Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Maori Language Under Siege in the Nineteenth CenturyPaul Moon, Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016.                                      ISBN: 1-927322-41-3

Book Review: Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Maori Language Under Seige in the Nineteenth Century.

Paul Moon

I was pleasantly surprised by the approach to the topic and the extensive research for this new book by Paul Moon. Moon traces the demise of Māori language from 1800 when it was the only language spoken in Aotearoa to 1899 when it was on the verge of disappearing altogether.

The book is divided into periods of time and covers three main themes: disruption inflicted on Māori society, colonists engagement with and influence upon te reo Māori, and the effectiveness of successive nineteenth-century governments in eroding the place of te reo in the country. Of particular interest to me were the pros and cons of the missionary engagement with Māori language and tāngata Māori engagement with English. In presenting the pros and cons Moon illustrates the postcolonial “entanglement” theory whereby a wide range of perspectives and experiences, sometimes contradictory, are acknowledged. As such, the book offers many insights into the shifts in language and consequences during the period studied, too many to discuss in this review. I will mention just some of the things I found particularly insightful.

Any researcher of missionary history in Aotearoa will know that the missionaries struggled to keep up with the demand for their printed material in te reo Māori. Moon identifies and discusses the reasons and implications for this dilemma, noting that the missionaries attributed their own success to familiarity with te reo. Encouraged by their success they resisted the introduction of English to their schools even though Marsden required Māori students attending the mission schools to acquire at least some familiarity with English. Marsden’s position, according to Moon’s research, was partly due to the frustration over the seemingly impossible task of how to spell words in Māori together with existing inadequate translations. The arduous process of putting the language to print is presented by Moon and is well worth a look at for those unfamiliar with such a process.

Moon further argues that had missionary education continued through the medium of Māori language rather than bending to government will for education to be in English (to shift political, economic, cultural and linguistic power into the hands of the settler government), the missionaries may have retained their pupils for much longer. Written evidence suggests a range of reasons for withdrawal, some seemingly unrelated to the issue at all, nevertheless Moon attributes the missionaries as having a more instrumental role than other groups in the remodelling of te Māori into a written language. The transformation was sudden. Within five years of the first missionaries to Aotearoa communities had accepted missionary literature as a part of their own tradition to the point where to change early editions of the Bible, for example, was to deviate from tradition. In the secular context, English was a means of accessing and participating in the world of commerce, technology economic development. Printing significantly impacted on the country’s culture and society and as literacy in te reo Māori was emerging as a fixture of Māori society and culture the possession and control of it in effect lessened colonial control of that culture.

Moon’s analysis of the beginnings of a pan-tribal language during the 1815 - mid-1830’s provides further insight into the effects of the written language. The pan-tribal language with its standardised vocabulary signified a shift in power from the traditional setting to a changing environment where authority was connected much more closely with the ability to read and write. Moon suggests that the gradual emergence and acceptance of the idea of a “correct” language (reinforced by missionary efforts to standardise the printed form of the language) could well have been a factor in the eventual reduction of some dialectical differences in the language.

Neverthless, spoken and written English served as the first instrument of colonial conquest in colonised countries and Moon provides examples of how that worked in Aotearoa. One example referred to by Moon is the 1867 Native Schools Act. This act banished Māori language from Māori education and, not surprisingly, part of the rationale for the revised system was financial. The government expected Māori communities in some instances to provide the land on which the schools would be built, and to contribute towards the teachers’ salaries. In addition, the government hoped that if communities made a clear commitment to the costs of schools in their area, they would better appreciate the value of the coloniser’s education system.

Moon claims that towards the end of the century Anglican Māori schools were leading the way with the displacement of Māori language for English (even though within the church itself te reo still held a position of prominence). Moon writes of articulate Māori leaders at the turn of the century, educated in the Māori world and increasingly in the European, fluent in te reo Māori and English and committed to reviving te reo but he does not acknowledge the significant role the Māori Anglican church had in prioritising te reo Māori in education and in the lives of its communities. We are well aware that even in the early-mid 1900’s young bicultural, bilingual scholars were emerging from Te Aute and other Anglican boarding schools, many of whom went on to become significant educational leaders and advocates for te reo Māori. One such person was Reweti Kohere, a journalist, a former Te Aute student, and also an Anglican (not acknowledged by Moon) clergyperson. Moon quotes Kohere in advocating for the teaching of te reo Māori as a subject in some schools,

I think if a boy is taught to despise his own mother-tongue, we should not be surprised if he comes to despise his own mother. ...the more I learn of that language the more I find there is in it. I derive a great deal of pleasure from learning it. Besides, It helps to make a boy love things Maori… if you take away the racial pride from the Maori heart, and pride in the traditions of his people, you lower his character (225).

The quote sums up everything about the importance of the language for Māori but with ongoing state interference, the language was in danger of disappearing altogether by the 1890s. In response, Māori leaders voiced concerns in hui and in marae and at other public gatherings to raise awareness of the dire situation the language now faced.

I have mentioned just a few insights I gained in reading this book. Overall, Moon includes many important historical gems and provides a well-researched overview of te reo Māori during the period studied. The book has answered many questions I have had and has encouraged deeper thought around language as encapsulated in Kohere’s words. In my opinion, Moon has presented well balanced pros and cons taking into account missionary perspectives, Māori perspectives and government perspectives, according to the numerous sources consulted.

Moeawa Callaghan is Kaiwhakahaaere/Coordinator in Laidlaw College’s Indigenous Theology Programme.