Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris


page 137


It is time to return to the exception made, in the racist attitudes of Australian trade unionism in the 1890s, of Maoris. There was an older European benignity towards Polynesians in general. It has often been remarked that Samuel Marsden felt no compulsion to save the souls of Aborigines, but on meeting Ruatara in Sydney, he determined to start a mission among Maoris. On the whole Europeans took more readily to Polynesians than to Melanesians or Micronesians. The navigators' journals o£ the late eighteenth century comment on their likeness in colour and physique to Europeans. Bougainville and Cook, whatever misinterpretations they made, were able to engage in a dialogue between European and Tahitian culture. From Bougainville's urbane account of the Tahitians, from Banks's journal, from Cook's sympathetic descriptions of Polynesians and Hawkesworth's tendentiously edited selections from them, from the eulogies of Forster père et fils for Tahitian society, there had derived a literary cliché of the noble, happy, and innocent Polynesian. It was not a cliché likely to recommend itself to Lawson, but he indulged it once in 'Cruise of the Crow', a poem on a blackbirding raid in which his sympathy is with the islanders who take revenge on the captain when he comes to the island again. The romantic cliché is in these lines:

… the islanders' girls
(Who had eyes that were brighter than stars, who had teeth that were purer than pearls),
page 138 Of the graces in bronze, finely fashioned by nature, untrained and free,
Who swam out through the rollers to gambol and dive in the luminous sea—1

In New Zealand writing this literary cliché showed itself in a few novels and stories that assumed that Maoris were a dying race who had a heroic and admirable past, pathetic but nobly acquiescent victims to the inevitable imperialism of Progress.

In Robert H. Scott's Ngamihi; or the Maori Chief's Daughter (1895), set in the Taranaki land war, those Maoris who aid the settlers' cause are brave, generous, and honourable; the 'rebels' are fierce, treacherous, and given to atrocities. The heroine, a 'princess' christened by a missionary with the exotic and unbiblical name Zada, dies spectacularly sheltering her Pakeha lover from a bullet. In Jessie Weston's Ko Méri (1890) the heroine, daughter of a British general and granddaughter of a Maori chief, repudiates genteel London society and returns to her mother's village to share the doom of her race. In H. B. Vogel's A Maori Maid (1898) Ngaia, daughter of a European surveyor and granddaughter of a Maori chief, wins through a series of misfortunes to become the bride of a future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In Vogel's The Tragedy of a Flirtation (1909), Raita, daughter of a chief, is mistress to a European farmer and mother to his child, but willingly dies to make way for a more suitable match with an English doctor's daughter. Jessie Weston's Meri and Vogel's Ngaia were at home in two cultures; and in Arthur H. Adams's 'The Real Maori Maid', in the Lone Hand in 1908, the heroine, daughter of a chieftainess, wife of a senior government official, spends one day paddling a canoe and the next day at an elegant function discussing the Henley regatta.2 In these novels and stories the heroine either dies pathetically, freeing her European lover from a noble but perhaps ill-calculated attachment, or she moves easily from high rank in one society to high rank in the other. The underlying assumption is either that Maoris are doomed to die out or that they, or at least their ranking class, will be gracefully assimilated into European society.

How these Maori or half-Maori heroines were conceived in page 139terms of the conventions of contemporary popular romances can be illustrated by two parallel passages:

She paced up and down the room with a sweeping, panther-like grace, her eyes brilliant with that dangerous light never seen except in the eye of native races, whose souls know no law but their own instincts and passions— a magnificent figure in her long, trailing gown and splendid, voluptuous beauty, the veneer of civilization fallen off, and the Maori blood surging wildly through her veins.3

At this juncture Captain Wilson rose from his chair and walked across the room to where she was standing. Leading her gently to a seat beside Miss Munroe, he reverently raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. The effect on Zada was instantaneous. With a swift glance of her large dark eyes, which had suddenly become strangely tender in expression, she almost compelled Captain Wilson to meet her gaze, and for an instant the two stood as if transfixed. Hastily letting her eyes fall she caught his hand, and after passionately kissing it fled from the room with an articulate sob.4

If in the first there is the pretence that Méri has thrown off the bonds of her acquired European culture, there is in fact little difference between the two passages: both display passionate women acting with less restraint than is conventional. There is something of this late-romantic tradition in the Bulletin in 1897. F. Rollett's sketch 'Pomare's Death' sees the Maori as a noble warrior.5 In 'Ripene Manga' a half-caste youth is reduced to wage-slavery by a Pakeha land-shark and his grandfather, driven from his land, dies of humiliation and grief.6 Here the forces of evil are identified with a Pakeha, and the Maori with dying nobility. In 1903 David McKee Wright's poem 'Hawaiki' has 'the strong brown race of warriors' and 'deep-bosomed women, with far-dreaming eyes'.7 In 1894 Lawson too had indulged the literary convention of the noble dying warrior in 'Ake! Ake! Ake! The Last Stand of the Maoris', a poem on Rewi Maniapoto, and in another 'Rewi to Grey' in which Rewi Maniapoto's last words to Sir George Grey are that they should be buried together:

Let us rest together brother,
When our gods recall us two.
. . . . . . . .
page 140 Let there be one stone above us,
Standing for a sign:
On one side your name be written,
On the other mine.8

