The Maori As He Was, written by Elsdon Best about the Māori way of life he observed in his many years among Tūhoe, was first published nearly 100 years ago, and is seen by many as a classic, scientific study. Or is it classic bigotry? Connie Buchanan has been reading this “troubling little book”.
Sometimes I use a robot to transcribe the interviews we do here at E-Tangata. The robot is an invisible piece of voice-to-text software, but I’ve started to picture it as a grumpy old man.
It struggles when someone talks too fast. It can’t handle interruptions. It freaks out when it encounters te reo Māori or an unusual name, and it insists on applying its pre-programmed cultural references instead of admitting that it can’t understand something new.
A classic example was the time it wrote a line about farewelling a friend from “Nazi Germany”. The person speaking was paying tribute to Moana Jackson and had actually said “Ngāti Kahungunu”.
But I’ve come to know this robot and can fix its mistakes pretty quickly. Until, that is, it gave me The Salesman Beast.
“He was an informant to The Salesman Beast,” the robot claimed the interviewee said, going on to tell of ancestors who gave knowledge to “Beast”, and how “The Salesman Beast” prepared his manuscripts.
A devil danced in my head. Hoofed and horned, he stuffed ancient Māori secrets into his briefcase in exchange for nails and cloth. Who was he? What was he up to? Then the robot mentioned that The Salesman Beast had written more about early Māori than anyone else to date.
It finally clicked. Here, then, must be the famous ethnographer Elsdon Best.
A quick Google to confirm how to spell Elsdon brought up articles that described him variously as a “revered” “foremost” “unique” “famous” “tireless” “prolific” “patient” historian.
It was the sort of thing I might have said about him myself. Some writers are so written about by others that you can spin a line on their work without ever having read it.
“Oh yeah, he wrote about the will to power,” I once proclaimed authoritatively at a pub quiz when a question about philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was asked. I’ve never read Nietzsche. I’ve merely absorbed that line from brainier people who have.
Elsdon Best was the same. “Oh yeah, our foremost writer on pre-European Māori,” I’d have said if his name came up in the quiz. As if I’d read his actual work and not just a line or two on Te Papa’s website.
Then I came across one of Best’s books in a secondhand bookstore in Hamilton.
I assumed it would contain painstaking descriptions of fishing nets and bird-snares, and my gaze drifted away to the equally unappealing Herbs For Constipation.
But then up rose a vision of The Salesman Beast, his tail whipping behind a cheap suit, and his forked tongue delivering smooth and convincing patter as he went about collecting kōrero. I turned and pulled the book from the shelf.
Over the late 19th and early 20th century, Elsdon Best wrote 11 extensive volumes detailing aspects of Māori daily life, customs and traditions based on his first-hand observations.
The one I randomly came across in Hamilton was called The Maori As He Was.
Why not The Māori As He “Is”, was my first thought — unless Best, living among Māori for decades, had decided they were soon to disappear?
The cover illustration showed dark people with un-Māori faces crouched in front of a wharenui. The woman in the middle looked like a Roman emperor in a korowai.
It was all so weird that I bought The Maori As He Was and read it.
I was prepared for Best to be “of his time”, to use a euphemism that was popular before we invented unconcious bias. But I still expected to need to closely scan the text, using sensitive modern antenna, to detect the bleeps and blips of prejudice beneath his dry ethnological data.
After all, Elsdon Best spent 15 years living with Tūhoe, speaking te reo and filling endless notebooks with careful records of tribal practices, traditions and knowledge. The Māori As He Was was published when he was 68. It represents the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime immersed in te ao Māori, not the snap judgments of a young settler fresh off the ship.
I spent an afternoon in the backyard sun reading Elsdon Best — in his own words — for the first time.
It turned out that my transcribing robot, like a true grumpy old man, actually knew his shit. Elsdon Best was a beast, and blatantly so.
Smack bang in the introduction, Best informs us that Māori belong on “the barbaric plane of culture”. Things descend from there.
By page 6, he’s telling us Māori are lazy:
“To sum up: in conditions of steady continuous work, demanding strength, endurance and steady application, the Māori is not equal to the European settler. The discipline that produces these qualities is the product of more advanced civilisations, and is not a feature of the lower planes of civilisation.”
