In 1986 Nancy Farriss asked “ How do you reconstruct past systems of meaning… when you can neither participate in nor directly observe the lives of the people?” (in Appadurai, 1986: ix). The answer has been partially provided by the use
of those ethno-historical methods described and critiqued by such people as Greg Dening, Bronwen Douglas, Ganananth Obeyesekere, Marshall Sahlins, Anne Salmond, and Serge Tcherkézoff.
Dening’s paper on the value of ethnohistorical evidence helped define the field, but said that it: “does not mean… a discipline independent of both history and
anthropology and endowed… with a distinct methodology. It merely bands together those with an interest in the contact of literate societies and those who hope that the questions anthropologists have learned to ask of living cultures may be asked about the past… ” (1966: 34). Dening’s reflection on his Pacific work explained that many societies are close to their pre-[European] history, “making it more… personal than any normal prehistory based on archaeology alone” (ibid: 30). Although this
definition is problematical, because by using the words ‘illiterate’ and ‘pre-historic’ it is implied that having no written language means there is no literature, it does suggest the possibility of using present-day ethnography to illuminate past ‘ways of being’ from knowledge of what he calls the “living culture” (ibid.). From this perspective of the present, so-called ‘illiterate’ societies were not illiterate at all. They were highly literate and had genealogies, oratorical formulae, chants, poetry, songs and dance, as well as carvings and other art works that can be read and performed as texts. Dening highlighted the difficulties of using early textual sources like journals and logs of mariners, which are used in this thesis. Historians see these problems differently from anthropologists and the central issue in their perception is that societies are
continuously changing, albeit that the rate of change may vary. Historians, said Dening, are “deeply conscious of change” but do not trust evidence that may have been distorted by interaction with Europeans (ibid: 29). It is as though historians need a constant baseline for their data, and fail to acknowledge the obvious situation that any baseline data are themselves subject to contemporary change, including in this case during interaction with ‘other groups’ (even Polynesian ones). This does not, therefore, seem to be a valid criticism, for as Hau’ofa says, “our cultures have always been hybrid and hybridising… we have always given to and taken from our
neighbours and others we encounter’ (2000: 456; cf. Jolly & Tcherkézoff, 2009: 1, 25). Conversely, anthropologists have difficulty in accepting the use of ‘a priori’ methods of interpretation that historians use when they “impose” models or “organizational principles” on their evidence. They need to incorporate in their
other deficiencies in using early textual data also. The problems associated with the European visits from which most of the texts were generated include the brevity of the visits which sometimes amounted to only one day or a few hours, the fact that the ‘native’ language was not known, or was known incompletely, and the problem of interpreters who were unskilled or intervened in the translation with interests of their own or ofthose whom they represented. Yet, the aim is, to use these texts ‘fruitfully despite their limitations’ (ibid: 26-7). On the positive side, short visits frequently produced very detailed descriptions and these provide rich analytical data that is often missing from longer and more generalised accounts.
Marshall Sahlins (1993) in his article “Goodbye to Tristes Tropes: Ethnography in the Context of Modern World History” reported on the development of ethno- history as a “different kind of ethnographic prose” aiming to combine “the field experience of a community with an investigation of its archival past”, which he has done in Anahulu (1992). He acknowledged the need to incorporate transformation and time into the ethnography and even that recent ethnography could be used to clarify these, but his interpretation still implied that the “structure of culture” was the main thing implicated in providing the mechanisms of change. The concept of critical close reading of texts, and using recent ethnography reflexively as a kind of hermeneutic to tease out some of the issues of agency that could be involved in change, does not seem to feature in his evaluation.
Obeyesekere in his book Cannibal Talk (2005) recommended “deconstructing” colonial texts by close critical reading that seems similar to that used here. However Obeyesekere’s version, as Māori would say, has an implied kaupapa (agenda). The object is to “deconstruct” text(s) and then “restore” them by demonstrating their “multiple meanings”. He claims that this is an ethical project which he, as an
indigenous person, has taken on to “restore… self-worth and integrity” to those whom he considers have been maligned by prior textual representations of them. Sahlins criticised such “deconstruction” considering it to be very selective, using only a few texts to create a one-sided story, when plenty of texts would attest otherwise.
