Of all the damage that colonisation did to Māori, perhaps the greatest was the loss of land. But an argument could be made that the collapse of the Māori language and all the cultural implications is a greater if less tangible loss.
The history of land loss in the 19th century has been well traversed by academic and popular historians. The loss of language over the same period is often little more than a footnote to this story.
Dr Paul Moon’s book is an attempt to address this gap in the historical narrative. While many Māori whānau have personal stories of their grandparents or parents being punished for speaking their mother tongue in the 20th century, there’s little understanding of how this came about or how the platform was laid in the 19th century.
Moon’s book goes a long way to addressing this huge omission. It is also a shocking read and makes the personal stories that have come down through history even more poignant.
There are also some surprises. While the missionaries don’t come out well in many books on New Zealand’s early history, their attitude towards te reo was an oddly positive one. They were pragmatic enough to know that the most effective way to communicate their message was to learn the language of Māori, even if their general attitude towards Māori was paternalistic. This had a number of implications, particularly the establishment of literacy in Māori communities at a time when many Pākehā were illiterate.
The introduction of literacy, like other Pākehā technologies such as the musket, changed Māori society in subtle and dramatic ways. But it was the mass immigration of Pākehā that made Māori a minority language in a land where it had been the only means of communication for hundreds of years.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the book is the numerous accounts of Pākehā attitudes that can only be described as blatantly hostile. This is the most difficult aspect of the book to stomach. It is relentless and Moon says it wasn’t a fringe view but the reality that Māori were confronted with from the late 1840s onwards.
The demise of the language was also closely linked to other changes going on in Māori society. The economic disruption that resulted from land loss combined with disease epidemics devastated Māori communities to such an extent that many Pākehā strongly believed Māori were heading for extinction. This view was so deeply held that it had the effect of making the Crown less strident in its attempts to eradicate the Māori language. Such efforts were seen as unnecessary because of the belief that Māori were about to disappear and they would therefore take their language with them to the grave.
Moon has added a crucial book to the history of the 19th century while also giving much needed context to what happened in the 20th century, both in the demise of the language and its revival. Anyone interested in the destiny of the Māori language needs to come to grips with the story of how it declined in the first place. This book is the ideal place to start.