Back to the Future?

It’s been said that history is just another excuse for us to feel superior to our ancestors. We are so much smarter, more sensitive and certain of our place in the world than they ever were. Or at least we like to think so.

But what if we could learn from those who went before us? That would be consistent with the old Maori saying about the past always being before us. From this perspective, history is less a linear story of boundless progress, than a more circular tale in which we sense we have somehow been here before.

New Zealand, here in the early years of the 21st century, stands on the threshold of a world it last inhabited nearly two centuries ago. That might seem a surprising claim, given that we associate the early 1800s with conflict and chaos. And it is true that pre-Treaty Aotearoa could be a dangerous and volatile place.

But what I argue in The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters, 1642-1840,  is that what mostly bound Maori and Pakeha in those raw-boned decades was mutual self-interest. 

The ‘middle ground’ world that flourished before 1840 was built on interdependence and shared self-interest. Those factors allowed Maori and Pakeha to remain comfortable in their own cultures, while finding fresh ways of dealing with each other in the spaces in between.

Which brings us  to 2012. The remarkable Maori demographic recovery from near extinction in the early 20th century through to a booming population today, along with the resurgent Maori economy, point to the potential for a new middle ground to emerge.

Hapu and iwi, newly recapitalised through the Treaty settlements process, are again becoming major players in our economy. New forms of accommodation may emerge out of mutual self-interest because Maori and Pakeha again find things of value in each other that cannot be obtained by other means. 

Finding the middle ground is of course as challenging today as it was two centuries ago. As the first Europeans began to take up residence in New Zealand in the early 1800s, they were forced to find ways of living with and alongside their far more numerous Maori neighbours.

For larger-than-life figures like Jacky Marmon, Barnet Burns and John Rutherford the solution was to adopt the lifestyles of Pakeha-Maori. Marmon, for example, engaged in tribal warfare alongside his host tribe and was believed to have also indulged in the cannibal feasts that often accompanied victory on the battlefield.

John Rutherford, A-090-028, ATL

These men were a motley group of desperate characters — often consisting of escaped convicts from the penal colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land or sailors who had jumped ship at the Bay of Islands.

Charles Darwin called them the ‘very refuse’ of British society after his 1835 visit to New Zealand. Yet these mostly illiterate and uncouth men (many of them Irish Catholics, a further mark against them in the minds of the so-called respectable classes) were drawn to the Maori world and learnt to abide by its rules since they knew there would be consequences if they failed to do so. 

For the missionaries who took up residence in the north of New Zealand after 1814, or others such as visiting sealers and whalers, absorption into the tribe was not an option. Once Maori gained access to muskets, they were in a position to impose their will on the few hundred Europeans resident in New Zealand. But to do so risked driving these people away, and so ending the steady access to iron, muskets, axes, hoes, blankets and pipes that Maori had come increasingly to depend upon.

Maori bargaining with a Pakeha, A-079-017, ATL

Because Maori and Pakeha had a mutual need for one another, new rules and new forms of engagement that drew upon both cultures and societies but belonged wholly to neither began to emerge. Even before embracing Christianity themselves, many Maori communities were careful to observe the Sabbath — ‘the white man’s tapu day’, as they called it — because in their conception failure to respect any tapu carried serious consequences.

Maori also learned to shake hands with the newcomers, while transferring across to the gesture the meanings of their own hongi. Missionaries complained that early Maori handshakes went on forever, the longer this took the more it was said to reflect the depth of feeling that went into it.

Both parties learnt to trade with one another but not always in ways that either group would have previously understood. For Maori outright haggling over the terms of trade was a definite no-no before 1769. Meanwhile Europeans were unaccustomed to the notion that they should purchase everything a chief offered them, whether they wanted it or not, simply as a token of friendship and reciprocity.

The key to this uniquely hybrid world was that both Maori and Pakeha had things which the other party wanted but could not gain by force. But all that began to change after 1840, as large numbers of Europeans unfamiliar with the old rules of pre-Treaty Aotearoa began to vastly outnumber Maori. The kind of rough and ready balance of power that had sustained the old order increasingly no longer applied, even if the incoming migrants remained dependent on Maori labour to feed them, and build their houses and roads, for much of the period to about 1860.

James and Te Wai Heberley, PAColl-5800-12, ATL

After that date, Maori who had invested great hopes in a future society built upon mutual accommodation and new ways of interacting that drew upon both cultures found themselves expected to straddle the two cultures on their own, at least until the tide began to turn ever so slightly from the 1970s onwards.

Today hapu and iwi are assuming major roles in the New Zealand economy. Maori and Pakeha are recovering and rediscovering things of value in each other that cannot be obtained by other means. In this way, the past may be truly ahead of us.           


  1. Thanks Vincent, this is a useful blog. It is great to have historians drawing the contemporary relevance of the past while still dealing with it on its own terms. Sadly I'll miss the new book launch but look forward to reading it in the next school holidays!

  2. I've been researching Jacky Marmon recently after reading a book about him, quite an interesting man.


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