The Masterly Works of Pāpā John Numa
I sit in a large, white cube of a room in te Uare Taoka o Hākena—the Hocken Collections—in Ōtepoti. It is so quiet that I can hear people breathing from their tables across the room and the scratches of my archives-approved pencil on paper. There are so many windows—glass walls stretch to the high ceilings. Faint shadows play across the newspapers in front of me as the sun passes through the trees into this glass cage filled with light.
I am being paid to read Cook Islands newspapers and periodicals for a few months. The research objective is to demonstrate that Pacific Peoples were actually writing before the 1970s, a time often described as when Pacific Literature ‘began’, when Samoan writer Albert Wendt published his first novel. When I made my first visit to the Hocken, I was excited to uncover the hidden writers from the land of my forefathers. But weeks have passed and I’m becoming a strange combination of bored and anxious as I have yet to encounter anything I would call Cook Islands writing.
Right now I am reading the earliest issues of the Cook Islands News, beginning in 1963. The early 1960s was when the Cook Islands was preparing to enter a new age of self-governance. Yet during this time, the newspapers were owned and operated by colonial administrators. From what I can see, white men (probably from New Zealand) wrote almost all of the content and Cook Islanders (probably from Rarotonga) were hired to translate the articles from English into Māori. When the words of indigenous people were included in the Cook Islands News, they mostly fell under the categories of community notices, letters to the editor and transcripts from the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly.
I take a break from the Cook Islands News when I reach 1966, once I have read Albert Henry’s first address as Premiere. I try the Cook Islands Review instead. It’s a periodical that I’ve never heard of but I need a break. The front page of the first issue (August 1954) professes the intention of ‘Bridging the Gap’ between ‘ex-pat’ and local, English-speaking and Māori. A lofty goal, especially when it appears they’re starting out with a team of writers, editors and publishers that are all white men. But at least they’re trying?
In January 1955, the front page of Issue 2 includes an illustration from Ta Henry. This is momentous in terms of publishing in Rarotonga, as the editor explains the technical difficulties of including the illustration. But the image itself is also momentous. It is a picture of how Rarotonga might be perceived at a distance from the sea. It includes the silhouette of our mountains, the ava—the break in the reef—shown in the foreground. The sea birds are so distinctly Cook Islands. Pākehā will draw a sea bird in the distance like flattened cursive ‘m’. Cook Islanders draw a sharpened ‘m’ with a longer centre stroke for a tail and a dash in the middle for the head. It’s an important motif, replicated in Cook Islands carving and tattoos. This is how desolate the colonial publishing landscape is for Cook Islands readers. I’m as euphoric as a long distance voyager sighting these seabirds. Look there in the sky—we’re home!
I turn the page and find an article written by Reverend Tuatakiri Pittman about the Boys’ Brigade international tour. It reads like a diary—a list of dates with brief descriptions of the days’ events—but it’s a start.
Then in Issue 3 there is a letter to the editor penned by Mr. John Numa Toate. It is different to other letters I have read (often defending the writer’s reputation or correcting previously published information). This letter is a critique of the quality of the Māori translation. After explaining the impacts colonial authorities have had on te reo since they condemned the ‘Are-Vananga and ‘Are-Korero, he asks the Review to ‘desist from committing murder to a language that has already suffered much in the past’. Numa takes particular issue with the literal translation of ‘bridging the gap’ which is rendered meaningless in Māori. He suggests if the Review is truly interested in ‘bridging the gap’, they should show as much diligence to the writing of Māori as they do to English.
Wading through the patronising tones of colonial writers was worth it to meet you, Mr. Numa. I hope you will write again soon.
I continue to explore the Cook Islands Review. There are some indigenous contributions: a listing of scholarship recipients for education in New Zealand; a request that the radio play at least 50% Māori content; and a front-page article that reports a statement from a visiting anthropologist. He says the Cook Islands language is not dead but is very sick.
John Numa responds to the anthropologist’s statement with a letter. The English version is published first and opens:
I agree with you that the Maori spoken today is sick, perhaps sick with ‘frustration’.
He lists suggestions for how the situation might be remedied. At first glance, the English and Māori versions appear to be direct translations, and in parts they are. The title is a direct translation (A Sick Language/ ‘E reo Makimaki) and the page layout suggests they are structured identically. But even readers like myself, with only a rudimentary grasp of te reo, know that a direct translation from English to Māori is always much longer. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that John has written the two versions to appeal to different audiences.
