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Response to Review of Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds

Michael Belgrave’s review is thoughtful, and provocative. I am grateful to him for his care and insight. As he points out in these reflections on Tears of Rangi: Experiments across Worlds (and earlier works), I am an anthropologist, not an historian. While studying the past in New Zealand and the Pacific, I’ve drawn on documents, oral histories and the findings of other disciplines, including linguistics, archaeology, the environmental sciences, philosophy and history, to try and illuminate early exchanges between Europeans and Pacific islanders.

In these works, I sought to understand these encounters from Pacific as well as European vantage-points, in so far as is humanly possible. Given the complexity of the different cultural traditions involved, from Europe as well as from the Pacific, the range of the surviving evidence, and the distances between present and past ways of living in these places, the task is riddled with pitfalls, and the risks of over-simplification and the limits on understanding are formidable. Any findings are bound to be partial, and provisional.

If one sets out to investigate these early exchanges, however, whether as an historian or anthropologist, some such scholarly inquiry seems to me indispensable. In New Zealand, one might suppose, a deep study of Maori language, ancestral practices and ideas would be prerequisite to any historical inquiry into early interactions between Maori and Europeans. In European historiography, after all, a person who cannot speak French (for instance), and who has not studied French literature, philosophy and everyday life in depth and detail, would have little chance of being recognized as an authority on the history of France. There is no reason why the scholarly standards that apply to the study of Maori life in New Zealand should be any different.

In New Zealand historiography, however, there has been no taken-for-granted assumption that in order to investigate early (and later) engagements between Maori and Europeans, a deep study of the Maori language, philosophies and ways of living is essential. Many major works have been written without meeting these conditions. While these works claim scholarly authority, the relations between knowledge and power that they exhibit are intimate and profound. In Tears of Rangi (and other works about cross-cultural encounters in New Zealand), I’ve taken a different tack by drawing on Maori as well as modernist philosophies to explore exchanges between Maori and Europeans, and Maori texts and oral histories as well as other kinds of evidence that might illuminate these encounters.  

Michael Belgrave’s reflections on my trajectory as a scholar are mostly fair, and thought-provoking. The only major disagreement I have with his review is the claim that when I talk about different ‘worlds’ in New Zealand, these are bounded and timeless entities, isolated from each other and unchanging. Its difficult to understand this, when Tears of Rangi is all about exploration, adaptation and innovation arising from the shifting and complex engagements between (and among) Maori and others over time. In speaking about different ‘worlds,’ I’ve drawn on relational terms in Maori – te ao māori (the ancestral Maori world) and te ao pākeha (the European / modernist world) – that are anything but static and self-contained. These terms, themselves the product of cross-cultural exchanges, refer to ways of living which have interacted and mutually transformed each other in New Zealand over the past 250 years.

As I tried to explain in Tears of Rangi:

‘In these early encounters with Europeans, Maori began to refer to their own ancestral ways as te ao māori (the familiar, everyday world) in contrast with te ao pākeha (the world of the strangers). If one uses the term ‘world’ in English as the best translation for ao in Maori (as I have done, for instance, in the sub-title of this book), it can be misleading, however. In Maori, ao is a dimension of reality, usually translated as ‘world,’ but without the implication of a bounded, self-contained, singular entity that underpins that term in English.

Rather, the whakapapa (genealogical) networks that structure te ao māor, shaping its patterns, are intrinsically dynamic and open-ended. Strangers can be bound into these living webs by acts of generosity and alliance, often marked by gifts of taonga (ancestral treasures) including names, knowledge, artefacts, sexual partners or children, or severed from them by acts of aggression and humiliation – both of which require utu, equal (or greater) return over time.

