Tuesday, January 8, 2008


Not so long ago a museum installed an exhibit comprising a topographical map of a large coloured area that had been sold by its original Maori owners to European settlers. Alongside the map was a small collection of spades, blankets and a musket, which formed the exchange. The commentary and presentation was a fairly overt exercise in propagating the view that the original owners had been swindled by the new arrivals. Such post-modern approaches to history are nothing new, and despite the lack of objectivity the example was worthy of further consideration.

Why did Maori of the 1840’s trade so much land and hard won commodities such as flax fibre, timber and kumara for a single musket, a few spades and some blankets?

The musket projected shot (and power) and with it – respect.

The spade provided leverage of the soil – food

The blankets insulated them from the cold – health

Food, respect and health are vital to any community and are essential for harmony. The lack of any of these creates conditions of dis-comfort and dis-harmony, and therefore conflict. Thus the acquisition of muskets, blankets and spades was one way in which Maori attempted to increase their well-being and security in the land in which they lived.

There is of course a lot more to the story than that, but the main point I wish to draw out has got nothing to do with moralising about the fairness of the transactions. It is simply to see that at the time of the transaction, the decisions were made with a certain amount of pragmatism in achieving an immediate outcome, and perhaps less thought about the cumulative or later affects of such trade.

What we can learn from this is that values change as a result of a shift in the underlying conditions. In 2008 a single acre of rural land could be traded for many guns, spades and blankets. Perhaps just a few acres would be able to equip a small army with guns, spades and blankets. [Once an army was brought into being then the conditions affecting the locality would change again – for a time].

How our own generation will be judged by those of the future with their different value-sets will depend on the conditions and circumstances they find themselves in and the perspective that results and the degree to which knowledge is transmitted. Will we be a parable, a legend or an enigma? Will there be museums to show how our generation traded its present abundance for another generation’s destitution. Just how will the curator’s of the future present this story?

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