A Maori Matriarchy?

Part Two of “Once Were Communists,” a series of four articles by Terry Coggan

If we take the society of the Iroquois Indians of North America studied by Lewis Morgan, as at roughly the same level of development as that of pre-contact Maori, as see the “gens” or “clan” of the Iroquois as an equivalent kinship grouping to the Maori hapu, we can see in Engels’ description of Iroquois society in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, based on Morgan, some elements of traditional Maori life.  Engels wrote, “…not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required. Those concerned decide, and in most cases centuries-old custom has already settled everything. There can be no poor and needy – the communistic household and gens know their obligations towards the aged, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are free and equal – including the women.” (17) Like his Maori counter-part, the Iroquois chief was no autocrat. As Engels observed, “the shabbiest police servant in the civilised state has more “authority” than all the organs of gentile society put together; but the most powerful prince and the greatest statesman, or commander, of civilisation may well envy the humblest gentile chief for the unforced and undisputed respect that is paid to him. The one stands in the midst of society, the other is forced to attempt to represent something outside and above it.” (18) These egalitarian and democratic aspects of what Engels calls “the gentile constitution” remained evident in Maori society for some time after the the arrival of Europeans. David Rough, Auckland’s first harbour master, commented in 1852 “Indeed the New Zealanders (the Maoris) are complete Republicans; even the highest chiefs have little direct authority, although they have considerable influence…” (19)

Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :The head of a chief of New Zealand, the face curiously tataow'd, or marked according to their manner. S. Parkinson del. T. Chambers sc. London, 1784. Plate XVI.. Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty's ship, 'The Endeavour'. Faithfully transcribed from the papers of the late Sydney Parkinson. London; Printed for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, and James Phillips, in the George-Yard, 1784.. Ref: PUBL-0037-16. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22753134

Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :The head of a chief of New Zealand, the face curiously tataow’d, or marked according to their manner. S. Parkinson del. T. Chambers sc. London, 1784. Plate XVI.. Parkinson, Sydney, 1745-1771 :A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty’s ship, ‘The Endeavour’. Faithfully transcribed from the papers of the late Sydney Parkinson. London; Printed for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, and James Phillips, in the George-Yard, 1784.. Ref: PUBL-0037-16. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22753134

Marx noted “the primitive communities had incomparably greater vitality than the Semitic, Greek, Roman and a fortiori the modern capitalist societies.” (20) Displaying an even greater regard for “the old gentile order”, Engels wrote “And the kind of men and women that are produced by such a society is indicated by the admiration felt by all white men who came into contact with uncorrupted Indians, admiration of their personal dignity, rectitude, strength of character and bravery of these barbarians.” (21) The historical literature surrounding early contacts with Maori contains similiar expressions of admiration from Europeans, beginning with those from Cook himself. These newcomers bore with them a different type of morality, engendered by the class divided society they came out of. As Engels put it “The lowest interests – base greed, brutal sensuality, sordid avarice, selfish plunder of common possessions – usher in the new, civilised society, class society.” (22) This was indeed the “inferior spiritual culture” that Syd Jackson spoke of.

Marx and Engels did not have an idealised view of the early communism, however. They knew it was a simple requirement of the constricted economic circumstances of prehistoric humanity: if some persons claimed more than their share of available resources, others could starve, a situation that need not arise in a richer society. Luxemburg put it rather bluntly: “It was not devotion to abstract principles of equality and freedom that formed the basis of primitive communism, but the pitiless necessities of a low level of human civilization, the helplessness of humanity in the face of external nature, which forced them to stick closely together in larger alliances, and to act methodically and collectively with respect to labour and the struggle for life as an absolute condition of existence.” (23)

It is the stock-in-trade of rightist opponents of Maori national rights to denigrate traditional Maori society. They particularly point to “endemic” inter-tribal warfare, that escalated out of control in the first decades of the nineteenth century after Maori acquired European weapons. It was only the transfer of sovereignty to the British, according to one author, that “saved the Maoris from themselves.” (24)   Such views echo the more general thesis advanced by writers like Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond that it was the rise of the state, particularly in its modern “democratic” form, that put an end to the chronic violence that plagued all traditional societies. These pundits reduce a qualitative to a quantitative difference by arguing that reckoning on the basis of deaths per head of population, modern state warfare, including the imperialist mass slaughters of World Wars One and Two, has been more tolerable than the constant strife of tribal societies.

