For most people slavery conjures up images of cotton fields and sugar plantations, capricious white masters, whippings and abject cruelty. Hazel Petrie’s new history of Māori captivity opens with Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors blaming his own violent tendencies on 500 years of slavery and humiliation. Meanwhile, wife Beth observes that ‘Us Maoris used to practise slavery just like them poor Negroes had to endure in America’. It is a common assumption.
Except the reality, as Petrie succeeds in showing, was considerably different. Although some Europeans then and now liked to claim that Māori customs such as slavery were ended as a result of exposure to a superior civilisation, the evidence suggests quite a contrary and surprising chain of influence.
Once missionaries set up shop in northern New Zealand from 1814 onwards, they attracted whalers and others to the area, most of whom willingly traded muskets for pigs, potatoes, timber, flax (and sex). That in turn encouraged a massive increase in the number of war captives put to work in these areas, since the trade in goods and services that they provided was crucial in acquiring even more muskets.
As Petrie and other historians have argued, the subsequent period to about 1830 was an abnormal one in terms of the sheer scale and extent of intertribal warfare. The widespread release of captives that followed during the 1830s reflected the end of the ‘arms race’ between iwi. Easy conquests were no longer to be achieved once all the tribes had their own guns, creating obvious incentives for the restoration of peace. Christianity was sometimes helpful in achieving this outcome without loss of face (or mana) by any of the parties. But it was usually not the crucial driving factor.
Former slaves proved adept traders in the new commercial environment, in part because they were relieved of the communal obligations that chiefs bore to distribute wealth. Free to accumulate capital, many also benefitted from their early embrace of religion and literacy. In some regions former captives who had returned home introduced the Bible to entire regions years before European missionaries ventured anywhere near.
As for their actual experiences of slavery, Petrie shows that this varied enormously. Most slaves were not born that way but instead taken as captives. But not all prisoners would be reduced to the status of slaves. Captive chiefs were often spared such indignities and many resumed leadership roles upon return to their own tribes. Mistreatment of those who were taken as slaves was widely frowned upon and the slaves themselves often displayed a remarkable degree of independence from their supposed masters.
Revealingly, some former slaves preferred to remain with their host communities even after release. And meanwhile, for all the pious humanitarian talk surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi, its signing had no immediate impact on Māori slavery, which continued in some places for two decades or more.
For Petrie it is a moot point whether ‘slavery’ is even a valid description in the New Zealand context given the variety of Māori experiences of captivity and the range of Māori terms that can be used to describe their situations. That kind of nuance might not have been appreciated by Jake or Beth. But it reflects what is without doubt a carefully crafted and important history of Māori captivity.
Outcasts of the Gods? is published by Auckland University Press.