- Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori
Geoffrey Sanborn’s Whipscars and Tattoos speaks to critical reassessments of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, renewed interest in sea narratives and maritime culture, and the continued currency of transnational American Studies. He traces the influence of nineteenth-century configurations of Maori rangatira (chiefs) on “two of the most important novels in American literary history”—Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Melville’s Moby-Dick (11). Sanborn argues that Cooper’s Magua and Melville’s Queequeg were informed by popular depictions of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, Maori rangatira, and that overlooking the Maori connection has caused many to misinterpret Magua and Queequeg. Reading these fictional characters alongside Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe leads, for Sanborn, to the claim that Magua is not the embodiment of the “bad Indian” and Queequeg is not the embodiment of human love. His reassessment of these two characters informs his broader understanding of the novels themselves. The Last of the Mohicans, he argues, is “not an elegy for the vanishing American Indian but a paean to the embattled but still-independent spirit of chiefs and gentlemen” (14). Presenting Queequeg as an “embodiment of glory” (106) not love, Melville’s novel celebrates the “great buoyancy” (Melville qtd. in Sanborn 130) of human beings as they strive for a glory that they can never fully achieve. To advance these arguments, Whipscars and Tattoos offers four chapters; chapters 1 and 3 offer “life histories” of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, which support the readings of The Last of the Mohicans and Moby-Dick that are advanced in chapters 2 and 4 respectively.
Chapters 1 and 3 present concise biographies of two eminent Maori rangatira, Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, focusing on two opposing images: whipscars and tattoos. Chapter 1, “Te Ara’s Scars,” uses the Maori concepts of mana, a “simultaneously individual and collective spiritual potency,” and tapu, “a sacredness that attaches to certain beings, territories, and conditions” (12), to contextualize what is arguably a key moment in Te Ara’s life, and one from which Cooper would draw in his depiction of Magua. While working aboard the Boyd, an English ship bound for New Zealand, in 1809, Te Ara was wrongly accused of stealing a dozen pewter spoons and falsely claiming illness, and was tied up and whipped for these offenses. As a rangatira, Te Ara had devoted his life to the pursuit of mana, which in turn enriched the mana of his people. His back was his tapu, which “came from the afterworld” (19, 21), and [End Page 118] thus to be tied up and whipped for an offense that he denied committing was a direct assault on his mana and a denial of his tapu. In retaliation for the violence committed against him, Te Ara led an attack on the Boyd, during which nearly everyone on the ship was killed and the ship was plundered then burned.
The third chapter, “Te Pehi Kupe’s Moko,” narrates the life of a young Maori chief, Te Pehi Kupe, who, like Te Ara, embodied the mana and tapu of his family and community. This chapter focuses particular attention on his moko (tattoos) and the ways in which they communicated his genealogy, status, and, in conjunction with other visible signs of his mana, spoke of his deeds and martial prowess. Sanborn contextualizes Te Pehi Kupe’s travels to England within the context of “the Musket Wars, the tense relationship between inherited and acquired status, and the psychological implications of the description of that relationship in the form of facial moko” (12). Te Pehi Kupe’s moko, as Sanborn documents, were the subject of numerous textual and visual works in the nineteenth century, most notably George Lillie Craik’s 1830 work The New Zealanders (a text that Sanborn argues informed Melville’s depiction of Queequeg).
Chapter 2, “Cooper’s Death Song,” uses the figure of Te Ara, as...