The Language of Colonisation: A Case Study

The Language of Colonisation: A Case Study  

In 1782, Volume One of The Geographical Magazine compiled by William Frederick Martyn  was published by Harrison and Company of London, offering the reader a ‘New, copious, Compleat and Universal system of Geography.’ 

Included was an entry on New Zealand (reproduced below in its entirety), that fed into the early impression of the country that became widely accepted and embedded in common lore. Knowledge is power, especially when that knowledge is written down. That way, accounts of early explorers provided a bedrock of opinion that became the basis of future “knowledge”, by recounting and embedding incidents, observations and judgements and then disseminating that ‘knowledge’ to a wider readership. When there is no counter, no checks and balances, no opportunity for response or explanation, even if the evidence is challenged and overturned, the mere act of publishing becomes an act of authority by an ascendant culture whose views are revised and built upon, but seldom contradicted.

Those maritime adventurers and scientists, on whose diaries and written records the entry is based, were not presuming to be anything other than recorders and observers, dealing subjectively with their experience of the interface between two cultures without any filters and little prior understanding of their subject. Their records, a mix of observation and opinion inadvertently provided the basis of popular knowledge about New Zealand / Aotearoa that continues to be refined and updated.

What is known is that this entry could only be based on the observations and interactions from a very small sample. In 1782 when the book was published, the only available first-hand sources were the recorded views and observations of four visits, starting with Abel Janzoon Tasman, (1642) who ‘discovered’ Aotearoa / New Zealand while on a reconnaissance for the Dutch East India Company; Captain James Cook, who made three voyages (in 1769 – 1771, 1772 – 1775 and 1776-1779) including the experiences of Captain Furneaux who accompanied Cook on his second voyage as Commander of  the ‘Adventure’ and who ‘successfully’ introduced domestic animals and potatoes into the South Sea Islands) greatly increased the knowledge of New Zealand in the public mind; and the two French explorers, Jean de Durville whose voyage was contemporaneous with the first voyage of Cook, and Marion Du Fresne, in 1772 who met his death in the Bay of Islands. Each came with a mission: Tasman was commanding a Dutch East India Company expedition, looking for trade opportunities and new markets; de Surville had sailed from India after the collapse of the French India Company in 1769 with trade and economic opportunity firmly in mind; and Cook’s purpose was to record the transit of Venus although his copious diaries and those of Banks greatly added to our knowledge). Each voyage, as with that of de Fresne, involved some contact with the Maori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa / New Zealand (some of which turned violent), and it was their experiences and opinions that informed the British public.

While the sources were few, the early explorers produced extensive records of their voyages, from Cook’s very detailed and exhaustive journals, Joseph Banks’ Florilegium to the logbooks and diaries of de Fresne and de Surville. But it was up to others, back in Great Britain, to provide the synthesis, to make sense of the whole and consolidate a popular image of the country that was Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Entry:

New Zealand:

‘New Zealand was first discovered by the Dutch  in 1642 who gave it the name of Staten Island, but in British maps and charts it has been  generally distinguished by that of New Zealand; and it was supposed to have formed a part of that great southern continent, till Captain Cook sailed round it, and found it to consist of two large islands, separated by a strait about four degrees broad, which lie  between thirty four and forty eight degrees south latitude and between one hundred and fifty six and one hundred and eighty degrees east latitude from Greenwich.  The most northern parts of these islands appears to be a barren country, and thinly inhabited; the other has a more fertile aspect, its mountains are clothed with woods and its valleys plentiful supplied with fine rivulets. The soil of these islands seems well calculated for producing every species of European grain, plants, and fruits; though at present, in its natural state, it is but very indifferently furnished with any vegetable productions. Yams, sweet potatoes and cocoas are cultivated for food, as well as a plant resembling our flag, the fibres of which are  converted into garments, lines, and cordage, and as this plant appears to be far superior in quality to our flax or hemp, it might prove of more real benefit to this country, could it be thoroughly introduced, than the productions of all the islands which our circumnavigators have discovered for a century past. With a view to this important advantage, Captain Furneaux brought over a small quantity of the seed of this plant, which was sown in Kew Garden; but though, either from want of care or skill, the whole unfortunately failed, it ought not to deter us from future experiments.

