Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mike Butler: Guns and utu

Matthew Wright’s new book “Guns and Utu”, steps back into 1818-1842 New Zealand, when tribal wars surged across the land, when war parties rushed out to kill, eat, and drink the blood of, their rivals, their anger driven by historic grievances for which they demanded settlement.

Anger, grievances, settlements; so what has changed? Here we are 200 years later, when tribes fight in courtrooms, over new grievances allegedly perpetrated by white colonists, where satisfaction is gained, not by killing and cannibalism, but by payments of cash, land, and businesses. The tribal balance of terror that existed when New Zealand Company colonists arrived in 1840, two weeks before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, was what resulted from nearly 40 years of carnage that took place during contact with an outside world that pre-European Maori did not know existed.

The dislocation, grievance, and pent-up pressure from that period rippled out into the foundation settlements of the newcomers from Victorian England as much as the economic and cultural system from overseas sent shockwaves through the Maori world.

By selling land to the colonists, dispossessed chiefs could at once assert their mana and dispossess their dispossessors, triggering a further wave of grievances, claims, Native Land Court hearings, rulings, further grievances, claims to the Waitangi Tribunal, settlements, more grievances, and on it goes.

For this reason it is useful to read some of this history, and Matthew Wright, who has a post graduate degree in history, and who has had to sell his work on personal merit and wholly commercially without relying upon funding from history departments or Treaty of Waitangi entities, is a reliable source of information. He researches independently in his own time and has no axe to grind.

The 500 engagements fought between about 1818-21 and the early 1840 became known as the “musket wars”, but Wright argue that this is one of the great misnomers of New Zealand history since the fighting “was merely a symptom of wider and deeper economic, cultural and political forces at work” during the period of first contact with the outside world.

He warns against imposing contemporary values on the period, and criticizes successive historical approaches for doing just that, arguing instead that the past should be treated as a “foreign land”, and that our forebears, despite shared ancestry and language, are in fact foreigners to us.

Battles are described in detail. For instance, Nga Puhi chief Hongi Hika, a tattooed warrior dressed in medieval mail overlaid with a red regimental coat, battled Ngati Paoa led by chief Te Hinaki in Auckland in the summer of 1821. Te Hinaki shot at and tried to stab Hongi but was shot by two of Hongi’s followers. Hongi rose to his feet and “with his English clasp knife he scooped out the eye of his expiring enemy, and instantly swallowed it. He then stabbed him in the neck, and drank his warm blood as it gushed forth from the wound . . .”

For the total death toll of these battles, Wright refers to “later estimates” that suggest of perhaps 100,000 Maori alive during the early 19th century, about 20,000 were killed and a further 20,000 enslaved. These equated to annual percentage losses higher than New Zealand experienced during the First World War.

These figures would lead to an 1840 Maori population of 80,000, while demographer John Robinson, whose book “The Corruption of New Zealand Democracy” argued an 1840 Maori population of 70,000, but also argued a inter-tribal war death toll of up to 50,000.

Wright stresses that New Zealand’s history did not begin in 1840 with a blank-page start, and emphasizes that since most of the towns set up in the 1840s were sited on the back of musket-wars politics, the physical shape of 21st century New Zealand is a direct product of those wars.

And Wright is perhaps the only New Zealand historian to have described the Ngatapa (Gisborne) massacre over New Year 1869-70 as a “primarily Maori matter and is better seen as one of the last significant military acts of the musket wars. Most of (Ngati Porou leader Rapata) Wahawaha’s victims were Rongowhakaata; and a generation earlier, these people had captured him and made him a slave.”

The summary executions of prisoners at Ngatapa in 1869 was a settler government misdeed, the Waitangi Tribunal predictably ruled, and Rongowhakaata just three months ago achieved a settlement that includes financial redress of $22.24-million for that and other claims.

1 comment:

Wingate said...

Very interesting looking back into NZ history. I recently re read Paul Temm's book on the Waitangi wrongs.

The law and access to justice has always been difficult to obtain.

Last night I wrote-
Sunday evening speech after 3 wines

We would think the guiding principles of justice in our society would be speed, sympathy, accuracy and concern.

But it’s not, why?

The legal system is there to service the interests of its high earning elite who control its monopoly with vengeance.

Politicians’ incorrectly get sold the idea that separation of power demands they cannot get involved in matters of judicial failure despite the fact all three branches are meant to maintain "checks and balances" over each other to maintain honesty of government.

And so armed with the wrong definition our politicians ignore the endless damage being committed by the judicial structure which leaves society the ongoing victim.

No wonder people are pissed at this fictional structure we call democracy.

My only hope is the fact that there has been a time in the evolution of everything that works when it didn't work.
In the meantime NZ continues to slip downwards both socially and economically while at the same time the politician’s waste time fighting like poorly behaved children.

While outside in the real world of struggling students, parents, business people and the retired, all see opportunity just slipping by as we all gasp for those last breaths of hope that common sense may arrive before it is too late.

More wine.