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How Māori women made their voices heard in the 19th century

Rangi Topeora portrait by Gottfried Lindauer.

It comes as no surprise in He Reo Wāhine that land loss is at the heart of the experiences of 19th century Māori women. 

“I am pierced by war's alarms,” wrote early nineteenth century composer Topeora, the niece of Te Rauparaha, lamenting deaths which he later avenged.

“I hereby protest against the sale of certain lands," protested Timata in an effort to protect land at Ngāruawāhia in 1864.  

“Tears like a spring, gush from my eyes,” lamented an unnamed female prisoner in a waiata published in 1861.

“I have no land in this world. Through the wrong dealing of the court ... these lands passed from me.” So wrote Maraea in her 1892 letter to the Native Minister, protesting her dispossession of Rotorua land.

These are among the 19th century Māori women's voices brought to by Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla in He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women's Voices from the Nineteenth Century

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It comes as no surprise to learn that land loss, central to Māori experience, is also at the heart of the experiences of Māori women. In He Reo Wahine we discover the specific ways that being dispossessed affected them. Their views about injustices (land confiscated, wrongly sold, with wrongly defined boundaries) are revealed through petitions and letters to the Native Affairs Committee and to the Native Minister; in testimonies at commissions of inquiry; and at the Native Land Court.

The book draws on more than 500 texts in both English and te reo by Māori women themselves, or expressing their words in the first person.

The authors are scholars, with complementary expertise: Paterson in Māori language and sources; Wanhalla in women's history. They build on several earlier works, particularly Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald's My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates.

Apart from land loss, women were affected by wars and their aftermath and by the stranglehold of religion. They sought redress in court over sexual violence to find their character and morality questioned. While some were able to use the law to protect their interests in matters such as succession and inheritance, others became the victims of the legal system, a powerful weapon of colonialism. The issues that women spoke out about, or went to court over, were wide ranging: dog tax, voting rights, and the impact of alcohol on their communities, for example.  

I was fascinated by texts on the complex area of gender relations, showing how “the patriarchal power systems” of colonialism were superimposed on Māori society and ‘accentuated or distorted gender differences already present.”

Some Māori women, especially those with “illustrious whakapapa”, possessed considerable power as individuals and through runanga or komiti. They “operated on an equal footing with men” to attain political aims during a period when Pākehā women did not have the vote.  However, when Te Paea led a delegation to Governor George Grey in 1863 to discuss the sale of Waikato land, the Daily Southern Cross was more concerned with reporting what she wore than what was said.

While a collection of documents, however rich the material, does not necessarily make for gripping reading, He Reo Wāhine has much to offer historians and other scholars. It may be a valuable resource for a future Waitangi Tribunal inquiry into “Mana wāhine”.

He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women's Voices from the Nineteenth Century, by Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla, Auckland University Press ($49.95)