Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Slavery in New Zealand

A book review from From Reid's Reader: 
Under all her real scholarship, what Petrie is really attempting to do is to deflect that sort of Pakeha ignorance, which would claim that slavery (like the equally historical cannibalism) was somehow the defining mark of pre-European society. It was no more that than the Gulag and Holocaust were the defining features of European society. And after all, one could say that the Holocaust was an “aberration” in German history just as the “musket wars” and large-scale slavery were, in Petrie’s view, an aberration in Maori history. Should we therefore take a benign and forgiving attitude towards them? And does slavery somehow cease to be slavery because the people enslaved were of the same race, colour and religion as those who enslaved them? One could make a strong case, from Petrie’s own text, that social caste acted in the Maori context in much the same way that colour and race did in other situations of slavery. I have to note too that, by sheeting this grim aspect of Maori history home to European influence (Pakeha brought muskets and distorted Maori society etc.), 

Petrie is in effect stripping Maori of responsibility for their own actions. This is the very denial of “agency” that is so often deplored by historians who deal with “first nations”. Petrie often deploys the Lytton Strachey variety of historical sarcasm when she refers to missionaries’ motives, but this can sometimes reach an absurd level. Thus she says: “Missionary writings were at their most colourfully vitriolic when reporting the practice of eating enemies, but they failed or chose not to comprehend its full significance.” (Chapter 2, p.58). Does this mean that missionaries were foolish to condemn cannibalism or foolish to be appalled by it? Or that they would have had totally different attitudes had they only realised that eating enemies was a means of destroying their mana?

Much of the sarcasm, I fear, is misplaced.

It is good to inform us of the varieties of slavery as practised by Maori. It is salutary to be reminded that Europeans at various times practised slavery on a far vaster scale. But Petrie’s tone too often suggests that she is offering a sort of apologia for Maori slavery rather than seeing it as the degrading thing it was. (Read more.)

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