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Upton-on-line November 10th

This is upton-on-line’s last issue until December 1st. He will be overseas, leaving the next two issues in the hands of english-temporarily-on-line. Upton-on-line returns for December before disappearing forever into a linguistic Bermuda triangle that exists beyond the margins of international officialese, CNN and the le subjonctif. This issue is mercifully short and focuses on -

The ‘H’ word again

The fourth estate (and, to be the fair, oppositional elements of the ‘third’) have been making a meal of the latest reference to a holocaust on these shores – this time from the lips of Sandra Lee. Incredibly, no-one it seems is even interested in the empirical (as against the rhetorical) claim she made. Here’s what she said:

“Holocaust? In 1840 there were 40,000 of our people in this country. Forty years later there was one-quarter left. If that is not a holocaust how does a holocaust word apply to anything.”

“Quite easily” one could reply, pedantically pointing out for the nth time that etymology takes us in the direct of sacrificial immolation, and history in the direction of the Shoah. But that would be pedantic. Much more interesting is the reliability of Lee’s demography. Upton-on-line has been doing some digging.

How many Maori were there?

A leading New Zealand authority on the subject is Professor Ian Pool from the University of Waikato whose 1991 book, Te Iwi Maori – A New Zealand Population Past, Present & Projected (Auckland University Press) canvasses the subject in some detail. Here’s how Pool summarises the period up to 1840:

“This chapter has charted a population which grew from the very small base of perhaps a maximum of 200-300 settlers. Growth may have been relatively rapid by comparison with other populations of antiquity, at least, it has been speculated, in the early prehistoric era. Later that growth may have slowed. Regardless, the population would have reached barely 100,000 people before it suffered the shock of European contact. At that time birth rates might have been around 38-40 per 1000, death rates 30-35, and life expectation at birth of the order of 28-30 years.

The last figure may seem low to us, for in most developed countries today the biblical three score years and ten has been surpassed, and four score is being reached. In the eighteenth century, the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, and at a national level, Sweden, had life expectancies well above 30 years (Glass, 1965), but ‘levels of expectation of life below 30 years seem to have been quite common in Europe during the 18th century’. Pre-revolutionary France had almost 29 years; in Italy it was 28 years in Verona (1761-6), 29 in Liguria (1807-12), and Naples (1826-44), and 30 years in Milan (1804-5). But in Spain in the late eighteenth century the level was only 27 years (Livi-Bacci 1968, pp.528-9; see also Rallu in press). Perhaps Cook’s astronomer was not too far off the mark when he described Maori of 1773 as “strong-made, healthy people” (McNab 1908-14, v.2, p.204).

With contact, a population decline most definitely occurred, above all as a result of a sudden increase in mortality from introduced diseases. Tribal warfare was a dramatic element of the socio-political life of the period, but its impact demographically may have been more in terms of internal migration than of deaths. It would probably have been a minor direct contributor to mortality in that era. These changes gave a population of about 70,000 to 90,000 at the time of the Treaty of Waitangi. Lest the significance of this estimate be misinterpreted, it must be recalled that at this date, when the Maori made the extraordinary gesture of sharing their territory with newcomers, they outnumbered the 2,000 pakeha (Owens 1981, p.50) by something like 40:1.”(pp 57-58)

Pool then traverses the period 1840-1901. This embraces the nadir, when the total Maori population fell to a low point of around 42,000 in 1891 before recovering to just under 50,000 in 1911. This was the period of very strong growth in the pakeha immigrant population:

“Thus rapid Pakeha population growth had been the genesis of both the New Zealand Wars and the land purchases which followed. Both had a very significant impact on Maori socio-cultural and economic life, resulting in massive dislocations, and being associated with mortality and negative growth, as well as widespread local mobility.”

