Letters of nineteenth century Māori women

Thousands of letters written in the Māori language in the nineteenth century are held in public collections in New Zealand and overseas but relatively few of these are identified as being written by Māori women.

Dr Arini Loader from the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations

Dr Arini Loader, from Victoria’s School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, has been studying just over a dozen letters written by women in te reo Māori between 1848 and 1853, held in the Sir George Grey Special Collections in the Auckland Public Library.

During this time, Ruta Te Rauparaha and Pipi Te Whiwhi corresponded with Lady Eliza Grey and her husband Sir George Grey, who was the Governor of New Zealand at the time.

Ruta was the daughter of Tāwhiri, a rangatira of the Ngāti Whakatere hapū of Ngāti Raukaua, and was married to Tāmihana Te Rauparaha, a prominent Ngāti Toa rangatira and son of the renowned Te Rauparaha.

Pipi similarly came from illustrious genealogical lines, being the daughter of Kiriwera and a sister of Tāmihana’s mother Te Ākau. Pipi was married to Henare Mātene Te Whiwhi, another important Ngāti Raukawa rangatira and contemporary of Tāmihana.

The women’s letters reveal their close friendships and affection for each other, using the vernacular of the times, Arini says.

“Their close association was enabled by their shared position as women who were married to men of high social and political status. They entered their marriages with social standing of their own.”

Some of the letters make reference to the intense loneliness felt by the women while their husbands were away on frequently long and dangerous journeys. The letters also include coded references to pregnancy in the style of the time—wives were simply ‘mate’ or ‘unwell’. Other letters convey the joy of receiving a letter—in Ruta’s case, from her husband Tāmihana while he was away visiting England.

Arini says her research has highlighted how much more there is to explore and the importance of more people learning Māori in order to be able to read such letters.