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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 2

Sarah Barbour
David Howard
Thomas Lacroix
et al.

Bodies in Motion

‘Across the Board’—a Project Exploring Diaspora and Migration1

Joanne Drayton


‘Across the Board’ is a project initiated by the author which explores diaspora and migration, bringing together representations of ancestors to a chessboard, which is used a metaphor for the post-colonial relationship between Maori and Pakeha in Aotearoa New Zealand. Pakeha colonized Aotearoa New Zealand from the 1840s onward. After leaving family behind in Europe, migrants arriving in Aotearoa encountered an indigenous culture whose central essence and identity depended on their relationship to the past and especially to ancestry. The Maori cosmos was based on kinship, and belonging to the land. Maori named their meeting houses, canoes, weapons and cherished objects or taonga after ancestors. They believed these items carried a trace of their ancestor’s wairua or soul. These items imbued with ancestral spirit gave the dead a presence amongst the living. ‘Across the Board’ was begun as a semi-autobiographical project inspired by the urge to bring carved representations of my European ancestors to the board. However, as the initiator of the project, I quickly realized that my ancestral legacy was much more complicated than the simple mono-cultural narrative I was constructing. In fact, my very longing to connect with an ancient ancestral past had a largely indigenous Maori origin. Some of this complexity is explained in the concepts of ‘acculturation’, ‘syncretism’, and ‘creolizaiton’. This essay explores these ideas in relation to bi-culturalism in New Zealand and looks at the conceptual underpinnings of a project that use the game of chess as a metaphor to explore the impact of diaspota in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The portrait of a Māori chief from an engraving by Sydney Parkinson (1773) and Gottfried Lindauer’s (...)

1Charles Dickens collaborated in creating the myth that drew them. ‘What fat cheeks you ha’ got (...). Darn me if I couldn’t eat em (...) if I han’t half a mind to’t! ’, declares Abel Magwitch to Pip in Great Expectations. For he is an ‘old world’ cannibal of sorts, a representation of savage ‘otherness’ in England. Magwitch is captured and sent to Australia where he makes a fortune, suggesting that the ‘new world’ is a place where great expectations are realized. The stumbling block for Magwitch is that he is in exile, and, in spite of the terrible risks, he is drawn back to the ‘old world’ where his labours in the antipodes have created Pip, an English gentleman. The storyline of Great Expectations ends, according to Jerome Meckier’s chronology, in the winter of 1840, with Pip’s failed attempt to save his benefactor, Magwitch, in a rowboat on the River Thames. ‘ [W] e were off Gravesend’, Pip tells us, ‘I purposely passed (...) alongside of two emigrant ships, and under the bows of a large transport with troops on the forecastle looking down at us’ (Dickens 2010: 2–3; 391).

2The diaspora, promulgated and promoted by imperialist agencies in the British Isles and suggested by the myth at the heart of Magwitch’s story, the promise the antipodes offered of escape, and the great expectations with which settlers arrived in New Zealand, are all part of the narratives of migration. They are the same political, economic, social, and psychological ‘push—pull’ factors that drew my own immigrant relations from England to New Zealand in the 1840s. This permanent parting from their home (land) created a rift: kinship connections were left behind. The few possessions they carried, and the family stories they shared, were lost in the bigger scheme of survival in a new world. ‘Across the Board’ was begun as a semi-autobiographical project inspired by the urge to bring carved representations of my lost ancestors to the chessboard, and to connect with an ancient tribal lineage.

  • 2 Pākehā, is a Māori word which means ‘pale-skinned’, and originated from the very first encounters w (...)

3This narrative picks up Great Expectations where Dickens left off. It follows what might have been the two emigrant ships that Pip ‘passed alongside’ out to New Zealand. The essay examines the consequences for Māori and Pākehā of colonization: the shock, the clash, and the cultural fusion that occurred to create new identities.2 It explores notions of diasporic identity in New Zealand and considers the role of the object as a carrier of cultural memory, nostalgia, and longing, both theoretically through the writings of Susan Stewart and according to the Māori system of wairua or soul. At its heart is my endeavour to reconnect with ancestry, and the realization that to make this reconnection by carving a chess set in response to the Lewis chess pieces (of mid-twelfth century Norse origin) alone was too narrow: that my cultural ancestry is Māori as well as Pākehā. The final part of this narrative addresses the process of understanding and the interpretation of embedded meaning in the hierarchies, costuming, adornment, carving, sacred objects and cultural practices of two seafaring, warrior tribal peoples, necessary to bring these carved pieces belonging to both Māori and Pākehā, together on the board.

