Moon is Professor of History at the Auckland University of
Technology's Te Ara Poutama, the Faculty of Māori
Development, where he has taught since 1993.
is a prolific writer of New Zealand history and biography,
specialising in Māori history, the Treaty of Waitangi and
the early period of Crown rule.
holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political
Studies, a Master of Philosophy degree with distinction, a
Master of Arts degree with honours, and a Doctor of Philosophy,
and in 2003, was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Historical
Society at University College London.
is recognized for his study of the Treaty of Waitangi, and has
published two books on the topic. He has also produced the
biographies of Governors William Hobson and Robert FitzRoy, and
the Ngā Puhi chief, Hone Heke. In 2003, he published the
book Tohunga: Hohepa Kereopa, an explication regarding tohunga
of the Ngāi Tūhoe. He has also written a major
biography of the Ngapuhi politician and Kotahitanga leader Hone
Heke Ngapua (1869-1909), and wrote the best-selling Fatal
Frontiers – a history of New Zealand in the 1830s. In addition
to writing books, Moon is a frequent contributor to national and
international academic journals on a variety of history-related
is no stranger to controversy. His 2002 book Te Ara Ki Te
Tiriti, which represented a watermark in Treaty scholarship,
became a favourite of Maori activist groups, and copies of it
were seen circulating in the Foreshore and Seabed Hikoi in 2004.
On the other hand, in early 2007, he was described by one
reviewer as New Zealand’s most right-historian following the
release of his history of New Zealand in the 1830s, Fatal
Contact us if
you would like to submit an opinion piece. We are seeking
commentators on a range of topics, including: RMA, crime and
justice, environmental issues, Maori issues, a NZ constitution
and governance. Contact
Skip to make comment
Send to a friend
Opinion piece by Paul Moon
7 September 2008
too unpalatable for some
is currently a growing body of literature being produced by
scholars in many parts of the world which suggests that
traditional cannibalism – of the sort that was practiced by
Maori in New Zealand – either never occurred at all, or that
if it did, it was done to perform for Europeans, and was not a
part of the true culture of those ‘performers’.
This sort of historical revisionism seems to elevate
the novelty of an academic position above what I have always
considered to be the primary object of any historical
endeavour: to try to move closer to what Gibbon termed ‘the
naked, unblushing truth’ of the past.
course, the past is not fully recoverable, and unlike science,
where an experiment can be repeated to allow more detailed
observation, history tends to leave us with traces from which
we can, at best, stitch together an approximation of what has
this in mind, I embarked on an exhaustive study of traditional
Maori cannibalism, with the resulting book –
This Horrid Practice
– being released at the beginning of August.
Among the main findings were that cannibalism was a
widespread feature of traditional Maori society, and that
contrary to the popular suggestion that it was practiced to
consume the mana of the dead person, it was more frequently a
product of hostility (often in the immediate aftermath of a
battle) in which the dead were eaten as a means of inflicting
further humiliation on them, culminating in them being turned
into excrement. Weary
of the reception that I suspected these un-sanitised
conclusions would receive, I applied exceptionally high
evidentiary standards to all aspects of my work, and avoided
the inclusion of even the slightest traces of what some people
might interpret as being sensationalism.
The result was a detailed autopsy on the practice of
traditional Maori cannibalism – something that offers at the
very least an insight into a topic that has received almost no
attention from other scholars in the country.
is braver than I would be”, was Professor Margaret Mutu’s
response to my decision to publish this work. The book was
condemned by Professor Mutu primarily because it was written
by a New Zealander of European origin.
According to one newspaper, she said she “knew
of no Pakeha historians who knew how to balance parts of the
Maori culture they could not see an equivalent to in the
English culture”, and argued that I did not “know how to
interrogate it [cannibalism] from within the culture”.
The fact that she admitted at the time to not having
read a single sentence of the book in no way seemed to
diminish her bravura in attacking it and its author. And I was
left scratching my head as I tried to disentangle her comments
and derive some sensible meaning from them.
going back to her first statement, why should an historian
have to be “brave” when choosing to write about a topic,
and what does this comment say about the state of academic
freedom in this country?
year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nazi’s
book-burning – a crude pogrom against any knowledge or ideas
that the German Government considered ideologically
unacceptable in 1933. Of
course, all the condemned literature outlived the Nazi regime,
but the wretched spectre of books being tossed onto blazing
pyres remains one of the unforgettable images of that period.
physical destruction of books now seems to belong to another,
much less enlightened age, but not so the censorial urges that
led to the practice – something that I have experienced
first hand in the past few weeks.
recall a fellow academic approaching me when I started writing
the book, and warning me that I was putting my career in
jeopardy by tackling this subject.
At first, I dismissed the caution, but when others
began making similar comments, I came around to the view that
I would be risking my integrity as an historian by being
bullied into silence.
the attacks came, and in several forms.
I am sure many of the people who have complained about
the book have yet to read it, but this has not stopped them
rushing to judgement and making all sorts of shrill
accusations about its contents.
there were the emails and often anonymous phone messages,
accusing me of all sorts of sins for having researched and
written about Maori cannibalism.
This was followed by the Rawiri Taonui, a lecturer from
, suggesting that I was “demonising” Maori, and that my
book was a “return to Victorian values”. In the process,
he ignored the vast amount scholarship and research that went
to make the book, and instead descended to name-calling by way
of a response to my arguments.
It was all sound and fury signifying very little.
Human Rights Commission dipped its toe into this acrid pool
and considered the merits of a letter of complaint made about
the book. The Commission’s response was to suggest I enter
into mediation. Like
Kafka’s Josef K., I found myself being considered
increasingly guilty, even though I do not know what precisely
I am meant to be guilty of.
In this instance, I politely refused the offer.
here is where the book-burners come in.
Although the methods are far more subtle, their aim –
in this case to discredit a book they find unpalatable –
amounts to exactly the same thing: censorship based on
slightly melodramatic in this context, the principle of
Orwell’s adage that ‘Thoughtcrime
does not entail death: thoughtcrime is
death’, metaphorically still holds true to some extent.
would not presume to guess the sort of pompous thoughts that
run through the minds of a few academics who like to see
themselves as guardians of public morality.
But they do not speak for the sort of
I grew up in, and neither, it seems, do they even speak for
the communities they purport to represent. Yet, even before my
book was released, they were in full chest-thumping mode,
coming not to praise Paul Moon but to bury him.
how should an author react to attempts at censorship?
One response would be to yield to the critics and
retreat into a form of academic hibernation – hoping that
the chill rhetoric will eventually blow away. This would be to
let the censors win though.
It is crucial that writers in all disciplines take a
more principled stand, regardless of whatever short-term
irritations they might face.
this was the
, such freedoms of expression would be taken for granted, as
they are embedded both in the constitution and in the fabric
of American society. Perhaps
it is little wonder, then, that the
has long been the source of some of the most important
developments in many academic disciplines. There, researchers
have the luxury of inhaling in an academic environment that is
much less inhibited by they type of strictures placed on
writers in other parts of the world.
New Zealand, with our population of just over four million
people, there are too few historians as it is, and with no
such absolute security of freedom of speech, there is a real
risk that our past might end up being misrepresented because
of the censorial forces at work.
Some would go as far as to say aspects of it already
very few people intent on banning books and gagging knowledge
rely on cultivating a climate of fear, in which publications
have to be given the stamp of approval by some moral police or
else face condemnation. The best weapon against this threat is
open and frank discussion of the evidence.
Surely we have nothing to fear from that?
Skip to top |
Skip to make comment |
Send to a friend
To comment go to
letters to editor
Skip to top |