Closing the spaces between, Filma Anne Punakitere Phillips

Words Between Us/ He Korero: First Maori-Pakeha Conversations on Paper
Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins
Huia, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869694784


Aotearoa/New Zealand as a place of encounter, a zone of contact and kanohi ki te kanohi. Face-to-face meetings during the late 18th and early 19th century between Maori and Pakeha have engaged some of our best scholars. Most New Zealanders are interested in how we got here and what happened to us when we arrived. These spaces have never been neutral: te whenua tupu has always been occupied, fought over and cherished like the patu pounamu ‒ a taonga to be passed on, glistening green and intact, to the next generation. As a result of our identification with the land, we can make a mental list of our favourite books and oral histories about the historical encounters that shaped us. Any new book has to be able to hold its own against established narratives.

What I especially enjoyed about Words Between Us/He Korero by Alison Jones (Pakeha) and Kuni Jenkins (Ngati Porou) is the collaboration by two scholars in Maori education. It seems that the sanctimonious promise of the partnership in the Tiriti o Waitangi might become reality with both authors striving for balance and detachment. Not only do readers admire educators and want to know more about the earliest schools in this country, but also this book makes subtle connections between how our children were first taught, and teaching methods that persisted well into the 20th century.

But I am rushing ahead of myself. Given the authoritative publications that have explored the earliest encounters between Maori and Pakeha, one might ask, “What’s different about this book?” The difference lies not only in the way the archival material has been interpreted, but also in the images of handwriting and drawing reproduced in the book. Some of the onus of interpretation is passed onto readers, who can assess for themselves whether or not they agree with the explanations offered. The authors become teachers who invite their students to take a fresh look at familiar material.

Jones and Jenkins not only revitalise archival material, but also encourage us to re-examine what we may take for granted about our collective experience of school. Because the earliest relationships between Maori and Pakeha occurred in northern New Zealand, the book focuses on the Bay of Islands, the region where I grew up and went to school. The images of the alphabet produced by Hongi Hika, under the tutelage of Thomas Kendall, evoked memories of similar exercises that my classmates and I laboured over for what seemed like years in our two-teacher school. The image of the first school roll from 1816, with its ruled columns, the listing of names down the left side of the page, the division of the day and the marking of presence and absence, reminds me of the daily ritual of calling the roll and the sacred status of the roll book. It reminds me of the day when one boy in our class took advantage of the teacher’s absence and removed the roll from its hallowed space to add his own marks. In return, the teacher dished out cruelty and sarcasm, singling out Maori pupils. Even then the classroom was the space where two different worlds met and collided head on.

An encounter can suggest a collision, a meeting of opposing forces, and occasionally Words Between Us struggles to achieve a true balance between the interests of tangata whenua and manuhiri: the people of the land and the visitors. In part the slippage between traditional culture and the promise of the new represents the problem of any archive: it preserves the dominant discourse. Extensive use of textual archives means that one side of the story seems meatier. It follows that literary missionaries such as Samuel Marsden and Thomas Kendall seem far more prominent than, say, Hongi Hika and Te Ruki Kawiti. Of course in the spaces occupied at the time the opposite was true, but Words Between Us manages to connect different world views by focusing on education. Nonetheless, getting an education was dangerous for Maori students because they often died from exposure to the new diseases.

By early 1822, for example, 13 young Maori students at Marsden’s seminary at Parramatta, near Sydney, had either died there or soon after returning home. One can imagine the grief of parents who paddled out to ships arriving in the Bay of Islands in order to greet children who did not return. In 1820 Te Koki heard of his son’s death in these circumstances. The dignified response of his whanau was an early demonstration of the way many families in New Zealand huddle together after receiving dreadful news. Te Koki and his family sat down in a circle on the deck of the Coromandel and requested that the part of the letter with their son’s name be pointed out to them. They touched his name with a hongi over and over again and stayed for nearly two hours in “melancholy lamentations for his untimely fate.”

Although death stalks the characters in this book, it is a celebration of life: of faith, humour and generosity. The quality of the research is proved by the published vocabulary lists, such as the Joseph Banks 1769 manuscript and Le Dez’s word list made on board the French ship Marquis de Castries in the Bay of Islands in 1772. These word collections still evoke the anxieties of an actual encounter: What must be said? How does one begin? What is the other person thinking? For Le Dez, small talk became redundant and “a sometimes hilarious game of charades would have been needed for some words: to kiss, to piss, to shit, to blow the nose”. The well-travelled may believe that colonisation by the French would have resulted in a much more interesting country, but Words Between Us shows how uninhibited we might have become.

The narrative is driven by the book’s structure. The 16 essays, each focused on a different textual artefact or group of artefacts, follow a rough chronology and are therefore easy to read. First, there is the word collecting of Banks and Sydney Parkinson, assisted by the celebrated Tahitian Tupaia, during Cook’s first voyage around New Zealand on the Endeavour in 1769-1770.  The different emphasis given in Le Dez’s word list has been already noted, but the analysis by Banks and Le Dez of how they actually heard the sounds of te reo Maori proves that these men were sophisticated intellectuals. Not only were Maori words taken from this land in manuscripts, but English words were left behind: carved on posts and trees, inscribed on medals or coins and written on paper. These written English words meant that by the 1800s many Maori understood the power of text. But not until Ruatara met Thomas Kendall and William Hall in the Bay of Islands in 1814 did his dream that Marsden should send a teacher to “teach the Boys and Girls to read and write” begin to take shape. Although the Christmas sermon preached by Marsden in 1814 is central to the book, it is the first appearance of animals brought by Marsden, such as cows and horses, which seizes the attention.

The momentum of optimism and discovery implicit in the earlier years tends to waver as land deeds are signed with ta moko signatures and the first school is established at Rangihoua by Kendall on 12 August 1816. By then, Maori and Pakeha had carefully assessed the others’ possessions, values and beliefs. It is arguable, however, that these tensions make for a more powerful second half of the book because it shows up our quizzical, disbelieving nature. By 1820, a “local man” (presumably not a rangatira) was confident enough to oppose claims of a divine and benevolent God. He argued, “Was [the missionary]… joking when he declared that the European God made us all and loved us all? How could that be when we are different colours, and we have different things?”

Because this is an absorbing account of face-to-face meetings, it is easy to overlook the omissions. Some are deliberate, such as the absence of any discussion about traditional whare wananga. More subtle gaps are harder to spot, including the absence of any analysis of gender bias, violent punishment and pupils as unpaid labourers in schools. Moreover, we no longer live in a bifurcated world of Maori and Pakeha. New Zealand is now a much more diverse and secular society, but it is revealing to look back at what shaped it.


Filma Anne Punakitere Phillips is Nga Puhi, Ngati Ruanui.


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Posted in Essays, History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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