I will be going to New York for a couple weeks a little later in the summer, so expect more exhibit reviews at that time. But in the meantime, let us return to our discussions of Pacific Island history. Today, reviews / responses to a few different essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts (Robert Borofsky, ed.), which I introduced a couple weeks ago.
James Belich, “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest”
Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, “Theorizing Māori Women’s Lives”
Greg Dening, “Possessing Tahiti”
These three essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, by Greg Dening, James Belich, and Patricia Grimshaw & Helen Morton, all deal in one way or another with the mythologizing of history in Westerners’ accounts, and the difficulties or dangers of attempting to understand historical events based on those accounts. Often, Westerners’ accounts are the only written sources we have on a certain topic or event, highly detailed and written in a style which purports to be objective. However, as these three essays discuss, these accounts are heavily colored by racial, national(ist), and other ideologies or attitudes of the day, and by considerable misunderstandings or misinterpretations of islander attitudes, intentions, or actions. Oral histories, among other forms, can help us attempt to reconstruct events or encounters from the native point of view, but these have their limitations as well.
In “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest,” James Belich describes how Victorian British attitudes about race and empire contributed to skewed understandings of the British wars with the Māori, both at that time (1845-1872), and down through the 20th century to today, in popular conceptions of the history. In particular, as he explains, the British narrative takes British victory as inevitable, downplaying or ignoring British defeats or setbacks, and emphasizing or exaggerating the extent of British victories. He points out that this was systematic, that is to say, thorough, in its impact throughout British understandings of these wars, but also that it was not deliberate or conspiratorial (261). Rather, this skewing of the narrative comes as a result of attitudes of the time. “Savages” were believed to lack higher mental faculties, and thus it was unthinkable, in the most literal sense of that word, to attribute British defeats or setbacks to tactical skill or strategic intelligence on the part of the Māori. As a result, various explanations or excuses were employed to justify Māori victories. One such technique was to exaggerate or simply over-estimate the numbers of Māori, following a logic that if the British were defeated, it must have been because they were outnumbered. In other words, they judged the number of opponents based on the outcome, rather than by any more objective count; when bodies were counted after a battle, it was often assumed that some additional number had been carried away from the battlefield, lost in a lake, or were otherwise uncountable (262).
Māori were also represented as part of the natural landscape, just one prominent element of a natural environment inhospitable to Europeans and which had to be tamed, alongside the flora, fauna, topology, and climate. Their strength was often attributed to animalistic or otherwise natural advantages; British accounts acknowledge Māori courage, but speak of the islanders as burrowing like rabbits, or possessing the ability to survive multiple gunshots to the head. Where islanders’ use of structural fortifications or thoughtful tactics could not be ignored, it was attributed to their borrowing or learning from European models, since it was believed that natives could not possibly think of such things on their own. Finally, in some cases, the British accounts simply scapegoat their own commanders, attributing British defeats or setbacks to incompetence on the part of the British commanders, rather than admit aptitude on the part of the Māori. It is unclear precisely what sources Belich draws upon in attempting to construct a more balanced or “objective” account of these events, including for example seeking more “accurate” numbers for the size of Māori forces, counteracting the exaggerations in the British accounts. Nevertheless, however, the idea that, in Belich’s words, “whatever their historical success, historiographically the British won the wars hands down,” helps us to understand at least one way in which the phenomenon of the dominance of “colonial(ist) knowledge” manifests itself.
Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, meanwhile, discuss Westerners’ accounts of Māori women’s lives and position in society in the early period of contact. Like Belich’s discussion of the depiction of native peoples as “savages,” a part of the natural environment (or natural history) of the place, and incapable of higher mental capacities, Grimshaw and Morton similarly present us with a familiar picture of Western impressions of non-Western women: in short, that they are oppressed by their native culture, that this oppression is a key sign of the oppressive and uncivilized character of that native culture, that women in Christian societies are freer and less oppressed, and that it is the Westerners’ aim, or obligation, to “rescue” these native women by bringing them “freedom” and “civilization.” Westerners’ accounts describe Māori women as quite outspoken and active in local affairs, including engagement in war councils and discussions and decisionmaking otherwise of the local community; women also accompanied men to meals and even on war expeditions. It seems it would be difficult, judging from this, at least from a 21st century feminist point of view, to argue that Māori women were particularly oppressed; yet, Westerners’ accounts emphasize their hard labor in the fields and otherwise (as if lower-class British women did not do heavy work), and in particular represent Māori women’s sexual promiscuity prior to marriage, and their supposed rapid loss of beauty and other youthful qualities following marriage as elements of a “degraded state,” and as signs of their oppression (282, passim). Grimshaw and Morton point out that this concern with women’s rapid aging and their “masculine” appearance and behavior does not reflect a genuine concern for women’s wellbeing as social or emotional individuals, however, so much as it does a preoccupation of many of the male writers with women’s sexuality. Women’s appearance is discussed as a measure of their sexual attractiveness to the white male observers, and is not truly a discussion of women’s health for their own sakes.
