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Memoir

Occupying armies

I KNOW THREE stories about the Moriori, a long-ago people who survived, in tatters, a determined attempt to eradicate them. The first goes like this: at a time that nobody can remember a group of men, women and children set off from the east coast of New Zealand and plunged into the vast ocean wilderness of the south-east Pacific. Nobody knows why they left the safety of the mainland – whether it was restlessness, or curiosity about what lay beyond the horizon, or grim necessity. They packed food and fresh water into a two-hulled canoe and, presumably, hoped for the best.

A few days into their voyage a mist closed around them until they could see nothing, wherever they looked. All they could hear were the thrashing of waves against the sides of their canoe and the cries of seabirds warning them of land. Cautiously they rowed on, until they came upon black rocks looming out of the fog, then an island and, within the perimeter of this chunk of earth, a safe harbour where they were able to land.

They called this place Rekohu, after the white vapour which hung over it day after day. It was not as salubrious as the land they had come from – it was bleak, windswept, with bare, skinny trees which ended in tufts or sprays of foliage – but it was liveable, with plenty of seafood and wild birds to feed on, and a thriving population of seals to give the new inhabitants skins to wear when it was bitterly cold, as it all too often was.

Over the years of isolation from the rest of the world these people developed a way of settling disputes between families without endangering their small population. This way is called Numuku's law, named after the man who proposed it. Each disputing family puts forward a single representative. These two men meet and fight. As soon as they draw blood the fight is over and the winner decided. This law ensured the survival of these people over centuries, until the arrival of the first Europeans.

Until this time the people had believed they were alone in the world. They called themselves Moriori, which means 'normal', the way people these days call themselves 'human'.

Whenever I think of this story of migration, survival and adaptation I try to imagine who these people were, the personality of the canoe's captain, the nature of these people, which allowed them to set out on such a voyage with no guarantee that they would ever reach land again. I think about their daily life in their double-hulled vessel carved out of tree trunks, how they endured rain and wind and piercing chill. How did the children put up with not being able to run around? How remarkable that the expedition was a family affair, not a matter for the men alone, as it was for the European explorers who found the Moriori descendants in the late eighteenth century.

I wonder all this because, through my mother's mother, I am connected by blood to these intrepid migrants. I will never find answers to my questions. All the Moriori remembered of this migration was a vague reference to the place they came from, which they called Aotea, meaning 'far away'. The scraps of information I have been able to glean are maddeningly elusive. They weren't thinking of their descendants as they rowed across the watery wasteland; they weren't thinking of us as they settled into their new home and allowed the story of the voyage to be forgotten. But I think of them; I try to imagine them, and come up with empty air. I think of my grandmother and my mother, and find myself in a similar position, as if this elusiveness is a family trait.

This, then, is the story of the Moriori arrival on Rekohu, which the English renamed Chatham Island.

The second story I know about the Moriori is much more savage.

 

ALTHOUGH I MET my grandmother about five times in my life I know almost as little of her as I know of her Moriori ancestors. My mother refused to tell me about my grandmother, just as she refused to tell me about herself, her early life, her memories of Chatham Island, her thoughts and feelings, her private self. I had to pester her night and day to get anything out of her. Her usual answer was, 'I forget.' Sometimes she said, 'It's none of your business.' I didn't believe that she had forgotten, and I didn't accept that it was none of my business. I was her daughter. Who had more right to know than I did? More than that, I wanted her to be open to me, not closed; I wanted to figure out who this woman was. If I could know who she was, I could understand why she did the terrible things she did, why she kept me stiflingly close yet shut me out. If I could know her, then I could know something essential about myself. I would look into her face and see who I was. This quest was my obsession when I was an adolescent, and it remains so much a part of me that I am unsure I would know how to think of my mother if I had no more vital questions to turn over in my mind.

