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Cultural go-betweens

by Mark Derby

Some 19th-century Pākehā ‘went native’ and became known as Pākehā–Māori, living with iwi, marrying Māori women, and sometimes even being tattooed with full-face moko. Others who mediated between Māori and Pākehā worlds included Māori political leaders James Carroll, Apirana Ngata and Whina Cooper – as well as, more recently, Pita Sharples and Pākehā politician Doug Graham.

The first cultural go-betweens

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.

    • 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
    • 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


‘Pākehā–Māori’ was the 19th-century term for Europeans who chose to live among Māori as part of the tribe. Some were traders, whalers and sealers looking to make money in New Zealand, and others were runaway seamen and escaped convicts from Australia. In 1833 there were said to be about 70 Pākehā–Māori, mostly runaways, in the Hokianga area alone. They were usually looked down upon by more respectable Europeans, but welcomed by Māori, who were keen to acquire European goods and skills and needed someone to negotiate with Pākehā on their behalf. Before 1840 Pākehā–Māori were the earliest European explorers and settlers in many parts of New Zealand. They sometimes introduced literacy and Christianity to Māori in advance of the missionaries. Many developed the ability to pass easily and effectively between one cultural world and the other.

Pākehā–Māori traders

The largest group of Pākehā–Māori in the period before 1840 were traders. They sold dressed flax, timber, pigs and potatoes on behalf of the tribes they lived among, and bought them muskets, food, clothing and often alcohol. One of the most successful was Louis Hetet, who introduced European livestock and crops to the King Country around 1844. His descendants in the Te Kūiti area include renowned traditional weavers.

Another trader, Dicky Barrett, eventually opened a hotel in Port Nicholson (later called Wellington). For many years it was the most important building in the brand-new settlement. He also acted as an interpreter and was described as ‘the medium of communication between the [New Zealand] Company and Maori in all their affairs.’1 Danish-born Phillip Tapsell settled at Maketū in Bay of Plenty and grew rich trading muskets, gunpowder and other goods for flax. His many descendants in the region include the former Cabinet minister Sir Peter Tapsell.

Marrying into Māori tribes

In the period of early contact, Europeans in New Zealand were greatly outnumbered by Māori and depended on them for support and safety. For a Pākehā–Māori, it was essential to be married to a Māori woman. ‘It is not safe to live in the country without a chief’s daughter as protection,’ wrote one English visitor.2

For Māori, marriage was a way of binding newcomers, of assuring their loyalty and trade, and of keeping their children within the tribe. Manuel José was a Spanish whaler who lived on the East Coast of the North Island in the 1830s, working as a trader. He married five chiefly Ngāti Porou women one after the other, and had a child by each of them. His descendants in the region now number several thousand.

Fighting the good fight

The Pākehā–Māori James Caddell acquired the status of a chief through his ability at fighting alongside his Ngāi Tahu hosts. He believed traditional weapons such as the mere, or short club, were superior to European weapons. ‘It is next to impossible to attack a New Zealander [a Māori] with a sword or bayonet, as they have a method of grabbing it with one hand, killing the attacker with a mere or spear before he has time to make a second thrust.’3

Pākehā–Māori warriors

Some Pākehā–Māori were expected to fight alongside their adopted tribespeople. One of them, James Caddell, was only about 13 and working as a sealer when his shipmates were captured and killed by Ngāi Tahu Māori in Foveaux Strait in 1810. He was probably saved because he was so young and because a chief’s daughter, Tokitoki, offered him her protection. He later married her and was given a full facial moko. Caddell learned to speak Māori fluently and almost forgot how to speak English. In 1823 he travelled to Sydney with his wife to trade goods, and they appeared in the city’s streets in full Māori costume.

    • Trevor Bentley, Pākehā Māori: the extraordinary story of the Europeans who lived as Māori in early New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 1999, p. 173. Back
    • 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, p. 171. Back
    • Pākehā Māori, p. 80. Back


Missionaries were based in New Zealand from 1814, and many were vitally important cultural go-betweens. They were usually better educated or more highly trained than Pākehā–Māori and, unlike them, almost never married Māori women. However, like Pākehā–Māori, missionaries needed a good knowledge of Māori language and customs, and aimed to win and retain the respect of both peoples. They were usually the first schoolteachers in Māori communities, teaching adults as well as children to read and write, and to use European tools and farming methods.