The naturalist on Cooks’s second voyage in 1773, George Forster, might have anticipated such views. Reflecting on the picture drawn by some of his European contempories of the savage warlike Maori, he wrote in his journal “Though we are too polished to be cannibals, we do not find it unnaturally and savagely cruel to take the field, and to cut one anothers’ throats by the thousands, without a single motive besides the ambitions of a prince or the caprice of his mistress.” (25)   One modern historian finds the same proportion: “Even at their worst, Maori wars were far from the total war, genocidal or scorched earth campaigns seen in some countries, continents and times, including those of the twentieth century in Europe and Africa.” (26)   Nevertheless, it is true that warfare did exist in traditional communistic Maori society, and that it won’t exist in the communist society of the future. This is for the same material reason: the ultimate cause of warfare among pre-European Maori was competition for scarce economic resources, a factor that won’t operate in the future. As Marx and Engels put it,  “…this development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it privation, want, is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored.” (27)

 A Maori matriarchy?

In the passage from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State quoted above, Engels called the women of traditional Iroquois society “free and equal”. Can the same be said of women in traditional Maori society? Before we can attempt to answer this question some background is necessary.

Available from Pathfinder Press

Available from Pathfinder Press

Perhaps the most discussed part of Engels’ book in the 130 years since its publication has been his account of the history of women and the family. Taking his lead from Morgan and others, Engels sketched out a materialist explanation of the origin of womens’ oppression. During the many millennia of primitive communism, the vast majority of human history, across the world human society was organised in maternal clans. If we go back far enough into prehistory, we find that everywhere residence was matrilocal (children and their fathers lived with the woman’s clan), and descent was matrilineal (traced through the female line). Child-rearing was a collective responsibility, not that of individual women. Women were free and equal, and indeed took a leading role in many aspects of social and productive life. But at some point in prehistory, there occurred “the world-historic defeat of the female sex.” Engels shows how this was intertwined with the emergence of private property and social classes inside the old communist order. A leap forward in the productivity of labour created a more or less permanent economic surplus which opened class divisions between those who produced it and those who controlled it. Central to this process, now known as the Neolithic Revolution, was the development of agriculture and stock raising resulting in new forms of moveable wealth, (Engels particularly points to cattle), which because of the existing division of labour, “fell to the man.” “Thus,” Engels continues, “as wealth increased, it, on the one hand, gave the man a more important status in the family than the woman, and on the other hand, created a stimulus to utilise this strengthened position in order to overthrow the traditional order of inheritance in favour of the children. But this was impossible as long as descent according to mother right prevailed. This had, therefore to be overthrown, and it was overthrown.” (28)  Women’s horizons were increasingly narrowed to the domestic sphere; they became corralled inside the patriarchal household.

The idea that the patriarchal family had not existed from time immemorial, or that biology was not woman’s destiny, was as fiercely contested  as the idea of primitive communism itself, and for much the same political reasons. Bronislaw Malinowski, Raymond Firth’s mentor, was quite explicit in a 1931 radio broadcast:

“A whole school of anthropologists, from Bachofen on, have maintained that the maternal clan was the primitive domestic institution … In my opinion, as you know, this is entirely incorrect. But an idea like that, once it is taken seriously and applied to modern conditions, becomes positively dangerous. I believe that the most disruptive element in the modern revolutionary tendencies is the idea that parenthood can be made collective. If once we came to the point of doing away with the individual family as the pivotal element of our society, we should be faced with a social catastrophe compared with which the political upheaval of the French Revolution and the economic changes of Bolshevism are insignificant. The question, therefore, as to whether group motherhood is an institution which ever existed, whether it is an arrangement, which is compatible with human nature and social order, is of considerable practical interest.” (29)

