The following is excerpted from Don't Take My Word For It, an essay by Leigh Davis
(from Te Tangi a te Matuhi, ed. Wystan Curnow & Leigh Davis, pub. Jackbooks, 1999)

“Oh Oh” not “Ah Huh”

, two little pieces of wind.

“Hauhau” was a 19th century New Zealand English colonists’ term for Maori difference. It was the colonists’ verbal napalm, a toxic label to be spread over the native bush quickly and thickly to soften resistance. Everything out there black and dangerous was Hauhau; transmitted hoodoo; was hobo; carried voodoo; became greegree; possessed jiu jiu; resembled dada; echoed wah wah; (and later, in our living memory) resembled Mau Mau.

Two little evacuated syllables with an idiot internal rhyme which when uttered in 19th century New Zealand installed a social transformation. The speaking subject unwittingly became blinded and an alien to him or herself, even momentarily babyish, reacting to the world with first stage understanding near viciousness. The object of speech, labelled Hauhau, became a target, undifferentiated as simply the occupant of an enemy class, one read as heathenish and later into the 20th century the butt of a joke.

Hauhau was first a term for an 1860s flag-worshipping Maori nationalist religion Pai Marire. Then any organised Maori opposition to European settlement. Then a blanket shorthand for Ringatu with its Upraised Hand gesture. Soon shorthand for “fanaticism and barbarism”. The linguistic painting out of Hauhau continued to widen: “Friendly Maori” were kupapa; Dangerous Maori were Hauhau. Hauhau was both a term for a population and for a state portrayed as “lawless and disordered”.

Mark Twain, the great American writer of “Huckleberry Finn” (a book about the idiom of true and false sentiment) saw the verbal napalm of “Hauhau”, and provided contemporary comment. One of the first battles between kupapa and Government underwritten troops, and so-called Hauhau or Maori fighters, was on the Whanganui River island of Moutoa in 1864. Later a monument was erected at Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui, which bore the words: “To the memory of those brave men who fell at Moutoa, 14th May 1864, in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism…”. Of this monument Twain wrote:

“Patriotism is patriotism. Calling it fanaticism cannot degrade it… the men were worthy. It was no shame to fight them. They fought for their homes, they fought for their country, they bravely fought and bravely fell; and it would take nothing from the honour of the brave Englishmen who lie under the monument, but add to it, to say that they died in defence of English law and English homes against men worthy of the sacrifice – the Maori patriots”. (1)

These two little aspirated syllables (which I write HauHau) with their idiot internal rhyme and centrifugal push have had their 19th century meaning fall away with time. To use the word now is to acknowledge a generality, to use an abstract noun for that which is at the limits of English. Two rapid expulsions of breath are required to pronounce it, a New Zealand language original supporting two racially divided pronunciations (the settler “how how”, the Maori “hoh hoh”).

“HohHoh”, that insignificant knell, that angelus of the unknown apprehended breaking in; a palpitation or double take that marks the boundary of art experience; a switch; space and population of the Different of which only an unreliable account can be given; a small expostulation, partly involuntary, uttered in a registration of surprise; “oh oh” not “ah huh”; comprehension which becomes worse in time because English feeds back like an electric guitar at or beyond its limits; the shock of obsolescing modes of thought confronting new experience; an exclamation mark of two rapid bursts of air accompanying fear and releasing adrenaline in minutest parts that is also onomatopoeic of barking; an underestimation; Hark; a jackhammer.

As an illustration, the following, taken from a 1960s book about Te Kooti, unconsciously depicts the stereotypical Hauhau encounter in an overwrought Popular Comic “cowboys and indians” style:

“Time and again the bark of a watch-dog had ended in a dying whimper; then the chill premonition of silent peril in the night; the tattooed face at the window, the fusillade, the battering on the doors, the firebrand against the weatherboards, and lastly the horrors of rape and flashing tomahawk”. (2)

The term HauHau is also a paradox. The sometime half-swear/half lazy word and minimalist poem can also be read as a formal term of divinity and a minimalist invocation. The nondescript mis-characterisation from the 19th century, a sign of bad reading, is a bad reading of itself. It has always been internally conflicted. The word’s unacknowledged derivation points in the extreme opposite direction from the common meaning it once had. Hau is not the root of barbarism. It is the Maori word for wind and for a divine-like quality, life-unfolding. Strictly, HohHoh is a proto-prayer, although it was once a term for the vilification of people. The word is Hau, the root, squared, that is, raised to the second power.

This enigmatic angelus, then, entwining Divinity, Difference and Bad Reading together as one knot tolled in two quick diaphragm beats signifying failing comprehension. The little word with the cliffs in it that sounds like ghostly enunciation fast-twitching, toggling between a colonial history and an abstract one.

(1) Quoted in Woven by Water, David Young, Huia Publishers, Wellington.
(2) Te Kooti, General and Prophet, W Hugh Ross, pub. Collins, Auckland, 1966.