  • 3 The Nelson Examiner, and New Zealand Chronicle reported that the Sir Charles Forbes was a 363-ton b (...)

4Two years after the storyline of Great Expectations ends, my relations, the Chamberlains and the Haycocks, embarked at Gravesend on two emigrant ships—the Sir Charles Forbes and the Thomas Harrison, respectively—bound for New Zealand.3 The Chamberlains were the grandchildren of Huguenots, who fled France at the end of the eighteenth century. It seems their diaspora began decades before their passage to New Zealand. Most people on emigrant ships to New Zealand were crowded into the steerage. They came with expectations, and to escape a life of limited opportunities in England. The dream was sold to them by the New Zealand Company, which was the brainchild of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Wakefield was in prison for three years after abducting, in 1826, a young schoolgirl who was the heiress to a substantial fortune. While he was in jail, Wakefield laid down the strategy for what he would describe as ‘systematic colonisation’. The plan was to establish a colony owned by capitalists and worked by a labouring class whose prospects of one day owning land would keep them toiling (King 2003: 156; 171–4).

5New Zealand was a social experiment, an attempt on the part of the New Zealand Company and other agencies of colonization to create ‘a ‘Better Britain’ or a ‘Britain of the South’ in which English class distinctions were preserved but where industrious artisans and farmers could more easily work their way towards prosperity and respectability’ (King 2003: 172). It was to be a new start on boundless tracts of available land. An industrialized culture was transported to a primal Eden, which from the European (Pākehā) perspective meant this land was freely available for colonial settlement because it was untouched by the industrial revolution, intensive urban development, or large-scale farming. However, the reality was very different, and the ownership of land in New Zealand turned out to be highly contested between Māori and Pākehā. The concept of selling land was foreign to Māori, whose ownership was communal, so ‘agreements’ were made in the absence of understanding and subsequently there was conflict.

6My relations, John Chamberlain and his wife Caroline, were twenty-three years old, and their daughter one, when they left England on-board the Sir Charles Forbes in 1842. They came to live in the Nelson region, which was one of three settlements that had serious problems with local Māori as a consequence of dubious land deals. Māori were cheated in many dealings with the New Zealand Company, as were the settlers who were lured out by ‘company prospectuses and allied advertising [that] told many lies about the nature of the new country (...) [and] by the time the truth was revealed, colonists had arrived and were unlikely to turn around at once and depart’ (King 2003: 172). Coming to New Zealand in the early 1840s was like going to the dark side of the Moon. Most people never expected to be able to afford to travel ‘Home’ to England, and the answer to a letter could take up to a year to arrive. Like the vast majority of people colonising Australia and New Zealand, they were immigrant rather than invader settlers, and the truncation of communication with families left behind was complete.

7Pākehā settlers like the Chamberlains faced the future rather than their past. They were effectively orphans or divorcés (depending on the degree of choice) in a post-colonial world where there was no going back. In the bigger picture, their arrival was part of a European programme of imperial expansion that saw 50 million people move around the globe in 200 years. It was underpinned as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin suggest, by a ‘sense of superiority of the [modern] present over the past [which] became translated into a sense of superiority over those premodern societies and cultures [such as Māori] that were “locked” in the past—primitive and uncivilized people whose subjugation and “introduction” into modernity became the right and obligation of European powers’ (145).

8There was a sense in the Crown Colony of New Zealand from the 1840s onwards that the agencies of annexation were working to improve things. In the next two decades ‘the demographic, economic and political impact of the new colonists would transform the country in ways that... [Māori] could never have foreseen’ (King 2003: 191). Exploration resulted in the surveying and renaming of much of the land. The country’s physical resources were mapped, and the systems and infrastructures of the British Isles introduced. While most Māori initially welcomed the arrival of the Pākehā, the extent to which their identity and customs might be threatened by wave upon wave of new immigrants soon became apparent.

9The difficulty for Pākehā settlers was that they encountered in the Māori an indigenous culture whose central essence and identity depended on their relationship to the past and to kinship. While Pākehā connections to distant family were at best vicarious, they lived alongside an indigenous culture that was steeped in ancestor adoration. Their cosmos was based on kinship, and on belonging to the land.

10In the early stages of colonization there was radical culture shock for both Māori and Pākehā. The Europeans encountered a warrior culture engaged in constant inter-tribal warfare. Those defeated in battle were either taken as slaves or eaten. Whāngai hau was the name given to ritual cannibalism. By eating the dead, the mana or spirit of the victim was destroyed, leaving their ‘kinfolk without ancestral protection’ (King 2003: 132). This was the shocking fate of a number of early settlers: men, women, and children. Conversely, Māori were subject to the ravages of interaction with Pākehā: the horrific tribal death tolls as a consequence of the introduction of muskets; the decimation of the population as a result of the introduction of European diseases, such as influenza, measles, dysentery, and whooping cough; and the ravages to the health and fertility of the population from syphilis, gonorrhea, and tuberculosis.

