David Cameron's visit to Jamaica in September—the first by a British prime minister for 14 years—was intended, as he put it, to “reinvigorate” ties between the two countries. However, almost immediately on arrival, he was confronted with calls for slavery reparations. It remains a contentious issue in the Caribbean, where 98 percent of the population are said to be descended from victims of the slave trade.
Cameron declined to apologise to campaigners or promise financial amends, preferring, as he said, to “move on from this painful legacy”. He did, though, remind his listeners of Britain’s role in wiping the scourge of slavery from the face of the Earth.
That has been the prevailing attitude towards slavery in colonial New Zealand; that thanks to the tireless work of Protestant missionaries, supported by enlightened colonial administrators, Māori were gradually weaned off the barbaric practice of slavery and raised to something approaching a state of civilisation.
But were they? And if so, was it thanks to the evangelical labours of missionaries?
At a more fundamental level, is it even useful to see Māori social and economic organisation through the lens of the transatlantic slave trade?
Historian Hazel Petrie is inclined to answer all three questions in the nega-tive. Her reasoning is set out in Outcasts of the Gods? The Struggle over Slavery in Māori New Zealand.
In 1836, the missionary William Yate told a House of Commons select committee that about half of the Māori population in northern New Zealand were slaves, but that in the South Island it was more like one in 10. Samuel Hinds, who had never set foot in the country, told an 1838 select committee that by his estimate, 90 per cent of the population were enslaved. Whatever the true figures, the numbers alone are misleading, argues Petrie.
The intertribal warfare of the early 19th century was transformed by the musket, and to buy these, tribes grew crops and produced trade goods in quantities that required the labour of captives. The possession of muskets, in turn, enabled capture on an unprecedented scale. Something of an aber- ration, this social dynamic was at its height in the 1820s when missionaries were becoming active and European mariners were making increasingly frequent visits. Their observa- tions, misunderstandings and calculated manipulations created a slave narrative that both simplified and distorted the Māori reality.
In another quirk of timing, the international trade that Māori had earlier exploited began to change soon after. The market for hemp, which was laboriously prepared from flax, was eclipsed by a trade in timber that required fewer workers. And the increasing use of metal tools in agriculture further reduced labour. As a consequence, and quite independently of the Christian message of salvation, many captives were set free, first by Ngāpuhi, then by Ngāi Tahu and others. Indeed, Petrie argues that war-fatigued Māori may have even seized on Christianity as an excuse to lay down their weapons. They certainly found creative ways to skirt their own cultural precepts when relationships with Pākehā were put at risk.
Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and in 1833 emancipated its enslaved people with a state-sponsored payout of an unprecedented size—ironically, the money went not to the slaves but to British slave owners, to compensate them for “loss of human property”. The abolitionists’ view of slavery in New Zealand was coloured by the African experience—and not merely figuratively. Northern hemisphere slavery was racially defined and its modus operandi was clearly defined, unrelenting and often brutal forced labour.
As Petrie explains, slavery among Māori was far more nuanced. Some slaves were taken as wives by rangatira. Others, when offered release from servitude, pleaded tearfully to be allowed to remain where they were, such were the bonds of attachment to their new masters. Yet others, through loss of mana, feared that the old life was forever closed to them. And rangatira everywhere testified that it was beyond their powers to compel anyone to work for them. Even a definition was hard to come by. Depending on the situation, war captives, criminals and refugees all took on the semblance of slaves. There were tales of unspeakable cruelty; of a slave being fed to guests or killed as a proxy in a revenge attack. Some witnesses testified to the mild nature of Māori slavery. The Methodist missionary Thomas Buddle, for example, declared of war captives: “It was not reduced to system. No grinding labour was exacted. They were not treated with cruelty.”
Nor were they shut out of the afterlife. According to Māori belief, when a person died, their left eye became a star.
“The brightest stars may have been those of the great, but war captives still shone in the sky,” writes Petrie. “Albeit more dimly.”
While Outcasts doesn’t claim to have the whole truth about slavery—“there will always be limits on our understanding of the past,” says Petrie—it is a welcome corrective for anyone still tempted to use a template cut from the transatlantic slave trade on early colonial New Zealand.