Only in Dargaville – To the Ends of the Earth and Back Again

Three years ago I reviewed Maxwell C. Hill’s first book, “To the Ends of the Earth”, and I proclaimed it bad. Now I am here to say that he has written a follow-up volume and it is no better. Indeed, it might well be a lot worse, in a number of different and not always interesting ways.

“To the Ends of the Earth and Back Again” is not, as I thought it was going to be, a new edition of the previous volume. Instead, it assumes the reader is not just familiar with the first edition but also accepted it’s central thesis. That thesis is the claim that Aotearoa/New Zealand was first settled by the crew of an Egyptian and Greek expedition which had tried to circumnavigate the globe. These brave navigators lived here for a time, saw some new recruits when the Egyptian government sent out a second expedition to locate them, and eventually were overrun by the brutish Māori. Hill’s evidence for this thesis was the dubious epigraphy of Barry Fell, some strange assertions based upon old maps, folk linguistic analysis, and treating mythological stories as verbatim historical accounts.

Hill’s first book was an unconvincing attempt to turn our standard histories on their head, but Hill is undaunted. His new book, 356 pages in length, printed on high quality gloss (the book must have cost a fortune to print) is a heavy tome. It would be a useful weapon in any fight which required only brute force and no intellectual discussion. It is not, however, any advance in an understanding of our history, and rather than clarifying Hill’s position, it goes some way to showing that even Hill doesn’t have a grasp on his own theory.

Possibly the weirdest thing about this book is just how upfront Hill is about his ignorance of what people are taught about the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand. A constant refrain throughout “To the Ends of the Earth and Back Again” is that what we were taught in school was wrong. Hill is fascinated by the idea that the standard story of Kupe and the Great Fleet hypothesis – the standard story taught by Pākehā in schools from the 1910s to the 1970s – was wrong. He happily points out that there is no evidence for a great fleet migration, and that the stories of Kupe and his exploits vary between iwi. However, Hill does not use as a launching platform to explore what Māori believe about their own history but, rather, as an excuse to engage in speculation about what the true history of this place might be. Yet Hill’s “true history” is one that denies Māori their status as tangata whenua because it might – just might – have been possible that other people got here first.

“To the Ends of the Earth” posited that the first people to Aotearoa/New Zealand were a mix of Egyptians and Greeks, and that the people we know of as the “Māori” came after. Hill is now convinced that the Māori arrived sometime around the 1400s, and that they came from Hawaiki, which turns out to be someone in Aotearoa.

Or they came from China; Hill has obviously recently read Gavin Menzies’ “1421: The Year China Discover the World” and is trying to shoehorn in Menzies’ thesis into his own. Some Māori, Hill initially conjectures and then later on asserts, are the product of Chinese and their Melanesian slaves coming to this land, miscegenating like nobody’s business, and then leaving some of their offspring behind.

I say “some”, because Hill now also claims that Tainui arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand on a Spanish vessel (although he does not specifically state they are of Spanish origin; I guess the Spaniard captain might just have given them a lift…). It’s all very confusing; Māori are Chinese and Melanesian, except for those who came here by a Spanish vessel, but we have to remember that Hawaiki is actually in Aotearoa, which is where the Māori really came from. So, about 1400 we have three migrations – one from Aotearoa/New Zealand itself – which explains the origin of the Māori. Apparently.

There is no real through-line to this book; unlike “To the Ends of the Earth”, which, despite its repetitiveness, at least put forward a single theory, this sequel muddies the water with a lot of “What ifs?” Indeed, Hill has a disturbing tendency in his writing to put forward an hypothesis – say, the idea that Hawaiki might actually be in Aotearoa/New Zealand – and then later on assert that hypothesis as true and supporting evidence for some other claim or conjecture. It very much feels like “Return to the Stars”, Erich von Däniken’s sequel to “Chariots of the Gods?” (note the question mark). In “Chariots of the Gods” von Däniken posits that it might be possible that stories of the gods actually encode ancient alien visitations. In subsequent works he just asserts this as true, and then speculates even further about what really happened when aliens came on their numerous day-trips.