Furthermore, he showed that in several examples describing Fijian cannibalism there are multiple narratives, which all detail the same event but differently, a fact that would confirm their authenticity. He also raised the issue of the political implications of narratives constructed for “ethical” purposes, since this word, like other words can mean different things in different discourse once they are ‘let loose’ from their
original author (2003: 3-5; cf. Ricoeur, 1979: 78-80). This raises a further ethical issue not addressed by Obeyesekere, which is that ‘close reading’ can mean different things to different people.
In her Melanesian and New Caledonian work, the historian Bronwen Douglas used close reading of archival texts in a different way than Obeyesekere, looking for insights that close reading can provide from “traces of past presents… inscribed in texts: written or spoken words, memories, gestures, decorations, objects, buildings, landscapes, visual images… as vehicles for representation…”(1998: 17). If we regard all these items as texts, the way they are used, in cross-cultural encounters and
elsewhere in society, can provide insights into the role of strategy and contingency, collective or individual decision making in “deflecting, appropriating and exercising power” by any of the participants (ibid: 281). Such insights are then particularly pertinent to the decision-making of social actors who participated in the violent sequences that are described in this thesis. Douglas is aware of the biases in colonial texts that are highlighted by Obeyesekere, but she says that biases can help rather than hinder interpretation from the ethnohistorical viewpoint (1998: 124-33). Douglas has been criticised by Lansdown for ignoring the fact that the “… causes and
relationships... [that] help constitute the ‘particular situations’ in which the actors engage are in turn illuminated by what people did. If that is not so the expression ‘what it meant’ has little meaning” (2006: 23, my emphasis). Because of the limited number of indigenous written accounts, with which to compare the ‘western’ records, in this project other indigenous ‘texts’ such as objects and the reported behaviours associated with them have been used as interpretive tools. Chapter four traces a number of objects that have been transacted amongst Māori and with Europeans, together with the kōrero (oral history) that surrounds them and this enables their social and transactional significance to be interpreted.
Serge Tcherkézoff, working in the Eastern Pacific, particularly Samoa, has extended the use of close reading and comparison of archival records, by comparing them with those obtained from recent fieldwork and personal experience: “I strongly advocate the potential… of extrapolating backwards from more recent ethnographic accounts, as well as from those of the 19th century”, especially where the ethnographer had used the local language (2004: 198-203), and where the context can be shown to have not changed markedly. For example the structure of Samoan ceremonial houses has changed only slightly since d’Urville drew them in1842, and Tcherkézoff feels
justified, in such cases, in extrapolating from recent Samoan representations to interpret historical data about houses. If change has not been minimal, then this
method would be inappropriate (ibid.). When used appropriately the method addresses the concern that historians have about anthropologists not dealing with the dynamics of socio-cultural change because it enables the ethnographer to choose which contexts can be appropriately applied to his interpretations of social dynamics in the past. Where only written European records are available, this method may help to
illuminate them from the indigenous viewpoint. It also recognises that indigenous and European narratives need to be ‘scrutinised for how they were constructed’, that all cultures are changed directly or secondarily by encounters with other cultures, and that the resulting interpretations become history (2004: 198-203).
Likewise, Salmond has used insights from her knowledge of Māori tikanga (custom) and epistemology supported by her instruction in Māori philosophy, from the respected kaumātua (elder)Eruera Stirling, to interpret aspects of early inter- cultural encounters in New Zealand. She too has used close reading of early journals and narratives combined with more recent knowledge to illuminate the past by ‘extrapolating backwards’ in the way that Tcherkézoff has done (1997: 9-10, 517).
Dening’s suggestion for using various kinds of textual data as historical evidence, and Tcherkézoff’s approach of using recent ethnographical insights, are combined here to interpret the meanings that objects had in the social interactions and transactions documented in this thesis.