READING IN OCTOBER - Rangatira by Paula Morris

RANGATIRA by Paula Morris

It has taken some years for Paula Morris to finish her meticulously crafted and told tale of her tupuna's (ancestor's) journey to England in 1863. Her tupuna was Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu. He was a fierce warrior who fought with Hone Heke against other tribes, and fully embraced the arrival of the European with their muskets and other influences. After a time he converted to Christianity, quickly taking on the mores and ways of the European Christians around him. In 1863, now an exemplary convert, along with 13 other chiefs, he made the long and not very pleasant voyage to England. The chief objective of this tour was to meet Queen Victoria, as was fitting for their chiefly status in Maori society. The trip was organised and funded by members of the Wesley Methodist church in New Zealand, three of whom also made the journey. As well as an audience with the Queen, the other aims of the trip were to allow the chiefs to see what a great nation England was in its industrial and economic development and to allow the English themselves to see first hand the high ranking Christianised chiefs from England's furthest outpost. The whole adventure, that started with such high hopes and I would say honorable intentions, fairly quickly descended into disorder, sickness, exploitation, misunderstanding and tragedy. The story is narrated in the first person by Paratene himself, some twenty years later. He is now an old man and has agreed to undertake a number of sittings for a portrait to be completed by the artist Gottfried Lindauer. This is the picture that is the cover for the book, although apparently the original painting was done from a photo. However we won't let that get in the way of a good story! Mr Lindauer is shortly to leave on a long sea voyage himself and this, combined with the long sitting sessions allows Paratene to reflect on his own life changing long sea voyage. The research the author has put into this book is extraordinary, and it shows in the richness of detail and quality of writing. We experience the discomfort and confinement of being in steerage for the sea voyage through the eyes of Paratene, who has never been in such a situation before, and already sees this an omen for how the rest of the tour will turn out. Hardly an appropriate accommodation for a group of chiefs. We also see the squalor, poverty, violence and ugliness of Dickensian London through the wide-open eyes of Paratene, as well as the luxury and grandeur of the higher echelons of English society they find themselves in. Amidst the chaos the tour turns into, Paratene documents the kindness and concern they receive from perfect strangers who see the Maori chiefs for the symbols of conquest they become. Throughout Paratene maintains his dignity and manners, unlike some of the others in the party. This makes him the perfect narrator for such a tale as at all times he tries to see both sides of what is going on around him. At times I did find his objectivity frustrating - I don't think any person of such intelligence and perception could remain so distanced, almost passive by what was going on around him. Nevertheless, as he is narrating his story some twenty years after the event, it is hardly surprising the urgency, emotion and immediacy of the situation has faded over time. Perhaps what I found most interesting about the whole book was how emphatically and righteously the Christian Maori totally embraced everything European and openly rejected their traditional Maori ways, all in the space of one generation. This included things such as European dress, performance of haka, songs and prayers, learning to read, write and speak English. Quite different from today! As the quote from the Bible on page 137 says 'For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?'

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