Back to Index

Maori Cannibalism

     Michael Bassett questions the source of my information about "the brainpot". It was an article entitled "Steam and bubbles in New Zealand" by Margo Pfeiff, a travel writer who normally covers Australia's Coral Coast. The article, illustrated with many photographs, appeared in many places. I saw it in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner of January 9, 2000. She mentions a website Some one may have fooled her, but I learn all kinds of things I did not know about the Palo Alto area, with which I am well acquainted. Michael Bassett writes:
     "I am becoming increasingly suspicious about your sources of information about New Zealand. There might possibly be a hot pool in Rotorua called "the brainpot", but it seems a bit funny that a New Zealander like me who is a New Zealand historian has never heard of it. My wife is an historian of nineteenth century New Zealand and joint author of The Story of New Zealand. She has never heard of "the brainpot" either. There is no mention of it in Don Stafford's two volume history of Rotorua, nor in any of the scholarly histories of New Zealand, or in the books about Maori that I possess. What with the far-fetched story about the Celts, the doubts about New Zealand being the first settled landmass to see the light of the new millennium, and now this one....
     What are your sources on New Zealand? Would you like me to send you a decent History of New Zealand? The best short history which is now somewhat dated is by Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, Penguin 1959. It went through four revisions, the last appearing in 1991 two years before Sir Keith died. The first volume of James Belich's Making Peoples: A History of New Zealanders, Allen Lane and Penguin, appeared in 1996. It deals with the development of Maori society in New Zealand from the time of the first migrations a millennium ago, and with the contacts with European settlers which grew in number following Captain Cook's visit in 1769. Cannibalism is mentioned.
     There is a more detailed study of culture contact by Anne Salmond which looks as though it will stretch to three volumes. The first two are out. Volume One is entitled Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772. It was published by Viking Press (Penguins) in Auckland and New York in 1991. It mentions cannibalism which first became a phenomenon in the 16th century when the scattered coastal Maori settlements grew in number, and population pressure pushed many inland. Protein was short. (Remember that there were no native animals of any kind in New Zealand, just fish and birds. New Zealand which today prides itself on possessing 60 million sheep and barely 4 million people did not see a sheep nor any pigs or cattle until after Captain Cook). Maori were warlike, and battles were sometimes followed by feasts of the vanquished. The victors believed that to eat one's enemies was to destroy not only the physical being, but to eliminate their "mana" - their reputation, their standing amongst other Maori. Cook's men were told in 1769 that eating the bodies of the victims of war was common amongst Maori. Some of Cook's crew bought human bones from the native people and took them back to Europe. The French explorer, Marion du Fresne and 25 of his party, were killed and eaten in June 1772, the first European victims of cannibalism in NZ. The archaeologist, Janet Davidson, notes that a mix of human flesh and moa, the huge, flightless ostrich-like bird that the Maori rendered extinct in the early nineteenth century, seems to have been regarded as a real delicacy. The practice of cannibalism lingered into the nineteenth century. The northern chief Hong Hika and his warriors eat many of their victims after a war in the Bay of Islands in 1821. According to Patricia Burns in her biography of the fearsome Maori chief Te Rauparaha who died in 1849, the practice of cannibalism was drawn to the attention of potential European settlers in the New Zealand Company's handook published in 1839. By that time the practice was pretty rare.
     In other words, there has never been any mystery about cannibalism in NZ. It existed. Its practice from time to time, usually between warring Maori tribes, shocked early European settlers and visitors. In my youth Maori talked about the practice in a light-hearted way. I remember an old Maori causing hilarity by telling an audience that his grandfather was really European - by ingestion. "You are what you eat", he added. Some historians these days don't mention cannibalism very much. The more politically correct (ironically, usually Europeans) like to paint a picture of an ideal native society that was destroyed by European contact. But the available literature has plenty of references to cannibalism, and the truth of its existence will never be expunged.

     My comment: We thank Michael Bassett for this information. If he is so kind as to send me "a decent history of New Zealand" I will read it and then donate it to the new history room in Stanford Library. I am helping it build up its library. New Zealanders should be grateful for the All Blacks' fierce haka, which is a way to get the attention of Americans. Even our universities show little interest in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which are too peaceful. I am trying to remedy that, as I am the related absence of a geography department at Stanford. I am sending a copy of this to Carolyn Lougee, chairman of our History Department, to let her know I am performing a haka prior to engaging in battle.

Ronald Hilton - 1/16/00