Page 3 – Māori intermediaries: Ruatara

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

In 1805 the Ngāpuhi 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, receiving 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 during the voyage. When they arrived at Port Jackson he invited Ruatara to stay with him. Ruatara spent eight months with Marsden at Parramatta, studying European agricultural techniques, carpentry and other skills with the aim of introducing wheat to New Zealand.

Marsden arranged a passage home for Ruatara on 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

Ruatara found that his influence had waned during his long absence, and Ngāpuhi took some convincing that the new crop was worth growing. In 1814 Marsden sent Thomas Kendall to consult Ruatara about establishing a Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission at Rangihoua. Kendall’s gift of a hand-powered flour mill convinced Ruatara’s fellow chiefs of the value of wheat and re-established his 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 a mare, a cow and other livestock, and a military uniform to help further this aim.

When Ruatara arrived back at Rangihoua on 22 December 1814, he made it clear that he was the protector and patron of 'his’ Pākehā – the CMS missionaries Samuel Marsden, Thomas Kendall, John King and William Hall – who had accompanied him to New Zealand and would live at Rangihoua.

Warning signs?

In Port Jackson, Ruatara had been warned that the missionaries would be followed by 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 Māori might harm Marsden and his mission; he could only protect them if they were based at Rangihoua. A relieved Marsden failed to appreciate that this would place 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 desire to exercise some control over interactions with Europeans that were inevitable.

On whose terms?

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

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

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

How to cite this page

'Māori intermediaries: Ruatara', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/maori-european-contact-before-1840/ruatara, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 24-Jul-2017