As I read on, I started to play a kind of Beastly Bingo based on the common tropes of racism. Will he find Māori dirty and work-shy? Will he belittle the Māori telling of history? Will he infantilise Māori? Will he be dismissive of Māori science and medicine?
The ticks in these mental boxes kept coming.
On page 8: “Many of the failings of the Maori emanate from some form of irresponsibility, and are the result of lack of training and discipline.”
On page 30: “Maori tribal history is but a monotonous recital of intertribal quarrels and fighting, relieved by very few incidents of real interest. It is much too tedious to enlarge upon here.”
On page 64: “Many of the [Maori’s] so-called weather signs are absurd, and it may be said that such beliefs resemble those among our own children.”
On page 128: “The native method of weaving is also a pecularily crude process; it is not true weaving, but merely a kind of plaiting or tying process.”
On page 135: “Native knowledge of medicine may be described as non-existent.”
On page 146: “Old women were often very prominent in these [haka] performances, and few uglier sights could be imagined than these old hags when leading a haka or war dance.”
On page 222: “As a people our native folk cannot be said to have been a cleanly race . . . the observation of tapu often made for dirtiness and a slovenly appearance.”
At one point, Best explains that he has undertaken his ethnological endeavours because “the Maori himself will never preserve his own traditions”. He makes this assertion even as he is marvelling at the astonishing feats of preservation that he has witnessed:
“An old man of the Tuhoe tribe recited to the writer no less than 406 songs from memory. Another old fellow recited from memory the genealogy of his clan, a task that necessitated the repetition of over 1,400 personal names. Such powers of memorising are the result of . . . a strong desire to perpetuate certain forms of knowledge.”
I ploughed on through this mix of outsider arrogance and admiration. Yes, Best’s much-praised detailed descriptions of Māori practices were a central feature of the book. There were pages of sentences written in this mode:
“The small round hoop-net termed a toemi has a portion of the netted fabric projecting above the hoop, and a cord is attached to it. When fish enter the net the operator pulls the cord and so closes the mouth of the net.”
These do form a unique written record of early Māori ways of doing things. But at the same time, Best repeatedly and consistently ranks the activities of this “barbaric race” far below the achievements of his own “civilised culture”. As a whole, the book comes together like an English pudding soaked in booze — the staples of observational note-taking and sketch-making are drenched in the strong and unmistakable odour of bigotry.
I take a break from my bingo — wishing I’d made it a drinking game — and I apologise to my robot. You were right about the Beast. I’m sorry I laughed at you.
It was a hot day, I’d had a beer in the sun, I was talking to an invisible robot, and soon we agreed that I should revisit the Salesman claim too. How much public buy-in did Best get with this troubling little book?
I flipped to the inside cover and saw that my edition of The Maori As He Was was first published in 1924. There had followed 50 years of public demand for it — a reissue in 1934, another reissue in 1952, and then a full reprint in 1974.
In the front pages of my copy, I found prefaces to the 1952 and 1974 editions.
I read through the paragraphs, wondering if Elsdon Best had managed to sell his philosophy of lazy, dirty, barbaric Māori to these later generations — or if they’d use the reprints as a chance to point out how “of his time” he turned out to be.
The 1952 preface was written by Robert Alexander Falla, the director of the Dominion Museum where Best worked for a while. He made it clear where he stood in his opening sentence.
“Although it is forty-seven years since the first publication of this book, there is felt to be no compelling reason for revising the text,” he wrote.
This was not because Falla thought the work should be preserved untouched. He was quick to inform readers of the error of Best’s Muraiwi theory about a pre-Māori race. But he made no such correction to the “barbaric plane” theory, or to Best’s many other racial assumptions of European superiority. Rather, he concluded that the book is a “concise and sympathetic story of the Maori as he was”.
On then to the 1970s.
I grabbed another beer. Richard Kenneth Dell, the director of the National Museum in 1974, wrote his preface as the Māori protest movement was gathering strength. As a public servant working in Wellington, Dell had surely felt the winds of change stirring by then.
“There have been many advances in our knowledge of Maori life since this book first appeared,” Dell’s preface begins. He went on to outline two key examples of where the thinking had progressed.
