Transactions gone wrong: Captain Porter & Chief Gamzdop at Nass River, British Columbia in

In document Between people and things: understanding violence and theft in early New Zealand transactions (Page 58-66)

Violence in History

B. Transactions gone wrong: Captain Porter & Chief Gamzdop at Nass River, British Columbia in

In 1811 some coastal Tshimshian ‘Indians’ attacked a ship’s watering party at the Nass River in British Columbia. The situation was described by Howay in 1925 as being quite a common phenomenon, which he attributed to the fact that the crews were small, the locals wanted to obtain goods and armaments, and also to “avenge ancient, or anticipated, or vicarious wrongs by storming vessels” (Dean, 1993: 84). Howay thus reinforced the judgements made by the Europeans and took no account of the oral histories of the locals. However, both the log of the ship Hamilton (Captain Porter), and four Tsimshian texts about the incidents have now been examined and compared by Dean. He comments that one of the problems of ‘doing’ this kind of history is that time sequences are difficult to establish from oral traditions, which perform a social role, but “both the document and the traditions may be seen as clichés embodying historical truths, illuminating the processes of history and cultural interaction” (ibid: 96). The log describes the context, the sequence of events,

transition points, the number of people, subsequent events, and reasons for the behaviour of the Europeans. It also makes negative judgements about the motives of the Tshimshian. When the ship’s boat went ashore with four crew these people were, along with thousands of Tlingit and Haida people, present for the catching of

candlefish at the end of the season:

But just as they got the warter filled they Received a volley of Musquet balls from some Natives Consealed in the woods Whitch did unfortunately kill the islander died on the spot and shot… Through the boddy & broke his left arm & he fell in the bote & others got off with her safe with the assistance of the ship’s Cannon…[sic]” (Porter, 21 May, 1811, in Dean, 1993: 88).

Dean reports that the log indicates that Joseph Lawrence was also injured, “the boat was pursued by canoes the Hamilton… remained in the area… [and] continued to trade for the rest of the day with some Tlingit people”. The journal refers to the native people as being “treacherous and always looking for opportunities to ‘cut off’ small parties” (ibid: 89). The four Tshimshian texts vary in the details of what happened, but share several notable features that appear to be common and possibly universal

features of most violence sequences:

1… a person or persons carries out an action in the course of a transaction. 2… the action is misunderstood by ‘others.’

3… a decision about action (usually more or less spontaneous) is made by one person.

4… some kind of violent response occurs/ doesn’t according to the decision made.

5… the event escalates/not according to what the nature of the response was. 6… reports by either party usually cast the ‘other’ as being in some way ‘wrong’.

These stages highlight the issue raised by Jackson and others, that multiple oral histories when compared often display the actors having available to them in the traditional repertoire, a choice of how and why to act in conflict situations. These stories were not synchronic as in the case Jackson describes, but they can,

nevertheless, be compared. In the case described by Dean, three of the four Tshimshan stories have a character in common: Chief Gamzdop who inadvertently sits on a skylight on the boat while they are trading skins with Captain Porter14. This causes offence to one of the European crew and Gamzdop is spontaneously attacked and thus shamed. The stories offer three options regarding what he did next:

i. He “seized his attacker and threatened to throw him overboard”, but the dispute was resolved.

ii. He “refused to retaliate, felt ashamed, went ashore and then fired on the boat.”

iii. He “felt publicly humiliated and would have to give a potlatch to cleanse his name… so he removed himself to the waterhole and lay in ambush for the sailors” (ibid: 91-2).

Thus at Nass river, British Columbia, in May 1811, a sequence of events led to conflict, because of perceived humiliation, cultural misunderstanding, retaliation to recoup lost honour, and the decisions made by particular persons about “others’ and their motivations. The options were there – at least for the Tshimsham – “to act otherwise” in the way Giddens has described for human agency (1990: 308).

C. Transactions gone wrong: Captain de Surville & Chief Ranginui, Doubtless Bay, New Zealand 1769

The situation in the next section of this chapter, describes how Surville and his men interacted with Māori, and the chief Ranginui and his people responded to the violent episode. Decisions they made involved particular personalities and the use,

construction and reconstruction of their own and ‘other’s’ discourse, myth, history, and epistemology. There was a disparity in understanding between two ontological worlds and these issues are key factors in the ‘violence process’. The use of insights from the present to look at the past, the connections of gossip and rumour-creation, morality, honour and context, with violent episodes in early European and Māori societies, may help clarify why and how violence played out between them. One can use the descriptions of the initiating circumstances, precursor events and development of this violent conflict that arose during the two-week visit to Doubtless Bay,

Northland, in 1769, of the French ship St Jean Baptiste commanded by Jean-Francoise Marie de Surville. Five voyage accounts are available, each of which adds a

dimension to the description of the context, actors and process involved in the development of one conflict where violence occurred (Ollivier & Hingley, 1987).

