Saturday, August 30, 2008

Meat on the Table - Maori Cannibalism Revisited

Anne Salmond's three books - Two Worlds, Between Worlds, and The Trial of the Cannibal Dog - are sophisticated, nuanced accounts of first contacts between Maoris and Pakeha (Europeans).

Kahura, Maori Chief at Grass Cove, 1773,

Self-confessed cannibal

In The Trial of the Cannibal Dog (2003), Salmond explores how Captain Cook's sailors, outraged at his lack of reprisal for the cannibalism of fellow sailors at Grass Cove on a previous voyage, put a kuri or Maori dog owned by a shipmate on trial (the dog kept nipping shipmates) - then ate it - and had the shipmate owner of the dog unwittingly eat a meal of it.

Salmond looks at this mock trial from the cultural perspective of both the English/European and Maori worlds. In 18th century European eyes, dogs and cats were familiars of witches and even if the owner was not a witch, the animals were seen as representatives of their owners. Thus, to eat a dog was akin to cannibalism.

Each side trying to come to terms with a foreign culture may subconsciously begin to absorb and adopt elements of the other's culture. The English seamen, who spend more time in Polynesia than England in the years of their voyages, end up adopting the Maori cultural practice of utu (revenge) in order to restore their mana (prestige) but combine this act with a mock English trial for the crime of cannibalism.

Cook's "enlightened", tolerant approach to conflict with Maori and other Polynesians was to forbid the use of deadly force by his men unless they were in imminent danger. This led to much conflict and resentment from a number of Cook’s officers and crew. From a Maori perspective, Cook's failure to take revenge meant to Maori that he and his men were taurekareka - people without mana or spiritual power, no better than slaves, and this exposed them to further aggressive acts. Salmond argues that this incident sowed the seeds of discord between Cook and his crew as well as with Polynesians on this, Cook's final and fatal voyage in the Pacific.

So, I reiterate from an earlier recent post that recent historical work has indeed dealt with the issue of Maori cannibalism. Sure, there are those hacks in Maoridom and the Pakeha world that may ignore or exclude cannibalism in their work & romanticize pre-European Maori, but there continues to be serious scholarly work that explores the violence and cannibalism of Maori. And Maori did not have a monopoly on violence, Europeans proved rather more adept at it on a larger scale. Sadly, it's the dark side of the human condition not confined to any particular ethnic group.

In other words, there’s more than enough blame to go around on all sides.

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