“We now realise that many of the practices and beliefs described here must be considered as an account of Best’s own times in the areas which he carried out first-hand studies, rather than being a factual account of the Maori in all parts of New Zealand in pre-European times.”
It was an admission, in other words, of what Māori had explained to settlers all along — they were comprised of distinct and separate tribes, and could not be classified as a single cohesive group with identical traditions. Dell’s second correction was to clarify, yet again, that “we now know that [Best’s] account of a pre-Maori people . . . must be considered a myth.” Overall, though, he found the work to be “a classic introduction to Maori life”.
It would seem that these two museum directors were so steeped in the same bigotry as Best that they didn’t notice the reek of racism in his work.
But I had to ask a similar question of myself. Were my 2022 liberal lenses so thick that I was magnifying the problematic parts of The Maori As He Was beyond what was fair?
After all, the current summary text about Best’s books on Te Papa’s website, written as the museum republished them in 2005, makes but very gentle reference to his prejudice.
“His ideas and research have been questioned since his death — especially as his work was underpinned by the 19th century belief that Māori were a people under threat of extinction. Yet his research was based on rare first-hand knowledge, wide reading, informed study and close discussion with Māori.”
I decided to let Best take the lead on how his philosophy should be summarised, and turned to the back page for his final thoughts.
First came vindication. My initial bookshop reaction had been correct — the past tense of The Maori As He Was was disturbingly intentional.
In his conclusion, Best wrote that the Māori race “will pass away” — not because of any external material circumstances that he observed, but because of his entrenched belief that Māori were an inferior race whose shortcomings made them inherently incapable of reaching a higher cultural plane.
“The Maori has fulfilled the task alloted to him in the scheme of human development,” he concluded. “He now steps aside from the old, old path he has trodden for so many centuries.”
After this came a realisation. I should seek out more of this stuff, not less, and read it. Because now I can detect the mark of the Beast in unexpected places. Those are his hoofprints, I thought recently, on the equity cartoon that everyone seems to be using at the moment.
The image shows a couple of kids trying to watch a ball game, but one is smaller and needs a much bigger stack of boxes to achieve the same outcome of seeing over the fence. At first glance, all good — the equal end result is what we want.
Where is Best in this? Look again at how the struggling kid is so puny — it’s their inherent incapability which is presented as the problem. It takes a pile of outside help and extra resources to bring this stumpy little dude up to the others’ plane.
Every person in that cartoon should be the same damn size. To make the point, the picture should show a structural impediment — not a personal shortcoming — as the thing preventing an equal outcome.
Perhaps the section of wall in front of the struggling one could be shown as much taller and thicker. Or maybe the ground under his feet could be dug away by a huge and powerful institutional machine, leaving him nowhere solid to stand so he is mired below the rest by forces beyond his control. You get the idea.
It’s a point that Moana Jackson, our friend from Ngāti Kahungunu, made so many times over his lifetime, and so much more elegantly and incisively than I ever could.
“Disparities need to be understood as the consequence of policies, not as the cause of inequities,” he wrote with his ink scalpel.
Before reading this type of work, I would often think, good for us in Aotearoa! Look how far we’ve come! But Elsdon Best, in particular, has made me realise, bloody hell, look how much there is to undo.
So the next time I’m at a pub quiz, I’ll be hoping there’s a question about the name of our foremost writer on pre-European Māori.
“It’s the Salesman Beast!” I’ll say and tell the funny robot story. I’ll still add a one-liner from Te Papa’s website — but reversed and revised now to reflect what I’ve actually read:
“Although his books are considered classic studies based on rare first-hand knowledge,” I’ll say, “Elsdon Best was a structural racist whose bigoted beliefs help explain a lot of the shit we’re still dealing with today.”
But don’t take my word for it, I’ll add. Go and read him for yourself.
This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Connie Buchanan has Scottish-Irish whakapapa as well as Ngāti Pāhauwera connections through her tūpuna in Wairoa. She has a degree in broadcast journalism from Christchurch Polytech Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in International Relations from Victoria University, and is a graduate of Te Tohu Paetahi at Waikato University. Connie was born in Hamilton where she lives with her husband and two boys.
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