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Transgressing Tikanga by Trevor Bentley

There is a lot of time in New Zealand’s history that seems to go unnoticed. The first European settlement under James Cook arrived in 1769, and then the Treaty was signed in 1840. That’s over 70 years of relationship building* that isn’t a strong part of the New Zealand school curriculum - at least it wasn’t. This collection of first hand accounts adds some colour to the picture of the relationship between Pākehā and Māori during the early parts of the connection.

These accounts range in length, temperament and outcome and are based on the time period of 1816 to 1884. All explore life in New Zealand as European captives of Māori. Even the concept of Māori captives seemed confronting before opening the pages to some of the atrocities that were faced by these prisoners of war. From forced weddings, to escapes, to cannibalism, each tale offers a perspective on this tumultuous time in New Zealand’s history.

Each account explores the Māori concept of tikanga, or ‘the correct procedure or protocol - the customary system of values and practices that have developed over time and are deeply embedded in the social context.” (Māori Dictionary). When these Europeans were perceived by Māori to show extreme aggression or broke tikanga there needed to be an appropriate response, or utu.

Bentley has clearly spent a considerable amount of time in firstly finding and then collating and organising these ideas into the final product now available and is very mindful of the repercussions such assertions could create. He mitigates this by providing thorough analysis of each account including the veracity of the claims and the history of the evidence being presented. This balances the scales somewhat after the reader is affronted with the content of some of the stories presented.

Like any collection of writing, some pieces are beautifully and expressively written. These provide insight into the environment in which they were placed and write using stunning imagery and almost poetic prose. Others read more like a journal entry with short statements given with the guise of facts rather than any emotive endeavour.. The most interesting of the collection provide cogent details of the daily lives and inner workings of the tribe, while others carry less appeal and cast Māori in a highly negative light referring to them in the parochial way of ‘savages’ and ‘natives’.

Through the Ministry of Education, the history curriculum is currently in the midst of being significantly changed to incorporate more of the history of New Zealand. There are varying issues that are being presented by both the government and a vocal range of history teachers around the country. It will be interesting to see how much these historical accounts of life in New Zealand by Trevor Bentley - ones which present the completely understandable, albeit confronting view of the Māori and Pākehā relationship in those early times - are incorporated in this new curriculum.

Overall, Bentley has compiled a fascinating view of life in Aotearoa in one of the more tempestuous times in our history. He mitigates a bias towards Europeans by exploring and critiquing some of the claims made by the writers but maintains his focus on providing the evidence rather than colouring through interpretations. As a historical resource, it is a well presented piece of research. As a modern New Zealander, it has the potential to be quite confronting.

* Taking 1769 and James Cook as a starting point is for simplicity due to the continued connection from that point on, although there is acknowledgment for other explorers that encountered Māori prior to this time.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Potton & Burton


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