In this way of being, a person is constituted by their place in the relational networks, and in speaking Maori, the state and nature of one’s relationships are constantly being negotiated. … As Mauss pointed out in The Gift, however, notions of reciprocity and gift exchange are not unique to “exotic” societies, but are also present in Europe.(1) This allowed early European visitors to New Zealand to make some sense of their exchanges with Maori. As Captain Cook observed, “I have allways found them of a Brave, Noble, Open and benevolent disposition, but they are a people that will never put up with an insult if they have an oppertunity to resent it”.(2)

While such “rough intelligibility” allowed relationships to be forged, efforts at engagement between Maori and Europeans often backfired, thwarted by differing assumptions about how the world works. At the same time in these encounters, hidden premises sometimes came to light, making it possible for new ideas and practices to emerge as taken-for-granted forms of order were challenged. The element of surprise in such meetings was (and still is) at once disruptive, and creative’ (pp. 16-17).

In the book, I sought to explore some of these taken-for-granted forms of order and hidden premises as they emerged, and still emerge in cross-cultural exchanges in New Zealand. Ideas about ‘savagery’ and ‘civilisation’, for instance, and the virtues of Western or modernist ways of knowing and living over tikanga māori (Maori ideas and practices) have proved to be exceptionally resilient, causing extreme harm and damage to Maori people and their interests. Such assumptions may even underpin the otherwise inexplicable neglect of Maori language and culture in much New Zealand historiography, past and present.

At the same time, it is not all a matter of conflict and clashes. Another abiding interest has been the ‘rough intelligibility’ that may be crafted from resonances between different ontological framings – between whakapapa, for instance (which uses the idiom of kin networks to order the relations between all forms of life, including people, plants, animals, land, waterways and the ocean), and the ‘web of life’ in the Enlightenment and Romantic thought, or complex networks and systems in contemporary science. Collisions and convergences alike can help to generate new ways of thinking and living, and this is what the book was all about.

I have other, more detailed points of disagreement with the review – for instance, when Belgrave claims I used a ‘limited range of sources to idealise the relationships between [Maori] men and women and the treatment of children’. In Tears of Rangi, I note a contrast between the physical chastisement often used in British households in the period, and early European eyewitness accounts of Maori domestic life that remark on the lack of violence in Maori families, and the ‘remarkable tenderness and solicitous care bestowed upon [children] by the parents’.(3)

The most reliable evidence on such matters comes from early European travellers and residents who spent time in Maori households before they were much influenced by missionary teachings. I’m very familiar with this material, having worked with it for 40 years. I quoted 13 such sources on this topic, and could have cited many more to the same effect. This point really matters, because many contemporary New Zealanders (including many Maori) are convinced that ancestral Maori domestic life was savage, brutish and violent, a prejudgement that is not supported by the evidence, and causes infinite harm. There are other, similar points of contention that I could raise, but perhaps this will suffice.

In quoting an earlier work of mine, Eruera: The Teachings of a Maori Elder, which discussed aspirations for anthropology in New Zealand (and perhaps elsewhere), Belgrave pinpointed a key ambition. As I wrote in Cambridge in 1980:

‘I take anthropology to be not a science, but a humanity in the true sense of the word. Its proper task, I think, is to seek to understand and communicate cultural differences, and in its finest moments to bridge them. At this level anthropology is rooted both in our common humanity and our construction of different worlds of meaning, and wherever people find themselves living side-by-side (as Maori and pakeha do in New Zealand) and yet cultural worlds apart, some such attempt at talking out our differences seems to me inevitable.’(4)

I see my work as an anthropologist as part of this long, ongoing conversation – one that is lived as well as spoken, transforming all parties through its controversies and alliances. Tears of Rangi: Experiments across Worlds is itself an experiment in thinking about possible futures, as well as the past. As one might say in Maori, ‘Mauria ko ōku painga, waiho ko ōku wherū’ – ‘Take what is good in this, and leave the rest behind’.


  1. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W.D. Halls (London, 1990).Back to (1)
  2. James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook II: The Voyage of the Resolution  and Adventure 1772–1775, vols. I and II, ed. J. C. Beaglehole (London, 1969), p.653.Back to (2)
  3. Cruise, 1824, cited in Tears of Rangi p. 459.Back to (3)
  4. Eruera Stirling and Anne Salmond, Eruera: The Teachings of a Maori Elder (Oxford, 1980), p. 253.Back to (4)