Missionaries as farmers

By the 1850s the region around the mission station at Te Awamutu in the Waikato had mills, ox carts and a postal service. Missionary John Morgan imagined ‘[e]ach family with their neat boarded cottage, surrounded by their orchards and wheatfields, the men employed in driving their Carts … training their children in the habits of honest industry.’1 Another missionary, Thomas Grace, taught Māori in the Taupō area to raise livestock, build and sail their own ships, and ask for a fair price for their produce.

The first missionaries

English missionary Samuel Marsden first arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1814. He was accompanied by Ruatara, a local chief returning to his own people; fellow missionaries William Hall, a joiner, John King, a ropemaker, and schoolmaster Thomas Kendall; and others including Thomas Hansen. Marsden favoured teaching the Māori useful skills and agriculture to encourage them to convert to Christianity. He was so successful that he transformed the traditional economy of the Bay of Islands and laid the foundations for New Zealand agriculture.

Māori missionaries

The early missionaries were appalled at the sight of Ngāpuhi raiding parties returning from other tribal areas with large numbers of captured slaves. Some of these Ngāpuhi became Christians and agreed to release their slaves. The slaves themselves then sometimes converted to Christianity and returned to preach to their own people.

The missionary tohunga

Thomas Kendall, a missionary who arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1814, had a keen interest in Māori ideas on religion and the sacred. He began a relationship with Tohungaroa, the daughter of a tohunga named Rākau, later saying he did so ‘to obtain accurate information as to [Māori] religious opinions and tenets’.2 For a year he lived with Tohungaroa and was taught the traditions of the whare wānanga (school of learning).

Piripi Taumata-ā-Kura of Ngāti Porou was taken to the Bay of Islands as a slave in 1823. He later returned to the East Coast to preach Christianity, teach reading and writing, and prepare the way for the first English missionaries to his region. Minarapa Rangihatuake of Taranaki was the first to preach Christianity to Te Āti Awa people in Port Nicholson (later Wellington). He also built the first Christian church in the town. In 1928 Frederick Bennett of Te Arawa was consecrated as the first Māori bishop.

Māori-language scholars

One of the first tasks for European missionaries was to learn the local language. Some became so expert at Māori that they made major contributions to the written form of the language. With the help of the missionary printer William Colenso, the Reverend William Williams produced a large number of biblical and other publications in the Māori language.

His son and grandson continued his tradition of Māori scholarship, preparing and revising the first substantial Māori-language dictionary and several important collections of written Māori. The Catholic missionary Louis Servant also wrote a detailed and valuable account of early Māori society, published as Customs and habits of the New Zealanders.

Go-betweens with other cultures

Most early New Zealand missionaries worked with Māori communities, but some also worked with other non-European cultures. In 1879 Alexander Don became a Presbyterian missionary to Chinese gold miners in Otago. He was sent to China to learn their language and in 1897 opened the Chinese Mission Church in Dunedin. Don also set up a mission in the Canton (Guangzhou) district of China, where most Otago Chinese had come from, linked to his New Zealand mission.

    • Quoted in K. R. Howe, 'Morgan, John 1806/1807?–1865.' Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 4 March 2010). Back
    • Quoted in Judith Binney, 'Kendall, Thomas 1778?–1832.' Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 4 March 2010). Back

Political go-betweens

Both Māori and non-Māori political leaders have served as important cultural go-betweens throughout New Zealand’s colonial history. However, many have found it difficult (and occasionally fatal) to retain the support of their own people while reaching out to another.


Many of the early European missionaries in New Zealand became heavily involved in political negotiations between settlers and Māori. In 1840 the Reverend Henry Williams translated the English draft of the Treaty of Waitangi into Māori and explained it to Māori leaders. Wesleyan missionary John Whiteley encouraged chiefs in the Kāwhia region to sign the treaty, and Robert Maunsell did the same in the Maraetai area. Missionary George Clarke’s Māori-language ability led to him becoming chief protector of aborigines (Māori) in 1840.

Missionaries often ran into trouble for these political involvements. Octavius Hadfield’s work among Māori around Nelson and Wellington brought him into conflict with European settlers, who dubbed him the ‘political parson’.1 In 1865, during the land wars, the Reverend Carl Völkner was executed by Māori near his church in Ōpōtiki after accusations he had acted as a government spy.

Unhappy end

One unfortunate political go-between was James Te Mautaranui Fulloon, born in 1840 to an English father and a leading woman of Tūhoe. He became an interpreter, gathering secret information for the government’s military campaign in Waikato in 1863–4. In 1865 he tried to use his mother’s connections to capture a group of Pai Mārire fighters in Bay of Plenty. The plan failed and Fulloon and several others were killed on board their ship.

