Tuai, of Ngare Raumati in the south-eastern Bay of Islands, was an early cultural intermediary between Māori and Europeans. His short, extraordinary adult life was spent in Australia and England as well as New Zealand, where he was a leader amongst his people at Pāroa and acted as a go-between with visiting Pākehā traders, whalers and scientists. Extensive contemporary written accounts of his life give detailed insight not only into the life of an exceptional individual, but also into the nature and complexity of Māori–Pākehā relations in northern New Zealand before 1825.
Tuai was from a chiefly line; he had at least four older brothers, including Te Ngawa, Te Rangi and the powerful rangatira Korokoro, and at least two sisters, Te Hinu and Makiri. Samuel Marsden, the pioneering Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionary, stated that Tuai’s father had been a tohunga who died when Tuai was young. Tuai’s uncle was the venerable Kaipō (also known as Te Pene or ‘Old Bennee’), the brother of Tūkawau and cousin of the ariki Tara from Kororāreka.
Tuai lived at a time of heightened tensions between tribal alliances around the Bay of Islands. Ngare Raumati hapū faced a particular threat from the neighbouring ‘northern alliance’ of hapū based around Kaikohe, Te Waimate, Kerikeri, Tākou Bay, Rangihoua, Te Puna and Waitangi, whose leaders included Hongi Hika and Ruatara.
As a youth, Tuai was intrigued by the first-hand accounts of local men who had returned from Australia, Norfolk Island and England. Māori travellers to Australia were made welcome by Samuel Marsden at Parramatta, and by 1813 Tuai was living on Marsden’s farm with a number of other northern Māori visitors. Tuai later claimed that he had an affair with Marsden’s daughter, Elizabeth. He taught the northern Māori language to Marsden’s recruit and neighbour, the teacher Thomas Kendall, thereby helping him to prepare the first book using Māori language, A korao no New Zealand; or, the New Zealander's first book (1815). Kendall was to use this book in the first New Zealand school, which he opened at Rangihoua in August 1816.
In 1814, Marsden employed Tuai as a go-between in his efforts to establish a Pākehā settlement in the Bay of Islands. Earlier plans to establish a mission settlement in the Bay foundered after the 1809 attack on the Boyd, and the death of Marsden’s ally, Te Pahi. Marsden despatched Tuai to talk to Ruatara and other Bay of Islands rangatira, asking whether a Pākehā settlement was still wanted there.
Tuai found the Bay of Islands rangatira eager to recruit Pākehā settlers for their hapū. He returned to Australia with his brother Korokoro, as well as Hongi Hika and Ruatara, who were all keen to accompany the first group of Pakeha settlers to the Bay of Islands. On 24 December 1814, Tuai, Korokoro and about 200 Ngare Raumati warriors helped welcome the settlers, including the Kendall family, to their new home at Rangihoua.
Tuai then returned to Australia. In 1817, Marsden paid for Tuai and his friend Tītere from Rangihoua to travel to England. During their 11 month visit (February 1818 to January 1819), the two young men stayed in London, Shropshire and Kent. Their CMS hosts, seeing them as potential proselytisers for Christianity, forced Tuai and Tītere to study scriptural reading and writing. Hating study, the young men seized every diversion on offer. They worked on farms, used iron tools, visited homes, factories and schools, and held collection plates in church. They also attended society parties at which they entertained English guests with haka, acted out the killing of pigs and told amusing stories. They witnessed the roaring factories of the Industrial Revolution at Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire.
Tuai and Tītere met linguistics professor Samuel Lee, who was preparing to write A grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand (1820), but were afflicted with bronchial illness and unable to work with him. Both men drew images on paper – believed to be the earliest Māori ink drawings in existence – and penned letters to the CMS about their adventures in England. They dictated their letters to their companion, Francis Hall. He wrote their words on slate and they copied this writing onto paper with quill and ink. The 19 letters still in existence represent the first written Māori expression in English.
Although many of the letters appear to demonstrate Christian belief, neither man adopted Christianity. Tuai had a brief conversion in Chatham as he faced death from a bronchial condition, but his dead father and brother appeared to him, asking why he was forsaking his own atua.
Both Tuai and Tītere turned against the missionaries on the journey back to New Zealand, probably rebelling against the instruction to inform other Māori that their traditional beliefs and practices, including tā moko, tapu, atua, and warfare, were all ‘nonsense’. As Māori men who were about to return to te ao Māori (the Maori world), it was clear to them that the Māori atua were an integral part of the Māori world, while the Christian god belonged to the world of the Pākehā.
Tuai returned from England with several Pākehā missionary settler families who Marsden had decided to base at Kerikeri amongst Ngāpuhi, under the protection of Hongi Hika and his allies. Korokoro, who had unsuccessfully offered Marsden land for these families in his own territory, was furious that his brother had not managed to secure some resident Pākehā to help protect Ngare Raumati against their rivals.
Between 1821 and 1823, Korokoro, Kaipō and Tuai joined their erstwhile enemies of the northern alliance in a series of destructive musket raids against tribes armed with only traditional weapons at Thames–Hauraki, Tāmaki, Mokoia in Rotorua and Waikato. Korokoro and Kaipō died in these wars, and Tuai became the leader at Kahuwera pā, near Pāroa, in 1823.
By this time Tuai often wore European clothing, including a feathered hat. He worked as a translator, adviser and navigator for Royal Navy vessels seeking kauri spars at Hokianga and Thames–Hauraki, despite the risks of travelling in enemy territory. Visiting captains sometimes mistook him for a tattooed Pākehā because of his strong spoken English and Western-style manners.
In April 1824, a French scientific expedition under Louis Isidore Duperrey entered the southern Bay of Islands. For the 12 days the ship was at anchor off Kahuwera pā, Tuai, his wife Hiri and their baby stayed on board the Coquille. As he did when any vessel was in his area, he controlled the ship’s local trade – which included the provision of sexual partners (female captives) in exchange for gunpowder. Answering the scientists’ questions, Tuai provided information about the politics of the Bay of Islands and the language and culture of its people. He even conducted a tour of Kahuwera pā and its surrounds. This detailed knowledge about Bay of Islands Māori was soon conveyed to scientists across Europe.
Tuai died in the Bay of Islands of unknown causes in October 1824. He was about 27. Hiri and their infant son died soon after. In the resulting leadership vacuum, in 1826, Ngare Raumati hapū were permanently displaced from their territories by their Ngāpuhi-allied enemies.