11Horrors on both sides were followed by the New Zealand Land Wars. The Land Wars were a series of armed conflicts between 1845 and 1872. The most intense fighting occurred in the period between 1860 and 1864, when a tribal coalition known as the Māori King Movement was targeted because they refused to give up their land or accept the authority of the colonial government. To unify and protect themselves and their territories, tribes banded together under a single sovereign chief, who was crowned King Pōtatau Te Wherowhero in 1858. This was the beginning of Kīngitanga or the King Movement. It was Te Wherowhero’s son King Tāwhiao Pōtatau who became embroiled in the most vicious fighting of the 1860s. Māori land often had sacred connections to kinship and Māori concepts of cosmology. Therefore, fighting to defend land ownership in some instances was tantamount to a religious crusade.

  • 4 According to historian James Belich, in the conflicts of the 1860s, 18,000 British troops were pitc (...)

12As revisionist historian James Belich points out, the Māori, especially in the north, were never beaten in the battles with British troops, but the conflict came to an end, and the Land Wars were followed by a period of relative peace and consolidation (Belich 1986: 126–133).4 Pākehā colonists—whether orphans or divorcés—went through a phase, for a number of generations, of looking with varying degrees of longing to their former homeland. This nostalgia touched every aspect of colonial enterprise, but nowhere is it more clearly evidenced than when the president of the Otago Art Society, William Mathew Hodgkins, called publicly in November 1880 for artists to emulate the work of J. M. W. Turner when painting the New Zealand landscape. The student of art in the colony, he said, ‘must learn to look at his subject, not only with a painter’s eye, but with those of a poet. (...) The poetry of Nature is all a question of atmosphere (...) the successful study of atmosphere is what has made [Turner and] the British school so famous’ (cited in Drayton 2005: 34). There was amongst many Pākehā, a sense of divided belonging, or double identity. As David Miller understands identity, it ‘helps to locate us in the world (...) tell [ing] us who we are, where we have come from, what we have done’ (cited in Bennett, Grossberg, Morris 2005: 173). The co-ordinates that located Māori, so unbrokenly in the South Pacific, and more precisely in the islands of Aotearoa New Zealand, were divided for Pākehā: split between two places half a world apart.

13The twentieth century dawned with a new determination on the part of settler communities to establish a national identity. The First World War was a period of fierce patriotism towards Britain and the Empire, but also a point at which New Zealand’s difference began to become apparent. There followed a psychological parting, fostered by the Great Depression of the 1930s, when New Zealanders were forced to stay at home. Writers such as A. R. D. Fairburn, Allen Curnow, and Denis Glover, along with others, began to promote the notion of a new bicultural ‘being’ that would bind the ‘old world’ and ‘settler’ identities together, encompass both ‘Pākehā-ness’ and ‘Māoridom’, and be the basis for a unified sense of nationhood. The campaign was well underway by the 1930s, when artists, writers, and musicians, largely of Pākehā origin, were self-consciously responding to the country’s people, landscape, flora, and fauna to distill a quintessential and recognizable New Zealand-ness. This surge of activity was prompted in part by the approaching centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Signed at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, the Treaty was a founding document that established a representative of the Queen of England as the Governor of New Zealand, guaranteed the ownership of Māori lands, and gave Māori the rights of British subjects. It was signed by representatives of the crown and the chiefs of a number of North Island tribes; copies of the Treaty were later taken around the country, until ultimately 540 chiefs had signed it, but this did not represent all the tribes (iwi).

14Integral to the project, according to Kevin Robins, was an image ‘of a national family, a single body, shared blood, a common home (land). (...) [that] has sought to maintain its culture—its heritage, memories, values, character, particularity, and uniqueness—through time’ (cited in Bennett, Grossberg, Morris 2005: 173). But the construction of a collective national identity proved difficult. The crucial difference between Māori and Pākehā was a sense of belonging. Embedded in history, established by kinship, ancestry, and culture and its relationship to the land, a sense of belonging is also present in the intangible world of the senses—in the note of a bird song, a fragrance, a taste that triggers personal and cultural memory. For the recently arrived Pākehā, this sense of belonging was elusive.