A letter attributed to Pierre Monneron, the ship’s clerk was written to

Monseigneur De Boynes, Minister of the Navy. It described the purpose of the voyage as being to search for an island “discovered in 1686 by David where the English have found great riches”. The vessel’s outfitters had “intended her for trade between the Indies [but changed their minds and] wasted no more time… so as to forestall the English [from taking] possession of this island”. However, “the captain alone knew the secret of the outfitting” and the real aim of the expedition was concealed even from the second-in-command, Labé (ibid: 147-8). Prior to their anchoring at Doubtless Bay in December 1769 they had had a difficult voyage. They had lost a boat and four anchors, sixty of the original crew of 172 had died of scurvy, and the remaining crew were in poor condition. Besides, they had lost the most vital

equipment needed for manoeuvring their ship. Surville and his men would thus have been anxious, and in poor health and spirits, after sailing through difficult weather. Whilst looking for a fabled island, they were then visiting ‘savage’ shores at Doubtless Bay. Surville, not knowing that Cook had already named it, called it Lauriston Bay.

Comparison of Ollivier and Hingley’s (1987) English translations of the French voyage accounts, and examination of how they are framed, exposes some features of the varying personalities, attitudes, and understanding of the ‘others’, whom the French crew and officers interacted with. There was considerable variation in their descriptions of the transaction events and actors, and of the transition points that culminated in violence. The descriptions also reveal some instances where violence

was averted, more ‘by good luck than good management’, as it seems that coincidence in the interpretation of objects and symbols was an enabling factor.

It is clear from the descriptions, that on arrival offshore, about one hundred Māori, in three canoes, met Surville and his one hundred and twelve crewmen. They exchanged fish for cloth, which was passed between them via a basket on a rope. The chief and some others came aboard:

“A lot of fish [was given]… in exchange for a few rags of cotton” (L’Horme). “Fish… for a piece of white cloth & a knife” (Labé).

“ ... a little fish & shellfish in exchange for a little cotton cloth” (Monneron).

“A great deal of fish exchanged for some cloth put in a basket which they then filled with fish” (Surville).

A “… Chief came aboard & was given a jacket of coarse red cloth & red trousers in exchange for his cloak” (L’Horme).

“… the jacket was put on him first & he put the breeches under his arm & gave the cloak to Surville, though he had tried to give the cloak first” (Monneron).

They also gave the chief a shirt. There was apparently no violence on this occasion. It seems that the coincidence in their similar-though-different interpretation of objects and symbols was an enabling factor in the appeasement process. However, the arrival on land the following day presented some difficulties, as the next paragraph will show, and Surville’s problematical attitude is revealed in the various journal interpretations. The French longboat had to travel some distance to land and almost throughout the journey was treated to a prolonged pōwhiri (welcome) with waving greenery, which L’Horme says “ must have been tiring for them”. Surville stated that he was not sure whether it was a welcome or was telling them to leave. The local Chief came down to meet them at the shore, welcomed Surville with the hongi (greeting), and eventually permitted them to collect wood and water. Although no violence occurred, the potential for it became apparent in Surville’s attitude. This is clear when the journal representations of Monneron (the ship’s clerk), and Lieutenant Pottier de L’Horme, are compared with those of Surville, the commander:

The chief came to receive him accompanied by a certain number of men scattered about on one side and the other… they gave the impression that their demonstrations were intended to honour our captain (Monneron).

He went forward with the chief… some men and women gathered around them unarmed with a fairly peaceful demeanour… (Pottier de L’Horme).

A lot of savages gathered there some with spears, others with clubs. They occupied all the heights… assembled in squadrons… I got the soldiers to disembark and told others to stay in the boat, which I had kept afloat in case of treachery… for us, neither their feeble arms nor their poor fortifications are capable of stopping us for a minute… during the whole interview I kept myself surrounded by five or six soldiers who stayed some distance off standing on alert… to watch out for the odd stab in the back (Surville).

In the development of the argument it will be shown that Surville’s attitude (which continued in this problematical way throughout the visit) was allied to other impression management factors that will be further discussed in this thesis. Surville had cast his Māori hosts as being much more threatening than did Monneron or L’Horme, and this appears to reflect that he was ambitious, conscious of enhancing his own status (cf. Blok, 2001), and wishing to be seen as brave and cautious. He was following secret instructions that only Monneron’s writings allude to. Capturing and kidnapping people and things from the islands he visited, in order to obtain knowledge of them, his constant reference to them as ‘barbaric’, ‘savages’, and finally as

‘blacks’, suggests that Surville was influenced by Enlightenment discourse and practices. This aspect of the French crew’s behaviour, along with that of other European visitors in that time frame, will be interpreted in the light of what more recent commentators on the development of violence have to say, about the concern of actors for their own impression management and status, and also of the role of public discourse, rumour and myth in inciting violent events (cf. Clammer et. al. 2004; Das, 2007; Trnka, 2008; Jackson, 2005). All the issues discussed by these commentators on recent violent events, are revealed also in the journals of Surville himself, and of other officers and crew who observed him interacting with Māori at Doubtless Bay. It is also clear that not all his officers agreed with him.

