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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