I found this book to be interesting but also a bit disjointed as it was a combination of a memoir of the author’s life, a personal history of her Maori husband’s family background, and a historical/anthropological study of the Maori culture, past and present.
Bostonian, Christine Thompson, was immersed in Pacific studies in Australia and took a detoured stop in New Zealand while on holiday, where she met her future husband, Tauwhitu “Seven”, a Maori descended from a Ngapuhi chief. At this time, she described her inability to pin down exactly what her focus was going to be when she was working on her doctoral dissertation on European literature of the Pacific. I got the sense that she had the same problem when writing this book. I think I would have enjoyed just looking through her research papers, notes, and historical photos she referenced but which were not included.
The historical information about the first contact between the Maori people and Dutch and French explorers (these folks really started diplomatic relations off on a bad foot), the early missionaries (“who came to do good, and did very well indeed”…referencing how the missionaries were very successful in the land grab which occurred in the 1820s), Captain Cook, and even Charles Darwin, was very interesting.
The title of the book stems from something Cook said when describing the posturing the Maoris would do when first sighting a strange vessel encroaching on their territory. They would make an impressive display of their prowess, bringing out many canoes to surround the vessel, shaking their spears, etc., waiting to see what the interloper would counter with, hoping that their display of ferocity and power would dissuade an attack. In the mid-1600s, the white explorers found that firing shots over their heads or cannon into the distance would be enough show of force to have the Maoris back down and show interest in trading goods. They would greet all strangers with the same ritual forms because they never knew if the unknown group was planning treachery. You can see examples of these displays even now when you witness a haka where the dancers slap their thighs, stomp their feet, and make faces.
Cook’s original notation was in regard to an unnamed New Zealander who, possibly,–Cook’s ear for languages was not the best–shouted across the water, “‘Come on shore with us and we will kill you with our patoo patoos’, at the same time they would shake them at us.” That statement was later changed by the editor of his Endeavor journal, John Hawkesworth, who either misunderstood the “game” played or even more likely exaggerated that particular incident for dramatic effect, as there was already previous history of treachery on both sides, as well as cannibalism by the indigenous New Zealanders. It is believed that the cannibalism may have started out of a true need for protein, since there were no large animals or chickens, etc., on the island and initially the people survived on the fruit, vegetables, fish provided by the island itself. The Maoris also considered the practice sacred, and again with their posturing, they could use it to gloat in a sense, “See? I not only defeated you but I have taken your wife as one of my wives, I have taken your children to be my slaves, and I have used you as food for my body.”
An interesting bit of information is in regard to tribal tattoos. There is much importance to these sacred markings and each person’s tattoo is personalized for them. The Maoris were famous for their facial tattoos, which were very painful and would take years to complete. In 1864, Horatio Gordon Robley appeared in NZ with the British imperial force. He was very interested in the art form and spent a lot of time drawing pictures of the tattoos, often visiting battlegrounds and noting the art found on the bodies of the deceased. He also was a collector of the moko-mokai or “smoked heads”. That was a fascinating practice as well, initially started as a way to honor their dead, but after the whites came and convinced them to sell the heads to collectors, the Maori no longer preserved their loved ones’ heads and instead preserved and then sold their enemies’ shrunken skulls.
Image of Horatio Gordon Robley with his collection of moko-mokai (shrunken heads). Note also he is holding another collectible, a “patoo patoo”, a club which was used to provide the death blow in battle.
Sidling along beside the historical accounts of imperialism wreaking havoc on the Polynesian culture is the apparent study by Christine Thompson of her own husband and his family as it compared to her privileged background being brought up as an affluent white person in Boston, one with a family history which included attaining wealth by profiting from the injustices done to the indigenous people in America–a land grab similar to what happened in New Zealand.
I was a bit discomfited by the frequency of her comparisons between herself and the negative aspects and stereotypes of her husband’s people, i.e. the Maori’s penchant for living “on island time” and not being concerned for the future, not making education a priority, not making goals to achieve great success, etc. It felt to me like her easygoing husband was her personal science experiment, as she watched his reaction to things (such as racist or ignorant remarks) she thought might provoke a response from him, or how she would get nervous thinking he wouldn’t fit in with “her” people. I think she honestly was trying to evidence an obvious rift between the classes; however, it made me uncomfortable that she used his way of doing things in comparison to hers, and his ways were always shown as something less.
She and Seven did a lot of globetrotting between New Zealand, Australia, Boston, California, and Hawaii. Even the way she and Seven first met and the start of their romance shows they are always up for an adventure. I ran across her blog where she documents their family’s (including their three sons) trek across the Pacific looking for the fabled Hawaiki, the original settlement of the Pacific by the ancestors of today’s Polynesians. https://seapeople.wordpress.com/the-b..