Drawn to te ao Māori

Historian Judith Binney’s study of Thomas Kendall’s sketch notes that the carving style of this kūwaha resembles the elaborate work of carvers from Te Moana a Toi Bay of Plenty iwi, sought after at the time by other iwi for their skill with metal tools.

Image credit: Nuku Tawiti, a Deity in the First State, 1824 by Thomas Kendall. Ref: A-114-045 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Labelled drawing of a carved kūwaha. 'Nuku Tawhiti' (Nukutawhiti) is at the top flanked by 2 smaller figures. 'Nuku's son' is below flanked by a serpent's eye, tooth and tail. At the bottom is an arched doorway flanked by 2 guardian figures.

Thomas Kendall was an early English missionary to Aotearoa New Zealand. From his arrival, he immersed himself in understanding te reo and te ao Māori, including the spiritual realm. Find out more by exploring our collections and curated resources.

Read a story about missionary Thomas’ experience of te ao Māori

From his earliest encounters with Māori, English missionary Thomas Kendall (1778–1832) immersed himself in their language and culture. His drawing of an ancestral carving illustrates his struggle to reconcile his fascination for the Māori spiritual world with his mission to convert Māori to Christianity.

Kendall, along with his wife and family, were part of a small group of English missionaries who settled in Pēwhairangi Bay of Islands in 1814 under the protection of Ngāpuhi rangatira. From the outset, he was eager to learn to speak te reo Māori, and he worked to establish its written form as an essential aid to communicating the Christian message.

As he became proficient in the language, Kendall strove to understand the spiritual beliefs of the people to whom he was bringing his Christian ministry. He found the study of Māori whakapapa and cosmology very challenging, even complaining that it was painful. At times his immersion in these themes and narratives led him to question his Calvinist Christian faith.

Kendall’s sketch of ‘Nuku Tawiti’ is an example of his struggle to understand Māori cosmology. The carving shows Nukutawhiti as both Ngāpuhi ancestor — captain of the Ngāpuhi ancestral canoe — and as a god. In certain Te Tai Tokerau traditions, he was the primordial deity, creator of sky father Ranginui and Earth mother Papa-tahuri-iho, a status Kendall attempted to describe in the sketch’s notes, in which he refers to Nukutawhiti as ‘a deity in the first state’.

The carving was the kūwaha (entrance) for a fine pātaka (raised storehouse). As the house was tapu, anyone entering it risked death. The kūwaha, with its carved ancestor-god and his lineage, could be seen as representing the threshold between life and death.

In 1821, despite being married, Kendall began a relationship with Tūngaroa, daughter of the tohunga Rākau, from whom he learnt much of his Māori knowledge. This liaison, together with Kendall’s refusal to intervene in the efforts of his friend the Ngāpuhi rangatira Hongi Hika to obtain firearms, eventually led to his expulsion from the Church Missionary Society, the organisation that ran the mission settlement.

However, Kendall’s work to standardise the written form of te reo Māori had a lasting effect. In 1820 he travelled with Hongi and Waikato to England, where they consulted with Professor Samuel Lee at Cambridge University on solutions for the orthography of written Māori. The subsequent publication that year of A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand laid the basis for literacy and literature in te reo Māori today.

Story written by: Oliver Stead

Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust

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Te Marautanga o Aotearoa

Tikanga ā-iwi:

  • Te whakaritenga pāpori me te ahurea
  • Te ao hurihuri
  • Te wāhi me te taiao.

Te Takanga o Te Wā (ngā hītori o Aotearoa):

  • Whakapapa.

New Zealand Curriculum

Social sciences concepts:

  • Identity, culture, and organisation
  • Place and environment
  • Continuity and change.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories:

  • Māori history is continuous
  • Colonisation and its consequences
  • Relationships and connections between people.