Transgressing Tikanga – by Trevor Bentley

During the 1800s published stories about Europeans captured by ‘savages’ thrilled and horrified British, Continental and North American audiences. Hugely popular and known as captivity narratives, they entertained urban audiences and frightened those still living on the frontiers.

This anthology contains 20 first hand captivity accounts written or dictated by 16 men and four women captured by iwi throughout New Zealand between 1816 and 1884. Some were seized when they unknowingly transgressed tikanga Maori (the customary laws of tapu, utu, mana and muru). Others were seized when they or their countrymen were involved in committing blatant acts of aggression against Maori. Two of the women (Maria Bennett and Mary Jane Briggs) were captured when they were shipwrecked, as traditional Maori salvage law dictated that any craft  and those aboard it, wrecked or stranded in tribal waters, automatically became tribal property.

The captives were held for weeks, months and in several cases for years before they were rescued or ransomed, for utu (redress) could be obtained by preserving life as well as taking it. Some escaped and others were freed by their captors. Of interest to Bay of Plenty readers will be the captivity of John Atkins (Whakatane, 1829), George Budd (Opotiki, 1834) and James Curlett (Tauranga, 1867).  A government surveyor seized at Paengaroa during the Tauranga Bush War of 1867, Curlett spent six months amongst Maori ‘rebels’ in the Kaimai Ranges before escaping and travelling to Cambridge.

Packed with drama and action, the narratives create a vivid picture of Maori and Pakeha interactions during the 1800s. They also provide rich insights into Maori life, including the principles of captivity and utu, social order, religious practices, everyday customs and the conduct of warfare. Each narrative is followed by a brief essay providing historical and cultural context.

This anthology makes an important contribution to understanding the cross-cultural tensions from which contemporary New Zealand society has emerged. Many anthologies containing first-hand accounts by Europeans captured by American Indians and North Africa’s Barbary pirates have been published overseas. Transgressing Tikanga is New Zealand’s first anthology of Maori captivity narratives.

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Author: Trevor Bentley

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ISBN: 978 1 98 8550 18 3

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