15Terry Eagleton writes, ‘In colonization, ‘savagery’ and civilization exist cheek by jowl, and what is plundered from the former goes to sustain the latter. At the same time, colonist regimes are themselves divided between self-confidence and chronic insecurity’ (35). The history of Europeans in New Zealand was temporally insignificant and tinged with guilt. These things made identity problematic, contributing to the Pākehā’s ‘chronic’ sense of ‘insecurity’ and making the project of forging and authenticating a bicultural identity an urgent endeavour. Establishing the signs and symbols of a bicultural identity involved introspection, especially for Pākehā, then a review of both Māori and European traditions. This resulted in appropriation, and plunder even, especially of indigenous heritage and iconography—creating a growing unease between Māori and Pākehā—because the project had never been as pressing for Māori as it was for Pākehā. In fact, with growing intensity from the 1970s (the decade identified as the beginning of the Māori renaissance), the majority of Māori energy went into self-determination and definition, and into distilling an indigenous nation within a nation and challenging through the court system the injustices of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840). While Māori have been and still are asserting their distinctive cultural heritage and roots, the Pākehā have been scrambling to pull together their own fractured and diverse traces of ancestry and heritage in order to contribute their part to that unique combination of shared blood, memory, values, character, and common home (land) that Kevin Robins identifies as the essential elements of collective identity and national family.

16As a Pākehā New Zealander of Scandinavian origin, I have lived alongside an indigenous Māori population steeped in ancestor worship. Māori inhabit the tūrangawaewae or birthplace of their ancestors: they live amongst their taonga (or sacred treasures), artifacts, and the signs of their early history, but this is not possible for the indigene children of expatriates and their progeny. The consequence for Pākehā, like me, is a kind of ‘ancestor envy’, fostered by nostalgia, by a sense of longing for a heritage and home (land) distanced by time and place. Susan Stewart explores the notions of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘longing’ in her book On Longing, which examines the agency of objects in relation to these and other evocative states. Stewart writes about the way in which objects stand ‘for experience impossibly distant in time: the experience of the family, the village, the firsthand community’ (140). Clearly, this ‘firsthand community’ is an unachievable fiction, but perhaps it is its elusive unobtainablility that makes it so desirable.

17It was something of a revelation when I first saw the Lewis Chess Set at the British Museum. For me they represented a connection with ‘firsthand community’; they were the taonga of my ancestors. In spite of their impish scale, and context—housed amongst the epic artifacts of the world’s history—they were arresting. It is in Scandinavia in the mid-twelfth century that scholars believe the Lewis chess pieces were carved. A convincing argument can be made for the fact that the Lewis pieces were executed in a single workshop in Trondheim and were being transported by knarr, or merchant ship, to a Nordic settlement either on the Isle of Lewis or in Ireland. The coastline of the Outer Hebrides is frequently lashed by wild storms, and it is entirely believable that one such ill-fated ship foundered with its treasure of precious ivories and they were buried.

18The pieces were found in the spring of 1831, in the Bay of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. They were unearthed from a stone chamber hidden in a sandbank. Anecdotal accounts of the hoard’s discovery are all that survive, and no one knows how long the Lewis chess pieces sat inside their strange kiln-like container. ‘ [They] are the most curious specimens of art I ever remember to have seen’, wrote Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum (cited in Stratford 1997: 4). Madden believed the British Museum had been offered the whole find, but ultimately 11 additional pieces would end up in the National Museum of Scotland. The Lewis hoard consisted of 93 items: 78 chess pieces (8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 warders or rooks, and 19 pawns), 14 tablemen, and an engraved belt buckle. They have been carved almost entirely of walrus ivory, with two or three pieces perhaps being made of narwhal teeth.

19The Lewis chess pieces were carved and probably lost while being transported along trade routes created by Viking or Norse expansion in the mid-twelfth century, and it was just a few decades later in the thirteenth century that many scholars now believe the Polynesian expansion began, which resulted in the arrival (s) of Māori in New Zealand. But the game of chess itself was part of a much older gaming diaspora that had already crossed continents and connected cultures. The game of chess moved around the world as a result of diasporic contact. The board game began in India in the sixth century AD, and spread through Asia, Persia, and from the Islamic territories into Spain, France, Scandinavia, and the British Isles (an alternative route went through China). Chess pieces, boards, illuminated instruction books, plus aristocratic and courtly mores associated with playing chess, all moved with the game.

