it continues a long and unfortunate tradition of extrapolating the results to the rest of New Zealand. It also fails to thoroughly consult the now considerably augmented records for the south. There was a meeting place at Otago from 1831. Sadly the impact of the European incursion was devastating for southern Maori, whose distinctive culture eventually disappeared. Significantly, the continuing Maori renaissance is seeing the culture of southern Maori overlaid with northern characteristics, rather as Dr O’Malley is misrepresenting it by overlaying its history with that of the north.
PETER ENTWISLE is a Dunedin-based writer, historian and art curator. He contributes a regular column about the arts to the Otago Daily Times, and his books include Behold the Moon: the European Occupation of the Dunedin District 1770 – 1848 (Port Daniel Press).
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