But it was disease that really played havoc. Prior to 1840, the number of colonists was so low that newly introduced diseases had relatively low impact. (The first nationwide measles epidemic did not occur until 1854.) Poole suggests that “[p]erhaps, distance, the ‘six months in a leaky boat’ of the popular song of the 1980s, gave Maori a modest advantage; sickly crew or passengers often would have died before their ship reached New Zealand.

Whatever the case before 1840, the rapid increase in settler population density in subsequent decades exposed Maori to the full horrors of diseases against which they had no natural protection:

“The Maori were an immunologically inexperienced population. Their increasing exposure to new pathogens introduced by Pakeha settlers reinforced by the virulence of the malnutrition-infection cycle caused principally by the processes and end-results of land alienation. Moreover, the Maori subsistence food economy had depended on a combination of extensive and relatively intensive land utilisation. After land alienation had occurred, they were restricted essentially to smaller tracts of land, and thus found it necessary to develop new strategies to obtain food and other basic needs…” (p 63)

As Pool notes, such was the susceptibility of Maori to relatively commonplace infectious disorders, they were fortunate that none of the great epidemic killers – malaria, bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera or smallpox – appeared in New Zealand.

Needless to say, the colonists (and their ideologists) came up with all sorts of explanations. Sterility, for instance, ( a result of venereal disease that had arrived well before 1840) was explained by Sir William Fox as a “depression of spirits and energy which … ensues upon contact with civilized man”. Crude Social Darwinism was airily applied to explain a declining population that was suffering extremely high mortality from a combination of inadequate immunological defences, poor living conditions (exacerbated by land alienation and internal migration) and poor nutrition.

But by the 1880s, the corner had been turned. A critical immunological response coupled with complex economic, social and cultural factors saw the population pass a critical threshold. And although it is not politically correct to seek any relief in such factors (and Professor Pool is scrupulous to avoid doing so) upton-on-line found the data which presaged the recovery particularly interesting:

“The fertility … patterns … show an increase … from the relatively lower levels reached at mid century. By the 1880s it had reached the level it was to maintain until the 1960s. Life expectation also gradually edged up, with an acceleration in the 1880s and 1890s. At mid century, it had been extremely low, by any standards. By the end of the century it was still low by comparison with that of the highly advantaged Pakeha, who led the world in this measure. The Pakeha population had already reached more than 55 years in the 1870s, and over 60 years for females in 1901, the first population to achieve this level. It is this juxtaposition of a highly privileged and a far less advantaged population in the one country which is so appalling, rather than the Maori level per se. Indeed, by 1900 Maori life expectation was not exceptionally low, certainly not by comparison with parts of neighbouring Polynesia or even parts of Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century the level in the Marquesas fell to below 20 years, while in Spain it was still only 35 years.”(p 77)

Pages 236 – 241 of Professor Pool’s book cover ‘facts and fables’. A decade has passed since he wrote the book – and no doubt there are more facts and just as many fables. But the broad conclusions seem clear enough. At the time of Cook’s voyages in the eighteenth century, Maori life expectancy was not dissimilar to the higher levels prevailing in Europe and significantly better than countries like Spain and Italy.

Between 1769 and 1840, as contact deepened, there was a significant population decline but, in Professor Pool’s words, “it is not the ‘holocaust’ faced by some Amerindian and Pacific Polynesian societies”. Physical factors such as low population density are at work here. Then, for the half century after 1840, the pressure of European settlement, disease, land alienation and social disorientation saw a steeper decline that did for a time carry the population closer to extinction.

But Maori recovered and, from 1900, harnessed the most advanced bio-medical techniques available at the time to a renaissance of Maori self-reliance. The history, since then, is more familiar.

Upton-on-line claims no special demographic expertise. But the facts are interesting. That Sandra Lee should have the numbers so wrong – and the news media should be so fixated about use of the word ‘holocaust’ – speaks volumes for the almost wilful historical amnesia that afflicts New Zealand. We can’t rewrite our history. Neither should we dwell on it. But surely the facts aren’t so mysterious that we have to flounder around in a banal debate about whether what happened was a holocaust or not?

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