This is what Mother told me about my grandmother: she was twenty-three when she married, and her husband was nineteen. She bore sixteen live children, six of whom died in childhood. Her father-in-law, Tiwai, attended some of these births and, to hurry the process along, knelt on her belly and used his knees to push the infant out. When Mother told me this story, I flinched. Was it possible? Was it physically possible? He would surely have had to sit on my grandmother's face in order to do it. Or at any rate, his backside would have hung suffocatingly close to her face. In Maori culture, the head is sacred and the backside is profane. Did he do this to show his contempt for his daughter-in-law? His action was so bizarre, so barbarously against nature (why not let her own body do its job?), that I wondered if Mother was telling the truth.

At the birth of her youngest son, my grandmother wanted to call the child Benjamin. My grandfather preferred the name David, and to get his way he trotted along to the magistrate's office to register his son's name himself. But my uncle was known all his life as Bin.

Mother took her fiancé to meet her. At twenty-seven, my father was seven years older than Mother. My grandmother said, 'Why you want to marry an old man?'

Mother married soon after the death, from heart disease, of her father. His will left his land to all his children, including Mother. This land was in Taranaki, in New Zealand's North Island, and covered part of the Waitara River. It was his tribal land, not the land he had farmed on Chatham Island. My grandmother had to give the names of all her children so that they could receive their inheritance, but she got Mother's married name wrong. As she told me this story Mother tossed her head like a little girl who has been told she can't play with the other children. 'I don't want it anyway. I have to go to court to have the name changed, but I'm not going to because I don't want the land. It's in the middle of the river. Why would I want that land?'

Mother told me, 'When I was little the old crows wanted to take me away and tattoo my chin.' The old crows were the kuia, the senior women of the clan. Mother called them crows because they wore black to honour the ancestors. 'They came to our house and carried me away, but Ma followed them and took me back. They fought over me there on the road. Ma won. She wanted me to have a chance in life. She wouldn't teach me Maori and she wouldn't let the women tattoo me so I could have a chance in life.'

That is the sum total of all Mother told me about my grandmother, apart from that she was of Moriori descent. The rest comes to me through my own observation.

Whenever Ma visited Wellington she stayed with her youngest child, my Aunty Daph. She never stayed with us, though Mother longed for this sign of love and approval. I longed for it on Mother's behalf, feeling her exclusion in every trembling nerve of my body. Even more urgently, I longed for it for myself. I thought Ma would be a better mother, a more open and giving mother, than my own. I daydreamed about Ma adopting me. I imagined life with Ma would be idyllic. She would hug me and make much of me. She would lift the invisible cordon Mother had thrown around me that kept others at bay. But it was fantasy. In reality my brothers hit me in secret, not in front of Mother; my father didn't touch me at all. Once, when I was nine, I came home with a shilling a man had given me for holding his penis. Mother flew into a frenzy of possessiveness. Gripping me by the shoulder, she whipped me with a belt, repeating with every cutting stroke, 'Nobody is allowed to touch you. You don't let anybody touch you.'

Only Mother was allowed to lay hands on me; Mother was allowed to put her hands anywhere on my body that she chose, even on forbidden places. I didn't know whether I was too sacred for others or too defiled. All I knew was that, without human touch, I was wasting away, that soon nothing would be left of me except a thin, pale vapour. But all that would be different if Ma adopted me. Ma would make me human. Ma would tell me where we all came from: her, Mother, me, and how Mother came to be the way she was. Ma would tell me everything I could ever wish to know about her early life, her marriage, her private thoughts, her secret self and thus, at last, I would be connected to a history and people, and no longer have to be thisthing called Mother's property.

During my grandmother's stays in Wellington, Mother and I made the pilgrimage out to Daph's house. All the Wellington branch of the family was there, as if Ma was a visiting monarch. She was sitting on the couch when we arrived, flanked by eager grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Alternating smiles and frowns flickered across her ancient face according to the tick-tock of her thoughts. Whenever she wanted a cup of tea she stood up to get it herself. One of the women said, 'You stay there, Ma. I'll make it for you.' Ma said, 'Don't fuss. Stop fussing. I do it myself.'

She was seventy-one when I was born and into her eighties by the time I became aware of her, yet she didn't act like an old woman. She took a walk around the block after each meal. Her daughters and grandchildren offered to go with her. 'I go by myself,' she snapped. When she returned she was beaming, as if on her walk she had met someone who had given her good news.