20Its function as a pleasurable pursuit diversified over time. Records exist of chess being used by wealthy fathers to select eligible suitors for their daughters; it was played as part of the courtship ritual, and, as Arabic historian al-Mus’udi (c. 950 AD) suggests, to gamble (Robinson 2004: 50–53). al-Mus’udi recorded instances of Indians playing chess and becoming so caught up in the game and its high stakes that, when they lost all of their money and possessions, they would wager one of their limbs. To facilitate this enormous sacrifice, a small copper vessel filled with a reddish ointment boiled over a wood fire nearby. al-Mus’udi, observed: ‘if the man who wagered one of his fingers loses, he cuts off the finger with a dagger, and then plunges his hand in the ointment and cauterizes the wound (...) sometimes a man who continues to lose will cut off in succession all his fingers, his hand, his fore-arm, his elbow, and other parts of his body’ (cited in Murray 1913: 37). Chess was dangerously addictive, as was the gambling culture that accompanied it, and it spread rapidly across the globe.

21As chess moved through the Islamic territories, its pieces became abstract in design because of religious prohibitions around representing the human form. But in Europe it was only after they were anthropomorphized that the game became popular. The playing of chess was widespread in Scandinavia, and it may have been from here that it moved to the British Isles. Certainly the Lewis pieces themselves came to the British Isles from Scandinavia.

22The Lewis pieces left an after-image in my mind, and, following a revelation that my ancient heritage is Scandinavian, I decided to carve a chess set in response to the Lewis pieces. I could have purchased a replica chess set and commodified my longing, but I realized that my need was more than just to possess a souvenir; it was to make contact. I wanted to get inside the minds of the makers, to comprehend the materiality of ivory and appreciate some of the challenges of medieval creative life and carving.

23It was not long after I began carving my pieces and researching at the Library of the British Museum that I realized that carving a response to the Lewis pieces was only half the story. This was perhaps the greatest epiphany of the project: that my cultural history was as much about Māori as it was about the longing for a distant, even fictive, Scandinavian ancestry. The very motive to connect with an ancient lineage, and to see the objects or taonga as being invested with sacred values or special properties because of their ancestral connection, are parts of the indigenous Māori belief system. In essence, then, the ancestral legacy I wanted to connect with was much more complicated than the simple monocultural narrative I was at first constructing.

Figure 1 – Lewis-inspired chess pieces (king, queen, bishops and rooks), 2009–2013.

24Some of the complexity implicit in this epiphany is explained in the concepts of ‘acculturation’, ‘syncretism’, and ‘creolization’. Acculturation involves a two-way process of cultural and psychological change, when two distinctly different groups of people come together, often through diasporic movement. Syncretism describes the merger of several quite distinct traditions to create something that is both inclusive and a point of unity. The notion of creolization incorporates both of these concepts, but has as the outcome the creation of a new and distinctive cultural identity. Although the word was traditionally associated with the Caribbean and used in relation to cultural mixtures of African, European, and indigenous populations, more recently historical and cultural sociologists such as Orlando Patterson have expanded the concept to describe new diasporas where the mixing of different people and cultures have merged to become one (Knepper 2006: 70–86).

Figure 2 – Gottfried LINDAUER, Tāwhiao Matutaera Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, 1882. In the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, New Zealand.

25The diasporic mixing in New Zealand of Māori and Pākehā has resulted in the formation of new identities. While both peoples hold onto discrete aspects of their cultural heritages, a process of acculturation—a melding and merging of cultures—has occurred to produce something distinctive. Implicit in creolization are the ideas of cultural fusion and hybridization, and both these things have occurred in terms of religious and spiritual beliefs, values, mores, social structures, and cultural signs and symbols, but not to the extent that there has been a complete extinguishing of difference. My worldview and sense-of-self have been shaped by both Māori and Pākehā heritages.

  • 5 To find more of the story of King Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, his son Tāwhiao Pōtatau and his daughter T (...)

26Therefore, for me to bring a purely Scandinavian ancestry to the chessboard would have been to leave unrepresented indigenous Māori, which is a defining aspect of my bicultural identity. I realized that I and many other Pākehā have two ‘villages’, two ‘firsthand communities’, and two sets of cultural ancestors. To express this, I decided to bring representations of my partner’s ancestors whose tribes are Tainui and Ngāti Awa to the chessboard, to create a personal and perhaps collective metaphor for the bicultural relationship between Māori and Pākehā in post-colonial New Zealand. In the multifaceted narrative of this story, my partner’s great-great-great-uncle is King Tāwhiao Pōtatau, second Māori king, and the warrior chief who lead a confederation of Waikato-based tribes against British troops in the New Zealand Land Wars.5

27Susan Stewart writes about the ‘capacity of objects to serve as traces of authentic experience,’ which resonates with the Māori idea of an object carrying a trace of its owners as it is passed through a kinship lineage from generation to generation (135). Māori named their wharenui or meetinghouses, their waka or canoes, and even their weapons and cherished objects or taonga after ancestors. They believed that these items carried a trace of their ancestors’ wairua or soul. Possessing and using these things imbued with their ancestors’ spirit gave the dead agency amongst the living. As Stewart describes, ‘we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative (...)’. In the presence of the object, its ancestral owners can be evoked ‘through the invention of narrative’ (135). For Māori, ancestral stories were not contained in books but invested in an oral tradition, in waiata or song, in objects, and in almost every aspect of social life (carving, tattoos, and so on). The Māori system of belief does not so much ‘discredit the present’ as foreground the past for the living (139).

