A Savage Country: The Untold Story of New Zealand in the 1820s, by Paul Moon (Penguin Books, Auckland, 2012)
‘[the historian’s] work at best is the provisional creation of a pioneer’ – F.W. Deakin
‘Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of fake information … which is afterwards incorrectly diffused by successive relators’ – Dr Johnson
These two observations above, the first by a British twentieth century historian and soldier, the second by the eighteenth century English poet, critic and dictionary-maker, point to something of the ambivalences I find inherent in the prolific Paul Moon’s latest publication. Moon has previously written the best-selling Fatal Frontiers – a history of New Zealand in the 1830s. A Savage Country is his latest book and covers the decade prior to Fatal Frontiers. In addition to writing such books, Moon is also a frequent contributor to national and international academic journals on a variety of history-related topics.
In this new chronicle, A Savage Country, Professor Moon certainly is attempting to invoke the ‘creation of the pioneer’ by telling the story of the early Pakeha incursions into the new found land of Aotearoa. But in doing so he is following Dr Johnson’s prescription by becoming one of the ‘successive relators’ of this historical period, the decade of the 1820s, a time that Moon himself acknowledges as being scarce in documented evidence. In his introduction he states ‘documentary record relating to New Zealand in the 1820s is so irregular in both quantity and scope that it excludes any comprehensive narrative of the period’. This raises the primary question of how much invention he has managed to spin out of fact, and the secondary question of whether he has made his biases clear enough.
To begin at the beginning, one of the main issues I have with Moon’s book is the title, ‘A Savage Country’. It is taken from a statement by Augustus Earle who wrote in 1827: ‘there was no touch of human sympathy, such as we “of the World” feel at receiving an Englishman under our roof in such a savage country as this!’ With these words Earle expresses all the distance and difference he feels as a ‘civilized’ European coming into contact with the ‘savages’ of Aotearoa. To implicitly endorse this remark by taking his title from it, seemingly without irony, jars with Moon’s own admission that ‘European portrayals of Māori throughout the nineteenth century can sometimes reveal as much about the authors who penned them as the subjects of their observations’.
Elsewhere, he describes the experiences of the French adventurer, Duperrey, who noted that while Māori people can be seen as cruel and blood-thirsty towards their enemies they are also ‘capable of the tenderest feelings’. What the English and the French experience as civilized is therefore a subjective thing, a confirmation of relativism, if both Earle and Duperrey are to be believed, even as they contradict one another, with two different philosophical approaches: ‘civilisation’ versus a different cultural world view. Duperrey, for example also criticizes the ‘tricks which European have so often played on New Zealanders, the shameful manner in which the good faith of these men [note, not savages] has been betrayed by whalers, have made them deeply suspicious in conducting business’.
In choosing the title A Savage Country,Moon is continuing the ‘frequency of fake information’ thesis along a historically loaded line (promulgated by early colonial historians Governor George Grey and S. Percy Smith) in implying that Māori society was somehow lesser and more barbarous than the Europeans who have civilized the rest of the ‘known world’. In Chapter Four there is a further very telling quotation from Captain William Edwardson, skipper of the sloop Snapper, who had been sent to New Zealand on a fact-finding mission by the New South Wales’ Government in 1822. Edwardson’s observations on Māori life in the South Island include the following: ‘these people, in their savage state, are treacherous, cunning and vindictive and push their vices to extremes … they are cannibals to the full extent of the word … Addicted alike to theft and lying they live in a state of perpetual mistrust … War is the ruling passion of these pillage-loving tribes’. Edwardson is implying that this state of affairs is somehow peculiar to the ‘savages’ of New Zealand. Yet, if we take even a cursory look at the European internecine conflicts happening at the time of the 1820s we can note that Māori war culture was far from unique or necessarily more blood-thirsty; after all, it was only five years previous to 1820 that the devastating pillage and barbarism of the Napoleonic wars that had raged across Europe finally ended.
Throughout the decade covered by A Savage Countrythere was much warfare, some of it genocidal, taking place in European centres or their colonies. Wars in Spain and the Ottoman Empire, the Russo-Persian War, Greece’s War for Independence, the Franco-Trarzan War, plus various wars waged by Native American tribes against the invading palefaces, as well as wars throughout South America and the Far East — such as the Java and the Padri Wars against the Dutch. My point is that the Māori way of life was no more or less war-like than that of most of the so-called civilized nations. Also, try convincing an Irish person of the time how ‘we “of the World” feel at receiving an Englishman under our roof’ would give a great feeling of security and civilized bonhomie.