On one occasion, when Mother and I arrived Ma scooped me onto her lap, thrust her swollen, crooked old hand up under my T-shirt and passed it back and forth over my ribs. I felt pleased and clumsy: a stranger to affection, I didn't know how to respond. 'You skinny,' she said. She poked me in the stomach. 'You got nopuku. I put some meat on your bones.'

Ma's strong Maori accent sounded like bare feet thudding across hard-packed sand. She spoke in a mixture of Maori and English. She pronounced wh the traditional way, by blowing air between her tightened lips. Everyone else in New Zealand pronounced wh as if it were an f. These days, I pronounce it the way she did. That and my coarse hair and the arthritis in my fingers are all I have of her.

 

MY GRANDMOTHER WAS a relic of a brutal history. In December 1835, fifty years before Ma was born, the Moriori suffered a barbarous fate. This is the second story I know of them.

At that time two Maori tribes, the Ngati Mutunga and the Ngati Tama, were living in Wellington, having been driven out of their ancestral home in the Taranaki region of the North Island by a neighbouring tribe. Ever since their displacement they had been hankering after land they could similarly steal and make their own. They needed land for their sense of self-respect and identity. The Maori were nothing without land. They considered sailing to Samoa or Norfolk Island, but chose instead to turn their rapacious appetite on the Chatham Islands. They hired the brig Rodney, kidnapped the second mate and held him in Wellington to ensure the captain of the ship would return to pick up the second group of invaders. As part of the plan the Ngati Tama would go first and wait until the Ngati Mutunga arrived before claiming the land. They predicted that it would be a piece of cake, since the Moriori were not fighters. Five hundred Ngati Tama – men, women and children – swarmed onto the Rodney and crammed themselves into the hold. It was so tight that nobody could lie down. The best they could do was squat. They couldn't bring enough water for such a large number, and when the crew passed the supply down the men seized and drank it all. Everyone suffered terrible thirst over the five days and nearly 900 kilometres of the voyage. By the time they staggered onto the dock at Whangaroa Harbour, they were too weak and sick to do anything.

In the meantime, to make doubly sure the Rodney would return for them, the Ngati Mutunga sacrificed several dogs and a twelve-year-old girl, killing and hanging them from the branches of a tree. The Rodneydid return, but by the time the second lot arrived at Whangaroa Harbour the Ngati Tama had broken their word and already claimed the choicest part of the island for themselves. This was the start of a flourishing feud between the two tribes. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century it looks as though these people didn't know what to do with themselves if they weren't fighting someone.

The Moriori men met at the most sacred place on Chatham Island, on Rekohu, and discussed possible plans of action. The young men wanted to fight off the Maori invaders. The Maori were a warlike people: all they understood was fighting. The older men disagreed. Their honour and self-respect, their mana, demanded that they obey Numuku's law and offer the invaders a peaceful partnership. The land was rich enough in food to support them all.

The Moriori sent a group of dignitaries to offer the Maori a share of the island and its resources. The Maori scornfully refused the gesture.

As soon as they were strong enough the first load of invaders set off in all directions to claim as their own property the land and everything on it, including the Moriori. Part of the ritual of tikenga was to kill a number of the former proprietors. For some of the invaders that meant killing only a symbolic handful of people. For others it meant wholesale slaughter. Moriori men, women and children were murdered with a savage blow to the temple. Women were speared through the belly and left to die in agony. Some of the conquerors so lusted for the kill that their more moderate allies took in fleeing Moriori and protected them until the worst of the hunt was over. By the end of the day corpses lay everywhere. Blood soaked into the earth; hot blood mingled with the cold water in rivers, lakes and in the lagoon.

After the massacre the killers went among the dead, sliced off the penises of the murdered men and tossed them to the Maori women, who ate them. Corpses were butchered, cooked and feasted on.