28Stewart describes the souvenir as a ‘bibelot or curiosity’, a trinket with ‘little if any value attached to its materiality’ (136). What I wanted to capture in my pieces was what Stewart identifies as the ‘preindustrial aesthetic of the handmade and singular object’ (166). I wanted to give them the value of time and allow the potential for them to carry a trace—in the way that Māori believe a taonga or treasured object carries traces—of the wairua of the maker, and over time that of the wearers and users. Finally, I wanted to satisfy my sense of nostalgia for ‘the handmade in a “plastic world”’ (148).

29Because the chess set is understood, in the context of this project, as a metaphor for the post-colonial relationship between Māori and Pākehā, it is important to understand how each piece functions within the beliefs and traditions of that cultural heritage. For the benefit of this paper, the figure of the Lewis bishop (s) makes an interesting case study in relationship to its Māori equivalent, which is the tohunga or high priest. In its time, the Lewis bishop was an innovation to the game. The Christian Church strongly disapproved of chess because of its sinful association with dalliance, leisured pursuits, gambling, and gaming, so it is ironic that the bishop now assumed a powerful position on the board. Evidence of clergy playing chess exists from as early as 1080. In a letter from Damiano (Cardinal Bishop of Ostia) to Pope Alexander II (1061–1073), Damiano explains that his servant discovered the Bishop of Florence playing chess:

(...) when I heard, it pierced to my heart like an arrow (...). ‘Was it well,’ rejoined I; ‘was it worthy of the character you bear, to spend the evening in the vanity of chess-playing (...) and defile the hands and tongue which ought to be the mediators between man and the Deity? Are you not aware that, by the canonical law, bishops, who are dice-players are ordered to be suspended.’

30In his defence, the Bishop of Florence suggests that chess does not involve dice, and was therefore not numbered amongst forbidden pursuits. This logic, however, does not convince the self-righteous Damiano. As his punishment for gaming, the Bishop of Florence is made to repeat the ‘Psalter over thrice, and to wash the feet of, and give alms to, twelve poor persons’ (cited in Madden 1832: 211).

31From the First Crusade in 1095, warring bishops fought on battlefields, so this fact—as well as an attempt to legitimize chess with the Catholic Church and with its immensely powerful warlord bishops— may have prompted their inclusion in the game. Bishops were just beginning to establish their power in Scandinavia when the Lewis pieces were carved. In fact, it was the fashion around the wearing of the bishops’ mitres that helped narrow the dating of the set to the mid-twelfth century. Prior to this, bishops wore the mitre right-to-left.

32Seven of the Lewis bishops are seated on thrones, and nine are standing. They are dressed in chasubles, which cover the body like a poncho, or copes fastened at the neck. In addition to this, there are dalmatics, stoles, and tunics. Without exception they carry a crosier, or hooked staff of office. In their other hand some hold a Bible or make a sign of blessing. I decided to have my bishops standing because the Lewis kings and queens were enthroned, and it seemed important to make a clear visual distinction between their rank and roles. One bishop would be dressed in a chasuble and carrying a Bible, and the other wearing a cope and giving a blessing.

  • 6 The word tapu is similar to the word ‘taboo’, which entered the English language after Captain Jame (...)

33In Māori culture, the tohunga had a sacred role that can be likened to that of a bishop. The highest ranked tohunga were men, although tohunga wāhine, or women of priestly caste, did exist. Tohunga ranged in status from being specialists or experts in a tribe at carving (tohunga whakairo) or tattooing (tohunga tā moko), or ‘catching birds, felling trees, building canoes or houses to being the most sacred priests of the cult of Io, the supreme god, whose name could not be uttered among the uninitiated or people of low rank’ (New Zealand Heritage 1973: 149). A priest’s mystical role was linked to medicine. When a woman was pregnant, she was tapu—meaning, restricted or prohibited—and was shut away.6 The only man allowed to visit a woman during her confinement or in childbirth was the tohunga.

