What happens when two worlds come together? New Zealand has been experimenting with it for centuries, and in her new book, Dame Anne Salmond explores how our contrasting cultures can produce new thinking. hears more. There is the sense of marvelling at t
In her new book, Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds, historian Dame Anne Salmond describes an extraordinary moment in 1820. Two tall and tattooed Maori chiefs, Hongi Hika and Waikato, dressed in suits with feathered cloaks slung over their shoulders, were escorted by a prominent banker into the splendour of London’s Carlton House to meet King George IV. “How d’ye do, Mr King George,” Hongi said. “How d’ye do, Mr King Shunghi,” King George replied, before giving the pair an unexpectedly lengthy personally guided tour through the house, its gardens and its private apartments.
“What comes out,” Salmond says, “is the sense of equality. King George address Hongi as King Shunghie, and took him off to his armoury, and gave him these gifts – the helmet and chain mail that saved his life a number of times.
“It set the tone of how Maori would see their relations with the Royal family right up to the signing of the Treaty – and since.”
Salmond is the author of the award-winning and influential Two Worlds: First meetings between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772 and The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. Now, she examines historic encounters in light of how we live with their consequences today.
Maori had explored and inhabited the huge immensity of the Pacific using only their mental picture of the seas and stars as a guide. They carried a “portable suite” of plants, animals and a kin-based social order with them.
A thousand years later, a materialist European culture arrived in New Zealand with its reliance on metals, technology and devices. There were guns and new “repertoires” of animals and plants. Europeans also saw land as property.
“There is a point at which you stop and say: ‘That’s extraordinary,’” Salmond says about this meeting of two peoples. “There is the sense of marvelling at the differences, and probably having a greater humility in the face of them.”
In the first part of Tears of Rangi, Salmond follows Maori and Europeans as they clashed, adapted and eventually met to forge an alliance in the Treaty at Waitangi in 1840. Like many, she questions whether the signatories were actually signing the same thing.
“The Europeans were working off the English draft. Maori were working from the Maori text of the treaty itself which was the document they debated and ultimately most of them signed.
“Different understandings of how the world worked meant that one side thought they had achieved the transfer of sovereignty and the other side thought that Queen Victoria has recognised their tino rangatiratanga and guaranteed that over their lands as long as they wished to hold onto them.”
In the second part of Tears of Rangi, Salmon examines the consequences of these decisions and miscommunications in key contemporary areas such as waterways, land, the sea, and family life.
She begins with the momentous moment in 2014, when the Whanganui River was legally recognised as a living being. It was, as Salmond says, “a revolutionary step”, where the river “was placed in a new relationship with human beings”.
Salmond contrasts the two ways of seeing water – as a resource in European eyes and as a living system by Maori.
“The river, and the water in it, and the fish, and the plants, and the animals, and indeed the human populations round the river are all parts of this living system and they are all fundamentally tied together.
“If one part of the system becomes really unhealthy then other parts of the system, including the people, will find themselves in trouble – and indeed that is what is happening around New Zealand.”
She points to the problems with aquifers in Havelock North in 2016, where the town’s drinking water was contaminated by a campylobacter outbreak. Five thousand people were violently ill and there were three deaths.
“If we follow the Whanganui River Act and say that the River has rights of its own, you could actually have money flowing in for the preservation of that waterway… I think that would be a really fantastic way forward.”
New Zealanders, she thinks, have been influenced by Maori attitudes to rivers, mountains and beaches much more than is commonly thought.
“People who are not Maori have picked up all these senses of some kind of interlock between themselves, say, and the waterways where they grew up, and a lot of the Maori philosophy. For example: ‘I am the river and the river is me.’
“I guess what I’m also trying to draw out in the book is that our differences can be really creative,” she says. “Sometimes they are destructive and sometimes they cause a world of trouble, but other times you can do things with those differences and you can think new thoughts.
“Many pakeha New Zealanders see them as a source of infinite trouble and perplexity and disturbance rather than saying: ‘Well here we have these legacies – on one hand from the Pacific, on the other from Europe – what can we do with them that will be world-leading?’”