It is hard not to feel horrified by this account of human beings killing and eating human beings. The surviving Moriori and their descendants looked on the cannibalism as a shocking transgression; in later years they described the Maori as kaupeke, flesh-eating demons. It is so shocking that I can't quite comprehend it. Part of me is left cold by this account, because I can't imagine myself into the skin of the Maori invaders. I can imagine myself into them up until the invasion, but not what they did to ratify their claims. Yet I want to understand, because I am descended through my grandfather from one of the leaders of the Ngati Mutunga. And even if I wasn't, I would want to understand, because that's how I make human aggression and human suffering bearable. But I can't. I try to find a psychological explanation for the Maori cannibalism: in eating their opponents, they were proving that the Moriori were not human, not like themselves. The facts don't bear this out, though. The conquerors renamed a place where many Moriori were killed and cooked: they called it Kai Tangata, human food.

The survivors of the slaughter were pressed into slavery. From then on the Maori acted in recognisable ways, using methods of division, demoralisation and extermination that other oppressors around the world have used. They separated wives from their husbands, parents from children, and forbade any kind of sexual contact between Moriori men and women. Over the following decades Moriori numbers fell from hundreds to just a few. A census taken in 1861 counted only 161 Moriori living; of those, twelve were children. These people died from malnutrition, from unpredictable murderous acts by their owners, from hopelessness. The living were treated with unremitting cruelty, fed on starvation rations, forced to totter under burdens that bent them double, the young women raped. The sick and injured were left to die where they fell, without medical help. Worse, their Maori oppressors and European observers alike read in their features the signs that said they deserved their new place in the world. The shape of their features, whether gaunt or round, defined or formless, always signified to others that they were beings apart, subhuman.

Knowing all this I think of my grandfather Ngawharewiti, who was Ngati Mutunga, and my grandmother Tongo, with her Moriori blood ties, and I marvel that they married. I don't see this as a sign of hope or unity, of peace between conquerors and slaves. I don't know what it's a sign of. Perversity, perhaps. Or the sheer will to survive, no matter what. All I know is that my mother was ashamed of her Moriori connection, even more ashamed than she was of her Maori blood.

 

THE LAST TIME I saw my grandmother she was ninety-three. Mother and I flew down to the South Island to spend a week with her in Nelson, where she had been living since the 1940s.

Mother had had a hysterectomy some months earlier. I learned of it only after she had been admitted to hospital, when I noticed that Mother didn't come home from work. I probably wouldn't have heard about the operation at all if I hadn't asked my father where she was. He frowned and shook his head, as a parent does when a child broaches a forbidden subject. He whispered, 'Women's troubles. Don't talk about it.' A couple of days after the operation he took me into hospital to see her. All the way there he smoked cigarettes with more than usual anxiety. After he had parked the car he loitered on the street, smoking hard, as if preparing himself for an ordeal. At last he took me inside and up to the gynaecology ward.

Mother was in the bed at the far end, next to the window. My father perched on the sill and fiddled uneasily with a fresh packet of Capstan Cork. Mother had me kneel beside the bed. She stroked my hair, a sign of affection she had never shown me before. I kept very still as I tried to figure out what it meant. Mother was a robber by nature: whatever she pretended to give was always a theft in disguise. She told me, 'The nurse came around yesterday afternoon and asked if I wanted a painkiller. I wasn't feeling any pain, so I said, "No, thank you." An hour later, I hurt so much I cried. I asked the nurse if I could have a painkiller now. She said, "No, you have to wait for the next round of medication."' I stifled a sigh of impatience and incomprehension. The story was typical of Mother: anything that was common sense to other people was the opposite to her.

A little later she told me, 'I had a baby before Lynn was born.' I pricked up my ears. This was new. Lynn was my eldest brother.

My father said gruffly, 'Don't talk about it.'

Mother ignored him. She had been silent for almost thirty years, and now she would have her way. 'He came at five months and died. We named him Lawrence.' Her eyes were wet with unshed tears. Then, still with tears in her eyes, she said, 'Your hair feels rough. You should use conditioner more often.' That too was typical of Mother: for her, there was no difference in emotional register between her stories about pain and grief and her criticism of my hair.

