NOTES ON HAZEL PETRIE'S OUTCASTS OF THE GODS: THE STRUGGLE OVER SLAVERY IN MĀORI NEW ZEALAND (AUP 2015)
Hazel Petrie’s Outcasts of the Gods? The Struggle over Slavery in Māori New Zealand (Auckland University Press 2015) is clearly a thoroughly researched piece of scholarship. The vaguely Erich von Däniken-esque echo of the title is perhaps unfortunate, but that passive-aggressively anxious question mark, like the appeasing, uneasily rising intonation of the New Zealand accent, sets the tone. As a work of historical scholarship Outcasts of the Gods? is astonishingly defensive. It invites comparison to Paul Moon’s This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Māori Cannibalism (Penguin 2008). In both cases we have Pākehā academics tackling sensitive historical practices that by and large the tangata whenua would prefer were left in the dustbin of history. Moon goes at cannibalism with all the sensitivity and diplomacy of a half-brick in a sock. Petrie, on the other hand, is practically yogic in her bending over backwards not to offend to the point of inviting accusations of having a White Saviour complex.
Perhaps the latter is a kind of utu to smooth over the ructions caused by the former. This results in the book being undermined by a paradox that Petrie fails to resolve. She would clearly like to invoke cultural relativism, wash her hands of the ethics and just get stuck in, however she can’t bring herself to leave the cathedral of Enlightenment universalism lest she also excuse the patronising attitudes of European colonists. It is the proverbial rock and hard place and the inevitable result is the atmosphere of defensiveness that permeates the narrative and the imbedding of Petrie’s estimable scholarship in a farrago of speculation, apologism, contradiction, weasel Bayesian adverbials and casuistry.
In the long run it would have been so much more respectful to Māori simply to acknowledge that the past is another country and they do things differently there; that Māori are no more able to be judged by historical cultural practices than Petrie is to be blamed for Cecil Rhodes. Māori culture is emergent, evolving, nuanced and complex, and Petrie frequently highlights this, but only inasmuch as it emphasises her case for extreme abuses of mokai being aberrant rather than acknowledging it as an organic historical development that Christianised Māori themselves came to repudiate.
From the outset Petrie has a clear agenda that tends to get in the way of her subject. At every step she is determined to tilt at Pākehā misunderstandings and negative spin on pre and early-European contact reports of Māori culture and history. This, while also citing examples that show clearly that influential Europeans like Samuel Marsden knew perfectly well the difference between, say, “religious theft” (tapu) and “ordinary theft” (p220). In practice this approach is something of a straw man. Petrie’s audience is unlikely to be the sort of person who was in a coma for the broadcast of James Belich’s New Zealand Wars, or has never at the very least thumbed through Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand. Her book, while eminently accessible, is mostly going to be read by the interested and informed, certainly by other historians, and the adopted tone comes across as condescending, belligerent and not a little paternalistic. Obviously it’s a difficult and contentious issue and Petrie is to be commended for her sensitivity and attention to detail, but even for the historian it was a bit like watching Johnnie Cochran chewing the scenery at the O. J. Simpson trial as she dissects in minuscule detail what “slavery” meant in the context of Māori tikanga.
Petrie is absolutely correct to give slavery its appropriate place in Māori culture as an aspect of utu – the cosmic reciprocity that ensured the balance and therefore natural order of the universe - but there should at no point be any doubt that being mokai was an undesirable status. As with many, indeed, most cultures at some point in their history, formalised slavery was an essential part, whether that be as lives of drudgery and heavy labour, supervised soldiers similar in principle to the Mamluk and Ghilman of the Muslim world, concubines, or even as food when nothing else was available. The taking of high-ranking members of other tribes as slaves or second wives also served to enhance the occupier’s title to conquered territory. Acknowledging this, however, doesn’t seem to satisfy the author.