34The tohunga himself was tapu, but in the tohunga’s case he was sacred as well as forbidden. In 1902, artist Gottfried Lindauer painted a tohunga being fed by a child because if he touched cooked food, which was noa or profane, he might lose his tapu. Similarly, some tohunga were not tattooed, which was the norm for men of rangatira or high birth. Their heads, the most tapu part of the body, were believed to be too sacred to touch.

Figure 3 – Portrait of Māori chief from an engraving by Sydney PARKINSON, artist on Captain Cook’s first voyage. New Zealand Heritage, 1773.

35My research focuses on a time referred to as the Classical Māori period, which was before any substantial contact with Pākehā. The few records that remain from the initial contact with Pākehā have become important references in shaping an understanding of Classical Māori. Unfortunately, all of the written sources came from Pākehā artists, scientists, and explorers and therefore had a Eurocentric perspective. Botanist Joseph Banks, on Captain James Cook’s 1769 visit to New Zealand, described Māori men of rank:

Classical Māori society was organized around the activities of chiefly men who, when not engaged in warfare, went in for (...) elaborate hairdress featuring the feathers of culturally important birds, or set off by ornamental combs of wood and bone; ear ornaments, such as feathers, human teeth, fish teeth, and pieces of tapa cloth; neck ornaments such as greenstone tiki, and the rei puta of whale bone; body painting with red ochre and shark oil; elaborate tattooing of the face and the buttocks. Such ornamentation, in conjunction with dogskin cloaks and plain-body cloaks with decorative borders, helped Māori chiefs build a reputation and create a spectacle that was at once admired and feared.
(cited in Mead 1969: 44)

36Although the tohunga was not necessarily of chiefly caste, they wore the trappings of rank. A tohunga might well have had a dogskin cloak, or huru kurī. Joseph Banks writes of the huru kurī, ‘the great pride of their dress seems to consist in dogs fur, which they use so sparing that to avoid waste they cut into long strips and sew them at a distance from each other upon their Cloth, varying often the colours prettily enough’ (cited in Mead: 46). Dogskin cloaks, with or without hair, often had a tāniko patterned border along the top and sometimes the sides, the kaupapa, or foundation of the cloak, was composed of a flax fibre base made with the close single-pair twine. The strips of skin could run in horizontal panels, or vertically, or could be made into a check pattern of contrasting colours. The dogskin cloak was often worn over the top of another garment woven out of fine flax fibre.

  • 7 Tiki are large humanoid figures usually made out of wood or stone that often demarcate the boundari (...)

37Tohunga often carried godsticks, which were not complete tiki figures, but ‘a mask set at the top of a peg’. For the purpose of ritual, sacred cord lashing and red feathers were placed below the ornamental part to make ‘the [tiki wānanga] “alive”’, so that ‘the spirit of the god represented entered into them’ (Barrow 1984: 99).7 The tohunga, when using the tiki wānanga, would either hold it in his hand or plant it point first into the ground. The godstick was a vehicle into the spirit world, a way of capturing the attention of the deity the tohunga was heralding.

38I have begun making sketches of my tohunga based on discussion with Māori, anthropological research, and the drawings and painted sketches of early artists such as Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges, John Webber, and Augustus Earl. These were among the first Pākehā to record images of Māori. I am working with the idea of carving my tohunga untattooed, with their hair pulled back, in the Classical style that Cook observed in 1769, ‘to a topknot, [with] two or three white feathers, plus a decorative comb’ (cited in Mead 1969: 27); wearing an undergarment of soft woven flax; a dogskin cloak with tāniko borders; and carrying a godstick or tiki wānanga.

39The chess set remains a work in progress. The process of physically carving, of researching the pieces historically, iconographically, and theoretically, and of consulting with Māori to understand both sides of this complex relationship has been fascinating, and it is not finished yet. However, now that the figures have begun to take their positions on the board, I can see how appropriate the metaphor of chess is for postcolonial New Zealand. It is an ancient game that has moved around the world, crossing continents, cultures, and time. The game itself is premised on movement, on passage across a board, on warriors and warring parties, and on rules of engagement that involve movement, strategy, skill, and possession. Chess requires two opponents who operate as adversaries, it is combative and conflicting, yet also co-dependent, because without this relationship and the interiority of the board, there is no game.


Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Post-Colonial Studies, London & New York: Routledge, 2000.

Barrow, Terence. An Illustrated Guide to Māori Art. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1984.

Belich, James. The New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Penguin, 1986.

Bennett, Tony, Lawrence Grossberg and Meagan Morris, eds. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Malden & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations. 1860. London: Harper Classics, 2010.

Drayton, Joanne. Frances Hodgkins: A Private Viewing. Auckland: Random House, 2005.

