Dame Anne Salmond walks with ancestors in Tears of Rangi

by Sally Blundell / 04 October, 2017

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Lithograph of wounded chief Honghi & his family. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

This important and highly readable book will help us understand our history. 

Sailing into the small bays of the North Island’s east coast, the compact “wooden world” of the Endeavour was a microcosm of Western Enlightenment thinking. Inside was a growing archive of cartographic and astronomical data, plants and traded taonga. All were named and allotted a geographic, ethnographic or taxonomic place within a world view based on a singular cosmic hierarchy that put God at the top, then angels, monarchy, aristocracy and various strata of humans from the “civilised” to the “savage”.

Those witnessing the arrival of this sailed apparition held a vastly different world view, one where relationships were built or broken on the flexible basis of reciprocity, exchange, friendship and insult; where kinship networks spiralled out in symbiosis with ancestral lands and waterways; where notions of tapu, utu, mana and hau, premised on the presence of ancestors in everyday life, presupposed a reality fundamentally at odds, writes Anne Salmond in Tears of Rangi, “with Western ideas about the world”.

She sets out to expose the effect of this ontological divide. She tracks the experiences of the first missionaries, who set out to convert a people they saw as gripped by superstition and amorality, while dependent on the generosity of their hosts. She describes the mixed responses by Maori: wooed by the potential for trade and increased social standing; cognisant of the lawless hordes of grog-sellers and traders washing up on these shores; fearful of the complete dispossession of lands, as seen in Australia.

Dame Anne Salmond.

Salmond unpicks the nuances of the English and Maori versions of the Treaty of Waitangi, by which tribes agreed to a shared future with the British queen “in which the mana of both rangatira and the queen would be upheld”, while Crown representatives assumed the right to govern the country.

In this way, she writes, “an ontological impasse lies at the heart of the New Zealand state. Can different ‘worlds’ converge?” From the initial alienation of Maori from their land to more recent clashes over seabed and foreshore legislation and Government approval of oil drilling off the East Cape, it seems not.

But Salmond also writes about those seeking, with varying levels of openness, to soften this deadlock: high priest Tupaia and botanist Joseph Banks, missionary Samuel Marsden and Ngapuhi leaders Te Pahi and Ruatara, missionary and schoolmaster Thomas Kendall and Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika. In more recent history, she points to the blending of Western principles of private property with traditional tikanga; non-Maori New Zealanders acting as kaitiaki for rivers and beaches; the shift of Maori terms into Kiwi English; the return of taonga; the resurgence of the haka, carving and tattoo. These are signs, she suggests, that these divergent world views are not immutable.

She puts this convergence of ideologies into a global perspective, as belief systems that acknowledge the interconnectedness of life prove more relevant than old Cartesian dualisms in meeting the challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Tears of Rangi is a heavy tome. There is some repetition and the gear shifts from philosophical overview to historical details aren’t always smooth, but in exploring the views that underpinned and continue to underpin Maori-European relations, she presents an important, highly readable book that helps us understand our history and plan for our future.

TEARS OF RANGI: Experiments Across Worlds, by Anne Salmond (AUP, $65)

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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