The opening paragraph of Petrie’s introduction starts with another straw man which will be one of the defining threads of the book’s narrative. She quotes the well-known passage in Alan Duff’s 1990 novel Once Were Warriors in which Beth likens Jake’s whakapapa to slavery in the southern states of the US. Duff is Ngāti Rangitihi and Ngāti Tūwharetoa and from a family of prominent academics and intellectuals; any naïveté in this quote is Duff’s deliberate allusion to how dislocated the Hekes are from their kaupapa. It is fiction. And yet Petrie intersects this with similar comparisons made by Europeans at a time when the 1807 Slave Trade Act was still relatively new, and then steadfastly argues that the historical Māori tradition of mokai, when recalled at all, is regarded as analogous. Petrie more or less acknowledges that it’s a literary conceit: “But this scenario is unlikely given that Māori almost always have options when it comes to tracing their line of descent.” (p78). Would that she’d kept this nugget of wisdom in mind with every second argument in the book dependant on oral traditions and anecdotes. Petrie acknowledges this at the end of the book, “This study is the personal perspective of an outsider, as we all must be to some extent [in reference to the intervening passage of time]” (p340). This observation should probably be on the front cover in bold letters in the same way Douglas Adams had "Don't Panic" on the cover of the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Petrie wants to make an example of this category mistake. It’s the hook she hangs her argument off. She argues that mokai can’t really be considered as “slaves” because they were hostages taken in battle, of the same race as their captors, and had a certain amount of social mobility within the hierarchy and were often more like friends or members of the family: “…while the despair, the drudgery, and the fragility of life that are said to have been the captive’s lot have frequently been stressed, oral traditions tell of slaves as faithful companions, who risked life and limb to save their masters and mistresses or facilitate the path of true love.” (pp2-3) Yes, well, the trope of the beloved and/or loyal slave are as old as the nurse in Homer.
The malign interpretation, she claims, is a projection by Europeans at the height of the British anti-slavery campaign. So yes, not typical (but not unknown) on the plantations of Virginia, but actually very similar to historical Old World slavery. The Romans, for example, acquired many of their slaves through invasion and war, were not terribly particular about what race their slaves were (plenty of blond, blue-eyed Germans, Scandinavians, Circassians and Angles), and there are numerous examples in fiction (Trimalchio in the Satyricon for example) and history of slaves buying their freedom or being freed by a kind master and sometimes becoming very wealthy and powerful. They were, however, still slaves, forced into servitude and denied autonomy, and like mokai, lived and died at the whim of their masters. There is the incident witnessed by Bishop Selwyn when his Māori assistant tried to buy the freedom of his mother with her refusing to leave her master (p255). Roman literature and the Bible are full of loyal, beloved slaves to the point of it being more of a cliché than a trope. Today we might invoke Stockholm Syndrome as much as shame. The ignoring of these other well-documented models becomes annoying – not least because they would certainly have also been familiar to some of the European observers she criticises.
Casuistry spawns irrelevance and a painfully systematic setting up of more straw men based on the prejudices and projections of early European observers. Once you dump the Old South analogies, whole chapters become, while interesting in their own right, redundant. Chapter one argues that skin colour wasn’t an issue for Māori in taking and categorising slaves, and oral traditions of the colour red being associated with rangatira and black with mokai is purely symbolic. This is fine, but as we have noted, skin colour was largely irrelevant to Old World models of slavery also. Petrie’s contention is that it was early Europeans who made Māori conscious of dark complexions as a sign of inferiority with the vaguest of circumstantial evidence and a lot of supposition including a very long bow drawn between European treatment of Aborigines in Australia and the Māori genocide of the Moriori in the Chatham Islands. She does this while managing to ignore her own Aboriginal deckhand example’s disdain for the cannibals of New Zealand (p37), nor is there any evidence that Māori were particularly enamoured of pale European complexions either. Indeed “Pākehā” may very likely be derived from “Pakepakeha” – a pale-skinned hobgoblin.
Chapter’s two and three assert that mokai can’t be considered slaves because there appeared to be (hypothetical) tikanga that governed their treatment. If there was a tapu on some mokai, however, it is less the variant on the xenia of hospitality Petrie implies, than it is an association with their lowly status as in the case of the Dalit untouchables of India, or as outsiders from another tribe and spiritually contaminated. Enemy rangatira were taken without loss of mana (but then again the prisoner of rank as bargaining chip isn’t exactly a foreign concept). The treatment of these two separate cases gets conflated. The accusation is made that “the logic behind the Māori concept of tapu has proved difficult for present-day scholars to comprehend...” (p47) which is a patronising generalisation and one wonders what several generations of Māori academics (presumably also “present-day scholars”) have been doing all this time if not putting these things in context. Indeed tapu isn’t remotely mysterious to anyone acquainted with cultural anthropology.