Eagleton, Terry. The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Gorst, J. E. 1864. The Maori King. Hamilton and Auckland NZ; London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

King, Michael. The Penguin History of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 2003.

Knepper, Wendy. ‘Colonization, Creolization, and Globalization: The Art and Ruses of Bricolage’, Small Axe, no 21, vol. 10 no 3 (October 2006): 70–86.

Madden, Frederic. ‘Historical Remarks on the introduction of the game of Chess into Europe, and on the ancient Chess-men discovered in the Isle of Lewis; by Frederic Madden, Esq. F. R.S. in a Letter addressed to Henry Ellis, Esq. F. R. S., Secretary. Read 16th February, 1832’, Archaeologia XXIV (January 1832): 203–91.

Mead, S. M. Traditional Māori Clothing. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1969.

Meckier, Jerome. ‘Dating the Action in Great Expectations: A New Chronology.’ Dickens Studies Annual 21 (1992): 157–94.

Murray, H. J. R. A History of Chess. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913.

New Zealand Heritage, vol. 1. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1973.

Robinson, James. The Lewis Chessmen. London, The British Museum Press, 2004.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collector. Durham (NC) and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Stratford, Neil. The Lewis Chessmen and the Enigma of the Hoard. London: British Museum Press, 1997.

The Nelson Examiner, and New Zealand Chronicle, 29 October 1842; 134.

The Nelson Examiner, and New Zealand Chronicle, 27 August 1848; 98.


1 The portrait of a Māori chief from an engraving by Sydney Parkinson (1773) and Gottfried Lindauer’s painting of Tāwhiao Matutaera Pōtatau Te Wherowhero (1882), are both out of copyright in New Zealand. These, images have been made by the author. The copyright for the photograph of the chess pieces by Neil Finlay belongs to the author.

2 Pākehā, is a Māori word which means ‘pale-skinned’, and originated from the very first encounters with Europeans, but today stands for the 179 other immigrant nationalities in New Zealand. The word Māori means ‘ordinary’ and originated after contact with Pākehā and when the ordinary people in New Zealand were Māori. According to Michael King, they were not conscious of being Māori, nor would they have used the word in that way themselves (77).

3 The Nelson Examiner, and New Zealand Chronicle reported that the Sir Charles Forbes was a 363-ton barque that sailed from Gravesend on 1 May 1842, and arrived in Nelson 22 August 1842. The Thomas Harrison was a 400-ton barque that sailed from Gravesend on 26 May 1842, and arrived in Nelson on 25 October 1842.

4 According to historian James Belich, in the conflicts of the 1860s, 18,000 British troops were pitched against 4000 Māori warriors.

5 To find more of the story of King Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, his son Tāwhiao Pōtatau and his daughter Te Paea Pōtatau, see Gorst 1864: 97–98.

6 The word tapu is similar to the word ‘taboo’, which entered the English language after Captain James Cook’s visit to Tonga in 1777, where the word for ‘forbidden’ or ‘set apart’ is tabu.

7 Tiki are large humanoid figures usually made out of wood or stone that often demarcate the boundaries of scared areas.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1 – Lewis-inspired chess pieces (king, queen, bishops and rooks), 2009–2013.
Fichier image/jpeg, 23k
Légende Figure 2 – Gottfried LINDAUER, Tāwhiao Matutaera Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, 1882. In the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, New Zealand.
Fichier image/jpeg, 122k
Légende Figure 3 – Portrait of Māori chief from an engraving by Sydney PARKINSON, artist on Captain Cook’s first voyage. New Zealand Heritage, 1773.
Fichier image/jpeg, 126k


University of Auckland
The Search for Anne Perry, which was a non-fiction finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards (August 2013), was released in Australasia and Canada in 2012, and in the USA in July 2014. The Search has been ‘optioned’ for a feature film, by South Pacific Pictures and All3Me- dia. Her critically acclaimed Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime (2008) was a Christmas pick of the Independent when it was released in the United Kingdom in 2009. Her other biographies of expatriate painters include Frances Hodgkins: A Private Viewing (Random House, 2005); Rhona Haszard: An Experimental Expatriate New Zealand Artist (CUP 2002); and Edith Collier: Her Life and Work, 1885–1964 (CUP 1999). She has curated exhibitions of Collier, Haszard, Hodgkins, and D.K. Richmond, and publishes in art and design history, theory and biography. In 2007, she was awarded a National Library Fellowship to write a biography of Ngaio Marsh. She is currently working on a new biographical project and carving a postcolonial chess set in response to the Lewis pieces in the British Museum. Drayton is a Research Associate at the Centre for Art Studies, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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