The Sex Industry and the Beaglehole Room

Presentation for the “ 3 Books, 3 Scholars” seminar in the J.C. Beaglehole room – 27th May

Keywords: Literature and Culture; Political Economy & History;
     When it was first opened over forty years, this room was a part of the teaching rooms of the university. I guess I am confessing that I am a graduate of this university. Its economics was not great, although there are a few teachers to whom I am very grateful. But others in the arts faculty influenced me greatly, including Don McKenzie on Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry, and George Hughes, the professor of philosophy.
     So here I am, back after over forty years, as the John David Stout Fellow at the Stout Research Centre ever so grateful for the opportunity to work in a convivial scholarly environment. And forty years later this room too has shifted from teaching to research, where scholars rather than students work.
     My project is writing a history of New Zealand from an economic perspective. It would be simpler to say it is an economic history, but it will cover the usuals of a general history too.
     The first chapter I did at the university was on the early Maori contact with Europeans. (The previous 650 million years up to 1769 was written up as a Claude McCarthy Fellow.) As I am interested in the economics elements of this contact, the initial task I set myself was to explain how the Maori got so quickly into commerce from what is usually described as a ‘gift relationship’ exchange, in which the transactors are more important than the transacted.
     As I worked at the topic I realised that there is another astonishing – if obvious – story. The arrival of European technologies markedly lifted the productivity of the Maori economy. Metal implements were more effective than stone ones: potatoes easier to grow than kumera. How the Maori used this additional productivity is now one of the themes of the chapter.
     As do most writing general histories, I have been using mainly secondary texts. The ready access to them in the university library has just been wonderful. I do use primary documents, but typically they are statistical; I have spent some time just across the way, in the official statistics part of the library. If historians depend upon anecdotes, economic historians depend upon quantitative anecdotes.
   Alas, there is very little usable quantitative material before the 1850s. The trouble with anecdotes is that it is difficult to get a sense of proportion. We think there were between about 100,000 Maori in 1769 and about 80,000 in 1840, when there were also about 2000 Europeans in New Zealand. But we have little sense of how many Maori were interacting with the Europeans. We have vague ratios which might be interpreted as prices. We know that Maori political communities were getting larger during the early contact period, but since we dont really know the magnitudes, we can only speculate on the reasons. It was probably to do with the increased economic surplus and the means of controlling it. It is said that at one time Te Rauparaha had 2000 slaves at work preparing flax to trade for muskets, and that he had 2000 muskets. Do I trust those numbers?
     I could not even find how much more productive potato growing was than kumera growing. Current productivity estimates are misleading because 170 years ago the varieties were different. In fact I spent more time chasing up potato productivities than I did the sex industry. Somehow, though, ‘Potatoes and the Beaglehole Room’ would not have had quite the same resonance as the title of this talk. It would not have been – as it were – as sexy.
     It was not obvious to me when I began the work on the chapter that the early sex industry was even relevant to the book. James Belich says the ‘normal price for sex contracts [sic] is said to have been a gun for the tribe plus something such as a dress for the woman’. This was not for a one night stand. Everyone who writes on the topic mentions the liaisons went on for the period the ship was in port – typically at least three weeks. The term ‘seasonal wives’ is sometimes used. Apparently some sailors returned to the same woman every time they visited.
     Belich reports that it probably took about six months to produce enough flax to obtain a musket, so that suggests the liaison exchange rate was at least eight times that for the flax rate, more so given that dresses and blankets were gifted too. Additionally things were taken from on board (‘theft’ is the word used by Europeans) and there would be rations and grog for the period. Even so, the various prices come from different times and places, and there is no reason to think they were constant. Those prices seemed about as far as one could go, and they are not of great interest to the economist, unless we can obtain a comprehensive set of them.
     However, my interest was captured by the following quotation about ‘the sale … of … daughters, sisters, or female slaves’ in the Bay of Islands:
     At least one third of the provisions purchased during the time a vessel may remain in bay, is returned to the natives in the manner described.
     Perhaps we could generalise the statement into today’s terminology that a third of the export revenue came from the sex industry. For the port of Kororareka anyway. A third of export revenue is a pretty high proportion – that’s about what the entire pastoral industry earns for us today. At last I had a quantitative anecdote which seemed to be economically interesting.
