Review of Tuai

tuai snip of coverTuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds. By Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2017. Pp. 288. NZD$45.00 paper.

This lushly-presented, award-winning book is a biography of a commonly cited but little researched early Māori globetrotter. Tuai was a Ngare Raumati chief from what Europeans named the Bay of Islands. Born around 1797, he was one of the most frequent Māori travellers to Samuel Marsden’s Methodist mission in Sydney as well as one of the first Māori travellers to London. Tuai’s birth date and mobile circumstances might put Australian readers at least in mind of Bennelong, one generation older and the original indigenous Australasian traveller to Britain. Tuai’s unfortunately short life, dying before the age of thirty, reminds us instead, perhaps, of Mai, the Ra‘iatean born two generations earlier and the first person from the whole Pacific region to make the epic journey to the British Empire’s heartland.

Other features of this book conjure the figures of Bennelong and Mai, too. The authors’ stated wish to present Tuai as an alliance-seeking reconciliationist who shines additional light onto the early history of European-indigenous encounters resonates with the ways that other historians have presented Bennelong especially –and occasionally Mai. That the authors frequently include premonitions of tragedy as the overall outcome of both Tuai’s endeavours and early settler history also chimes with the general tendency of Bennelong and Mai biographies. Whether the commonality of these arguments suggests something profound about all early indigenous characters or, alternatively, about the trenchant nature of our current ways of thinking about them remains to be tested.

Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins’ narrative takes a fairly traditional structure. It starts at the beginning and ends at the end. Tuai is born in chapter one, which sets up both his dynamic Māori world and the incipient intrusions of European culture into it. Because the authors are so strongly guided by their sources, chapter two jumps right to the next time that anyone mentions him, in 1814 when he is around seventeen years of age. Mostly, the authors’ weddedness to the sources is admirable – not least in revealing just how much more evidence there is on Tuai than many might assume. On occasion, though, the adherence causes some unfortunate jumps and downbeat moments. We could, for instance, have had a whole chapter on Tuai’s childhood and teen years by working backwards from later sources (some are given around p. 223).

In 1814, Tuai’s sources thicken up because that is when he makes his first trip to Sydney as a student of Thomas Kendall, Methodist missionary for Marsden. Unlike earlier indigenous figures in similar situations, Tuai’s task in travelling here is not to learn European ways but to teach Kendall some Māori language. Kendall needed better indigenous linguistic skills to carry out the missionary work he planned in New Zealand. A Marsden school in Parramatta seemed the best solution. Tuai was motivated to comply for a variety of reasons, not least of which was gaining European favour in ongoing local disputes between different hapūs of the Bay of Islands group – most notably between his own and that of the famous Hongi Hika.

That first 1814 visit is brief. Tuai takes a second in 1815, aged around eighteen and now with a wife (though the authors sadly delve very little into her character or world). On this second visit Tuai also travels, awkwardly, with Hongi Hika himself, who is after dividends similar to Tuai’s. The tensions between rival hapūs carries most of the tension in the book as a whole.

While in Sydney during this second trip, Tuai takes up an offer by Marsden’s Church Missionary Society to travel onward to the CMS heartland in Britain. He does so on the Kangaroo in 1817, arriving in London midwinter. The bleak climate immediately induces a serious lung infection, reminiscent of that caught by both Bennelong and his younger companion Yemmerawanne back in 1794. Like Bennelong, but unlike Yemmerawanne, Tuai manages after some months to recover.

Very much unlike Bennelong, however, or any indigenous traveler before him, Tuai’s time in Britain is entirely taken up by CMS personalities and activities. He never collides with officialdom nor even much public attention – a telling sign of one of the most fundamental shifts in British imperialism from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries.  Empire moves forward into the 1800s via God and the private sphere rather than via the state and public debate.

It’s in Shropshire rather than in Port Jackson that Tuai starts to fit the more usual missionary scenario of learning the imperialists language rather than teaching the imperialists about his culture. The experiment, much like Kendall’s before him, is of limited success.

Tuai returns to Sydney in 1819 and back to the Bay of Islands in 1820. It is here that Marsden surveys the fruits of his mission’s work on him thus far and surmises what so many had before and would again: ‘we pitied Tooi’ (168). Tuai to Marsden seemed anxious to take on aspects of European society but strangely refused others, thereby appearing as a man caught tragically between two worlds. The trope of go-between victimhood was already dominant by the early nineteenth century; its power lasts into the present.

Jones and Jenkins try not to endorse this particular doomed vision of Tuai in their biography, but there are some lapses. Failure and tragedy are referenced increasingly towards the end. It remains a struggle for historians to distinguish the history of dynamic indigenous negotiators from the meta-history of what European-indigenous negotiations ultimately produced. Jones and Jenkins have done a better job than most I have read in this sub-field.

This is a version of my published review in Australian Historical Studies 49/4 (2018): 551-2.


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