Paul Moon reviews a comprehensive new study of the settlement of Polynesia

In a jarring oversight, the drafters of our new secondary-school history curriculum proudly asserted that “Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand”, but then promptly recommended that after the Polynesian migrations to the country had been dispensed with, teachers should jump straight to lessons on the colonial era, thus side-stepping centuries of hapū and iwi history in the process. The arrival of Madi Williams’ book, Polynesia 900-1600: An overview of the history of Aotearoa, Rekohu, and Rapa Nui is a perfectly-timed antidote to this myopic decision. More than that, it will disarm the growing number of those intent on weaponising history for their own political ends. 

This is not one of those large, lumbering, pedantic works, though, where every thinning artery of argument is followed to its extremity. On the contrary, at around 76 pages of text, Polynesia 900-1600 is undoubtedly modest in scale. Yet it has a Tardis-like quality: compact on the outside, but with a remarkably comprehensive interior.

The introduction, which occupies almost a third of the text, sets the sort of conceptual foundation from which I am sure other scholars will build on in the future. It commences with a discussion on periods and names: why “Polynesia”? Why the “Global Middle Ages”? What directions are north and south? Williams answers these sorts of conceptual questions concisely, and with a lightness of tone, leaning on compelling arguments to support her responses without ever allowing the narrative to get mired in a mass of detail.

Williams then delves into aspects of traditional oral history. Too often, this topic has been polarised, with proponents upholding oral history as inviolable, and detractors dismissing it as capricious hearsay. The easy response to addressing this divide is to seek some compromise. However, instead of settling for the bob-each-way middle ground, Williams probes various claims about oral history, revealing its shortcomings, but more importantly, offering new insights into its importance, and reaching some insightful conclusions that historians working in this field as well as general readers will certainly appreciate.

Following the introduction is the first of three chapters in this book: “Movement and Migration”. Here, Williams tackles the ‘how’ question: specifically, how did Polynesians succeed in settling in islands scattered over such a vast area of ocean (with the implicit rejoinder that this feat took place at a time when European sailors were still hugging their coastlines whenever they ventured forth in their vessels). Having dispelled the antiquated idea that it was all down to an improbable series of flukes, she explains how it transpired, drawing on the threads of different categories of evidence, and demonstrating the benefits of various cultural perspectives when examining this topic. The benefits obtained by viewing the same historical landscape from standing on different cultural peaks is one of the motifs that runs throughout this book.

From the front cover of Polynesia 900-1600: “Reading the Swell”, an artwork by John Bevan Ford, 1993. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

The second chapter, “Adaptation and Change”, is the shortest in the book. However, in just 10 pages, Williams manages to unravel how a largely generic Polynesian society metamorphosised into distinct cultures, and how the geography of certain locations, and intriguingly, the availability of particular foods – especially kūmara – contributed to this process.

The final chapter, “Complexity and Culture”, picks up where the previous chapter concluded. Having sunk their roots into new territories, and secured the production of food to sustain themselves, Williams examines how selected Polynesian cultures developed architecturally, militarily, and in the arts. Much of this terrain has been covered by previous historians, but even in this vignette of a chapter, Williams is reaching out to explore new perspectives, particularly involving the interplay of culture and the surrounding environment.

Because of the constraints of space in this work, each paragraph has been sculpted not for literary effect or for profundity, but to convey as much information and as many perspectives as concisely as possible. The prose is taut without being sparse, which makes for an engaging read. In five sentences, for example, Williams swiftly dismantles that annoyingly stubborn myth that the Moriori were some pre-Māori race that were nearly annihilated when Māori established themselves in the country. Elsewhere, she easily demolishes the accidental-drift theory that was once used to explain the presence of Polynesian communities throughout the South Pacific. Of course, others have previously done this, but Williams’ contribution is in the manner that she knits together oral histories, science, ethnography, cartography, meteorology, and other categories of evidence in a seamless manner. To accomplish this in so few pages is remarkable, but to do so in such a convincing and relentlessly methodical fashion is testimony to her mastery of sources and her narrative skill.