Moon’s prejudices have been often noted and challenged by other historians. For example, in his 2001 biography of Ngā Puhi chief, Hone Heke, he raised controversy because of his treatment of Bishop Pompallier, whom Moon described as ‘seditious’ and ‘treasonous’. This view fellow-historian Michael King rejected as: ‘Absolute nonsense … reflecting the anti-Catholic prejudices widespread among Protestant missionaries at the time’. It does appear that Dr Moon prefers to consistently promote an Anglophile point of view; he is, after all, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Of course, it was the introduction of new warfare technology by Europeans in the form of muskets that lead to some of the worst atrocities during the 1820s as inter-tribal wars became more about the ‘haves’ verses the ‘have-nots’: that is the triumph of those who had guns over those who didn’t, thus creating an in-balance of the traditional power structures built up over centuries of Māori history. Moon covers this mainly as an aspect of the burgeoning trade between Māori and Pakeha after contact had been more fully established in the 1820s. The musket conflicts have been dealt with more extensively by Ron Crosby in his 1999 book The Musket Wars – A History of Inter-Iwi Conflict 1806-45, as well as by Angela Ballara in her Taua: Musket Wars, Land Wars or Tikanga? Warfare in Maori Society in the Early Nineteenth Century, published in 2003. However, it must be admitted that, given that A Savage Country is a general overview covering a particular decade, Moon’s coverage of the specific effects of the musket trade as a business practice at that time is illuminating.
But this leads me on to another of Moon’s favourite topics in early New Zealand history, namely cannibalism and mokomokai. In 2008 he wrote This Horrid Practice in which he discusses cannibalism amongst historical Māori, a book that sparked substantial criticism. It set off accusations that Moon was demonizing Māori people and their traditional culture, with some arguing that the book was ‘a return to Victorian values’ (although actually he was discussing pre-Victorian ideas and practices). In A Savage Country he returns to this contentious topic. It is interesting to observe that the European reaction of disgust during an alleged cannibalistic incident involving the crew of the Haweis, whose captain assumed that his men had been eaten by Māori attackers, and stated how he found his boat ‘covered with clotted blood and hair, where the unfortunate sufferers’ heads had been dashed to pieces’.
At the same time there is not the same human sympathy or empathy felt for the sufferers of mokomokai, a practice implicitly encouraged by unscrupulous European traders who would buy human heads for resale to rich collectors back in Europe, or to be studied as part of the developing academic discipline of anthropology. Such contextual differences were further continued when New Zealand became an English colony after 1840. For example, as I stated in a 2002 article about the actions of the new colonial administration, Rangitāne, the Crown and the Alienation of the Wairarapa ki Tamaki-nui-ā-Rua Rohe: ‘given the context of the time and the difference in culture, government officials tended to over simplify and vulgarize Māori customs and concepts’. Imagine how much more haphazardly and arrogantly this happened in the preceding decade of 1820.
My overall feeling, though, after reading A Savage Country, is that I am glad Dr Moon has taken the time and energy to write it, despite my misgivings about it occasionally appearing to be the hasty work of an academic who rushes to publish regularly as if to keep his name in print. For, despite too his own contentious statement that ‘documentary record relating to New Zealand in the 1820s is so irregular … that it excludes any comprehensive narrative of the period’, A Savage Country gives an intelligible overview of a period that not many people know much about, outside of academic and historical circles.
Indeed, I am prepared to declare Moon’s book an important general history of the era, outlining the early effects of the musket trade, the effects of disease, and the effects of Christianity and European culture generally, good and bad, on the Māori people and their culture at the time. It seeks to strike a populist note, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, when he wears his biases so visibly. Along with Michael King, James Belich, Ranginui Walker, Rory Sweetman, Bill Daker, Linda Smith and Charles Royal, Moon adds to the understanding of New Zealand’s early history, even if he does so at times provokingly; and, like his fellow-historians, he seeks to bring an awareness of this period to a wider audience.
MICHAEL O’LEARY is a poet, writer and small press publisher who lives on the Kapiti Coast. He has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Victoria University of Wellington.