Maori woman gum digger, late nineteenth century

Maori woman gum digger, late nineteenth century

For most of the last century, mainstream anthropology rejected the idea of once universal matrilineal human kinship, and an ancient matriarchy that implies. Writers like Evelyn Reed who defended it were dismissed.  Even the prominent Marxist anthropologist Maurice Godelier could write “ We do not deny the very general phenomenon of the domination of men over women, but we recall…. that its forms and severity vary enormously from one society to another…” (30) But in the light of accumulated, or new, including genetic, evidence, there have been signs in recent years of a shift. Anthropologist Chris Knight reports that at an academic conference in 2005 he “argued quite bluntly that Engels was essentially right: we now have compelling evidence that early human kinship was indeed matrilineal. To my delight and astonishment, most of my professional colleagues participating in the Gregynog workshop tended to agree.” (31) In her book Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes that until recently “Just suggesting that early humans lived in matrilocal settings was viewed by evolutionists as some heretical throwback to outmoded views about matriarchal stages in human evolution, bringing to mind advocates for Mother Right or Goddess Cults.” (32)  In a couple of passages Hrdy herself describes the transition to patriarchal society in terms that strongly recall The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. (33)

Engels, though he had grasped the essentials, would have been the first to acknowledge that his account of this transition was not the final word on the subject. Changes in the economic base, and changes in the kinship systems and gender relations of society do not have to occur in lock step. One fact that attests to the complex and uneven nature of the process is the appearance of patrilineal descent systems in some traditional societies like the pre-European Maori with relatively low levels of economic development and class differentiation. Descent among the Maori had not remained matrilineal, as it had among the Iroquois studied by Morgan and Engels, nor become patrilineal, but is classified as bilineal, i.e. was reckoned through both the male and female lines from a focal ancestor who could be either male or female. The movement away from pure matrilineality almost certainly began among peoples ancestral to the Maori before their descendants reached Aotearoa 800 years ago. One hypothesis locates the beginning of the process in East Asia from where the Austronesian people who eventually gave rise to all Polynesians, including the Maori, dispersed around 5000-6000 years ago. East Asia had experienced its Neolithic Revolution some time before this, so the Austronesians could have carried the seeds of class society and inheritance by patrilines with them. Another possibility is suggested by a recent study, which concluded that Proto Oceanic Society, one incarnation of the Austronesians in their long progress from Asia to the Pacific centered in the Bismarck Archipelago around 3000-4000 years ago, was still matrilineal (and matrilocal.) (34) This would put the breakdown of matrilineality somewhat later, mixed up with the advent of economic surpluses and nascent class societies in populous Pacific Islands like Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti. Perhaps those seeds from East Asia sprouted where they found suitable conditions. (35)

Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, a leader  of the Kotahitanga (Maori Parliament) movement of the 1890s, who entered political life from a "different platform" than her European counterparts.  By FW Mason, photographers, Emerson St, Napier, New Zealand [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, a leader of the Kotahitanga (Maori Parliament) movement of the 1890s, who entered political life from a “different platform” than her European counterparts.
By FW Mason, photographers, Emerson St, Napier, New Zealand [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While there is ongoing debate among authorities on the subject about the role and status of women in Pre-European Maori society, some things are clear. The society was not a matriarchy, but neither were women the subordinated sex characteristic of fully developed patriarchies. While there was a gender-based division of labour, women took a full part in social production. (36) Child rearing was a collective task. There are instances of women assuming leadership roles. (37) One author compares this situation unfavorably with the contemporaneous position of European women: “The pattern of uninterrupted male domination in the Pakeha nineteenth century world was quite dissimilar from the status of women in Maori society, both before and after contact with Europeans, and in the later nineteenth century. Leading Maori women moved into the political arena from a different platform.” (38)  That platform was the communist society they came out of.

