He Korero: Words Between Us

Author: Kuni Jenkins and Alison JonesPublisher: Huia Publishing

This is the story of how language was first recorded on paper in New Zealand. Prior to Pakeha (white settlers) coming to New Zealand, there was only spoken Maori language. When Pakeha arrived to New Zealand, they brought with them things that the Maori had never seen before: cows, sheep, chickens, muskets, potatoes, Christianity and the English language.

The book He Korero Words Between Us, gives a unique glimpse into the lives of Maori tribes in the Bay of Islands region of NZ. Unlike other history books, it comes from a distinctly Maori perspective. It starts in 1769 during Captain James Cook’s first voyage around the coastline of NZ and his encounters with the Maori there.

Writing on paper was new for the Maori people. However, they were used to drawing beautiful tattoos onto their faces called mokos. This is the physical signature of a person’s mana (pride in their identity and status) and their iwi (tribe). When Rangatira (Maori chiefs) drew exquisite mokos onto paper contracts with the Pakeha; they experienced the weight of the written word for the first time.

Maori of the Nga Puhi tribe in the Bay of Islands, were at war with neighbouring tribes. They realised quickly that understanding English could strategically and politically benefit them, it could ensure access to axes, muskets and other battlement gear. Rangatira (Maori chiefs) such as Rautara and Hongi Hika were keen that their young sons were taught English by white settlers. This would create an alliance for future generations with the Pakeha and allow them to bring beneficial trade to the area.

Seen from a fresh perspective, He Korero shows a different take on NZ history. The interactions between the two cultures are revealed as complex and powerful on both sides. Rather than the general paternalistic view of history: that white people imposed their lifestyle passively upon the Maori, He Korero presents a completely new narrative. It shows how the Maori extracted benefit for themselves from the Pakeha cultural bounty. Maori used the written language to get help and sponsorship from foreign leaders, to attract new settlers to the region and to secure more trade.

Early writing in English by the Maori is not from their own dictation. These early documents talk about a fervent love of Christ and how all Maori should renounce the silly ways of their ancestors. Missionaries often tried these forceful ways to get the Maori to believe in Christianity. However, this effort was mostly unsuccessful.

The Maori in early schools questioned and debated the validity of Christianity and refused to forget their own gods. They used the schools for their own reasons, out of curiosity, boredom and exclusivity. Only young sons of the Rangatira were able to attend school. There was definitely no girls allowed and nobody of inferior birth. These young Maori attended school just to fill in the time between the war campaigns of their fathers.

The first book to translate Maori into English and explain grammar was called A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand. An impressive 230 page guide that was published in 1830. The book was the combined mental powers of Nga Puhi chief Hongi Hika, Pakeha school teacher Thomas Kendall and a couple of other prominent Maori who went to Cambridge University and worked it all out with Cambridge academics. There are interesting and mysterious passages that could have been written by any of them and could mean anything: ‘All of the white people’s work is good‘ and ‘the white men deny everything‘. Plus ordinary phrases like: ‘My son is asleep, do not make a noise’ and ‘abate thine anger towards me’.

This book is essential reading for lovers of history in general and New Zealand in particular, and for all New Zealanders or those with cultural ties to the country. Traces of kiwi ingenuity, resourcefulness can be found in the practical and revealing passages. This is an exciting thread that binds together the history of the world’s newest nation.

Leave a Reply