Talk Matters #3 - Coloniser talk: knowing the natives

For most going to a new country, the key issue is: ‘what are the people like?’  It was no different for those coming to New Zealand in 1839. One colonist, Henry Petre[1], assured his readers he and others had made inquiries about the hostility of the natives (and had probably read) the section about the ‘native inhabitants’ in the travel guide/prospectus prepared by John Ward (Secretary of the New Zealand Company) - Information Relative to New Zealand: Compiled for the use of colonists (1839).

Promoting the destination, Ward also provided words, ideas, images – prefabricated knowledge – that settlers could use to interpret and understand New Zealand.  He introduced Māori, “[They] are physically and intellectually superior to the New Hollanders [Australians]; but although their capabilities of cultivation are great, they are yet essentially a savage people” (p.62) immediately anchoring them as ‘other’ in European understandings.  On Malthus’ ‘Great Chain of Being’ they were not the bottom, being far enough along to fit European imaginings of ‘noble savages’.

Ward elaborated on the ‘noble’ and the ‘savage’ saying the latter were: “dirty in their persons and sometimes overrun with vermin.... scarcely know the meaning of arts, trade, industry or coin...most conspicuous passion is war and they kill and sometimes eat their vanquished enemies...spirit of revenge is implacable in their breasts...hatred of their enemies is deep and deadly.  Many are covetous...they thieve with little scruple. The licentiousness of the women is subjected to no restraint until after marriage...with the physical powers of men, they have at present the intellect of children and in moral principle are little above the level of brute creation” (p.62-3).

First impressions are important. People so portrayed and ‘known’ might be worth civilising but should not be trusted, especially with any authority.  Of the ‘noble’ Ward asserted: “[Maori have] a natural politeness and grandeur in their deportment, a yearning after poetry, music and the fine arts, a wit and eloquence that remind us...of the Greeks of Homer.  Language is rich and sonorous, abounding in metaphysical distinctions and they uphold its purity most tenaciously...They have an abundance of poetry of a lyrical kind...are passionately fond of music...excel at carving...natural talents at astronomy...there is not a single tree, vegetable, or even weed, a fish, or a bird for which the natives do not have a name; and those names are universally known” (p.66-7).

Yes, Ward contradicts himself but he’s given settlers flexible and personally satisfying ways to understand their experiences with Māori.  Landing on the flood-plain of the Heretaunga River at Petone they could interpret help provided by Tāwhirikura hapū of Te Āti Awa – building weather-tight whare, providing or selling fresh provisions, helping people come ashore – as charitable responses of people who, like themselves, were noble.  When the struggle for the best land created tensions settlers could, and did, emphasise that the natives were savages - vicious, dirty, untrustworthy - threatening the colony and its people.

Future postings will use examples from various media to show how coloniser talk has been and continues to be developed and used for settler ends.

[1]  “An account of the settlements of the New Zealand Company”, ghost written by Mr (later Judge) H.S. Chapman from Henry Petre’s notes was published in London in 1842.Click this link to read a relevant blog post by the Indigenous Nationhood Movement site contributor Tobold Rollo.

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