George Grey and Te Rangikāheke

George Grey was appointed governor of New Zealand in 1845, a time of violent disputes between many settlers and Māori. Recognising that he needed to win the respect of Maori, Grey developed friendships with a number of chiefs, especially Te Rangikāheke (Wiremu Maihi) of the Ngāti Rangiwewehi subtribe of Te Arawa.

The chief lived with his family in Grey’s home in Auckland, and was paid a salary to teach the governor the language, customs, traditions and history of his people. From their combined efforts came a number of important books of Māori ancestral stories, songs and chants, and proverbs.

Early Māori politicians

The best-known broker between the Māori and Pākehā worlds in the late 19th century was James Carroll. He was born in Hawke’s Bay in 1857 to an Irishman and a senior woman of Ngāti Kahungunu. Carroll became the MP for Eastern Māori in 1887 and from 1893 was the first Māori to represent a general electorate. He had great influence on the Liberal government’s land and ‘native’ policies. He firmly believed that Māori could succeed in European society. At a time when Māori were mainly restricted to the margins of national life, Carroll won them greater respect and understanding.

Apirana Ngata was the most prominent mediator between the Māori and Pākehā worlds in the early 20th century. As MP for Eastern Māori he helped draft legislation giving Māori a greater say in their own affairs. In both world wars Ngata helped recruit Māori troops and insisted that they fight together as a Māori battalion. Using his knowledge of the Pākehā world and his professional skills, Ngata dedicated his life to reforming the social and economic situation of Māori and promoting the place of Māoritanga in the modern world.

Māori women leaders

Te Puea Hērangi was born into the family of the Māori king in Waikato in 1883. Her determination to rebuild King Tāwhiao’s home at Ngāruawāhia established the great new marae and community of Tūrangawaewae. Te Puea believed that the two races should respect and learn from each other, and she steadily improved relations between the Kīngitanga and the government. Her achievements communicated across cultures and she was recognised as ‘the greatest Māori woman of our time’.2

Whina Cooper was born in northern Hokianga in 1895. She became the best-known Māori woman in the country in the 1950s after she was elected first president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, in which role she worked on Māori housing, education, crime, employment and health issues. At the opening of the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, Dame Whina called on the country to ‘remember that the Treaty was signed so that we could all live as one nation in Aotearoa’.3

Recent political go-betweens

Doug Graham, a Pākehā descendant of renowned scholars of the Māori language, became the National MP for Remuera in 1984. He was appointed minister in charge of treaty negotiations in 1991 and played a key role in major treaty settlements with the Ngāi Tahu and Tainui tribes. After retiring from Parliament Sir Doug continued to facilitate Treaty of Waitangi settlement negotiations. He is credited with enhancing the status of the treaty among both Māori and Pākehā.

Pita Sharples, the son of an English father and Ngāti Kahungunu mother, completed a PhD in 1976 and began a long public-service career that included establishing the first urban inter-tribal marae. He also pioneered the development of kōhanga reo (pre-school language nests) and revived the use of the taiaha as a martial art. Co-leader of the Māori Party, Sharples entered Parliament in 2005 as the MP for Tāmaki Makaurau. Popular with Pākehā as well as Māori, he was described in 2009 as ‘the nation’s kaumātua’.4 Pita Sharples stood down from Parliament in 2014 and was knighted for his services to Māori in 2015.

Metiria Turei of Ngāti Kahungunu grew up in a working-class Māori family in Palmerston North and experienced unemployment as a school leaver. She became a single mother in her early 20s. She got a training incentive allowance, completed a law degree in 1999, started work in a lawyers’ office and joined the Green Party. In 2002 she entered Parliament as a list MP and became co-leader of the party in 2009. She worked closely with two Pākehā male co-leaders, Russell Norman and James Shaw and had a major commitment to the involvement of both Māori and women in Green Party activism.  She resigned as co-leader of the Green Party in August 2017 and retired from politics after the September 2017 general election.

    • Quoted in June Starke, 'Hadfield, Octavius 1814?–1904'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 4 March 2010). Back
    • Quoted in Ann Parsonson, ‘Herangi, Te Kirihaehae Te Puea 1883–1952.’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 4 March 2010). Back
    • Quoted in Michael King, ‘Cooper, Whina 1895–1994'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 4 March 2010). Back
    • New Zealand Herald, 4 July 2009, p. 5 Back

Artistic and academic go-betweens

New Zealand’s writers, artists and thinkers, Māori and non-Māori, have been among its most effective cultural go-betweens. Māori people’s early enthusiasm for literacy and other forms of Pākehā culture has helped to ensure that the country’s different peoples are most likely to encounter each other through books, music, electronic media and other forms of cultural life.

