16 Jul 2009

Old letters show French priests' different attitude to Maori

4:06 pm on 16 July 2009

A different view of early contacts with Maori is emerging from the archives of the Vatican.

Waatea News reports scholars are translating more than 2000 letters that Marist missionaries sent back to Rome from New Zealand and the Pacific islands between 1839 and 1854.

Waikato University lecturer William Jennings says French Catholic priests had a markedly different approach to Maori than their English Anglican counterparts.

Dr Jennings says the letters contain transcriptions of moteatea or traditional songs, as well as reports of debates in Maori between converts of the various Christian denominations.

The letters, stored in archives in Rome, have been published in a 10-volume collection, along with letters sent home from the Pacific Islands. They describe everything from financial troubles to moral dilemmas.

Dr Jennings says translating the 2,000 pages of letters into English could take several years, but it's important to make them accessible because of their historical value.

He says a further 5,000 pages of letters sent by missionaries in the Pacific Islands are an exceptional source of information.