Five months later we reached Nelson and the grey weatherboard where Ma lived. It was a drab three-bedroom abode. Across the road horses grazed in the paddocks. On the crown of a nearby hill stood an old insane asylum, no longer in use.

I hadn't seen Ma in six years and was amazed at her vigour. She walked briskly, without the aid of a stick. Though her face was a mask of wrinkles – wrinkles piled upon wrinkles, as if every expression her face had ever shown had plunged its flag of ownership into her features – she still didn't seem an old woman. She seemed to have visited humanity from another, alien species, one noted for its robustness and longevity, and had become stranded here. She was distracted, her thoughts turned so far inward that, though she greeted my mother with a hug, it looked like a brief salute between strangers. Mother sought her gaze with a mixture of timidity and greed. Ma kept it turned away from her. I thought of the many times I had looked into Mother's face in the hope of a response, and received none. To both of us our mothers were like undiscovered islands. Neither of us could feel we existed until our presence was acknowledged.

Ma put the kettle on and served us tinned corn, and bread and butter. Though a vegetable patch thrived in the rear of her backyard I didn't see fresh vegetables on our plates during the entire visit. Mother offered Ma presents she had brought down, in particular a maroon caftan with grey braid stitched around the neck and cuffs, which she had sewn for her. Ma accepted with grudging thanks and left the gifts untouched on a chair.

Mother and I divvied up the accommodation. She took the sunny bedroom. As she dumped her suitcase on the bed, she turned to me with a plea inadequately masked by the appearance of indifference. 'You can sleep in here if you want. There's plenty of room.' On the contrary, there was only a double bed. I chose the bedroom on the other side of the passage.

As I sat in the club armchair, writing the latest chapter in a story I had brought with me, I listened to Mother walk around her room as she settled in. The wardrobe door creaked open and thumped shut. A drawer shuffled stiffly out, then back. Sometimes she visited the kitchen. I heard a bright question and a muttered answer.

Over the past two years I had forced a shift in the power balance between us. My dealings with Mother were almost always a struggle now; she needed to keep our old relationship intact, even if that meant letting me act the tyrannical master. Inside, I felt the struggle between my longing for the old way and my urgent need for something new. The old way was familiar but it had hurt me so badly that I knew I had to get away if I was to have any chance at a life of my own choosing. The question was how to find that life, how to create it, when I didn't know what it looked like.

The story I was working on was embarrassingly juvenile – about a community of women cut off from the rest of the world. An intrepid explorer ventures out of the community. Not that she sees herself in those terms. She sees herself as driven to leave. The community is airless; a deadening atmosphere hangs over it. The older women tell her she can't come back if she goes; their warning frightens her; and yet she walks out one night while everyone is asleep, and with every step that takes her deeper into the larger world beyond she thinks back to the place she has left, trying to figure out the new by comparison with the old. Many years later, as I think back to that girl in the club armchair, that me, that not-me, I realise that I am still working on a version of this story of an isolated community of women and the one who leaves for a better life.

I came out of my room to eat and use the bathroom. This was how I lived at home; I saw no way of changing my habit. The heroine of my story left in one decisive act. I was still trying to work out how to do it myself, how to ignore the warning that sounded in my head every time I thought of leaving: if you go, you will die. Other people younger than me had managed it. But they had not been burdened with a mother like mine, a mother who couldn't live without me.

The next day, as I was washing the lunch dishes, Mother told Ma about the operation. This, I realised, was why she had come down to Nelson. Her reason was understandable; she had been hurt by it and she wanted to tell her mother how it had hurt her. I loved her then, the way you love an injured child and want to protect it from further harm. How could I show her, though, when the only language we shared was one of coldness and isolation?

Ma sat looking out the window, so that she didn't have to look at Mother. Though her back was to me I could see by the set of her shoulders that she wasn't paying attention. I had seen that particular set of the shoulders in my own mother often enough.

Mother put on the bright-eyed look that made her resemble a demented schoolgirl. She was telling the story of how the nurse had asked if she wanted a painkiller and she had said no. 'Heng!' she cried. 'It hurt like anything!'

Ma said, 'You weak. Don't tell me how you hurt. I don't care.'

