What a great book to follow my previous read, This Thing of Darkness. Both Thompson and Paula Morris’s book relate to the 19th Century notion of taking indigenous people from distant lands back to England to “civilise” them and show them off as curiosities. In Thompson’s book, Captain FitzRoy uplifts three Fuegians to ship home, and in Morris’s book the Rangitira travel voluntarily to England. Whichever way you look at it, this is manifest colonial exploitation.
Paula Morris is a descendent of Rangitira’s narrator, the wonderful Paratene Te Manu, Ngāti Wai, and she writes her tupuna with a sure voice. He comes across as a thoughtful and gracious man who, in 1886 while having his portrait painted by Gottfried Lindauer, relates the story of his voyage to England some twenty years before.
Paratene grew up a fighting man, a disciple of the feared Hongi Hika. He took part in taua and was eager for battles. Later, when the missionaries came and Christianity took hold, he lost his appetite for war but struggled to maintain control of his land through the Native Land Court. Behind the main thread of this story is the unravelling of his hereditary possession of Te Hauturu (Little Barrier Island). But the central part of the story is set in England.
Paratene accepts an invitation to join a party of rangitira on an all-expenses paid voyage to England, led by a lay preacher called Jenkins. He is recently bereaved, is weary of land disputes and his mentor and chief, Hongi, had previously filled his head with stories of his meeting with King George and the riches of the great cities. The party embark, and it’s soon obvious they are an ill-suited group: a mix of rival iwi, difficult personalities and different expectations and agendas. The are not the united showcase of natives that Jenkins wants to parade in England, with tickets to “cover expenses”, of course. The one thing that unites them is their disapproval of Jenkins’ unchristian attitudes: his insistence that they wear Māori cloaks and sing waiata and perform on Sundays when they have put aside these old ways and expect to be accepted as gentlemen. They are rangitira.
Paratene is confused by England: by the wealth back-to-back with extreme poverty—the graciousness of royal family and the old women scrabbling for lumps of coal in the stinking mud of the Thames. His fellow travellers fall out, the crowds that gather for their performances cheer their novelty but ignore their needs, they are painted and feted and follow a competing attraction of “Warrior Chiefs” around the country. They find new supporters as the unlikeable Jenkins proves unfaithful.
Paratene tells their trials with the softness of an older man looking back on his early life and he is kinder to his fellows than they probably deserve. He’s a thinker, rather than a man fast to judgement.
Race and culture, misunderstandings and connections, hypocrisy and, occasionally sincerity, they’re on every page and bind this story to our place and our people. I love that despite all the efforts to manipulate Paratene with religion, exploitation and so-called civilisation he remains, invincibly, his own man.