Story: Cultural go-betweens

Page 1. The first cultural go-betweens

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From the very first contacts between Māori and non-Māori, people who could narrow or bridge the gap between them have been of special importance. These cultural go-betweens, or kaiwhakarite, had usually learned the language of the other people, and also had some knowledge of their customs and intentions. They were often able to adapt the other people’s knowledge and goods to make them more acceptable to their own people.

The role of the cultural go-between was often difficult. They needed to win and keep the respect of the other people without losing the respect of their own. They often used their influence in one world to gain more status in the other.

Cultural go-betweens were still important in New Zealand in the early 21st century.


Lieutenant James Cook’s ship the Endeavour, which visited New Zealand in 1769, was afterwards remembered by Māori as ‘Tupaia’s ship’. Tupaia, the Tahitian high priest and expert navigator who accompanied Cook’s expedition, had more influence on the local people than Cook or any other person on board. 

The Māori language was similar to Tahitian, so Tupaia could interpret between Māori and the European crew of the Endeavour. He could also discuss complex subjects with local people, who regarded him as a tohunga. Tupaia was the first important cultural go-between for Māori and foreign visitors.

Cross-cultural letter

In 1814 Samuel Marsden sent a letter to Ruatara from Sydney, saying: ‘I have sent the Brig Active to the Bay of Islands to see what you are doing, and Mr. Hall and Mr. Kendall [missionaries], from England. Mr. Kendall will teach the boys and girls to read and write ... You will be very good to Mr. Hall and Mr. Kendall. They will come to live in New Zealand, if you will not hurt them; and they will teach you how to grow wheat, and to make houses and everything. …

‘I am your Friend

‘Samuel Marsden.’ 1


In 1805 the young Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara, from Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands, left New Zealand to work on whaling ships. Over the next four years he visited several different countries. In 1809, on board a ship sailing from England, he met the missionary Samuel Marsden, who was returning to Port Jackson (Sydney). Ruatara spent eight months at Marsden’s settlement, studying European farming, carpentry and other skills. He returned to Rangihoua aged about 23, with European tools, clothes and weapons.

At that time Ruatara was one of the few Māori who could speak good English. He was ‘a man of tall and commanding stature, great muscular strength … dignified and noble’.2 Ruatara planted large fields of wheat and vegetables, and introduced other European foods and animals. At great personal risk he acted as the missionaries’ protector, helping them to establish friendly relations with local people and translating their Christian sermons, sometimes changing them significantly to make them more easily understood. When Ruatara died in 1815, the missionaries were so concerned for their safety that they considered leaving New Zealand. He was a crucially important cultural go-between in the very early years of European settlement.

Eruera Pare Hongi

Eruera Pare Hongi was a pioneer of Māori literacy and an important go-between during the 1820s and 1830s. Born around 1815, he was a close relation of Hongi Hika, who enrolled him at the Kerikeri mission school so that he could learn to write. Eruera wrote the first independently written letter in the Māori language, helped translate scriptures into Māori during his travels to Sydney, and was an important link between his Ngāpuhi relatives and Pākehā.

Eruera wrote a number of letters for rangatira wanting to communicate with missionaries, traders or British officials. His skill as a tuhituhi or scribe saw Eruera help with the creation of He Whakaputanga, the Declaration of Independence, in 1835. Eruera wrote out the Māori text of the document and may have influenced its phrasing and concepts. Eruera might have played a similar role in relation to the Treaty of Waitangi had he not died in October 1836, barely into his twenties.

  1. Quoted in Robert McNab, From Tasman to Marsden: a history of northern New Zealand from 1642 to 1818. Dunedin: J. Wilkie, 1914, p. 167. Back
  2. Quoted in John Liddiard Nicholas, Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand, performed in the years 1814 and 1815, in company with the Rev. Samuel Marsden, Principal Chaplain of New South Wales. London: James Black and Son, 1817, pp. 23–24. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Cultural go-betweens - The first cultural go-betweens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018