Mokai were often well- treated and sometimes socially mobile: “Captivity had important spiritual ramifications but they were not necessarily permanent ones. Before the practice of captive taking ended altogether, it is clear that there was no one way in which captives were treated and that the lives they led and the status they occupied while in captivity were closely related to their rank prior to capture and their usefulness as members of their conquerors’ tribal group afterwards.” (p75) Again, so what? The Claudian emperors of Rome passed a number of laws about the treatment of slaves, but Petrie is only interested in Roman slavery in so far as the pattern of conversion to Christianity can be used to bolster her arguments. The special pleading is only possible if you stick to the straw man of the relevant comparison being an un-nuanced version of American slavery.
Exodus 21 deals in detail with the proper treatment of slaves by the Israelites. Petrie even cites Deuteronomy 15:12 to show how English legal understandings of slavery are often Biblically-based (p229) and other passages, but in the context of the King James Version not accurately distinguishing between “slave” and “servant” and suggests missionaries took Biblical slavery-metaphors and rhetoric overly literally. This, she links, to confusion over the Greek word doulos which can mean either in context (p227). The point of this hair-splitting isn’t entirely obvious as it is irrelevant to the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Aramaic of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also curious that this is given as the only example and not, say, pais which can mean a boy child, a servant, a slave-boy, or an eromenos; an oiketês is a house servant, a diakonos is a high-ranking servant whence comes the English word “deacon”. As Petrie notes, the KJV only uses the word “slave” twice, but variations on “bondage” and “bond-servant” hundreds of times, suggesting that it is a modern tendency to translate these as “slave” citing the 349 usages in the Good News version (1976) and the 153 usages in the New Revised Standard version (1989) which “claims to be the most accurate translation” (p227) – note to Petrie, that’s because it is. This peculiar conflation of millennia and cultures aside, while Koine Greek was very much a living language when St Jerome translated it into Latin, but the KJV is a translation of a translation, and the GN and NRS are the products of years of careful linguistic, historical and theological scholarship from the original sources.
Petrie writes: “Dealing with one’s own captives was one thing, but since their status was similar to that of other belongings, it was not lawful to punish, let alone kill, someone else’s.” (p103). Even in Petrie’s favourite stalking horse of Dixie, it was against the law to steal or kill another man’s property. In Māori custom most mokai were the collective property of the tribe. It is an entirely specious argument. Also, as we have noted, in Old World slavery there were similar possibilities of advancement with little change to the status as a slave short of actual manumission. The arbitrary-seeming nature of how slaves were regarded is entirely typical of honour-shame (or, in this case, mana) cultures and what Petrie tries to link to the European concept of noblesse oblige is really the idea that one’s immediate family and slaves are an extension of one’s person and an assault on them attacks one’s own mana. (pp104-5) It doesn’t necessarily extend to a sense of duty to the slave, as other examples cited by Petrie would suggest.
Perhaps the most openly contentious and revisionist parts of Outcasts of the Gods? begins with Chapter four and the horrors of the Musket Wars. The explosion of inter-tribal warfare resulting from the introduction of efficient killing weapons (muskets) and an abundance of carbohydrates (easily-grown European potatoes). Prisoners could be taken in unprecedented numbers – Te Rauparaha took 2000 captives at Kāpiti Island – where once battles had been largely formalised, symbolically ritualistic and seasonal. Petrie asserts the taking of large numbers of slaves was only really an artefact of Pākehā introducing muskets: “…[T]he ‘musket wars’, which began late in the 1810s and continued to the early 1830s, were an aberration in Māori warfare: in captive taking, numbers killed and eaten after capture, and in many other ways, too. It is important to keep that in mind because the end of the wars saw the release of many captives and, to a large extent, the end of captive-taking by Māori. Yet, despite it being a brief interlude in Māori history and a very atypical one, most of our historical accounts concerning Māori ‘slavery’ are based on primary source material from that period.” (p154)
To call this an aberration is to make a very bold claim about what, by contrast, was normal. Petrie’s benchmark often falls to subjective interpretations of oral tradition (unreliable to begin with), occasionally even where these contain obvious mythological elements. An example of this is Petrie’s account of the story of Tamaāhua who is punished for killing a slave by his three wives being turned to stone. (p110). Instances of “aberration” often seem to be simple adaptions to need. The taking of captives became seen as a legitimate way of acquiring missing skill sets. Ngāpuhi, for example, lost the toi whakairo (the art of carving) in the eighteenth century due to missionary interference and often prioritised the capture of carvers from iwi to the south (p147). Some examples seem to have no relevance whatsoever as in the case of Māori women bartering sexual favours, sometimes on a long-term “temporary marriage” basis.