There is no sense that she is pursuing any sort of pre-ordained ideological position (of the sort that a handful of lesser academics have succumbed to in the past)

The approach Williams has taken in this work is just as important as the material she surveys. She has, for the most part, carefully avoided slipping into the trap of seeing the world in an arbitrarily binary “Western” or “indigenous” way (although on one occasion, she claims the use of certain time periods as being “notoriously Eurocentric”, which is a subjective as well as pejorative way of depicting what is simply one system among many of compartmentalising time). Overall. Williams’ interrogation of the past is far more nuanced, and she generally navigates well between these two approaches with insight and honesty. There is no sense that she is pursuing any sort of pre-ordained ideological position (of the sort that a handful of lesser academics have succumbed to in the past).

Just how tricky this area can be, though, is evidenced in the choice of indigenous names in the book’s title. “Aotearoa” is used as the designation for New Zealand, even though prior to the colonial period, it was not employed by Māori as the country’s name. [Note from ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias: For a wider discussion on the subject, Philip Matthews’ excellent story at Stuff includes interviews with Moon as well as Dr Rawiri Taonui; Matthews writes of examples of “Aotearoa” being used in the 1840s as the indigenous name for New Zealand, “These suggest older traditions rather than a newly-minted word or invention.”] Similarly, “Rapa Nui” appears in the title as the indigenous alternative for Easter Island. Fair enough, except that Rapa Nui is itself another colonial-era name. Moreover, it was given several years after the Dutch chose to call the place Easter Island – something that Williams concedes in the introduction (the indigenous name is probably Te Pito O Te Kainga A Hau Maka or Te Pito Te Henua). The point is that like all other areas of history, pre-colonial Polynesia is a contested space, and cannot simply be reduced to a two-dimensional chronology as some previous writers have tended to do.   

There are a few pockets of content in the work, however, which may trouble some readers. Mention of “spiritual” dimensions do not always fit comfortably with the evidence-based approach that is central to the discipline of history. The usual retort is that these sorts of references to spirituality are rooted in an indigenous perspective, but such arguments in themselves are merely assertions rather than justifications. Discussions about the role of spirituality in perceptions of the past can take on the characteristics of someone clutching at fog: we can see what is being attempted, but it is never quite achieved. Also, the claims of the importance of indigenous spirituality are later undermined when Williams asserts that such metaphysical beliefs are of human rather than divine origin.

In a similar vein, Williams rejects the conventional description of Māori creation stories as “myths”, preferring to describe them as “traditions”. She is correct that these accounts of how the world came into being are indeed an inherited tradition, but this does nothing to negate the fact that they are also manifestly mythological. And elsewhere, Williams refers to the “weaknesses and biases” of 19th Century European historiography, but does not apply the same measure to traditional oral histories. There are also traces of presentism in some sections of the book. For example, Williams castigates 19th Century Europeans for portraying Māori as “savages”. This seems right according to our 21st Century sensibilities, but for much of the colonial era, “savage” was used simply as a synonym for indigenous, without the derogatory overtones it later acquired.

There is also occasionally a tendency to universalism in the book. For example, in the conclusion, Williams writes that “Tāne ascended to the heavens to retrieve the three baskets of knowledge … These baskets are te kete tuauri (sacred knowledge/light), te kete tuatea (ancestral knowledge/darkness), and te kete aronui (knowledge in front of us/pursuit). These baskets are thought never to be full, and thus there is always room for further knowledge.” All this is correct, except that it does not apply to all iwi. Some Ngāi Tūhoe hapū, for example, believe that there was just one basket of knowledge, and at least one Ngāpuhi hapū has no mention of any baskets of knowledge in their creation myths. This might seem to be a minor issue, but it points to distinctions in hapū oral histories that are important to recognise and maintain.

Such quibbles aside, Williams’s Polynesia 900-1600 deserves high praise. In one sense, it is a book that summarily reviews one of the longest periods in our country’s history. Yet, as I finished this work, it felt more like a deeply perceptive historical manifesto than a perfunctory survey. Perhaps Williams’ greatest feat is the alchemic way she takes base history, and turns it into something that challenges, informs, provokes, and ultimately, shapes our thinking on the subjects she addresses.  And in an age with an appetite for instant answers, and a growing fetish with the eternal present, this considered view of a long history, carefully curated, and wonderfully articulated, is just the sort of cultural corrective we need at this moment.

Polynesia 900-1600: An overview of the history of Aotearoa, Rekohu, and Rapa Nui by Madi Williams (Canterbury University Press, $25) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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