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To let our voices echo, to be heard

Posted on 20/12/2018
By Commonwealth Foundation


On a dark, drizzly evening in early November, five of us made our way along Pall Mall to Marlborough House – five writers, normally resident in New Zealand, in London to represent and talk. We were ambassadors as well as individual artists, flown to the UK by Creative New Zealand, our national arts agency. We were there to bring five South Pacific perspectives to conversations around the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Three of us had flown from Auckland: me; Witi Ihimaera, the first Māori novelist and one of our most influential and internationally known writers; and Karlo Mila, Pacific poet and architect of the Mana Moana leadership programme. Tina Makereti, a novelist and scholar who won the Pacific region of the Commonwealth Story Prize in 2016, travelled from Wellington. And poet David Eggleton, a respected editor and critic, had come from Hawai’i, his base during the Creative New Zealand-Fulbright Pacific Writer’s residency. We were all jetlagged and jittery, an ad hoc delegation keen to do more than give rote answers. At the hotel we practiced a chant and various waiata (songs) to welcome guests at our events. Witi suggested I karanga everyone in: this is a ceremonial call of welcome, somewhere between chant and wailing song, that opens the way. I’d spent hours in my hotel room trying to write something simple I could manage without offending the ancestors.

The Commonwealth Foundation event was special, because we were free to lead our own conversation. Our topic was Speaking Sideways or Talking Back: Contemporary Perspectives from South Pacific Writers, and I’d volunteered to chair. I knew the other writers, and with five of us – and limited time – thought it was better to keep it simple. As simple as things could be, anyway, with five strong personalities and any number of strong opinions.

I arrived first at the venue, over-excited to be there. Marlborough House – and the Saloon in particular – was an important setting in my 2011 novel Rangatira. That novel was based on the true story of a group of fourteen Māori rangatira (high-born people) who travelled to England in 1863. The trip was organised by an enthusiastic, rash and luckless Wesleyan named William Jenkins, who raised enough money to get them there, but had few solid plans beyond that. In London, the group stayed at first in Limehouse, at the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders. Soon they became a cause célèbre, fêted by the aristocracy and visiting the Queen on the Isle of Wight.

But while they drew huge crowds to public events in Bristol, Coventry and Birmingham, there was little money to support the tour, and the rangatira grew to resent being exhibited – being displayed as ‘savage’ warriors with ferocious cannibal pasts. One member of the party was confined to an insane asylum for most of the visit; another fell ill, dying on the voyage home. Several left to join a music hall act playing at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, because it offered more money and fewer obligations. Two of the young men returned home with English wives, after shotgun weddings. The young couple in the group had a baby in England, and Queen Victoria insisted on being godmother, naming the boy Albert Victor, and sending the family back to New Zealand laden with silver, christening-related swag. Everyone suffered with the smog and the snow, the cold and the dark. Stranded in England for over a year, they longed for home, waiting until enough rich people raised the money for their return to New Zealand in 1864.

Early in their visit, in July 1863, they visited Marlborough House at the invitation of the Prince of Wales – the future Edward VII, then newly married and just moved in. When I was researching the novel, I managed to infiltrate the building, permitted to join a tour of dignitaries in order to see the rooms the Māori party visited. The guide, Terence Dormer, was informative and helpful, and I was especially excited to see the Saloon. This imposing and lofty public room is encircled with the painted record of the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns, a high-colour statement of wealth and success.

Rangatira is written from the point of view of my ancestor, Paratene Te Manu, and, on that first visit to Marlborough House, I was trying to see the space – its dimensions and its details – from his point of view. Paratene was the oldest of the Māori party, probably in his sixties; he had learned to fight in the day of stone and jade weapons, and taken part in bloody campaigns during the 1820s. At the end of his life, when he was in his nineties, he could still list each of these campaigns, their places and chronology, the enemies and the victories. The painted walls high above the cool slabs of the Saloon may have been European in style and convention, but the impulse – to chronicle the triumph of battles – would have been quite familiar to Paratene. And there was a detail in one corner, a dark face among all those powdered wigs and sturdy horses, that couldn’t have gone unnoticed by the Māori party.

So here I was again, 155 years after Paratene Te Manu stepped into the Saloon, and this time not skulking along on someone else’s tour as I did during my research. The five of us were our own delegation from New Zealand, (though, unlike our predecessors, we had return tickets). The audience gathered in the Saloon, and we were the ones calling them in – with karanga, chant, mihi (greeting), waiata. We made this imperial space – the centre of the Empire, as we couldn’t help thinking – into a Māori space, a Pacific space; it was a transformation only possible, perhaps, because it had already been reverse-colonised by the Commonwealth Foundation. The Director-General, Vijay Krishnarayan, was gracious in letting us take over and run amok. Back in the day, like us, he would have been an outsider here, a visitor from the edge of empire.

On stage we read, talked, disagreed and laughed, exploring the Pasifika concept of the va – the space between islands and peoples, about communication and travel and exchange rather than emptiness and isolation. Karlo read her long ‘Poem for the Commonwealth’, questioning the notions of both its wealth and its commonality. Tina read from her latest novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, about a young Māori man in nineteenth-century London displayed as a ‘living exhibit’. David delved into his Fijian childhood, and the disjunctions of the diasporic experience in New Zealand. Witi – always the provocateur – discussed the landmark anthology of Oceanic work he and Tina edited, Black Marks on the White Page, and demanded to know why the complex stories embedded in kapa haka (Māori performing arts) were not considered ‘literature’.

When Paratene Te Manu came to Marlborough House, he could only speak when he was addressed directly, and he needed a translator to make himself understood. In November 2018, what we said and sang in Māori was not translated, though it’s still a mystery to most people outside – and too many inside – New Zealand. Unlike the Māori party of 1863, we are all fluent in English. For better or worse, and for entirely colonial reasons, it’s our mother tongue. We used it to talk and talk, to talk over each other, to build on someone else’s point, to answer questions from the audience. When we returned to the Saloon after the event, we kept talking. It was an exhilarating to crack open space and time in Marlborough House, to let our voices echo, to be heard.