Monday, November 27, 2006

Me and the Maori

I was reminded of this by this from Liz Williams. Let the upmanship begin.

My great great grandfather, George Cleghorn MD, lived in New Zealand and gave a lot of health care to the local Maori. Also because he could do joined up writing, he wrote letters to the Government on their behalf. He was made a paramount chief - Arikinui - as a reward. This being at a time when some of his contemporaries in Australia were clearing the land by driving Aborigines over cliffs, I'm quite proud of him. The routine included being presented with a kiwi feather cloak and other gifts. The title lapsed when he died, and his second wife (who is also my great great great aunt, by a strange quirk of genealogy), not knowing what else to do, loaned the cloak to an Oxford museum, on a 3-year lease. This was 1913.

The first we heard of this was when New Zealand relatives came to visit in the late nineties. "Oh, Ben (rather: 'Ow, Been'), you live in Oxford, go and find the cloak." Apparently Maori culture suggests that after a generation or two an heirloom should be returned to the donor.

Finding it wasn't as hard as it sounds as there was really only one museum in Oxford it could be; and sure enough, in the Maori section in the far left corner of the ground floor of the Pitt Rivers, there it is, along with a load of others. It's dark purple with darker spots - as kiwis are.

(Later we took some relatives to view it. The cloaks are stacked like wrapping paper in a shop and you can only see a little bit of each. "Oh, you're interested in cloaks," deduced a smiling guide, and she pulled back the curtains on a special glass case and switched on the light so that we could see an entire specimen, a quite impressive thing done [if I recall] in red and white and black. "Very nice," we said politely, and turned back to our five square centimetres of personal heritage.)

The museum weren't having any of this "heirloom reverts to the donor" stuff, of course, taking the (not unreasonable) line that even though the tag on the cloak says "loaned by Mrs Cleghorn" an unclaimed loan after a century is pretty well a gift in its own right. But the upside was that contact with the Maori was restored, and they were so touched that we had thought of returning the cloak that when my parents made the trip to the other side of the world Dr George's title was bestowed on my mother. For good measure they made my father a slightly inferior paramount chief (just ariki) so that he could make a thank you speech, as women can be paramount chiefs but they still can't speak publicly. They were presented with cloaks of their own, of pheasant feathers and (ahem) puppy fur, and one day the title will come to me.

But since my mother would have to die first, I'm really in no hurry.

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