Saturday, 22 November 2008

Don't Confuse Us With Facts, Part# 1

Maori as Noble Savage

Historical revisionism has been a feature of the modern world. It came prominently to the fore during the Enlightenment. The idea was that one rewrote the past in order to augment and support one's views of the present. Thus, there is a great deal of truth in Voltaire's bon mot that history is “only a pack of tricks we play on the dead.”

The philosophers and historians of the Enlightenment (and there were many) wrote histories to illustrate the great themes of secular humanism: the triumph of reason, the ignorance of superstition, the glories of the pre-Christian world, and so forth. History was viewed as a “book of selective illustrations” to reinforce currently held views of man and his place in the world. Ever since the Enlightenment, history has been subject to constant revisionism: rewriting so as to reinforce one's “hold” on the present.

A common Enlightenment theme was Rousseau's idea of the “noble savage”. Primitive man was enlightened man insofar as economic and technological development served to obscure or block off the essence of human felicity, which was to live in simple, uncluttered harmony with the world of Nature. According to Rousseau, the “noble savage” was made happy by “experiencing the sentiment of his own existence, of being a natural man in a natural world. He did not seek to use his reason to master nature; there was no need, for nature was essentially beneficent, nor was reason natural to him as a solitary individual.” (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, [New York, Avon Books, 1992] p. 85).

In the past thirty years in New Zealand we have been subjected to a comprehensive revision of Maori and European history. Maori culture and history, in particular, has been rewritten in an effort to buttress an ideology of Maori nobility.

Central to this effort has been an attempt to represent Maori as an exemplar of Rousseau's noble savage. Maori culture is seen as being sufficient, complete, self-sustaining, and in an enviable harmony with the natural environment. There has consequently been an attempt to forge strong alliances with greenist ideology. Maoridom sees itself, and projects itself, as the inheritor and guardian of the land and the sea. The coming of the Pakeha destroyed the pristine environmental balance maintained by Maori as guardians.

These conceptions, however, represent nothing other than revisionist myths. Prior to the arrival of the Pakeha, the land and ecology was ravaged by Maori seeking to avoid starvation. The hunting to extinction of moa is the most well-known example. But Michael King writes:
So moa were a significant source of protein, of bones for ornament and fishhook manufacture, and possibly, of feathers for use in cloaks. But other large birds were slaughtered—the flightless goose, an enormous rail now known as the adzebill, swans and pelicans, all of them, like the moa, exploited to the point of extinction after little more than 100 years.
Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand [Auckland: Penguin Books, 2003] p.63.

But what of Maori society itself? In recent years a number of scholarly books have begun to appear which are far less interested in ideology and revisionism, and far more focused upon letting the actual historical data speak. The latest to achieve notoriety due to its undermining of the revisionist myths is Paul Moon's, This Horrid Practice: the Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism [Auckland: Penguin Books, 2008]. Moon, who is a professional historian and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, has been attacked overtly and clandestinely since his book was published.

Firstly, the blurb for the book:
This Horrid Practice uncovers an unexplored taboo of New Zealand history - the widespread practice of cannibalism in pre-European Maori society. Until now, many historians have tried to avoid it and many Maori have considered it a subject best kept quiet about in public. Paul Moon brings together an impressive array of sources from a variety of disciplines to produce this frequently contentious but always stimulating exploration of how and why Maori ate other human beings, and why the practice shuddered to a halt just a few decades after the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. The book includes a comprehensive survey of cannibalism practices among traditional Maori, carefully assessing the evidence and concluding it was widespread. Other chapters look at how explorers and missionaries saw the practice; the role of missionaries and Christianity in its end; and, in the final chapter, why there has been so much denial on the subject and why some academics still deny that it ever happened. This Horrid Practice promises to be one of the leading works of New Zealand history published in 2008. It is a highly original work that every New Zealand history enthusiast will want to own and read.

About the Author

Paul Moon lectures in New Zealand history at the Auckland University of Technology and has a growing reputation as an original and well-informed historian. He is the author of a number of books on New Zealand history, specialising in Treaty issues and the early years of European settlement - his most recent work is The Newest Country in the World: A History of New Zealand in the Decade of the Treaty.
An immediate reaction to the book upon publication in the press can be found here. Moon's commentary and response to the reaction can be found here.

