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Helene Schlein on "Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori"

cover art for Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori

Geoffrey Sanborn

Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori

Oxford University Press, 2011
208 pages
$49.50

Reviewed by Helene Schlein

Geoffrey Sanborn’s work Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori traces the influence of the New Zealand Maori on the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. Sanborn focuses on connecting the Maori tradition of tattooing to US American histories of whipping and flogging through “the life histories of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, neither of whom has ever before been the subject of a fully researched biography.” Te Ara, Sanborn argues, influenced Cooper’s characterization of Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), while Te Pehi Kupe inspired Melville to rewrite characterizations of Queequeg in Moby-Dick (1851). Sanborn notes that this practice of “Interspersing narrative histories of the lives of New Zealanders with critical analyses of the novels of New Yorkers” is somewhat unorthodox, and Sanborn ameliorates this by “introduc[ing] biographical elements into the close readings of The Last of the Mohicans and Moby-Dick and close readings into the biographies of Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe.” Sanborn’s analyses revise traditional readings of both Cooper and Melville as he investigates the specific texts that influenced two characters central to American literary studies.

 Sanborn’s first chapter details the life of Te Ara, the son of an Ngati Uru chief. He describes Te Ara’s nobility through the Maori tradition of “the pursuit of mana and the preservation of tapu,” which reflects “status and visibility” and structures Maori society. Sanborn focuses on Te Ara’s work on the non-Maori ship Boyd, a journey which resulted in Te Ara’s experiencing a flogging and his consequent loss of tapu. To the Maori, “corporal punishment was barbaric,” and Te Ara later returns to the Boyd to slaughter its captain and redress his tapu, “and by extension the tapu of Ngati Uru as a whole.” The incident was publicized in the Sydney Gazette with a warning to be wary of New Zealanders at sea, a sentiment that was quickly reproduced in Western newspapers. Te Ara’s depiction of the incident was later published in both Reverend Samuel Marsden’s Missionary Register (1816) and John Liddiard Nicholas’s Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand (1817), the latter of which Sanborn argues that Cooper encountered in a Boston magazine.

In Chapter Two, Sanborn narrates Cooper’s own relationship to flogging after encountering a local schoolmaster who had whipped his daughter to death. Soon after, Cooper left home and went to sea on the merchant vessel Stirling. While he makes references to the South Seas in earlier novels, Sanborn sees echos of the Maori in The Last of the Mohicans’s Magua. Indeed, Magua experiences a flogging similar to Te Ara’s, and he, too, leads a retaliatory massacre. Sanborn admits that “there would be no reason to imagine that any of this had anything to do with the Boyd incident,” but he also notes that “the only case of this kind that had come to the attention of the English-speaking world before the publication of The Last of the Mohicans was the case of the Boyd.” The notoriety of the Boyd incident as well as the tendency for “Cooper, along with most other Americans of his day, [to lump] Maori and North American Indians into the same general cultural area,” is what sparks Sanborn’s reading of Magua. Sanborn first notes that both Magua and Te Ara occupy Cooper’s “aristocracy of nature,” and Sanborn contends that “What we are meant to mourn at the end of the novel is not the literal annihilation of the Mohican tribe, […] but the eradication of an elite caste.” Sanborn then presents a reading of Nicholas’s Narration that too argues that chiefdom rather than nationality is paramount for status. In addition to sharing status, Magua and Te Ara, as well as the “political tribes” in Washington, share a place in the American imagination where “patriotism was peculiarly international and impersonal.”

Sanborn’s third chapter returns to New Zealand through the story of chief Te Pehi Kupe. Sanborn details the importance of tattooing for the Maori as signs of lineage and status; for Te Pehi Kupe, his tattoos “would serve not only as the medium of his interaction with others, but as the medium of his relation to himself.” Te Pehi Kupe’s military prowess leads to his accumulation of enemies, however, which culminates in the murder and cannibalization of his children. Te Pehi Kupe seeks his revenge by climbing onto the passing brig Urania to retrieve muskets from England. Sanborn depicts the close relationship between the captain of the Urania, Richard Kirby Reynolds, and Te Pehi Kupe, narrating an anecdote of their “affectionate regard” in which Reynolds topples overboard and Te Pehi Kupe immediately dives underwater to save him. Te Pehi Kupe’s interaction with the British “created a small sensation” documented in newspapers and books. Sanborn focuses on George Lillie Craik’s book The New Zealanders (1830), which includes a character based on Reynold’s doctor’s “long account of his experiences with Te Pehi Kupe.” This description, Sanborn contends, is “the principal source of Queequeg, the most famous Pacific islander in literary history.” Te Pehi Kupe eventually returns to his tribe with British muskets; he “had finally taken utu (vengeance, compensation) for the killing of his children.” Te Pehi Kupe is ultimately also murdered and cannibalized, “ritually degraded from ariki to food.” Sanborn concludes his chapter with a return to Te Pehi Kupe’s tattooing, providing sketches from The New Zealanders of Te Pehi Kupe’s tattooed face, which Melvillians will instantly recognize as the cover of an edition of Moby-Dick.

Sanborn’s final chapter explores the influence of the Maori on Melville. While Melville traveled extensively in the South Seas, Sanborn contends that Moby-Dick’s Queequeg is very much based on the description of Te Pehi Kupe in The New Zealanders. Sanborn offers side-by-side readings of the texts in which the similarities are apparent, specifically in the Reynolds-Te Pehi Kupe and Ishmael-Queequeg relationships. Sanborn argues, however, that rather than being completely inspired by Te Pehi Kupe, “Queequeg was originally from an imaginary island […] and that after reading, sometime in 1850, the Te Pehi Kupe section of The New Zealanders, Melville overlaid the ur-Queequeg with Maori attributes.” Sanborn meticulously analyzes where and when different depictions of Queequeg had been written and rewritten, thus providing a new trajectory of Melville’s writing process. In addition to Queequeg’s relationship with Ishmael, Sanborn also draws links between Queequeg and Te Pehi Kupe through their mutual royal lineage and tattooing. As opposed to tattooing in Melville’s previous novels, Queequeg’s tattooing “is a part of the special category of signs in Moby-Dick that compellingly manifest the presence of great power and worth.” Sanborn argues that the source of Melville’s “understanding of tattooing in Moby-Dick was, in all likelihood, The New Zealanders.” Finally, Sanborn returns to flogging and presents its scars in opposition to tattooing as a means of writing pain upon the body: “Since we cannot strike God, Nature, or the Law, we can only resignify the thing that they strike: the surface of the body.” Queequeg’s tattooing, however, is “resistant to the infliction of interpretation as it is to the infliction of pain.”

Sanborn’s work offers an innovative way of developing American literary studies. Sanborn sheds light on the internationalism of American literature and provides a new way of reading Cooper’s Magua and Melville’s Queequeg through their mutual chiefdom. Through his meticulous research on Te Ara and Te Pehi Kupe, as well as masterful new interpretations of Cooper and Melville, Sanborn opens a space for Americanists to mine for new influential texts and important readings.