When you wrote this Mr. Numa, did you assume ‘the Administration’ would overlook the Māori version? Your criticism of te ‘Au Papa’a and their impact on te reo is much more direct in the Māori version. My favourite difference between the versions is how you describe ‘the art of oratory’ in English as ‘te reo o te ‘ai-tupuna i roto i tona manea e te pakari’. How did you edit the writing to give both versions the same structure visually on the page? I know, I ask a lot of questions.
In Issue 13 (December 1955) a new column called ‘Rarotonga Diary/ Te Puka ˈAkapapa Tuatua o Rarotonga’ is published. The columnist is kept anonymous and the author signs off as The Critic/Te Akaapa. But due to the columnists repeated reference to the phrase ‘bridging the gap’ (always in inverted commas) and obvious skill in translation, it’s quite clear that it’s Pāpā John Numa. He has been enlisted to write candidly about local island matters.
I was so excited to read your new column, Pāpā Numa. I know we’re not meant to acknowledge it’s you but your writing style is so distinctive. My only issue with your first column regards your ideas about wandering livestock. What would island life be without a random rooster outside your bedroom window at 5.30am? Just another question, is John your given name? Are you related to the Numangatini family? Also I’ve really enjoyed reading Va’ine Rere’s articles from Atiu. Aren’t they great? He’s a real story-teller. You are definitely more of a Critic. No offence.
I try to keep focussed on my research objective but as I pick up each new issue of the Review, I skip ahead to check if there is a ‘Tuatua o Rarotonga’ column. Te Akaapa appears in the December, January, February and March issues. Always intelligent and entertaining, critical of both Papa’a and Māori in a way that reveals a comprehension of very subtle cultural nuances.
Kia orana, Pāpā Numa, I just wanted to say your column in the March issue, about a Māori borrowing a book from a Papa’a was such an astute and creative way of demonstrating different cultural understandings of possession. And I agree, the island needs a book store, filled with books in Māori! For all ages and abilities! Have you got a copy of Doctor to the Islands yet? It was published in 1955—last year?
In May 1956, the Akaapa draws attention to the contributions of a young Māori writer reporting from Atiu who demonstrates ‘a flair for descriptive writing’, whose work is of such quality that it requires ‘very little editing’. He encourages anyone interested in literature to connect with the South Pacific Commission as they are prepared to sponsor publishing of ‘worthy writing’. He ends with:
Europeans may write and write, and indeed many have already done so, but it is only when one of your own kind produces something so masterly that you begin to lose that unhappy feeling of inferiority.
There is something so familiar about this sentiment, arguably for all Cook Islands people at some time. Being a writer and from the Cook Islands can sometimes feel like a contradiction. Like you’re in a big white room full of writers and you can see someone approaching, who is about to ask you, ‘Are you lost?’
The ‘Tuatua o Rarotonga’ column is published in one more issue (June 1956) and there is a pensive tone. Te Akaapa is discussing migration to New Zealand. He admits his own cynicism. The following September an editorial titled ‘Towards Social Development’ is published. It explains that the Review will pass into control of the Social Development Department as part of the ‘adult education service’. These are the words used to discuss the new role of the Review: official, benefit, explaining, interpreting, policy, useful, organ, information. The editor explains that the Review will not be nor profess to be ‘a vehicle for criticism’.
From here the Review takes on an increasingly patriarchal tone with reporting focused on the works of the colonial government. The next five issues include the headline ‘Public Servants at Work’ accompanied by photographs of unnamed Māori men building, installing and working hard in the sun under the watchful eyes of their white bosses (who are named of course). It could be said that the Review is now more obviously an advertorial for the Colonial Administration. Others might say this shift for the Review is part of a last-ditch effort to maintain control: control of the government, control of the people, control of the media, control of who writes, control of the words. That’s what I’m writing anyway.
I ask some of my people but no one has heard of Pāpā John Numa so I might ask some of my Mangaian friends. An online search brings up a pamphlet published in 1954 that is held in archives at the National Library. It is called ‘John A. Numa: A pre-European history of Rarotonga’. John A. Numa is listed as the creator, copyright is held by a family member. If I find the time and the money, perhaps once COVID restrictions ease, I could return to Rarotonga and ask around those who might remember.
Do you remember Pāpā John Numa? I read his work in old copies of the Cook Islands Review. He was a writer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stacey Kokaua (Ngāti ‘Arera of Rarotonga/Pāmati/Pākeha) finished a MCW in 2019. She lives in Portobello.