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In 1817, a young Ngare Raumati chief from the Bay of Islands called Tuai boarded a ship and set off into the unknown with his friend and companion Tītere. Their journey to England would expose them to a succession of exotic ports, foreign customs and industrialised cities, where they would share their knowledge of Māori language and culture, hope to learn new skills and acquire goods to take back home. Tuai’s story is extraordinary, as is his character – an open-minded traveller adeptly navigating different cultures.
And yet we would not know of his story without the efforts of Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins, who have written Tuai: A traveller in two worlds, released by Bridget Williams Books. The handsomely illustrated book, which includes portraits that Tuai and Tītere sat for while abroad, weaves an engaging biographical narrative through the wider historical context of the first encounters between Māori and Pakeha, both here and overseas.
The book begins in the Bay of Islands, where European traders, explorers and missionaries are arriving more frequently, and where tension and intertribal rivalries are on the rise. Tuai is both pushed and pulled to be one of the early Māori travellers who went to Australia and Europe. He wished to escape intertribal rivalries and ongoing skirmishes, but he was also attracted by the quest for goods, technology and knowledge. Opportunities and the perils of the journey hung in the balance: there was the risk of not returning home, of succumbing to some illness or injury in an unknown and strange land.
But Tuai did return in 1819 with great plans to integrate the discoveries of his travels into Māori life. He and his hapu also wished to establish a more permanent and mutually beneficial relationship with Pakeha. Tuai desired trade, prestige and access to things that would give his hapu the upper hand over rivals. In exchange, his hapu would provide safety, knowledge of resources and trade items. Such a relationship was also now essential to survival due to the spread of guns. Pakeha had already upset the balance of the Māori world– one powerful tribe was armed: ‘Upheaval resulting from the Pakeha settlers’ loyalty to Hongi Hika would soon affect all the Bay of Islands’ hapu and the surrounding tribes.’
It was a difficult time for Tuai to navigate – not only between competing agendas, but also between the world views of Māori and Pakeha. The latter generally did not respect the hierarchies and customs of Māori, which unsettled Tuai and many others. So too did the missionaries, who were in New Zealand with their specific mission to convert and ‘civilise’. But ‘The missionaries wanted to possess their souls and their love, not their country; they failed to see how these things were inextricably linked.’
Tuai served as a channel between these two worlds, as a translator for both language and customs. But this was not without its challenges and quandaries: ‘It seemed that if was to earn the respect and admiration from his Pakeha friends, he would be forced to distance himself from his own people.’ As is sometimes the case with intermediary roles, the person may end up feeling no real sense of belonging to either group, which is a lonely place to be. Tuai is not only a fascinating insight into a person, but also a time.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds
by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa
Published by Bridget Williams Books