Rangatira, by New Zealand author Paula Morris (of English and Ngati Wai (Maori) descent), is a most interesting book, particularly for those of us who are not very familiar with New Zealand history. It is a recreation of the true story of the author’s ancestor, Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu, who was one of a group of 14 Maori who visited England in 1863-4. The title, Rangatiri is especially apt because while it refers specifically to Maori chiefs, it also has connotations of leadership, and this tale of a 19th century touring group of Maori chiefs in England, explores many kinds of leadership …
As I mentioned when I posted a Sensational Snippet from this book last week, the novel begins with Ngati Wai chief Paratene te Manu reminiscing about his past while the Bohemian painter Gottfried Lindauer paints the portrait that you can see at the Auckland Art Gallery and on the cover of the book. Paratene is keen to have control over how this portrait is done because a previous painting portrayed him with symbols which were false and undignified, and now aged 86, Paratene realises that for future generations, these portraits contribute to the historical legacy of the sitter. He is witnessing great change in Maori affairs, and although he suspects that in years to come the significance of the symbols in the moko on his face may not be recognised, he hopes that having the moko immortalised using Pakeha methods will at least ensure that the memory of rangatira leadership will endure.
Dispossessed and disempowered but still determined to use the legal and political system to enforce the rights of his people, Paratene is alert to how perceptions of dignity – or the lack of it – can contribute to a lack of respect. As he sits patiently for the artist, he remembers how he imprudently agreed to an invitation to visit England, a journey which ended in poverty, mistrust and humiliation. He succumbed because he wanted to emulate the leadership of his great hero-ancestor, Nga Puhi ariki Honga Hiki, whose own journey to England in 1820 resulted in meeting the leader of the British Empire, King George IV. Paratene wanted to meet the important people of England, and his eventual meeting with Queen Victoria remains the highlight of the trip.
Honga and his compatriots Pomare the Great and Patuone were ferocious men, and Honga in particular was renowned as ‘bloodthirsty, merciless and vengeful‘. Although now a convert to Christianity, Paratene is proud of his personal history as a warrior who fought with this legendary military commander during the inter-tribal Musket Wars of the 1820s, when thousands of Honga’s enemies were enslaved and many more were killed either in battle or in ritual slaughter for cannibalism. (It beggars belief that George IV and Queen Victoria sat about chatting companionably with cannibals, eh?!) But now in his old age, Paratene has mellowed: he likes to dwell on his dignity and his culture, but he now thinks that some aspects of it were wrong. (He’s not a cultural relativist).
Each chapter of the book is predicated by quotations from the Bible, the most apt of which is James 3:7-8, quoted when the group is touring in the north of England:
For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind. But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
This is because by the time this point in the journey is reached, there is profound dissension in the group. The Pakeha leader of the group, William Jenkins, has lost whatever moral authority he ever had, and the self-proclaimed leader of the Maori, Wharepapa, has turned out to be a scapegrace. Paratene realised too late that his refusal to learn and use English made him vulnerable to exploitation, and rendered him unable to provide leadership when it was needed. Morris shows us how colonisation imposes its will on the colonised no matter how determined they are to resist it: Paratene was reduced to being an impotent observer of events, and his dependence on others to interpret Jenkins’ contract and his own reluctance to critique Jenkins in the way that he critiques the other Rangatira meant that he never really resolved the purpose of the trip: was it for the Maori Rangatira to establish relationships with the influential leaders of England, or was it a quasi-religious version of a touring troupe to entertain the British people to make money for Jenkins?
There are very interesting issues of identity, racism, power, reconciliation and exploitation at the heart of this book.
Rangatira was the winner of the fiction category in both the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards and the 2012 Nga Kupu Ora Maori Book Awards.
Highly recommended, and a great choice for Indigenous Literature Week here at ANZ LitLovers.
PS I didn’t have too much trouble with the use of Maori language in this book, but there is an online Maori Dictionary in lieu of a glossary for the occasional word that needs translating.
Author: Paula Morris
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2011
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond