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BooksNovember 22, 2017

‘It turns our tipuna into cardboard caricatures’: Buddy Mikaere reviews Anne Salmond


Buddy Mikaere finds bias and misrepresentation in Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds, an otherwise acclaimed history of early New Zealand by Anne Salmond.

Anne Salmond’s new book Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds is broadly divided into two parts. Part one revisits the already well traversed history of the early contact years between Māori and Pākehā. The historical landscape of the Far North of New Zealand has been explored by many historians, including Salmond herself in works such as Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans and her mammoth book on Cook’s three voyages, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog.

Part two provides a philosophical platform for Salmond’s views on subjects including the important role of whakapapa (both real and assumed) in the construct of relationships between people and cultures. She also considers a range of Māori/Pākehā contemporary issues – for example, the evolution of the Māori position on the ownership of fresh water.

Part one of Tears of Rangi provides little new in the way of fresh discoveries. I suspect that’s largely because the same standard historical sources are used by all historians who have previously explored this pivotal segment of our past.

What was really disappointing to me was the use made of that source material. Salmond again relies on the revisionist interpretation of historical material she used in Two Worlds. That book attracted some blunt criticism from historians such as the late Professor Peter Munz of Victoria University and the crowd favourite of popular New Zealand history, Michael King.

King, writing in 2003: “Two Worlds gave a strong impression that, rather than attempting to represent both cultures dispassionately, Salmond had been straining to case every feature of Māori behaviour in a favourable light and many features of European in an unfavourable one.”

My own take on Two Worlds – and indeed other twentieth century historical works produced by Pākehā historians such as Judith Bassett, Keith Sinclair and Marcia Stenson – is that the writing of that 1990s period was infected with one-dimensional characterisations. Māori were invariably depicted as deeply spiritual beings who only ever acted on the basis of high-minded principles. Pākehā, on the other hand, were mostly unprincipled rogues or fools whose behaviour was always motivated by racial arrogance, greed and self-interest.

The strongest criticism of Salmond’s approach came from Peter Munz. “In her desire to show that the worlds of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europeans and Māori were much of a muchness,” he once wrote, “Salmond becomes guilty not only of disinformation, but of actual misrepresentation.” Munz scathingly referred to her approach to the writing of history as not only being ‘politically correct’, but “post-modernism in fancy dress”.

In Tears of Rangi Salmond seemingly chooses to ignore the criticisms levelled at her Two Worlds approach. She sets aside mundane matters such as accurate depiction and qualified interpretation when the first, second and even third-hand historical record is empty of detail. It’s like she’s coming back for another go. Her approach reminds me of the role played by a “sweeper” in a rugby game, who trails behind the forward attack picking up the errors made by the front line and covering up for any defensive lapses. Salmond does a sweeper on Two Worlds with Tears of Rangi – and without any change to the game plan, the outcome remains very much the same.

This bias turns our tipuna into cardboard caricatures. It removes from them the ability to sometimes be wrong or be less than all-knowing, which would then make them human and real. Recasting our ancestors as noble savages isn’t the way to ‘rescue’ them or their culture.

In Two Worlds Salmond seemed determined to reveal the more brutal features of 17th and 18th century European society without acknowledging comparable behaviour by Māori. The book judged pretty much every aspect of European activity in New Zealand in the harshest light – and every manifestation of Māori behaviour in the most benevolent and positive way. That approach continues in Tears of Rangi.

And so we have Salmond referring to Samuel Marsden’s observation that Māori “appear to live in amity and peace amongst themselves.. I saw no quarrelling. They are kind to their Women and Children; I never observed either with mark of violence upon them, nor did I see a Woman struck.” Salmond then announces that this behaviour was “in contrast to everyday life in Britain and Port Jackson at the same time, where women and children were often physically chastised, and those who broke the law were brutally punished with flogging and hanging.”

As in Two Worlds, Salmond compresses the totality of everyday life in Britain and Port Jackson into an unrepresentative, selected image, and passes it off as illustrative of an entire society.

Not mentioned of course is the fact that it would not have paid to be a slave – man, woman or child – in the happy Māori families described by Marsden. Many slaves were subject to merciless abuse because they were people without mana, living with the daily fear of becoming an item on the dinner menu. The ill-treated European women and children of Port Jackson at least had the tiny comfort of never being someone’s next meal.

Reviewing Two Worlds, Munz was critical of Salmond’s use of similar comparisons. For example, the superior sailing skills of Māori, demonstrated by the arrival of the first intrepid travellers in Aotearoa around about 800 AD, was contrasted with Abel Tasman’s homeland of the Netherlands where at that time the people existed in a “patchwork of marshes interspersed by medieval towns”. Munz disputed the unflattering description of the Netherlands, terming it “historical disinformation” and “eagerly glossed over obfuscation”.

Unfortunately Tears of Rangi tracks along a similar pathway, particularly in part one. It is revisionist history, with a text littered with speculation, conjecture and apportionment. This is apparently based on Salmond’s view of how things should be, rather than attempting to describe or set the events in their proper historical context. The reasoning behind Māori thought and action is often qualified with phrases like “very likely” or “may have” and people like the famous warrior chief Hongi Hika are attributed with a stream of consciousness and actions for which there is absolutely no historical foundation.

Here is Salmond writing about a meeting between Hongi and King George IV: “Rangatira should always tell the truth, and Hongi concluded that Samuel Marsden had deceived him. While Marsden often rebuked the rangatira for having more than one wife, Hongi now knew that King George IV was notorious for his extramarital affairs.” So? The Māori sobriquet that men die for women and land does not derive from a chaste lifestyle of humble fidelity.

As far as I know Hongi did not keep a personal diary, so how does Salmond know what the chief was thinking or what he concluded? Hongi with several wives and King George with a train of mistresses does not necessarily lead to a conclusion that Hongi believed that Marsden was a deliberate liar. Hongi may well have just thought that he and King George merely shared the trait of multiple female partners. The plain fact is that without a record we don’t know what Hongi thought and to say otherwise is just speculation.

Matara, the son of the chief Te Pahi, was sent by his father to meet King George III in London. Salmond writes, “No doubt Matara had taken gifts with him for the British monarch, including cloaks and fine mats.” No doubt? There is no confirmed evidence that Matara did this.

Clearly, though, an enormous scholastic effort has gone into this book. The reference notes and bibliography would no doubt choke a small horse.

Salmond’s approach in Tears of Rangi has endorsement of a kind. Oscar Wilde said: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” In much the same vein, Samuel Butler said: “It has been said that though God cannot alter the past, historians can.”

I’ve always been of the orthodox view that the job of the historian is to look at the past and from that analysis tell us why things of today are as they are. If Salmond’s effort represents a shift to a new face of New Zealand history, then it looks like I didn’t get the memo.

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Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds by Anne Salmond (Auckland University Press, $65) is available from Unity Books.

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