The bright smile on Mother's lips threatened to slide into wretchedness. It trembled on the verge. I wanted it to happen. I thought that if it happened Mother would turn into a real human being and we would be able to leave this horrible community of women together. The moment passed. She tossed her head and swung her feet like a wounded little girl. I knew then that she would never be able to leave and that, somehow, I must find a way to do it alone.

I put away the washed and dried dishes, and returned to my room. I sat in the club armchair, the pages of my story piled on one arm, my fountain pen turning over and over between my fingers. I kept thinking of how Mother had tried to tell Ma something important and how Ma had dismissed her contemptuously. Mother would have done the same to me, had done the same to me, on numberless occasions. Mother had no comfort to offer anyone, no warmth, no reassurance. All she had was coldness. But I disliked Ma for rejecting her and blamed her. If Ma had given Mother what she needed, perhaps Mother could have become the person I had always wanted her to be. I knew it wouldn't have happened but I couldn't stop yearning for that mythic mother, the one who had withered in an inhospitable climate.

I got up and went out to the kitchen to get something to drink. This was my pretext for checking on Mother. The kitchen was empty. The back door was open. Ma must be taking her midday walk. I stepped outside and froze to the spot. My eye snapped to Mother as a pin snaps to a magnet. She was lying on a beach towel on the lawn, naked except for her knickers, which she had pushed down until a line of her black pubic hair showed. She had unfastened her bra and laid it across her breasts. The purple scar of her hysterectomy plunged from the pubic line into the wasteland of her mountainous belly. Her face flushed, her lips quivering, she turned to me with an awful yearning in her eyes. I was aware of Ma sauntering under the trees in her backyard, her hands behind her back, aware of her beaming face, as if the special someone who gave her good news was strolling beside her. It was as if this someone and Ma were the only two people in the world; she spared not a glance for her daughter, who was offering herself to me. Mother's hands rose towards me. Her legs parted to take me in. Her lips trembled open. I couldn't wait to hear what she would say. I fled inside and locked myself in my bedroom.

 

THE THIRD STORY I know of the Moriori is of a determined search for justice and reparation. Although the Maori had stolen their land and enslaved them, the Moriori never forgot that they had preserved their manaby adhering to Numuku's law. They told their story to Europeans, who recorded it faithfully. They sent a petition to the governor of New Zealand, protesting at what had been done to them. They were still arguing their case in 1994, when a tribunal was held at Te Awapatiki, the very place where, in 1835, the Moriori men had gathered to discuss what was to be done about the Maori invasion.

No full-blooded Moriori survived by this time. What was left were men and women who insisted on their Moriori heritage and identity in the face of a concerted attempt in New Zealand to deny that their forebears had ever existed.

My mother and her family did not side with these people: they were Ngati Mutunga through their father. And yet they never denied that the Moriori existed, the way others did. To Mother, her Moriori blood was a shameful mark that must be acknowledged because it could not be ignored. It was the site of an ongoing struggle between reality and a longed-for ideal.

 

OVER THE YEARS after I left Mother and struck out into the world by myself, unsure whether I would find a safe harbour, I have tried to explain her to many people. Each time I realised with renewed force how strange she was, how like a creature apart, not quite human yet not quite anything else. I compared her again and again to an occupying army, an aggressive invader who walked over me as an act of ownership and kept me in thrall to her. It came upon me slowly that, when I left her, I took her with me.

For a long time I fought against this. I couldn't see her as anything other than an oppressor. When I lived with her I couldn't stop her any more than the Moriori could stop the Maori. So I ran away, not realising that she had branded me and that her mark would stay on my skin for life. I know it now; I know that mark intimately. It's the mark that sets me apart. It says I am her property, not quite human yet not quite anything else. But in walking through the world I have acquired other marks, which act as camouflage and allow me to pass for human. I still see her as an occupying army, but I understand that she has another identity, one which speaks of loss and grief and hopeless demoralisation, one which speaks in the language of incest and unsatisfied need. I try to accept now that this is the woman who reared me and what that means. She is my one true mother and hers is the face of love.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review