Nature has given these islands no other quadrupeds than dogs and rats, and with the same parsimonious hand has dealt out the race of birds and insects; but the seas teem with abundance of the most delicious fish, many of them similar to those of Europe.

The New Zealanders are equal in stature to any nation in Europe; their complexions are not much deeper than those of the Spaniards, their hair and beards are black, their teeth white and extremely regular, and their whole features naturally agreeable. Both sexes disfigure themselves by pricking the skin in various figures, on several parts of the body, with a small instrument, the teeth of which are dipped into a mixture resembling lamp-black: this is called tattowing, and considered as highly ornamental; it gives them however, such a terrific aspect, particularly the aged, that if a few of them were to be unexpectedly introduced  among us, they would rather be ranked as infernals, than as any part of the human species.

Both men and women bore their ears large enough to admit one of their fingers. and in these holes they fix some kind of ornament, or suspend by a string either the teeth and nails of their deceased relations. Or any other article esteemed curious or valuable among them. Their personal cleanliness deserves but little commendation; for by anointing their hair with the molten fat of fishes, and smearing and painting their bodies, their smell is in general as offensive as the Hottentots. 

In their dress, which is commonly complied of the flags before mentioned, they make a very uncouth appearance; but the pride of finery consists in the skins of dogs, which they dispose in a very ingenious and pleasing manner.

The flesh of dogs, bred for the purpose, is their ordinary food, and the roots of ferns serve them for bread; but what fill every Christian with horror, is the circumstance of their eating the carcasses of their enemies slain in battle; a fact which, for the honour of human nature, we would wish to deny, did it not seem too well authenticated to admit the possibility of a doubt. 

Their villages are all fortified , being built on the top of precipices, washed by the sea and secured on the land-side by deep ditches and strong palisades, where a few men may easily defend themselves against a great number. Yet it is remarkable, that though these people live in a wretched state of hostilities, they have not a single missile weapon, except the lance; which is fourteen or fifteen feet long, pointed at both ends, and sometimes headed with bone. They throw their darts and stones by the hand alone; but these are only used when they are besieged. Their battles commence with a song and a dance: the former being wild, but not disagreeable, and every strain ending in a loud and deep sigh, which they utter in concert; and the latter consisting in a variety of violent motions and frightful contortions.

The ingenuity of the New Zealanders is principally apparent in their boats; some which are near seventy feet long, and capable of carrying a hundred men. Their language and religious notions bear so strong an affinity to those of Otaheite, hereafter to be noticed that a description of the one may very well serve for both, and it will accordingly be given in our account of that island.

New Zealand has proved fatal to almost every European nation that has been unfortunate enough to visit it. Abel Jansen Tasman, the Dutch navigator, who first discovered it, had four of his men massacred by the natives in 1642; in 1772, two French sloops were driven by distress into a bay in this country, when the commodore M. Dufrefne, and twenty eight of his men were surprised and murdered; and soon after this last catastrophe, Captain Furneaux, lying off this island in the Adventure, sent his cutter with ten men up a creek to wood and water, who likewise feel victim to these horrid savages.’  (p.577-578)

When we read this today, there are clearly sections that grate with our modern sensibilities, words that are used we would not countenance, opinions that are clearly subjective and, in some cases, reactive (remembering that it was only three years after the killing of Captain Cook while the killings of the crew members of Furneaux and du Fresne were still large in the memory).  Each paragraph represents a building block in creating a popular narrative that will form popular opinion and will be added to, tweaked, but will continue to underpin future narratives.  

Prior to 1768, colonial affairs were the responsibility of the Secretary of State for the Southern Department and the Board of Trade and Plantations, which was a committee of the Privy Council. Following the debacle in North America, in 1782 (the same year as the book was published), the responsibility for the colonies was passed over to the Home Office before being transferred to the War Office nineteen years later, 1801.  It was not until 1854 that the Colonial Office was created to deal specifically with the affairs and interests of the colonies (and not just the forenamed trade and war). From the outset, New Zealand was being assessed for its economic worth and how it could be utilised using British know how and technology, to help feed the Mother Country and add to its coffers.  Hence, the soils were judged,

well calculated for producing every species of European grain, plants, and fruits’;  

New Zealand flax was deemed a superior variety and seeds were taken back to England for propagation.  Other observations were more reportage than anything else: the breeding of dogs for human consumption would have been seen as distasteful to the European sensibilities, although arguably was not that different from the consumption of beef, mutton or pork. The observation that they used the roots of ferns for bread would have had little relevance, other than observational . The very idea of cannibalism, however, was deeply disturbing to western sensibilities and led to the labelling of Te Maori, as “savages”. Even today, it is difficult for us to see the subject dispassionately, although no doubt a few environmentalists would see eating the carcasses of slain warriors after battle as expedient and pragmatic.  

