Understanding two different worlds crossing

Painting by Leonard C. Mitchell, 1901-1971. Photo: ODT files
Painting by Leonard C. Mitchell, 1901-1971. Photo: ODT files

Anne Salmond's Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds is an important book that bridges two different cultures. 

TEARS OF RANGI
Experiments Across Worlds
Anne Salmond
Auckland University Press

By JIM SULLIVAN

Maori brought their world of hau — the wind of life — to New Zealand 600 years ago and it is just one of the many concepts for which this book provides a clear explanation and thus makes the events of Maori/pakeha relationships much easier to understand. 

Dame Anne Salmond is already acknowledged as a fine narrative historian and in Tears of Rangi her storytelling skills make a difficult journey easier as she takes the reader into two different worlds in which knowing what happened is not enough. We need to know why it happened and her guide to Maori cosmology, while not always an easy read, is essential in trying to understand the confusion and the contradictions of the debates of the past 180 years.

For the general reader it may be a challenge. Salmond writes, "In Maori cosmo-logic beings are generated by the constellations of relations that constitute their identity, whereas in modernity, entities are often understood as isolates, linked by relations that are external to the boundaries that define them."

Bread and butter to the academic specialist, perhaps, but the general reader may have to flip back a page and gain a better understanding through the storytelling which illustrates the philosophical backgrounds of the worlds of Maori and pakeha.

A reconstruction of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Photo: ODT
A reconstruction of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Photo: ODT

The first part of Tears of Rangi offers the story of how missionaries and Maori fared as their two quite different worlds met. They didn’t always clash, of course, and we learn much about how some missionaries were influenced by Maori concepts and changed their own ways of thinking.

The backsliding "sins" of missionary Thomas Kendall emerge as perhaps no worse than Samuel Marsden’s inflexible take on how to save souls. Indeed, the Maori philosophy about sex, conception and birth leads to a graphic treatment of these subjects which gave some missionary unease.

The stories of missionaries and their families in a new and often hostile environment and the tales of Maori taking centre stage in London may well have been told before but here they are re-worked against a background of the world view of the participants and are much richer for it.

For the reader who has neglected the detailed and seemingly endless activity of the "Treaty industry", Tears of Rangi provides a fine summary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The personalities are well-drawn and the explanations of what was signed and what the signatories thought they were signing paves the way for the latter part of the book, which examines the work of the Waitangi Tribunal and from this emerges a recognition that an understanding of the "two worlds" described in the book is crucial to any hopes of a satisfactory completion of the grievance process.

There is much of politics, ethics and philosophy in Tears of Rangi and thus it makes a valuable reference work when Treaty settlements are under discussion.

Rivers, land, sea and people are the four topics of the second part of Tears of Rangi and reaching some sort of consensus on all those topics, given the quite different worlds of Maori and pakeha established in the early part of the book, the reader is now better-prepared to assess the likelihood of a satisfactory end to Treaty negotiations. The author’s own anecdotes of involvement in treaty negotiation matters adds an immediacy to the story.

Salmond suggests, "during encounters between people that live differently, taken-for-granted assumptions may come to light and be questioned. Different kinds of encounters become possible and new kinds of questions in a spiralling process of critical searching exchanges."

In other words, it isn’t easy. But Tears of Rangi will make the exchanges robust and better informed.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.

Comments

Thank you, Jim. I had heard Dame Anne Salmond discussing 'Tears of Rangi' on RNZ and your review completes it.