Page 3 – Maori intermediaries: Ruatara

Several Maori men travelled the world after joining the crews of ships visiting New Zealand.

In 1805 the Ngapuhi chief Ruatara, from Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands, left New Zealand on the whaling ship Argo with the intention of meeting King George III. Over the next four years he served on several whaling ships and received mixed treatment. He never met the King, but in 1809 he encountered the missionary Samuel Marsden, who was returning to Port Jackson (Sydney) on the convict vessel Ann.

Marsden ensured that Ruatara, who was in poor physical condition, was cared for and supplied with clothes, and he invited Ruatara to stay with him when they arrived at Port Jackson. Ruatara spent eight months with Marsden at Parramatta, studying European agricultural techniques, carpentry and other skills with the aim of introducing wheat production to New Zealand.

Marsden arranged a passage home for Ruatara aboard the whaling vessel Frederick. Ruatara took tools and a quantity of seed wheat but was defrauded of these items and abandoned on Norfolk Island. He was eventually rescued and taken back to Port Jackson before finally returning to Rangihoua in 1812.

Ruatara returns to New Zealand

In his absence Ruatara found that his influence had waned and Nga Puhi took some convincing that this new crop had any merit. In 1814 Marsden sent Thomas Kendall to consult Ruatara about establishing a Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission at Rangihoua. Kendall presented him with a hand-powered flour mill that convinced his fellow chiefs of the value of wheat and re-established Ruatara's mana.

Ruatara then returned to Port Jackson to further his study of European agricultural techniques. Governor Macquarie of New South Wales supported Marsden's plans to establish a mission station and gave Ruatara gifts including a mare, a cow and other livestock, and a military uniform to help further this aim.

When Ruatara returned to Rangihoua on 22 December 1814, he made it clear that he was the protector and patron of 'his Pakeha' – the CMS missionaries Samuel Marsden, Thomas Kendall, John King and William Hall – who had now arrived in New Zealand and would live under his protection at Rangihoua.

Warning signs?

In Port Jackson, Ruatara had been warned that the missionaries were the forerunners of settlers and soldiers. He had seen for himself that the Australian Aborigines had not prospered through European contact.

Marsden was aware of Ruatara's reservations and offered to abort the mission before it was established. Ruatara cautioned that other Maori might harm Marsden and his mission and that only by setting up at Rangihoua could he protect them. A relieved Marsden failed to appreciate how this placed the mission firmly under Ruatara's control.

Ruatara was never completely convinced that allowing the missionaries to settle was a good idea. His decision probably reflected a sense of inevitability about European contact and a desire to control proceedings.

On whose terms?

A once popular belief regarding European contact with Maori in the 19th century stressed the fatal impact of this contact and the inability of Maori to withstand the technologically advanced European culture. Maori society was given little credit for its ability to adapt and manage contact on its own terms.

Ruatara's story, however, illustrates that Maori sought to ensure that interaction was on their terms as much as possible. They did not passively sit back and allow contact to wash over them. In this early period Europeans were still dependent on Maori for their physical and economic well-being. Maori actively pursued and engaged with Europeans who, they believed, could increase the personal mana of individuals or the collective interests of hapu and iwi. Interaction with Europeans was dynamic and reflected Maori cultural values and expectations.

Contact with Europeans was increasing but it was still rare; by the early 1830s there were perhaps only a couple of hundred permanent European residents in New Zealand.

How to cite this page

'Maori intermediaries: Ruatara', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/maori-european-contact-before-1840/ruatara, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Sep-2014