Ethical and General Considerations:
Prospective contributors need to appreciate that compiling these biographical profiles is reasonably time consuming. Preliminary investigations can involve a lot of hard work. Often there seems to be little reward in terms of the end product. Two or three typed pages including endnotes are in my experience the average outcome.
Currently, and disregarding my two in-depth case studies, I have four profiles that ranging from six to eight pages in length inclusive of extensive endnotes. In my experience profiles of this length are the exception rather than the rule. The example included in this website (13 pages inclusive of endnotes) is currently the second longest of all my essays.
If the writer’s subject is his or her tupuna or ancestor then real care needs to be exercised so that the biographical profile is written impartially, without embellishment or emotive statements. For example, I have seen these women’s partners referred to as “well-known” whalers. Just because a whaler is mentioned a couple of times in a local history book does not (in my view) constitute a “well-known” whaler. Words need to be chosen carefully and the status of these individuals critiqued within the context of the times in which they lived. Also, one must bear in mind that the vast majority of whalers were illiterate and many of their stories are unlikely to be ever known. In my opinion whalers should be judged by their status at the station or stations that they worked and by reliable contemporary documentary evidence.
Profiles must be supported with detailed endnotes. If information regarding an individual subject is disregarded for whatever reason then it is also important that this be recorded. The source of the information and the reason for its non-inclusion should also be documented.
Whānau or family stories, tales or myths must be referred to as such in the endnotes. They should not just be accepted at face value or without question. Wherever possible they should be closely scrutinised. Often these “tales” contain elements of truth. The biographer’s skill is separating the facts from the fiction.
Family stories and oral history must, if possible, be corroborated by other authoritative historical records, research or publicised material. Balancing oral and written history has long been a problematic area for historians. Contradictions between the two need to be closely examined. It should also be remembered that all historians no matter how good they are capable of making mistakes.
As the late Michael King (the well-known New Zealand biographer), said in a 1995 interview: “Biography is like trigonometry. You fix from different points and see where they intersect. Only at that point can you be comfortable that a fact has been established. If they don’t intersect you can’t take anything at face value. But that’s the joy of the chase”. This is valuable advice for anyone preparing a biographical essay. Also the golden rule of genealogy is work from the known (facts) to the unknown.
Unfortunately this type of biographical research is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. In most of cases the majority of the pieces are missing and the completed work is therefore unlikely to ever be realised. There is no master picture on the cover of the puzzle box to refer to!
Any proven negative material should not be excluded. Many whalers might be considered by some people to have undesirable or unsavoury backgrounds. In my opinion a diversity of biographical subjects is more likely to create greater reader interest.
Statements about a specific wahine’s rank need to be supported by whakapapa verified by someone knowledgeable and/or held in high regard by the particular Iwi concerned. There are historians that specialise in writing about a particular Iwi and they may also be of assistance.
The writer needs to be honest, impartial and objective in reviewing his or her work upon completion.
I am aware that some descendants of wahine will be protective of their historical research/information/whakapapa. Working around these issues can be problematic and challenging for any historian.
My personal opinion is that if a descendant is (or descendants are) unwilling to participate in the preparation of a profile on their tupuna or tūpuna then that is their prerogative and their views should be respected.
I appreciate that some people are protective of their whānau history. I also acknowledge that they may consider that there are cultural reasons why they might wish to retain information within “the circle” of their whanau.
Some Māori whilst often emphasising the need for members of their whānau to be taught oral traditions are opposed to any form of published account. Other informed individuals are often unwilling to pass knowledge onto others who they perceive as lacking in knowledge.
I suggest that participation by these same people could be invaluable. I contend that surely this participation would not only benefit future generations of their whānau/family but also empower other living members who are unaware of their heritage. Ultimately I believe it will add to the general public’s understanding of these wahine/women and raise their profile so they might take their rightful place in Aotearoa’s history.
It is my objective to concentrate on those profiles where descendants are prepared to openly co-operate so the exercise can become a mutually beneficial one.
In my experience there are only a very small number of informed descendants (or an individual) within each whānau/family and it is these people (or this person) that need to be identified. This is one of the main reasons why I decided to develop this web site.
Often locating these informed individuals is a time consuming word-of-mouth process. If these individuals are willing to openly participate and they are “guardians of knowledge” within their whānau then in my opinion it is generally acceptable to proceed on that basis. Ultimately if an informed individual is prepared to assist then I see that as being their personal choice.
Open participation by these informed individuals is important and may in some cases essential to ensure an accurate and comprehensive outcome.
If the aims and objectives of biographical research are explained to the participants and they are treated with respect and dignity I do not believe that any major problems will occur.
I have found many knowledgeable individuals are only too willing to assist and share their information. However, the ethical and general considerations that I have outlined should all be borne in mind because a rigorous approach is essential. Once experienced at biographical or genealogical research it does not take long to establish if someone really has the experience they maintain they have.
I have developed template letters, which I utilise when writing to complete strangers in an effort to enlist their support. In my view this approach is preferable to telephoning someone that you have never met. A letter gives the recipient time to think about what is being proposed and give the matter due consideration. I have already had much success in this area.
Fostering young descendants’ interest could, I suggest, lead to some of them developing a keen interest in their past later on in their adult lives. Some might then carry on the worthwhile task of furthering the knowledge of the whakapapa of their whānau or their family’s history. Again this would be to everyone’s benefit.
Finally, I would like to suggest that some young women might be inspired by the knowledge of their tūpuna. The majority of the wahine that partnered the shore whalers are considered by many to be historical role models that we should be proud of.