(to be continued)

 Notes to Part Two

  1. MECW, vol 26, pp. 202-03.
  1. Ibid., p. 270
  1. Petrie, op. cit., p.13. In her book about the Tuhoe people, historian Judith Binney states “One of the impressive features that emerges from the nineteenth-century evidence is the large number of hui (meetings) that were called whenever important collective decisions were required.” Judith Binney, Encircled Lands, Te Urewera, 1820 – 1921, Wellington, 2009, p. 28.
  1. Marx made this comment in a note to the first draft of his 1881 reply to Vera Zasulich. It is included in the version of the draft presented in Teodor Shanin (ed.), Late Marx and the Russian Road, New York, 1983, p. 107.
  1. op. cit., p. 203.
  1. Ibid., p. 204.
  1. op cit.,p. 202.
  1. John Robinson et. al., Twisting the Treaty: A Tribal Grab for Wealth and Power, Wellington, 2014, p. 28.
  1. Anne Salmond, Between Worlds: Early Exchanges Between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815, Auckland 1997, p. 95.
  1. Angela Ballara, Taua, Auckland 2003, p. 119.
  1. The German Ideology, MECW, vol 5, p. 49. 
  1. op. cit., p. 164.
  1. Quoted in Chris Knight, “Supplement: Early human kinship was matrilineal”, Weekly Worker, Sept. 20, 2012.
  1. Maurice Godelier, The Metamorphoses of Kinship, London 2011, p. 411.
  1. op. cit.
  1. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others, Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 239.
  1. Ibid., p. 247, p. 287.
  1. Jeff Marck, “Proto Oceanic Society was Matrilineal”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 117, no.4, 2008, pp. 345-82
  1. In a recently published encyclopedic history of Maori, Atholl Anderson notes the shift from matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence among the ancestors of Maori. But, lacking Engels’ historical materialist method,  he is reduced to offering such explanations as the supposed and abstractly posited “tendency of males to press for social and political authority”; or indeed as the mere presence of males, occasioned by the “greater stability of male residence where islands were too far apart to encourage frequent seafaring.“ Unsurprisingly, Anderson also puts the occurrence of  warfare in traditional Maori society down to, among other things,  a “hostile parochialism, manifested by coalitional aggression of males,” which he asserts is “virtually a behavioral universal.” Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, Aroha Harris,  Wellington, 2014, p. 24, p. 518.
  1. Anne Salmond writes that this gender-based division of labour might have been much less than is sometimes suggested, and cites Pottier L’Horme, an officier on Jean de Surville’s 1769 voyage as observing, “To all appearences women go fishing too. Moreover I have not noticed that they take more of a part in the housework than the men.” Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772, Viking 1991, p. 354.
  1. One source of knowledge about such women is the records of the nineteenth century Native Land Court. There is, for example, the story of the chief Rewha’s daughter Rangiheihei, who rallied the remnants of her Ngati Pou subgroup of Wai o Hua (living to the south and east of Tamaki) into a new group Ngati Rewha, after the catastrophic defeat of Ngati Pou and their Wai o Hua relatives in central Tamaki at the hands of invaders from the Kaipara region in the mid-eighteenth century, and led them to establish new cultivations at Mangatangi.    From the Hauraki Minute Book 1, 1865-1867.
  1. Angela Ballara, “Wahine Rangatira. Maori Women of Rank and their Role in the Women’s Kotahitanga Movement of the 1890s”, NZJH, vol.27, no.2, 1993, pp. 127-40, pp. 80-81.
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2 responses to “A Maori Matriarchy?

  1. Cari compagni, how in the hell can print all the article????????
    thanks for your answer. Endo
    02 July 2017

    • Hi Endo. Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I understand your question. If you are just referring to the technical question of how to print it, I would just select the text (to avoid printing the left and right columns) copy it to a Word document and print it from there. If you are asking how we find a publisher – well, that is a more difficult matter!

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