Wedding day

Māori serving in overseas wars often carried elements of their traditional culture with them for inspiration and reassurance. During the Second World War a member of the Māori Battalion’s A Company, made up of troops from Auckland and Northland, decided to marry a young nurse from Te Whānau-a-Apanui on the East Coast. During the campaign against Rommel’s forces in North Africa, the two were married in a traditional Māori taumau ceremony. Their officers – Pita Awatere for the bride and James Hēnare for the groom – wore heirloom feather cloaks as they performed the ceremony in front of hundreds of soldiers.


Towards the end of the 19th century the view that Māori were dying out prompted increased European interest in studying its traditions and culture. The English-born S. Percy Smith and Edward Tregear, who had each learned the Māori language while working as surveyors, formed the Polynesian Society in 1892 to study the connections between Māori and other Polynesian peoples. Many of the society’s findings were later overturned, but it played an important part in collecting, preserving and stimulating academic interest in traditional Māori culture.

Several Pākehā students of Māori, such as Elsdon Best, became leading figures within the Polynesian Society. While working in the Urewera at the end of the 19th century, Best met elders of the Tūhoe people who passed on their knowledge of tribal history and genealogy.

The half-Māori, half-Irish medical doctor Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) was also a keen member of the society. His research interests extended beyond his own people to include other Polynesian peoples, and he became visiting professor of anthropology at Yale University in the US and director of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum. Mākereti (Margaret) Thom, also known as Guide Maggie Papakura, of Te Arawa and English parentage, studied anthropology at Oxford University. Her thesis was later published as The old-time Maori, the first major publication by a Māori ethnologist.

New name

Mākereti Thom (‘Guide Maggie’) was working as a guide in the thermal area of Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, when she acquired the surname by which she became better known. One visitor to the geysers asked if she had a Māori surname. Mākereti glanced at a nearby geyser called Papakura and replied, ‘My name is Papakura, Maggie Papakura.’1 Members of her family also took this as their surname.

More recently, Pākehā academic Anne Salmond gained a specialist understanding of Māori traditional culture from the East Coast elders Eruera and Amiria Stirling. She has written a number of highly significant books on Māori customs and early Māori–European contacts. Salmond has described relationships between Māori and non- Māori between 1642 and 1815 as 'a swashbuckling period of cross-cultural trial and error.'2


The poet Hone Tuwhare and the fiction writer Witi Ihimaera were among the first Māori to reach a wide general readership for their work. They have since been joined by other popular writers such as Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme, Patricia Grace and Alan Duff.

Ranginui Walker, of the Whakatōhea people of Bay of Plenty, trained as a primary schoolteacher and eventually became head of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland. He was a leading spokesperson for Māori rights through his magazine columns and books, which explained to a mainly Pākehā audience issues of Māori land rights, cultural identity and political representation. Walker was the University of Auckland’s first Māori Pro-Vice Chancellor before his retirement in 1998 and later served on the Waitangi Tribunal. After his death in 2016 he was described as someone who could walk in both Māori and Pākehā worlds and act as an interpreter between them.

Several Pākehā writers have also dealt successfully with the intersections between Pākehā and Māori worlds. James K. Baxter was already a highly regarded poet when he decided to form a community based around the spiritual aspects of communal Māori life. At first in Auckland and then at the tiny Whanganui mission settlement of Jerusalem (Hiruhārama), Hēmi, as he became known, lived with young Māori and Pākehā from the margins of society. He was given a full Māori tangihanga at Jerusalem after his death in 1972 and is remembered for his personal and literary efforts to integrate elements of Māori and Pākehā society.

At the time of his death in 2004, Michael King was New Zealand’s best-known historian. The television series Tangata whenua and the book Moriori explored variations between Māori and Pākehā viewpoints and transformed New Zealanders’ understanding of aspects of their country. King believed that Pākehā like himself, whose families had lived in New Zealand for several generations, had developed a distinctive white New Zealand culture, different from the European culture of their ancestors. Some of those differences, he believed, were due to long interaction with Māori.


Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Cultural go-betweens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Mark Derby, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 22 o Mei 2018