Scott's Ngamihi is illustrated with photographic 'portraits'. One of them shows Zada and her maidservant Hema in poetic pose: by a broken column of photographer's plaster, against a lowering sky, Zada looks resolute in a loose sleeveless gown with a sash and a piece of material hanging from her shoulder, a feather in her long hair: at her feet is Hema her face hidden in her hair. The Bulletin ran a series of like 'studies' by a Hobart photographer, Arthur lies. One of them 'A Maori Belle' is captioned: 'One of the most charming of many Maorilanders… so skilfully photographed to the glory of a perishing race.'9 There is a second of an adolescent girl, and a third of two girls posing head against head, one with her arms round the other.10 By its title and date (17 July 1897) it is clear that Henry Lawson in his story of Mangamaunu was reacting against the sentimentality of the tradition: the photograph is captioned 'Two Daughters of Maoriland'. It is ironic that the issue of the Antipodean which first published 'A Daughter of Maoriland' should have accompanied it with five of Iles's photographs, including 'A Maori Beauty', 'Type of Maori Girl', and one untitled in the fashionable photographic pose of leaning pensively with one arm raised-not against a column but against a tree-fern.11 This appears on the same page as the account of Sarah's gluttony.

Alfred A, Grace in his stories of Maoris as yet in only slight contact with Pakeha culture, falls into conventional heroics of ill-fated love, but he is best remembered for his tales of Maoris more or less acculturated. He finds sardonic humour in the implied contrast between the Maori as he had been and the Maori trying to cope with European culture. There are several of his stories in the Bulletin in 1897: and two of them preceded the probable date of writing 'A Daughter of Maoriland'. 'Pirimona' is a wry tale of a half-caste who overcomes the handicap of a barren wife by taking two concubines.12 'Told in the Puia' is of a European who lives with Maoris and marries a Maori girl when his European fiancée throws him over because of his acquaintance with the Maori girl: the point is that a Maori woman makes a more pleasant partner than a page 141European woman.13 It is probable that in them Lawson found a preferable 'realism'-that is a disinclination to depart from the working values of the practical-minded European settler, even if an unusually genial one. In any case there was sympathy in outlook between Grace and Lawson: after reading While the Billy Boils and 'The Story of the Oracle' and 'Pursuing Literature in Australia' Grace wrote to Lawson suggesting (as in fact Lawson had decided more than two years earlier) that he should try London as a market.14

Lawson did find a literary precedent for his 'realism'. The second version of 'A Daughter of Maoriland' substitutes one paragraph at the end of the story for three. The two paragraphs later scrapped from the first version in the Antipodean of 1897 read:

And if this sketch, and others that will be written, do something towards knocking the sentimental rot out of current literature that teacher will not have lived, learnt and been 'had' in vain. We rush off in imagination to coral isles and other places, and make heroes out of greasy, brown, loafing brutes, for no other reason, apparently, than that their fathers were even greasier and more brutal than their children, while thousands of brave, self-sacrificing white heroes, weeds for the most part, but heroic weeds, live, fight and die unnoticed in our own cities and bush, all the year round.

For further information on the subject of this sketch, and for many profitable hours, the reader is confidently referred to Old New Zealand, by "a Pakeha Maori" (Maning), one of the brightest and healthiest books ever written. The author, or the hero, lived this book, and was equal to the life.15

There is of course some likeness between Maning's genial irony, his mixture of admiration and scepticism, and Lawson's in his comic stories of swagmen. But Maning's tone has little in common with the bitterness of 'A Daughter of Maoriland'. It is notable that in the first paragraph quoted Lawson sees the choice in writing about Polynesians as between sentimentality and defamation.

It is not initially easy for a writer to interpret another culture without some participation in it, but if he does not set himself so comprehensive an aim and is content to write of page 142members of the alien culture simply as people he has known and observed, his difficulties are fewer. He needs only to shed such preconceptions as may interfere with sensitive and sympathetic observation or with his intuitive perception of their common humanity. Since the late nineteenth century a number of European novelists have written reliably of Africans and Asians, West Indians and the peoples of the Pacific. In New Zealand, Alfred A. Grace, Roderick Finlayson, and Noel Hilliard have written with understanding of Maori communities. The success with which a writer can interpret the behaviour of people outside his own culture depends partly on his own gifts and partly on the capacity of his own philosophy to tolerate a wide range of human behaviour, on its freedom from intolerance and parochialism.

These observations are relevant to Lawson's experience of Maoris. The society in which he was at home as a writer was a scattered society of shearers and rouseabouts, of drovers and bullockies and swagmen, shanty-keepers, struggling selectors and diggers, spielers and hatters and tough, long-suffering women. It was a society rich in variety of social and economic experience, of interest in and understanding of how people struggled for their living; but governed as it was by a limited set of conventions for the relations between men and women and between men and their fellow-men, rather narrow in its range of emotional or inter-personal experience, and prone to condemn those who departed from these conventions. Confronted with a community quite different from the society he knew, whose culture was in many ways alien to the bushman's code, Lawson's comic or sardonic realism, his habitual method of representing life, was inadequate. The style had evolved in a different setting and was not readily adaptable to the new one. The sensitive interplay of narrator and experience lost confidence and in 'A Daughter of Maoriland' Lawson made up for it by assertion. The mental habits by which he had ordered his experience into art were no longer sufficient to control that part of his personality which he had not hitherto allowed to take charge of interpretation.

The disillusion of Mangamaunu caused in him a crisis of aesthetic conscience, and it affected his confidence in publishing his sketches written in Mangamaunu before the crisis. He expresses this crisis in his poem 'The Writer's Dream', a poem page 143that he said 'will be quoted when others are forgotten'.16 It is necessary to print the poem in full, taking the text from Lawson's manuscript and to analyse it.17