- Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori by Geoffrey Sanborn
As if by the tornado that swirled up Dorothy and Toto, two of the mightier tomes of American literature have been uplifted from their familiar contexts, the storm-ruffled pages spilling out Hawkeye and Ishmael, Ahab and Uncas, toward a group of islands some 1400 miles east of the land of Oz. Readers, we’re not in Kansas—or New Bedford or Fort William Henry—anymore.
For a New Zealander like myself, the after-effects of reading Geoffrey Sanborn’s brilliantly researched book are not unlike that moment when Dorothy wakes from her dream, and characters we have come to know as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion turn out to have their origins in the familiar farmhands who lean across the dazed child’s bed. “You couldn’t forget my face, could you?”, says the Lion, much like Queegqueg morphing in my mind’s eye into the heavily tattooed visage of my countryman, Te Pehi Kupe, whose chiefly likeness is preserved in the pages of George Lillie Craik’s The New Zealanders 1830. As Dorothy herself says in the film, “It wasn’t a dream, it was a place—and you and you and you were there.”
The places in question in Sanborn’s Whipscars and Tattoos are the beach frontiers of New Zealand, contact zones between iwi (tribes) and the ships, many of them American whalers, that would stop for a time in the Bay of Islands or in one of the many other harbors and inlets along our coast. Some of these visitors were riff-raff, tutua, men too coarse to discern the reciprocal obligations of hospitality and too careless of their own mana to mind anyone else’s. But a very acceptable class of pakeha (white person) could nonetheless be found on ships in need of victualling, spars, flax, or women. A beach like Kororareka (Russell), with its grog-shops and brothels—the “hell-hole of the Pacific” according to genteel observers—was in local terms a well-run transfer station for the import of iron tools and muskets that, in the decades following the early 1820s, would revolutionize the arts of peace and war. A community’s future would depend on the early adoption and controlled disbursement of those goods. Who would not have thought of taking passage on such a ship, of [End Page 44] following the pakeha goose to the source of his golden eggs? What an adventure that would be!
Whipscars and Tattoos recounts the biography of two of these early voyagers. Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, Sanborn argues, are not only real-life sources for the characters of Magua and Queequeg, they are also like missionaries in reverse, bringing a gospel of mana and tapu to a pair of American writers whose political and aesthetic intuitions gelled with these Polynesian concepts. Te Ara, a Ngati Pou chief from the Whangaroa heads, shipped as a sealing hand on his first voyage, returning home in 1806 with adzes and fishhooks. A subsequent voyage took him to the tropics as well as to the southern sealing grounds, followed by a period of months ashore in Sydney. Te Ara got on well with his captains and was treated as a person of consequence, but, in the summer of 1809, it was his misfortune to take a homeward passage with a pakeha tutua by the name of Thompson. When Te Ara voted himself sick and refused to work the ship, Thompson had him flogged and confiscated all his goods. A formidable tapu (taboo) surrounded the person of this chief. A path-finding voyage to the treasure house of the Pakeha ought to have augmented Te Ara’s mana and secured many advantages for his tribe; to put him ashore whipped, naked, and robbed of everything, was Thompson’s folly. Utu, often translated as revenge, means reciprocity, the restoration and maintenance of a cosmic and social balance. On both...