NZ #7: Musket Wars

By: | Post date: January 3, 2010 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Countries

Over New Year’s Eve, I read the 500-odd pages of Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand. There was a hardcover edition, but I wasn’t disposed to pay an extra $40 for colour illustrations and callout quotes. I’m not a visual person, and my suitcase allowance is finite. The paperback is still weighty enough, even if it doesn’t have daguerreotypes.

(Hey, the Linux spellchecker knows about daguerreotypes. Impressive. If only it could deal with straight apostrophes too.)

So what did I learn about the country? A couple of things, which I’ll regurgitate here in my accustomed ignorance.

I’d already read about the Musket Wars from other literature, including the claim everyone professed to be reticent in making, and everyone made anyway, as to how the Musket Wars ended. Around 1820, the northernmost Maori tribes got access to muskets. Even more crucially, they got access to potatoes, which were easier to farm and less perishable than the local sweet potatoes. So their raiding parties could besiege a fortification for months rather than weeks, with thousands rather than hundreds freed up from subsistence farming, and with gunpowder.

In the earliest stage of Maori settlement, the colonial phase, the scholars conclude the Maori tribes collaborated to tame the land, and eat up all the free protein. Once they ran out of free food, the tribes became competitive, and the rules of reciprocity and honour meant tribes could sustain grievances for decades. So when the northernmost tribes got guns and provisions, it was payback time against the tribes further south. And when those tribes further south got guns and provisions in turn, it was payback time for them—not against the northerners who’d been slaughtering them, and still had firepower—but against the tribes still further south who didn’t have guns yet.

This kept going for a couple of decades, until the Brits established governorship (with different understanding from the Maori as to how far governorship went), and Christianity was introduced, and—the reticent but obvious conclusion—all the tribes had enough firepower to maintain a balance of terror against each other. Soon enough they were fighting the British anyway. (And each other, as some tribes were loyal to the British and some not.)

You might add that with a fifth of Maoridom killed, and another fifth enslaved, and the white man’s diseases coming shortly behind, the Musket Wars would have run their course soon enough anyway.

All this put the tribes of the South Island at quite a disadvantage. The South Island was populated later to begin with, and got guns last: there’s a reason only 5% of Maori in New Zealand now live in the South Island. Of course, Europeans have always been more eager to proclaim a tribe has died off than are the tribespeople themselves, and there are iwi who maintain cultural continuity in the South Island. But 80% of the island is just one tribe, and King has a little anecdote which illustrates what was lost: not just the people, but their stories.

Oral history of indigenous peoples preserves memory of first contact with Europeans, which after all was a pretty big deal. The people may have had to cast it into mythological context, or their own societal context, to make sense of it; but the stories did stick around. Fifty years after Captain Cook, the Maori would tell tales of the noble bearing of the visitor. First contact with the Moriori, a Maori offshoot on the Chatham Islands 800 km away, made even more of an impact: the Moriori were so shocked by the Europeans’ use of gunpowder (according to King at least), they renounced warfare.

But neither was the first contact the Maori had with white people. The first contact was with Abel Tasman, a century before, at Golden Bay—not far from where I am typing these lines, in the north of South Island. We have Tasman’s account of what happened, and his name for Golden Bay: Murderers’ Bay. We don’t have the Ngati Tumatakokiri account of what happened, because after the Musket Wars, we don’t have the Ngati Tumatakokiri account of anything. There are Maori tribes here still, but they came south with the muskets.

No, the Maori were not hippy, peace-loving, in-tune-with-the-land, positive energy plaster saints out of Rousseau. Of course, being human and not plaster saints, no indigenous people are. With the possible exception of the Moriori, and their pacifism got them enslaved by the New Zealand Maori, once they came across on the White Man’s ships. It also got them recast as Melanesians by 19th century anthropologists: if a people could be enslaved by the Maori without firing a shot, surely they were an earlier wave of human migration, of inferior racial stock.

Some head hunters from the Indonesian archipelago may want to take issue with that assessment. The 19th century line about the Moriori is no longer being peddled, and the Moriori are reasserting their identity; but it took almost a century to dislodge.

It would be difficult even without the Musket Wars for the Maori to feel like they were one people, and make common cause, unless external adversity forced them to. Which after all is how common identity is normally forged. The Maori had seen noone but Maori for half a millennium; they had no more cause to identify with each other than Russians do with Bolivians. All their identity, their sense of culture and obligation and making sense of the world, inhered in the tribe; to call them Maori, you might as well have called them just Human Beings. (Which, after a fashion, is exactly what “Maori” means: “common, ordinary”—not divine.)

And that’s why the culturally right thing to do, whenever a Maori is named—including on Maori TV—is to adjoin their tribal affiliation.

With that, forging a common identity as Maori is an artifice of circumstance, and as such would feel pretty artificial. King’s history quotes John Rangihau of Tuhoe on it (p. 366), and I find it’s both infuriating, and makes all the sense in the world:

it seems to me there is no such think as Maoritanga because Maoritanga is an ill-inclusive term… I have a faint suspicion that [it] is a term coined by the Pakeha to bring all the tribes together. Because if you cannot divide and rule, then for tribal people all you can do is unite them and rule. Because then they lose everything by losing [the] tribal history and traditions that gave them their identity.

I’m reminded by this, once again, of the fate of East Sutherland Gaelic.

The only way Gaelic can survive in a modern environment is as a standardised language, a prestigious and elaborated language of schooling and media. The people actually still speaking Gaelic, such as on East Sutherland, don’t speak a standard Gaelic: the only real Gaelic to them, the language of their identity and patrimony, is a dialect, which diverges from the next dialect down the road, which diverges from the dialect on the other side of the Highlands. It’s nonsense for BBC Scotland to transmit in every hill and dale’s dialect: that’s not a feasible strategy to survive Gaelic. But by transmitting an alien version of Gaelic to the Highlands hills and dales, native to none of them and unfamiliar to all of them, the remaining speakers just feel even worse about what they do speak. A standard Gaelic is not the language of their soul.

Just as a standardised Maoritanga is not the Maoritanga a tribe can claim allegiance to. You needn’t posit Pakeha malice to see why One Maoridom could be of advantage to Maori, and having the tribes work together would win them more than having them work in competition. And you needn’t posit Maori orneriness to appreciate the importance of authenticity to any identity construction.

All of which is true, but there is some extratribal Maori identity in the mix now anyway, with urban Maori founding their own marae; and the Maori have made common cause in claiming their rights. And that doesn’t displace the importance of tribes in establishing Maori identity; it just makes it complicated. As identity tends to be these days.

Hm. That meandered a bit. I have a lot more to learn. That doesn’t get in the way of me posting though…

One Comment

  • John Cowan says:

    With that, forging a common identity as Maori is an artifice of circumstance, and as such would feel pretty artificial.

    In some sense, American culture is like this too: people may look similar, sound the same, and yet disagree on such an elementary cultural datum as how to signal to your host that you want no more food: by emptying your plate, or by leaving a bit of food on it? "American culture" is a construct that papers over such narrow but deep cracks as these, doubtless springing originally from different ancestral settlement lines. More linguistically, it's amazing how precisely the dialect boundaries of fifty years ago, which no longer exist as true dialects due to homogenization, are tracked by the accent boundaries of today — and how, contrary to everybody's expectations for the age of radio and TV, new vowel-rotating accents like Inland North have appeared.

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