Petrie’s inclusion of the practice is something of a red herring because even if the missionaries metaphorically saw these women as “slaves”, they were not. In any case the nineteenth century trope of the “fallen women” seems a more likely stereotype to have come to mind. The situation was more complicated than the European concept of prostitution. Petrie tells us that something closer to real prostitution involving slaves only evolved under the musket trade. Petrie, however, avoids the issue of social and cultural coercion of these women, which seems strange to me. Hopefully someone will one day write a book just about them. It is also interesting that while elsewhere frequent reference is made elsewhere in the book to the observations of the missionary Reverend William Yate, no mention is made of his infamous fall from grace; his dalliances with young Māori men in exchange for tobacco and other goods – in other words, exactly the same kind of "prostitution" (the interested are invited to read Judith Binney’s “Whatever happened to poor Mr Yate? An exercise in voyeurism.” New Zealand Journal of History v. 9 no. 2, October 1975, pp111-125.)
Perhaps one of the most grotesque manifestations of the powerlessness of mokai during this period was the proliferation of mokomōkai (preserved heads distinguished by tā moko) as a trade industry with Pākehā. Traditionally these heads had been either a remembrance of ancestors analogous to the practice of the death mask, or as heads taken from rangatira (the part of the body invested with the most mana) as a trophy and bargaining chip for future diplomacy. In 1770 Captain James Cook acquired a Ngāi Tahu mokomōkai – the first to be bartered for muskets in a grisly trade that persisted over the next century with sealers, whalers and traders. This trade proved so successful that pragmatic and entrepreneurial Māori substituted mokai to keep up with the demand (p153). While Europeans certainly hold much of the blame in inspiring this innovation in the industry, Petrie’s transference of all responsibility to these unscrupulous Europeans deprives the Māori actors of autonomy and agency as regards subverting their own traditions, not to mention their entrepreneurial flair.
Chapters six and seven take a Foucauldian approach to the deconstruction of how contemporary Europeans read Māori slavery, highlighting that much of the surviving testimony comes from missionaries involved in the movement to bring about the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Petrie asserts that these accounts were exaggerated to discourage commercial speculation (a complete failure in the example of the Wakefield Company) and to encourage the British government to annex New Zealand by appealing to humanitarian virtue. It seems unlikely that much exaggeration would be required given that from 1807 onward inhibiting slavery was British policy with the Royal Navy actively blockading the coast of West Africa. It is, at times, difficult to tally Petrie’s accusations of missionary overreaction with the relative brutality of some of the incidents she recounts – the murder of children for violating tapu (stealing kumara being a common example), female captives tethered by their hair (p131), and one gruesome incident of one young man being tortured by having a large, live crayfish placed on his bare back (p111).
The justification that mokai were violently treated and casually dispatched because they were elderly, infirm, lacking in intelligence or physically unattractive (p122) seems cruel this side of the Enlightenment. Petrie seems to concur with the Scottish-born colonial magistrate Samuel Martin: “With the exception of the insecurity of life, the slaves in New Zealand have been, and are now, at least better treated than in any other part of the world – enjoying both a larger amount of freedom, as well as the right of property.” (p122)
It’s entirely plausible melodramatic slavery narratives were used by missionaries and Crown agents to hasten annexation, but it was hardly central to the British Crown’s pursuit the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The desire to extend absolute British authority over territory in competition with the French more than suffices. It should also be noted that anyone mokai prior to the Treaty remained mokai afterward. Even after the Treaty was signed, rangatira hired mokai as guides and bearers to Thomas Brunner on 1846-1848 South Island expeditions (p144). Mokai were still owned into the 1850s, and if anything Pākehā abetted the practice by hiring mokai from their rangatira, though as one contemporary observed, they could be “the most annoying of the several classes in this [New Zealand] country; having no character to gain or lose, they subject the commercial trader to much inconvenience” (p144). Petrie gives examples of Māori slow to relinquish the practice (p266), so if this was a conscious strategy it was far less successful than purchase or outright military occupation, and as Petrie suggests, Earl Grey in London was far from keen to take the bait, even if his agents like George Grey had other ideas (p271). Most of the real problems can be attributed to Pākehā free agents like private traders and mariners overstepping as in the case of the infamous Boyd incident in 1809.
