Shared history through different eyes

Cushla McKinney reviews Collision.

Joanna Orwin
Harper Collins, $36.99, pbk

In May 1772, French explorer Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne's two ships, the Marquis de Castries and the Mascarin, limped into the Bay of Islands.

Damaged some months earlier when they came together in the fog (an accident blamed on the Castries' inexperienced captain, Monsieur du Clesmeur), the ships were in urgent need of repair and reprovisioning, as well as a place for the weary and scurvy-stricken sailors to recover their strength.

Although both Cook and de Serville had reached northern New Zealand three years earlier, their visits had been brief and neither had spent significant time on shore.

Du Fresne's expedition, however, remained for several months: the first extended contact between Pakeha and Maori.

Even in today's globalised environment, the tendency to interpret the behaviours and beliefs of other cultures according to our own social frame of reference is a frequent source of conflict.

It is hardly surprising that initially friendly, if tentative, relations between the sailors and local iwi deteriorated rapidly as mutual misunderstanding, exacerbated by the language barrier, accumulated.

Not only did the arrival of more than 200 Frenchmen strain local resources, these uninvited guests did little to reciprocate the food and other gifts provided to them.

Their trading with insubordinate chiefs began to shift the local balance of power, and in an attempt to restore his mana and placate the atua (ancestors) for French violations of tapu, their host Te Kuri took up arms against "te iwi o Mariou".

The disastrous result shaped relationships between European and northern Maori for many years.

Although Joanna Orwin's account is fictional, she has drawn extensively on the logs and diaries of du Fresne's crew, as well as contemporary Maori descriptions of events.

All the characters (with the exception of the young ensign who acts as narrator, and a Ngati Raumati youth who befriends him) are real, and by interspersing French and Maori interpretations of events she captures the greatest tragedy of this encounter; the fact that each party was acting with the best of intentions.

Although there was significant condescension on the part of the French for the unspoiled "Naturals", du Fresne also recognised their intelligence and resourcefulness, and strictly enforced a policy of non-violence towards the Maori.

Similarly, Te Kuri welcomed these unwanted intruders as befitted a conscientious host, and the use of force (coming only after all other attempts to persuade these strangers to leave had failed) was the only honourable way remaining to redress the wrongs done to him and his people.

The legacy of this and other such cultural collisions have shaped present-day New Zealand, and although they cannot be undone, they remind us that no single reading of events can capture the truth. Understanding requires us to see from perspectives other than our own.

I was truly saddened by this story, and left wondering how much of my own response to political and social debate today is reflexive rather than reflective.

- Dr Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.

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