Friday, December 21, 2012

Meeting at the crossroads of history

At the moment I am combing through the Hawke's Bay newspapers of 1871 to get an idea of what Napier was like as a town, as a psychological atmosphere almost, when Kereopa Te Rau was brought here for trial in December of that year.

It's fascinating - and boring, almost in equal hypnotic parts. I find myself snuffling the stale smell of newsprint almost like a drug. But overall I'm beginning to get a sense - a take - on the period. 

When Carl Sylvius Volkner was killed in 1865 New Zealand was in a period of unparalleled instability, almost amounting to a form of civil war. There were the colonial and imperial forces, backed up by kupapa. They were called Queenites. 
On the other side were the Maori forces called 'kingites' and 'rebels'. They fought fiercely and often without quarter.

This was happening at the same time as the American civil war, a battle to end slavery but also a war in which modern killing techniques led to an extraordinarily high death toll. There was a kind of viciousness in this war which the war in New Zealand shared. (Perhaps all wars are vicious by nature.) 

Some Afro-Americans began to identify with the Israelites in the Bible, just as some Maori did at the same period, especially Pai Marire. It wasn't a uniquely NZ response, it was a kind of global phenomenum, based on an intense reading of the Old Testament.

By the time Kereopa Te Rau was brought to Napier , however, in November 1871, it is an entirely different local - and global - picture. By 1871, what Volkner feared would happen had happened. 'Rebel' Maori were defeated by the great imperial power of the 19th century. They would suffer the bitter fruits of defeat - confiscation and diminishment. All over the North island different iwi began suing for peace, laying down arms - accepting in so many words - defeat. 

Te Kooti was still uncaptured but much diminished as a threat. And Kereopa Te Rau was such a problem for the Tuhoe he himself began to realise he had to hand himself in. It was the end of one kind of road.

Globally the picture was different too. In 1871 Prussian Germany became a bristlingly powerful global player after defeating France.  This opened the way to the Paris Commune - an uprising and the assertion of a collectivist, communist ideal which went down in blood and starvation. 

In effect the modern world was being formed by the early 1870s. What happened then would be played out, with a remorseless destructive logic, right through to the mid-twentieth century.

And it was the same within Aotearoa New Zealand. The modern assimilationist world was being created in the 1870s - one which ran on, pretty much undisturbed, till the 1970s. 

Assimilation for Maori became the way to progress, or, as it was seen, co-exist and somehow survive psychological defeat. By 1871 Aotearoa New Zealand was an entirely different world to that of 1865, when Carl Sylvius Volkner was made a sacrificial victim - a kind of guy atop the flaming bonfire of anti-Pakeha sentiments. 

By 1871 it was Kereopa's turn to become a sacrificial victim. This ' new' world had its own stern logic too.


I thought of this while I was reading an article about Karaitiana, a Hawke's bay rangatira, and new Maori member of the House of Representatives. He was reported as saying it would be good if Maori schools taught students how to read and write and speak English. The newspaper editorial thought this was an excellent idea.  

Interestingly it accused missionaries of trying to do the same but they had 'supplied the party among them who were hostile to the interests of the Europeans with leaders of a higher degree of cunning and capacity.' By this they meant leaders like Te Kooti who was actually educated at the Williams' missionary school at Waerenga-a-hika, outside of Gisborne. (In fact it is quite possible, in one of those weird intersections of history and fate, that Te Kooti was actually taught English by Volkner himself. How's that for an extraordinary meeting at the crossroads?)  

The Hawke's Bay Herald saw the use of language as a tool of assimilation. If English had been taught from the start, it said, 'we should, no doubt, have witnessed by this time something like an amalgamation of the two races.' Maori youths could become clerks in 'warehouses' and obtain employment in 'the public service' while 'Maori maidens, especially if they were in many cases wealthy heiresses,' might have become 'suitable helpmates for their English compatriots.'

(It's one of the ambiguities of this period that intermarriage could be easily accepted whereas, as time went on, Pakeha-Maori intermarriage became more controversial, not less.) The Herald looked forward to a time when 'really acute and clear-headed Maori could articulate their own interests 'instead of  'Europeans who have been either from an official or other reasons, brought into intimate connection with the natives.'  

As I read this I was aware of a Maori boy and girl, probably in their mid teens, sitting on a couch not too far away from me. They had been engaging in a muted but extensive conversation nonstop for a long time.

In one way it was rather touching. There were two couches placed in a nook of Maori books and somehow they had found themselves a home there. I tried to concentrate on my research, at the same time keeping an ear open for what they were talking about.

Mostly it was chat about friends and acquaintances, a sort of extensive entertainment of unmalicious gossip. I noted that neither thought of picking up a book or looking at it. In the same way I noted the way Maori kids -and lots of Pakeha kids too - on the whole didn't understand ways of behaving in a library. They enjoyed talking too loudly. They did not obey the general rule, which went in the direction of silence more than sound. They always looked pleased to be disobeying rules. And in keeping with the world we live in, nobody felt it was right to point out that libraries, just as marae, have rules.

At one point I registered they were silent. Were they reading, I wondered? No, they were texting, both their faces looking down as their fingers clicked.

I thought about Karaitiana's idealistic premise: that education could change Maori and help them go forward into the modern world. This was true of course, to a degree. The wealthiest Maori today were those well educated enough to make a very good living out of working Treaty issues. But this was a long way from these kids.

Now some friends came to join them. They were all taken with an outsized, somehow Alice in Wonderlandish chair - actually a mayor's chair from the past, I think.

The kids looked at the chair, appreciatively. It was the king's chair said one. The queen's chair said another. They posed by it, sat on it, then restlessly, like a wave, moved on. 

In some way they were absolutely harmless. It was good, too, they were in a library. There was always the chance that one of them, finding him or herself on their own, might actually pick up a book and let their eyes be entranced by the tiny symbols which collectively made up the wisdom of the world - the written wisdom of the world.

But what was the value of the written wisdom of the world beside the tiny universe they lived in - of teenage gossip, of love and jealousy and fun. The girls would become pregnant fairly soon. Hawke's Bay after all had appalling rates of teenage pregnancy for both Maori and Pakeha, so that poverty was embedded in their fertility. I knew there were classes for teenage mothers who went back to high school to try and get back into the educational loop. 

I wasn't too sure how the uses of English had helped them. Or the degree to which they had grasped the potential of the only truly global language which history had sent their way.

I turned the page and went on reading. I knew I was reading about the birth of modern Aotearoa New Zealand...

And I had begun to scent the 'psychological atmosphere'...


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