Apart from the economic potential of New Zealand, the entry makes a brief mention of houses and buildings as well as health, hygiene and beauty. Tattowing, (as spelt), was seen as a disfigurement, so much so that in a few of the aged, it was likely to create ‘such a terrific aspect’  that they could be  ‘ranked as infernals, than as any part of the human species.’     Times change, as does fashion.

The description of the ear ornaments was intended to shock by focusing on the size of the holes made in the ears and the choice of ornaments using phrases that we would now find ignorant and gratuitous. The observation that the personal cleanliness of the Maori deserved ‘little commendation,’ ending with the note that –

‘their smell is in general as offensive as the Hottentots’

– even managed to be offensive to two indigenous peoples in the same sentence. 

Reportage helps provide an observational picture, but can be heavily laced with bias and cultural blindness that then seeps into everyday opinion.  The “smearing” and “painting” of Maori bodies, for instance, as described in the report could easily be compared to the injurious and health-threatening cosmetics used by women in 18th century England, often containing toxic quantities of lead and mercury which caused teeth to rot and blood poisoning. With their regular, white teeth, agreeable features and fine stature, the observations on the Maori were not all critical (although all of these observations, including that of skin colour, had a western point of reference).  In crossing cultures, beauty, it seems, in the eye of the beholder. (i) 

The observations on buildings focus only on their defensive qualities while the observations on warfare are full of pejorative word and phrases, focused on describing the Maori in ways that are seen as primitive and savage. For instance, observations on their:

wretched state of hostilities’ 

and the fact that they have 

not a single missile weapon, except the lance” 

as well as their hand thrown

“darts and stones”  paint an unflattering picture of a lack of sophistication amongst Maori.  

Before battle the report records the singing of “wild” songs and afterwards, partake in dances with a variety of

“violent motions and frightful contortions” also showed a lack of understanding of the significance or cultural meaning behind such displays.

The most critical conclusions of the report, because of their longevity in subsequent western histories, can be found in the closing paragraph which begins with the damning comment that “New Zealand has proved fatal to almost every European nation that has been unfortunate enough to visit it.” 

The final paragraph then goes on to summarise the experience of early explorers, employing such language as ‘massacred’ and ‘murdered’ by “these horrid savages” without attempting to provide a context or cultural understanding.  It is a record that took many decades to be unravelled through a greater appreciation of Maori culture and nuance.

To help contextualise the entry and the sources that fed it, it is helpful to look at some of the incidents and exchanges that took place and the effect they had, on the ‘intruders’ (whose views were to be formalised, recorded and propagated) and the area of misunderstandings particularly regarding custom and conflict, which shaped the subsequent dialogue.

These descriptions had considerable resonance, then and now, with the wider public who read (and still read in descendent accounts) that Tasman had four of his men ‘massacred’ without any cultural context or explanation. There is not even an attempt to try and explain the consternation and fear engendered by their arrival.  Why, then, did local Maori react the way they did? 

When we look at the reaction today there are several contributing causes that we can suggest. One obvious one is the perceived threat from the unknown, the presence of a strange vessel, manned by patupaiarehe, fair-skinned fairy folk or ghosts, who in Maori mythology were feared because they were rumoured to abduct women and children. The firing of a cannon now doubt spread an element of fear and fed into the ongoing state of inter-tribal warfare and the determination to protect their economic interests (the sweet potato crop). Even misunderstanding signals and actions, such as the haka, or anchoring near a cave that was the home of a taniwhai or dragon thereby breaking a tapu may have been contributing factors. One Maori was also shot as sailors responded with gunfire, a fact that wasn’t reported.

