Review: Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds

Review: Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds
Alison Jones, Kuni Kaa Jenkins

Bridget Williams Books, July 2017, 228 pp.
ISBN: 9780947518806
Pb: $NZ 39.99;  Ebook: $NZ 20.00;  UK Kindle edition: £13.14

Reviewer Lyall Hakaraia

Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds traces the extraordinary story of one of the first Maori travellers to Europe. The Nagare Raumati chief Tuai (1797-1824) was a man of great shrewdness, intellect and learning who found himself by fate and design at the crux of historical events witnessing the start of the troubled relationship between Maori peoples of New Zealand and the colonial English missionary and settlers.

Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins have meticulously pieced together the story of Tuai using detailed first-hand witnessed accounts of his interactions with Europeans over the course of his lifetime. The authors further interpret his actions through their intriguing overlaying of physiological supposition in accordance with Tuai’s rank, circumstance, and beliefs.  Context and insights are added to the story by the inclusion of contemporary historical details to show the colourful and complex cultures of the European and Maori of this period.  The resulting mix allows for the telling of a fascinating story that follows Tuai from his youth of priviledge and duty as a young Rangatira to his mutually beneficial interactions with Pakeha that lead him to undertake epic journeys to Australia and England. On his return his experience gives him a deeper understanding of the emerging threat the European represent to his people’s lives, culture and sovereignty.

This is no dry historical account. Instead of re-telling an accurately linear trail of events, the work is transformed and given a freshness by the revelation of telling details about the  Maori and European cultures of the time – examples such as the distinctly un-English custom of extreme public mourning by the Maori people that could result in bereaved relatives ending their own lives by hanging themselves in desolation, or with related or indentured women of the deceased cutting themselves across their chests as a visceral mark of their grief. These practices were in stark contrast to the lack of public emotion that would be shown at an Englishman’s funeral, a steely endeavour to control the emotions seen as a mark of respect to the deceased and their family.  The contradictory responses by the English to the Maori visitors in England also revealed class prejudice and racism. Though they were shown courtly courtesy because of their noble birth they were at the same time lampooned in the popular press and portrayed as inferior savages as seen in the apocryphal description of Titere’s wedding and supposed bride and her position as ‘Lady High Admiral of the Canoe Fleet and the Right Honble the Corner Dish of the Cannibals’.  These colourful glimpses beyond the main story help to give further context to the underlying currents of feeling and politics that resulted in the clash of these worlds, so setting the scene for a more expansive understanding of the book’s historical events.

Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds also recounts the all-to-human story of betrayal and tragedy that lead not only to the downfall of Tuai and so in turn his hapu.  His initial youthful infatuation with the missionaries and their kindness lead to his benevolent acceptance of a new way of life which, with experience and insight, turns into suspicion and rejection as it becomes obvious the missionaries are only interested in their own gain on their own terms. This is, of course, the story revealed in many instances of ‘first contact’ with invading colonial powers promising mutual prosperity and peace but when their terms are not met resulting in the destruction and abuse of the lands and cultures of first-nation peoples across the world.

Reading this book has been a wonderful discovery for me as Kororareka is my home and my family have been in the Bay of Islands for many generations.  The landmarks mentioned are all familiar to me.  I will now look into both sides of my Maori-Pakeha family, my whakapapa and my family tree, to see what connection I have to the peoples in the book.  I now want to find out more about the history in the Bay of Islands, especially as the focus at the end of the book shifts from Paroa Bay and Kerikeri and on to my home of Kororareka.

I thank the writers for so diligently bringing together all this information and for revealing the story of Tuai and his people.  There will of course be discussion and dissection of the facts presented here.  But I would argue that it is better to have more than one voice retelling our history.

Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds is easy going and accessible to anyone who wants to learn about the interactions between the Maori and Europeans in the early 1800s with Tuai as a fabled central character who used his quick charm, courage and intellect to negotiate his changing world.

Lyall Hakaraia – London Magic Maker – is lately of the Kororareka and the Bay of Islands. He is a fashion designer, stylist and owner of Vogue Fabrics, the East London disco basement.

hapu = subtribe or clan
Rangatira = chief, male or female. When used collectively means leader of hapu