     Moser’s law states that if a statistic looks interesting, it is probably wrong. So the first task was to assess the proportion’s quality. The secondary source had cited The British Colonization of New Zealand, anonymously published in London in 1837 but written by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and John Ward. It is really a political pamphlet rather than a book; its purpose is to encouraging migration,. (It can be highly misleading and I have thought that my assisted-migrant ancestors have a case for prosecution under the Fair Trading Act – other than the plaintiffs and defendants are long dead.)
     Needing to know the context in which the phrase was written, I came down from the stacks in the library tower where the secondary sources are shelved, to the J. C. Beaglehole Room where the original source – a rare book – is stored. It reminded me that the books of the libraries which tower over us are founded on the manuscripts and rare books in such archives below.
     Wakefield’s book is a compendium of items collected to persuade potential migrants of the attractions of settling in New Zealand. Among them is an item published by an anonymous ‘respectable correspondent’ at the Bay of Islands. The writer is certainly not a missionary, for the account is largely non-judgemental (he is harsher on the grog shops). You get a sense that he is informed, but I began to wonder how would one know the proportion? Some of the commentators in secondary sources said it was exaggerated but why would they be right?
     The more I thought about it, the more the proportion seemed high. Joan Druett gave me a Cloudy Bay store list, found in the Consular Despatches to the US State Department, which provides an inventory when the proprietor died in 1841. Trading conditions may have been different from Kororareka but not even a tenth of the stock would have been exchangeable for sexual services. (There were but 9 Guernsey] Frocks, which were also used by men [1], compared to 22 pairs of trousers. And no mention of guns; it would be unwise for storekeepers to keep them for common trade.)
     So in the end I decided the statistic was interesting, but probably wrong. Undoubtedly the stores carried merchandise which were a part of the sexual exchange, but we have little idea of its economic size. I lapsed back to my original intention of a passing reference and wrote:
     There is much reference in the contemporary documents to prostitution as another trading relationship used to acquire European goods. In 1837 an anonymous letter published in Sydney, claimed that a third of the provisions purchased by visiting vessels to Kororareka/Russell were for this trade. While it is generally accepted that the estimate was exaggerated, in any case the ports where it happened were only a small part of Maoridom.
     Except there are a couple of additional sentence which require a context before I give them to you. Both the opening and the closing of the chapter has examples of exchanges between European and Maori, where the transactors had quite different understandings of what was involved and where most subsequent writers take the European perspective,
     It occurred to me that all the reports I read of the early sex industry were from Europeans, typically well educated and with little personal experienced the industry – or at least they did not say they had. I never came across an account by an ordinary sailor who was involved.
     And what of the Maori perspective? Even the oft quoted claim that sex before marriage was not considered wrong by the Maori seems contaminated by Margaret Meade’s Coming of Age in Samoa.
     There are various hints that there was something more complex and subtle than the usual picture of prostitution from the Maori perspective. I wont go through them all, but I have already pointed out that these arrangements were typically more like seasonal marriages rather than one night stands.
     So at the end of the paragraph I added:
   What is more instructive is that the contemporary reports – and indeed most subsequent comment – evaluate the activity entirely from the European perspective (and typically from a very judgmental one). Almost certainly, the Maori at the time had a different account which need not have had the stigma of ‘prostitution’ associated with it, although we do not know what it was.
     Will we ever? We may never be certain, although no doubt there will be future commentators who will conjecture, often without solid evidence. The difficulty is that we are unlikely to have any young Maori woman’s account; if later Maori accounts are discovered they are likely to be contaminated by Christianity and age. The one possibility may be that some waiata of the times may provide insights.
If we find them, we may be sure that they will be stored – if not now, eventually – in a collection of manuscripts, documents and rare books, in a pataka such as this J. C. Beaglehole Library.

[1]  Joan Druett tells me that a ‘frock was a loose shirt, the kind you now associate with pirates, which was belted round the middle. Being loose and long, it was the kind of shirt exchanged for sex. An ordinary shirt was worn underneath. A Guernsey frock was made of a thick wool, coloured blue. Still worn by sailors and fishermen, it is simply known now as a Guernsey.’

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