Further to Surville’s attitude, close analysis and comparison of the five journals for the same visit make it possible to identify all the transition points and actors leading to the final disaster briefly summarised here. Surville thought that a yawl, which they had lost in a storm, and was washed up on a beach, was ‘stolen’ by the Māori people who retrieved it. He therefore enacted violent retribution by capturing Ranginui, a chief who had helped them during the same storm by feeding and

sheltering their sick. He burned their canoes and houses and kidnapped Ranginui (cf. Salmond, 1997), taking him on board where he had him clapped in irons. Comparative attention to the varying eyewitness accounts reveals important information about the motivation that Surville had for doing this action, and how his officers viewed it:

This morning I had the least damaged boat put in the water, wishing to land with the fittest of the sick, and also to see if I could not capture a native in order to extract from him afterwards whatever knowledge it would be possible to obtain about his country (Surville, 30th December 1769).

We had not gone a third of a league when we saw a lot of blacks… some running up the heights… more sitting in squadrons…one even made signs for me to approach. I stopped and signed for him to approach myself. He hesitated for along time. At last he came straight to me unarmed. I reproached him for the theft of the yawl and … said to a few sailors whom I had expressly brought along to arrest him… [and] led him to the longboat… wishing to extend the revenge further I [set alight a beautiful canoe and] five or six groups of fishers huts… storehouses of fern root… setting fire to things all around… a little village… we arrived on board at 4[pm] I had the longboat and the captured canoe hoisted at once, having in addition just what I would desire, a savage and a native canoe… (Surville, 31st Dec. 1769).

These comments by Surville need to be compared with those of Monneron and L’Horme who were both present. They depict a different story:

Following the river marked 6 on the plan of Lauriston Bay… there he found a few savages… getting into their canoes and he called out to them. One of them approached and we arrested him on the spot. The others took flight. We were able to arrest only one man and his canoe… We came back on board and our surgeon-general recognised him as he who had offered asylum to our sick and who had even given them food. We should no longer expect to receive any help from the inhabitants of this country (Monneron, p.187).

Mr de Surville, not finding [the yawl]… spoke to the savages he met there, where there was a fairly big village, and asked them what had happened to her. But as he could get no

satisfaction out of them he got angry with them, had one captured by force and taken to the boat by force with his hands tied, to be watched over, and had the village, the canoes and the nets… all set on fire. After that he covered all the surrounding area looking for the yawl, which he could not find. He came back to the ship in the afternoon with the prisoner who turned out to be the same man who had had dried fish brought to me when I was without food at Refuge Cove in the bad weather…

I was touched with the greatest compassion when this poor wretched man came on board. Recognising me, and not knowing what his fate would be, he flung himself at my knees, embraced them fervently… with tears in his eyes. He said some incomprehensible things… but indicated by signs that he was the one who had had fish brought to me… This man appeared to be asking for mercy, or begging me to ask it for him. I did my best to console him, and explained that we had no wish to harm him… (L’Horme, p.119)

It thus appears that not only did Surville plan to ‘capture a native’ and a canoe, as he had already done in the Solomon islands, but he lost both his yawl and his temper and had no inkling that perhaps the retrieval by the ‘savages’ of the remains of the boat that had been washed ashore may have been a legitimate salvage in their eyes, rather than what Surville considered as a ‘theft’. Surville had, after all, admitted in his journal on the first day of their welcome, that he was unsure of what they meant. This issue can then be considered by reference to local Māori customary practice, where items washed ashore were gifts of Tangaroa (God of the Sea) and then became the ‘property’ of the person or group who had found them, as outlined by Salmond (1997). Herein lies an example of an inter-cultural ontological disjunct which has led to violence being visited upon a particular Māori community in 1769, and whose descendants still tell the story of Ranginui’s loss, their puzzlement as to why it occurred, and the justification for their subsequent actions:

kahore kau he take a aua mai tai i herehere kau ai i a te Ranginui a i maua noatia ai aia ki waho ki te moana, na aua mahi nei te Māori i mahi raruke ai i te mai tai, u noa mai ki enei motu, kia taea aite utu mo ana mate ano a te Maori i te mai tai (Salmond, 1997: 542). [There was not any cause for which Ranginui was made prisoner by those [sailors], nor was there any reason for his being taken out to sea, but for such acts as this Maori retaliated on the [sailors], who might come to these islands, that the Maori might have revenge for the evil bought [sic] on them by the [sailors] or those from over the sea](Salmond, trans. 1997: 209- 10)[my emphasis]

Thus one can identify in Surville’s interactions with Māori the same issues occurring as have been observed in modern studies of inter-cultural conflict. The place is different, the people are different but the interactions play out in a very similar manner. They involve understandings of the actions of people and things; both

spontaneous and planned decisions being made which dramatically alter the course of proceedings and sometimes lead to violence. Behaviours are also shown to reflect the cultural backgrounds and ontological worlds of the actors.


Conflicts are processual. They have an initiating circumstance or context. If the conflict is intercultural it will have more than one context because of the differing world-views possessed by people from the different cultures involved. The process

In document Between people and things: understanding violence and theft in early New Zealand transactions (Page 58-66)


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