Describing the reaction, Moon writes:

The physical destruction of books now seems to belong to another, much less enlightened age, but not so the censorial urges that led to the practice. I have experienced this first-hand in the past few weeks since the release of my book This Horrid Practice, which explores traditional Maori cannibalism.

I recall a fellow academic approaching me when I started writing the book and warning me that I was putting my career in jeopardy by tackling this subject. At first, I dismissed the caution, but when others began making similar comments, I came around to the view that I would be risking my integrity as a historian by being bullied into silence.

Then the attacks came, and in several forms. I am sure many of the people who have complained about the book have yet to read it, but this has not stopped them rushing to judgment and making all sorts of shrill accusations about its contents.
The Human Rights Commission raised its head:

Then the Human Rights Commission dipped its toe into this acrid pool and considered the merits of a letter of complaint made about the book. The commission's response was to suggest I enter into mediation. Like Kafka's Josef K, I found myself being considered increasingly guilty, even though I do not know what I am meant to be guilty of. I politely refused the offer.

And here is where the book-burners come in. While the methods are far more subtle, their aim in this case to bar the sale and distribution of my book amounts to exactly the same thing: censorship based on ideology.

There is no doubt whatsoever that cannibalism was both persistent and widespread—and is was nurtured in a particular world-and-life view. Cannibalism was a practice consistent with that view. It was not an aberration. It was not an extreme. It was normality within Maori culture. Noble savages indeed.

Another fascinating book to appear a few years ago was Trevor Bentley's Pakeha Maori: The Extraordinary Story of the Europeans Who Lived as Maori in Early New Zealand [Auckland: Penguin Books, 1999]. This details the lives and records of hundreds of pakeha who not only lived amongst Maori during the first half of the nineteenth century, but also how many of them actually became Maori—that is, fully immersed themselves in, and adopted Maori culture and practices, including cannibalism.

Bentley's book serves as a window into Maori culture. But more than that, it proves beyond doubt that a particular culture is not a function of race. It is a function of world-view.

We will post on Bentley's book and the lessons which arise in more detail in the next few days.

Both these works serve to revise the prevailing revisionist histories and as a helpful reality check to the dominant ideological historical revisionist orthodoxy.


Anonymous said...

Well done bringing up this topic. Every culture has good and bad points. At present you are only taught good things about Maori and bad things about the Europeans in school. We have a crazy country.

I'll look forward to your posts on that book.

Madeleine said...

My son recently got a detention for writing in his social studies book "I'm sick of hearing about how the europeans did all the evil things and the Maoris were all wonderful and good. The Maori's were cannibals whose chiefs got fat from eating each other."

Ok, it was a bit inflammatory but the detention was for being "racist."

I am sure that if he had written that the english had gotten fat from living of the proceeds of stolen land taken by illigitimate force it would not have been deemed racist.

(My son is part-maori btw)

Anonymous said...

So what if the Maori ate human flesh of a few thousand of their own. The European had two world wars and left million of men bodies to rot in the soil. My point being that death is more relevant than what happens after to the flesh after. To reinforce my view, I ask, would you rather be killed and not be eaten - or die of old age and be eaten. We will always choose the later. In addition, the European provided the guns to Maori increasing kill rates. The average price for a gun was Maori head to sell and a young girl to impregnate. Once one tribe had guns the other needed them for defense, and so a market was created, and concurrently the land was cleared of owners. I respect the native at war more than the manipulator of conflict resulting in higher death tolls. For your information I am white and my grandmothers grandfather was a white soldier in the Waikato division of the Maori wars for which he was paid in Maori land. Oh and by the way my girlfriend has just pointed out that the French. As for the extinction of moa etc, the number of species lost during pre European and post European times is equal at at 40 for each period. So the rate has increase dramatically. If you read the 2005 threat classification list the number of NZ species now listed as threatened has risen by 416 from 2002 to 2005 to a total of 2788. Your propaganda is an immoral disservice to our nation - as spreading misinformation.

John Tertullian said...

My dear chap--your apologia for cannibalism is quite engaging. Just don't ever invite any of us round for dinner, will you?