Hill also continues to adhere to outdated theories and now disproven hypotheses. For example, he continues to insist, despite anthropological and skeletal evidence to the contrary, that Polynesians have rocker jaws and only rocker jaws. He also holds to a finding that claimed kiore (the Polynesian rat) made it to Aotearoa a thousand years before the Māori; however, when someone tried to replicate those results, they found no such evidence. ((Anderson, A (2000). Differential reliability of 14C AMS ages of Rattus exulans bone gelatin in south Pacific prehistory Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 30 (3))) Then there is his insistence we take the theories of Thor Heyerdahl seriously, despite the fact they go against just about everything we know about Polynesia when it comes to a) the oral histories, b) the archaeology, and c) the population genetics.

However, it is possible that in a few, rare cases, Hill has taken onboard criticisms of his work and sought to explain away apparent inconsistencies with respect to his evidence. I had a go at both his and Barry Fell’s assertions that they could find examples of Greek and Egyptian inscriptions through Indonesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, by pointing out that these supposed inscriptions were remarkably crude; they looked like a case of “When not in Rome…” Hill now claims that these inscriptions were not made by the educated leaders of the expedition but by members of the polyglot crew that accompanied them. Which is a nice save, I suppose, although it doesn’t answer why no one other than Fell – who has no training in Ancient Egyptian or Ancient Greek – recognises these inscriptions for what they apparently really are.

Personally, I found this book both hard to read and hard to review. Hill’s standard arguments are either to say “When I was a boy I was taught this, and now they say that isn’t true!” which he then manages to turn into some claim about a conspiracy to hide Aotearoa’s true history, or he shows you an image and makes some very bold and unlikely conjectures about it. I do not go into books like thesis looking to slam them; whilst I am very sceptical that Aotearoa/New Zealand was settled first by people from northern climes, I was hoping to see some semblance of an argument which could be usefully used to highlight why people might posit an alternative history of this place. However, Hill’s entire first premise – the starting point of his argument – is merely that history isn’t what it used to be. He seems angry at the idea that people might think the Polynesians were spectacular navigators, and that people prefer new, more nuanced histories than those written some hundred years ago. This is a book which at every turn seeks to denigrate Māori by claiming their history is false and they know it! Hill is, at the very least, suffering from the institutionalised, anti-Māori views common to many Pākehā of a particular age. Then there are various claims he makes throughout the book, like “[T]he Māori brought to New Zealand a form of evil occult religion and a thirst for profound violence.” (p. 150) These proclamations of his, I would say, stand for themselves.

“Oh, but Matthew, he’s presenting evidence for an alternative history, and if that evidence is true, then he can’t be racist because it’s just facts!” is the kind of response some might make at this juncture. Sure, if there were any merit to his hypotheses, that would be some kind of comeback. But, and this is the all important “but”, Hill’s thesis is just mere speculation, based upon pieces of information which hardly deserve to get called “evidence”. History is not a game, and we do not have to give credence to just anyone who wants to engage in historical revisionism.

After all, the history of Aotearoa has been rewritten several times. Hill’s major problem is that the history he grew up accepting as fact turned out to be largely the fabrication of white men. The new history – one based upon a reappreciation of oral history, along with anthropological analysis which ended up supporting many of that history’s assertions – reframed the pre-history of Aotearoa/New Zealand in terms of the tangata whenua, the people who were actually here first. Yet Hill cannot understand or appreciate this; the story told about Māori was largely false, but he fails to recognise that this was not a story that was told by Māori. Rather, it was foisted on them and made the standard history taught to both them and Pākehā in our schooling system until very recently.

Hill’s response to learning that the Great Fleet story was a modern myth is not to blame Pākehā historians, however. No; he thinks this gives him grounds to question what Māori say about themselves. Along the way he treats myths literally and brings in a raft of pseudo-scholarship in order to claim the new orthodoxy is as questionable as the the old.

“To the Ends of the Earth and Back Again” is really just one argument: If only he could reframe the story such that the stories of the Māori were untrustworthy, then he could radically reinterpret Māori history and show that the mythological stories of the Patupairehe, Turehu, Ngati Hotu and the like reflects the history of another, non-Māori people who were here first. Yet this he cannot do; his story is both confused and ultimately self-serving. After all, he wants to deny the idea that Māori know their own history but that they have no trouble when it comes to relating, for example, the history of the Patupairehe. There is no consistency here; just the throwing of shade on our country’s indigenous people.

It is, in the end, the kind of thing we might expect to come out of Dargaville.