Petrie also adopts a quasi-Nietzschean tone (mokai were keen converts to Christianity because it unburdened them of tapu and inferior status), retrospectively reading the minds of the missionaries and determining that they didn’t really distinguish between slaves and domestic servants (suggestive given one of her own arguments that the earliest European witnesses hadn’t paid much attention to slavery among Māori), that Māori were all metaphorically enslaved by sin anyway, and that conversion to Christianity and the freeing of slaves were at the unconscious level the same thing. Hongi Hika, and Tāreha of Ngāpuhi are painted in as anticipatory stand-ins for the German philosopher. This, however, ignores that Māori were in general ambivalent about converting to Christianity (many seeing it as a strategic diplomatic move more than anything spiritual), missionaries tended to concentrate on high value targets like rangatira (the rest followed in behind) and that many Anglican Māori in Northland, independent of the missionaries, were also anecdotally active in freeing mokai. Nor did Christianity simply negate Māori animistic-based traditions which frequently survived as folk beliefs or blossomed into full-blown syncretism in the cases of Whiowhio, Pai Mārire, and Rātana, having internalised a view of themselves as Israelites in bondage to Egypt and Babylon. Here Petrie has trod very carefully. I don’t think anyone could doubt the sincere Christian faith of many older Māori in particular, though honestly reference was crying out to be made to “Bishop” Brian Tamaki today.
The final three chapters descend to tu quoque whataboutery in constructing a moral argument that British colonists behaved just as badly or even worse and that their abhorrence of Māori practice merely reflected their own sense of shame at the practice that for centuries they themselves indulged in. Certainly the British were able to indulge their capacity for violence and oppression with greater efficiency and on a global scale unimaginable to Māori, but it’s still playing a moral gradient that implies Māori weren’t a highly sophisticated, adaptive civilisation capable of self-examination and self-determined change. Petrie blames examples of the brutal extremes of the early nineteenth century directly on the undermining of chiefly authority by the Crown and Christianity. This is objectively true in that Māori rangatiratanga was systematically undermined – that’s why the Waitangi Tribunal exists. For the rangatira to be deprived of mana and tapu by the Crown and Christianity did, in tikanga, put them in the same position they put their mokai. It was, as Petrie notes, one of the driving factors of the Kīngitanga movement (p308), and the Parihaka community’s passive resistance parallels Christian resignation to enslavement (though of course indigenous pacifism could be found in the Moriori and Waitaha). But perhaps that should be taken as an indicator of how miserable the lot of a mokai was in the first place.
At the same time it evokes a paternalistic view that deprives the dynamically entrepreneurial, pragmatic Māori of agency and smacks of Rousseau (Māori, as Petrie gives many examples of, were more than capable of negotiating around mana and tapu issues if it furthered their self-interest), as well as suggesting a faintly Romantic infatuation with ancient Māori aristocracy at the expense of those on the bottom of that society. There is a tendency to take chiefly formal rhetoric overly literally (ironic, given some of the accusations Petrie levels at the missionaries). She concludes, having apparently half-digested Hegel’s Herrschaft und Knechtschaft dialectic by way of Frantz Fanon, that the emancipation of mokai by the Treaty of Waitangi granting all Māori citizenship was effectively meaningless because all Māori lost their traditional freedoms and were culturally enslaved by the British – as illustrated in an orgy of semantics – as if we really needed reminding that colonisation was a bad thing. Petrie cites the old Isiah Berlin chestnut about liberty being a “protean word” of “more than two hundred senses” (214), without a skerrick of irony.
In summary, Petrie has concocted a detailed and not-implausible narrative based on a very generous reading of accounts, mostly anecdotal, that some individuals and iwi treated their captive labour kindly while moving quickly past those who did not, dismissing recorded accounts as aberrant against the broader context of Māori tikanga (anecdotal and subjective). This is not to say that Petrie’s interpretation of how Europeans viewed Māori practice is inaccurate, but even in the nineteenth century no one was making an argument that slavery was a defining aspect of Māori culture in all important interactions with Europeans, otherwise a treaty would have been almost superfluous. There is enormous value in understanding how Māori slavery was practiced in context, its nuances and variations including shades that have little resemblance to the European concept, and while it is perfectly legitimate to compare it to the horrific scale and brutality of European and American slavery, all too often Petrie uses this as a kind of crutch to excuse a historic practice which, by modern ethical standards (Article 4 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights comes to mind, “no one should be held in slavery or servitude, slavery in all of its forms should be eliminated.”) was objectionable. Such apologism is unbecoming of an academic historian, patronising of Māori and condescending to the reader. Slavery in its oldest, culturalised form exists today in the Subcontinent, South East Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa, and one wonders if Petrie would feel comfortable applying the same arguments to it.