Greg Dening’s essay on “Possessing Tahiti” was of particular interest for me, as he describes the colorful and exciting events surrounding the first encounter between British sailors and the people of Tahiti, with particular attention paid to ritual performance & symbolic meaning, and to the question of Tahitians’ understandings or interpretations of these events. As the performance of political ritual is a central theme of my own research on Ryukyuan missions dispatched to Edo, Dening’s discussion of the symbolic meanings for both parties of particular actions and objects is of particular interest. As he describes, in addition to numerous other actions which took place during this encounter, the British planted a flag, as a performance of a ritual of claiming sovereignty, which the Tahitians then took and incorporated into their chief’s maro ura, a feathered girdle representing his own sovereignty or authority, and thus appropriating the British symbol for their own. In a sense, then, on some metaphorical or ritual level, both British and Tahitians had enacted the “possessing” of one another. I quite enjoy these sorts of interpretations of history, emphasizing symbolic discourses, as it adds layers of meanings, and brings events, acts, or cultural ways of being beyond the mundane, countering the view that political and economic concerns are the core of all that is “real,” and that much else is mere superstition. It is for these reasons that the scholarship of Timon Screech is also especially compelling, as he paints a picture of an Edo period Japan loaded with the kinds of added layers of meaning that make that time and place seem so much more romantic, colorful, and aesthetically or culturally infused than descriptions focusing on economic hardship, societal inequalities, and the more mundane details of economic logistics and political structures, would make it seem. Yet, at the same time, such “magical realist” interpretations can be a bit hard to swallow, at times.
I have already discussed the debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over whether the Hawaiians (mis)understood Captain Cook himself to be the god Lono. Dening’s discussion of a similar phenomenon in the encounter between the Native Tahitians and the crew of the HMS Dolphin is thus also of interest, as I attempt to gain an understanding, or appreciation, of Native Tahitians’ “metaphoric” view of such events. When the HMS Dolphin sailed into Matavai Bay, they were met by thousands of islanders in hundreds of canoes, who threw plantain branches into the water, danced provocatively, offered small gifts of food, and made sacrifices of pigs, before beginning to hurl pebbles at the British ship; imagining this to be an attack – that is, an attempt by the islanders to defend themselves or their island against the newcomers – the British responded with gunfire. Dening contends that this was not, in the Tahitians’ view, such a defensive action, but rather a ritual of welcoming, certainly coordinated and dramatized, and possibly invented for that rather novel occasion. Further, he suggests that the man identified by British accounts as possibly being some kind of “king of the island” was likely not a political or military leader at all, but rather an arioi, a special sort of priest of the god ‘Oro. Dening suggests, therefore, that all of this was seen by the Tahitians not as a defensive battle against a human “other,” but rather as an act performed for/against a god. He writes that “the arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another ‘Oro incarnation or materialization and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from ‘beyond the sky,’ of alliance and title, were at work” (120).
Dening does not say it outright, but I believe he is implying that the Native Tahitians perceived these events as both metaphorical and literal, at once. Dening does not explain out fully how this might have functioned, but I wonder if perhaps the Native Tahitians, while not seeing the ship or the crew as being the god, still saw the event as sacred, as being imbued with or accompanied by the god. It seems to me that the standard Western interpretation draws a dichotomy between either the ship or its crew literally being the god on the one hand, or the entire event being purely a profane (mundane) and non-godly event on the other hand; it is this latter scenario, and our literal, secular, view of things that leads into discourses of natives being naïve, foolish, and superstitious. How ridiculous that they should have thought Captain Wallis to have been a god! But, perhaps these two are not the only possibilities. Maybe the islanders recognized these Strangers for what they were – human beings from a foreign culture, hungry, thirsty, and violent, with all the very “real” political and economic implications that come along with human profane/secular encounters, while at the same time recognizing their coming as marking a special event, and in its specialness being accompanied by the god. If so, then the rituals performed before the Dolphin would not have been aimed at the ship itself, or its crew, but at acknowledging the sacredness of the occasion. This could, potentially, tie into the notion of the flag as a memento of the event, and as containing the mana either of the ship & its crew, or of the event, this unprecedented encounter and exchange with such Strangers (even without the Strangers themselves being divine).
Another popular misconception surrounding these types of encounters is the idea that the god’s coming was prophesied, and that the ship’s coming is mistaken for fulfilling that prophecy. Dening points out that no such prophecy is needed, and that indeed the sacred path of approach into the bay taken by the ship need not be considered sacred beforehand; rather, the event can be recognized as special, as sacred, in the moment, and mythologized as it occurs, lending new meanings and new sacredness to certain places (such as this path into the bay). The event and associated objects, actions, and places can also be mythologized afterwards, in the process of retelling it.
To sum up, all three of these articles point to the considerable ways in which our understandings of Pacific history, and the historiography upon we rely for those understandings, are deeply flawed, corrupted by Western biases. And all three suggest some ways forward, to begin to ameliorate the damage, reverse the discourse, and rectify the errors, by incorporating the Native point of view, or by at least attempting to account for and adjust for the fundamentally inherent biases of both the Western primary and secondary sources. Through these essays we learn much about the New Zealand Wars, Maori women, and the first British-Tahitian contacts, as well as the very significant issues in how these topics are understood, and how these types of topics, more broadly speaking – military history, women’s history, and first contacts & mythical understandings – might be approached.