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Living Among the Northland Maori: Diary of Father Antoine Garin 1844-1846


Translated and Edited by Peter Tremewan & Giselle Larcombe


First of all, let me start by saying what an unexpectedly interesting book this has turned out to be. At 600 large pages it is not a fast read, but it is certainly worthy of close study for all the insights it provides.


This is the first translation of these diaries into English, and I have no doubt they will remain a rich source of study for many years to come. Father Antoine Garin was a French priest who arrived in New Zealand in 1841, living in Northland until 1847 before moving first to Howick in Auckland and then to Nelson, where he was a parish priest from 1850 until his death in 1889. From those early years, when large scale European immigration was just getting underway, it is great to hear another voice on Māori life. Garin wrote thousands of letters, in English, French and Māori, as well as keeping diaries. These documents, written in French, were held in the Marist Archives in Rome and have not been fully translated before.


The first Catholic missionaries in New Zealand were French, from the Society of Mary, who became known as Marists. The region of the Pacific that included New Zealand was assigned to the Marists in 1836 and the first missionaries arrived in 1838 under Bishop Pompallier. They set up first in Hokianga, before moving to Kororāreka (Russell) in 1839. The Mission House there is their legacy.


The Bishop was not a Marist and there was some tension between him and the priests. They normally worked in pairs, but numbers were so small that they were sent out individually. In September 1843 Pompallier sent Father Garin to run the Mangakāhia mission station. It was a small settlement on the Wairoa river, north of the Kaipara Harbour. A quick look at a modern map and you would certainly describe it as the middle of nowhere.


The book contains an extensive introduction covering the life of Father Garin, and I enjoyed the description of him as a practical man; in a letter to his parents in France he said he had to be a carpenter, joiner, wheelwright, gardener, tailor, bookbinder, farmer, mason, pharmacist, doctor, surgeon and winemaker. He was also a musician, playing flute, cornet and organ. Although we are looking primarily at three years spent in Northland, there is also an Appendix with a speech he gave in 1876 about the Northern Wars.


Not only are his diaries an insight into early settlement, they also tell us much about relations with Māori, contemporary customs, history and personalities. We learn about the development of Māori language and divisions between Catholic and Protestant missions. Because the Protestants had arrived first, they were called mihinari (missionaries) while the Catholics were called after the Latin word for bishop, epikopo or pikopo. The diaries reveal conversations about baptism and a reluctance to be baptized by those who were sick. They would happily take medicines which might help them, but could see little benefit from the baptism. Māori wanted to join their own ancestors after death, not to be separated forever in a European heaven where they would be among only Europeans.


Throughout the diaries, Garin is constantly tending to the sick, giving medicines, visiting to watch progress, recording who had recovered and who had not. A large number of peaches are eaten, some of which were obviously not ripe and some of which were eaten all day long until people were sick. I am amazed at the amount of travelling Garin did, visiting people up and down the Wairoa river. I would have loved the book to contain a detailed map of the region, to show the extent of some of these regular trips. I did explore the area with the help of Google Maps, up the river from the Kaipara Harbour, past what is now Dargaville, and then along endless kilometers of winding river, with huge loops that would have made travel by waka seem endless.


There were a few European settlers on the river, and also a Protestant Mission under James Buller, who was a constant rival, although his approach was very different. While Buller stayed with settlers if he travelled, Father Garin would happily stay in Māori whare. The rivalry is picked up by the chief Tirarau, who tries to play Buller and Garin off against each other, seeing who will offer him more gifts. The diary also has some quotes taken from Buller’s diary, which sometimes show his very different interpretation of events to the ones Garin records.


There are numerous interesting comments made about the Northern Wars which were underway during the time these diaries were written. While Hone Heke and Kawiti looted Kororāreka and Whangarei, the local chief Tirarau remains neutral and urges the priests Garin and Buller to remain under his protection. Many Europeans fled to Auckland. Later in the diary Garin makes mention of Ruapekapeka, site of a famous battle. At first he mentions it only fleetingly in January 1845, saying there is fighting there, but by May that year he talks of “the famous Ruapekapeka Pa”, where Māori had dug up cannon balls and piled them together where the pa walls had been breached.


There are so many fascinating things to be learned from this book, but perhaps the one I enjoyed the most was the talk of travel on foot through the bush in summer. Garin would walk through the evenings and into the night, sleeping during the hottest parts of the day. In order to see at night, torches were made out of manuka sticks with lumps of kauri gum in the ends which would burn and provide enough light to see by. The Māori he travelled with would leave markers to tell others that they had passed that way, cutting into the bark of trees and writing names with coals or piling sticks to signal they had passed that way. They would read the marks of others, a dry branch saying that someone has passed by a few days before, a damper one saying that he has come back again.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Canterbury University Press RRP $89.99

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