Monday, August 13, 2007

Historians: Working Towards a Better Past

In two days I go to Canada to study the History and Philosophy of Science (many thanks to Toronto University.) So now is a good time to say something about History.

Below is an excerpt from a History book. The passage was written by a Maori man called Horeta Te Taniwha, and it is about the arrival of the first Europeans on New Zealand soil. (These were not the first Europeans to find the country. Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand about a century earlier. But natives killed three of his men and he went home).

I quote this passage because it illustrates some things I like about historical writing.

There is the overall sense of nostalgia, of looking back on a rich and vital time from the past, a time that might have been more cruel and uncertain than our own, but which was at least as interesting as anything else we know. Historians are good at picking out the juicy bits from the past, and there are a lot of very juicy bits. Some people say that Historians make History. Mostly they are wrong. But Historians are witnesses to the making of History, and it’s a fine thing to witness.

There is the sense also of getting only a partial account of something. So much from the past is lost. But everything that has been found is a gesture towards what has not been found. The importance of the things described starts to raise images into symbols (the kumara, the stick of charcoal). What completes the job is the incompleteness of the account: written History is filled with the meaning of undocumented events, like old photos.

Then there are all the strange meetings. They are strange because they take place between people who come from different worlds. The story below is the story of two bubbles coming together and trembling. Philosophers of History write a lot about the strange things that happen when people from different backgrounds come together. Often they overbalance (usually by emphasising the problems, moral and epistemic, that accompany these meetings). But following passage sets them right: it strikes a wonderful balance between difference and likeness, confusion and understanding, awe and familiarity.

There is the misunderstanding over the European “goblins.” The “knocking together of stones” (which goes unexplained in the end, even to the reader). The “hissing” tongue of Captain Cook, the “eyes in the back of the head.” These details, casting strange shadows on familiar things, are balanced by evidence of commonality between the two groups of people. The implied syllogism (“Goblins do not eat kumara and cockles; these men are eating kumara and cockles; therefore these men are not goblins.”) – this shows how the two peoples, oceans apart, share a common reason. They share an appreciation for food, too; and also a keen instinct for human kindness (note the attitude towards Captain Cook).

Of all the symbols in the passage, the one I like best is that of the two peoples talking to eachother in their two languages, not understanding eachother in the least, but both of them laughing. My next favourite is the final scene, where communication begins.

The passage is from a book called “Two Worlds: The First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans.” Not all History is the meeting of two worlds from the past. But all History is the meeting of two worlds, the world of the past and the world of the historian. And participating in the latter relation is as strange and rewarding as observing the former relation.

On top of the above, there is the method of History. All that tiny detail (dates, the spellings of foreign names); the clutter of a thousand events in a thousand places. The Historian has less reason than the philosopher or the poet or the scientist to feel confident about making sense of all that fractured motion (the philosopher is not concerned about time past, but the timeless; the poet is not obliged to tell it all exactly; and the scientist has her laws.) But this means that the historian has more reason to feel proud when she does make sense of her subject matter.

And in making sense of it, there is as much need for an empathetic, imaginative approach to events as there is for rigorous checking of sources. So I am going to Toronto to witness the making of history, to discover new symbols, to watch civilisations tremble like bubbles, to make sense out of chaos and to make a match out of separate disciplines. What could be better? (Answer: to study philosophy at the same time.)

Now, I give you….

The account of Horeta Te Taniwha (a child when Cook arrived on Endeavour in Whitianga, 1769).

In the days long past, when I was a very little boy, a vessel came to Whitianga (Mercury Bay). Our tribe was living there at that time. We did not live there as our permanent home, but were there according to our custom of living for some time in each of our blocks of land, to keep our claim to each, and that our fire might be kept alight on each block, so that it might not be taken from us by some other tribe.

We lived in Whitianga, and a vessel came there, and when our old men saw the ship they said it was an atua, a god, and the people on board were tupua, strange beings or ‘goblins.’ The ship came to anchor, and the boats pulled on shore. As our old men looked at the manner in which they came on shore, the rowers pulling with their backs to the bows of the boat, the old people said, ‘Yes, it is so: these people are goblins; their eyes at the back of their heads; they pull on shore with their backs to the land to which they are going.’ When these goblins came on shore we (the children and women) took notice of them, but we ran away from them into the forest, and the warriors stayed alone in the presence of these goblins; but, as the goblins stayed some time, and did not do evil to our braves, we came back one by one, and gazed at them, and we stroked their garments with our hands, and we were pleased with the whiteness of their skins and the blue eyes of some of them.

These goblins began to gather oysters, and we gave some kumara, fish, and fern-root to them. These they accepted, and we (the women and children) began to roast cockles for them; and as we saw that these goblins were eating kumara, fish and cockles, we were startled, and said, ‘Perhaps they are not goblins like the Maori goblins.’ These goblins went into the forest, and also climbed up the hill to our pa (fort) at Whitianga (Mercury Bay). They collected grasses from the cliffs, and kept knocking at the stones on the beach, and we said, ‘Why are these acts done by these goblins?’ We and the women gathered stones and grass of all sorts, and gave to these goblins. Some of the stones they liked, and put them into their bags, the rest they threw away; and when we gave them the grass and branches of trees they stood and talked to us, or they uttered words of their language. Perhaps they were asking questions, and, as we did not know their language, we laughed, and these goblins laughed, so we were pleased.

…There was one supreme man on that ship. We knew that he was the lord of the whole by his perfect gentlemanly and noble demeanour. He seldom spoke, but some of the goblins spoke much. But this man did not utter many words: all that he did was to handle our mats and hold our mere, spears, and waha-ika, and touch the hair of our heads. He was a very good man, and came to us-the children, and patted our cheeks, and gently touched our heads. His language was a hissing sound, and the words he spoke were not understood by us in the least. We had not been long on the ship when this lord of the goblins made a speech, and took some charcoal and made some marks on the deck of the ship, and pointed to the shore and looked at our warriors. One of our aged men said to out people, ‘He is asking for an outline of the land,’ and the old man stood up, took the charcoal, and marked the outline of the Ika-a-maui (the North Island of New Zealand).

Originally appeared in: John White, 1887, The Ancient History of the Maori: Tainui, Vol V, Wellington, Government Printer, pp.121-24. Reprinted in: Anne Salmond, Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642-1772, Viking, 1991.