Book Review: Living among the Northland Māori – the diary of Father Antoine Garin, edited by Peter Tremewan and Giselle Larcombe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_living_among_the_northland MaoriLiving among the Northland Māori reproduces Father Antoine Garin’s diaries between 1844 and 1846. Garin (1810-1889) was a French missionary priest in northern New Zealand (including in the upper Kaipara, the setting of these diaries), before settling in Nelson where he played a key role in ensuring provision was made for catholic education there and beyond, a legacy that has continued into the present.

However, these diaries are his insight into life in Northland when it was still very much a Māori land, when British government in New Zealand was confined to a few settlements. The rivers of this area were its highways, figs of tobacco were its currency, and tapu and tikanga Māori were its law and lore.

The threat of warfare over breaches of tapu was a fact of life, and figures like Hone Heke loomed large in Māori and Pākehā minds. The book includes a speech by Garin on the Northern Wars, and his diaries illustrate how Māori and Pākehā had observed these storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

Garin’s diaries describe a corner of New Zealand not heavily populated today, but whose rivers were once densely populated by Māori pā and kāinga, a short paddle and hike from key colonial centres. And because this book takes place in an area that retains a certain mystery, Garin’s descriptions of its people and places sweep readers away, as most will have no preconception of them.

Garin paints a truly vivid picture of life in frontier Northland – its food, weather, the Māori routes Pākehā were beginning to tread. We trudge with Garin through swamps and impenetrable forests, we settle into makeshift accommodation on overnight trips and dig into impromptu hangi, and on the way home we hear the songs Garin diligently notes down as he glides along rivers that are mostly smooth but sometimes wild enough to interrupt his jottings.

But just as Garin lulls us into this missionary idyll, we are awoken by the gunshots that once echoed through the north to mark deaths, celebrations, or coming war parties, or by the torrential rain pounding on our precarious shack, while we await a more permanent home – a lengthy process that seems unbelievable in the shadow of seemingly endless kauri forests.

The diaries are full of humour, affection, and sometimes tension. We chuckle as Garin battles his protestant counterpart on points of scripture and worry with him about the diplomatic implications of missteps in translation between French, English and te reo.

Garin’s love for his new flock is evident and noted by his Māori neighbours. Unlike many other protestant and catholic missionaries, Garin spends (and records) nights and days in local kāinga, administering medicine (when tapu allowed it), acting as a trade intermediary, and teaching and learning too. Garin was fluent in the Māori language and its customs, enabling him to convince both impressionable youths and powerful rangatira to join his flock.

As Garin relates each day’s events, we follow the peaks and troughs of local dramas and intrigues. But his diary also immerses us in a deeper contemplation of the changes underway as he wrote, challenging our preconceptions of early encounters between Māori and Pākehā.

As well as his own inner thoughts, Garin also faithfully reproduces conversations with Māori, often in te reo, providing a valuable glimpse into how Māori of the time saw their changing surroundings.

Surprisingly for a Catholic priest, and demonstrating Garin’s open-mindedness and curiosity, there are detailed discussions of the workings of Māori beliefs, of the now unimaginably intricate system of tapu and its governance of the Māori world. Ironically, the diaries may offer a more accurate glimpse into traditional Māori beliefs than a cool academic study ever could.

Another fascinating titbit is Garin’s tracing of non-verbal forms of Māori communication, the codes and symbols that would guide travellers in the forest or keep track of who was winning in an argument, a form of written language few Pākehā might suspect Māori ever had.

Garin’s diaries are never dry (either in climate or in mood) and are an engrossing read I will frequently return to. This is a taonga of a book, and its few but stunning paintings and images highlight rather than saturate Garin’s written portrayal of his life in the Kaipara. It is a remarkable doorway into early New Zealand that will leave the reader feeling that these eloquently told (and excellently translated) experiences have become their own.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

Living among the Northland Māori – the diary of Father Antoine Garin 1844-1846
edited by Peter Tremewan and Giselle Larcombe
Published by Canterbury University Press
ISBN 9781988503028

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