The murder of 28 men under the command of Marion de Fresne followed an earlier visit by the French Commander, Jean-François Marie De Surville who managed not only to oversee the first Catholic baptism on New Zealand soil, but who established a degree of good will and reciprocity with local Maori showing the French how to find fresh greens and locate streams to refill their water casks and granting permission to cut down trees to repair the ship; in return, they presented the iwi with rice, peas, and two pigs. However, perhaps inevitably relations deteriorated. The French alleged a small boat had been taken leading to their disproportionate response taken by De Surville of  burning some fishing canoes and huts and seizing a rangatira(chief).

Unlike du Surville, who was sensitive to local iwi customs, du Fresne’s crew violated tapu by cutting down trees, including kauri, for masts and fishing in waters where fishbones had been scraped but not yet laid to rest. The French also inadvertently became involved in inter-iwi rivalry, and the local iwi, Ngāti Pou, feared the French would establish a permanent settlement. The simmering tension led to du Fresne’s death on 12 June 1772. It is possible his attendance at the pōwhiri bestowed favouritism on the Te Hikutu hapū in the eyes of rival iwi, or perhaps there was an ongoing yet unintentional violation of tapu by the crew. Either way, it is not known why du Fresne was attacked, but twenty five crew members lost their lives.

His second in command exacted revenge through fierce reprisals that led to the deaths of around two hundred and fifty Maori, the burning of a  and destruction of waka, in a disproportionate and overlooked response that did nothing to stop growing resentment against Europeans in the future. 

The third of these incidents that so coloured western views of Maori was the killing of ten men crew from ‘The Adventure’ in Queen Charlotte Sound in December 1773. Commander Tobias Furneaux had ordered the men to go ashore to collect wild greens for the crew, only for them not to return. A party from the boat went ashore the next day to find the cooked flesh of their crewmates and dogs feeding off human entrails and roasted flesh – images that were widely reported in France and England and led to a wave of abhorrence and disgust at the ‘Carnage & Barbarity.’  

While we can only surmise the reasons behind the incident, it was suggested that Burney’s crew had probably interrupted a whāngai hau ceremony, in which the participants consume the spirit of an enemy (and his ancestors). The incident, which added to the bloodthirsty reputation of Maori, ended with the crew retreating to The Adventure and after destroying three waka, sailing north.

All this is to distract from the influence and extraordinary powers of observation and detail of the recordings produced by those early explorers. Their perspective was unitary, yet their influence shaped much of the European response that followed.  

By 1782, when the chapter on New Zealand was written, a burgeoning reading public in England had become fascinated with the exotic descriptions of the Pacific, the rugged landscapes, the previously unknown flora  and fauna and with the romantic image of the noble savage. (iii) New Zealand, however, had a more challenging side, that of  a country defined by the savagery of its people. It was this reputation that fed into the creation of the London Missionary Society in 1795, sending forth a group of fervent missionaries who were to pose a new threat to the social structures, beliefs and political hierarchies of the indigenous inhabitants. As well, the first-hand accounts that fed into this narrative, started to permeate popular culture, as subsequent contact (including the first visits from Pacific Islanders to Europe) began to alter public perceptions. 

The second, and more obvious point, is that history is taken from sources that vary enormously in number and also in vantage points. Hence what we know of Richard II differs significantly from what we know of Wat Tyler, just as in Aotearoa / New Zealand, George Gray was much better documented than a significant chief like Titokowaru. 

The combination of the popularization of books and a growing reading public in England and the ascendancy of the printed word over oral testimonies shaped the early accounts of Aotearoa / New Zealand disseminated at the time in England –accounts which were to shape what followed and which were to prevail for much of the next century and beyond. 

(i) In Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina, the narrator says of a distressed Frenchwoman who had suffered an accident, that ‘her face was really horrible, for the pomatum and powder from her head, and the dust from the road, were quite pasted on her skin by her tears, which with her rouge made so frightful a mixture, that she looked hardly human’

(ii) There have also been suggestions that Māori were simply guarding their territory from attack and that when strange vessels arrived with white men, they were seen as another threat. It is not surprising that communities would rally together to fend off a possible attack. 

(iii) By 1800, it was estimated that 60 percent of males and 40 percent of females in England and Wales were literate 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *