The tale of Tuai: A Maori explorer on planet Pakeha

by Ann Beaglehole / 27 September, 2017

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An influential 19th-century Maori traveller’s story is insightful, scholarly and entertaining.

Ngare Raumati chief Tuai was well before his time. He was just 27 or so years old when he died in 1824, but he packed a lot into his short life, including a perilous return voyage to England from his Bay of Islands home.

What he achieved still resonates today. As co-authors Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins write in their superbly illustrated biography Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds, his “multifaceted but always Maori identity is being expressed and developed by young Maori more than 200 years later”.

The book explores Tuai’s engagement with Pakeha as well as his devotion to his people and the dilemmas that came with being a go-between.

Although he moved flexibly within European and Maori societies, he foresaw a risky future and was powerless to prevent it. He sought a relationship of equals with Europeans, only to be refused. This, say the authors, was the tragedy of his life.

Born in 1797, Tuai spent his early years being shaped by the politics of hapu alliances in the Bay of Islands. It was a period of Ngapuhi expansion and Ngare Raumati contraction and also a time when leading chiefs were first acquiring firearms.

The ships that brought the muskets also changed his life.

At the heart of the book is the engrossing story of Tuai and his friend Titere’s 1817 voyage to England on the Kangaroo.

Arriving in Britain after a 10-month voyage would have seemed like landing on another planet.

The book vividly conveys the rigours of the tour, which took them to London (filthy, cold, lively and busy) and Ironbridge Gorge at the height of the Industrial Revolution (stench, heat, noise, beggars, child labourers).

The pair faced more perils on the return trip on the Baring, which was transporting convicts in atrocious conditions.

These journeys had killed other young Maori. Tuai was lucky to survive. He emerged ‘‘profoundly affected by his English experience’’ but ‘‘had retained the essence of himself”.

Tuai, one of the first Maori to become a global traveller, grasped the chance for new knowledge and technologies to forge relationships and find adventure.

He also sought relief from the fighting in the Bay of Islands. He helped build trading contacts between his people and Pakeha and contributed to building European knowledge of Maori.

Co-authors Kuni Kaa Jenkins and Alison Jones: meticulous research.

A fascinating theme in the book is Tuai’s relationship with the missionaries. Maori didn’t want to be ‘‘saved’’ or treated like children. Their resistance to adopting the Pakeha religion is a neglected aspect of the history of colonisation and reflects on Maori commitment to Christianity today.

There are many satisfying portraits, including that of Samuel Marsden, full of “evangelical enthusiasm” and business acumen, and Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika, bent on improving his military strength.

The meticulous research of Jones and Jenkins (Ngati Porou), who are both professors in Maori education, has delivered a work that is insightful, scholarly and entertaining.

It’s a valuable book that gives Tuai the historical attention he deserves, and it sheds a somewhat subversive light on early Maori and Pakeha relations.

Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds, by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99)

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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