Samuel Marsden's arrival 200 years ago marked the hesitant beginnings of a bicultural relationship.
Every American knows about the Mayflower making landfall in 1620 in what is now called Provincetown, Massachusetts. In Australia they celebrate January 26, which is when the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in 1788, as their national day.
By contrast, few New Zealanders know what happened in a small bay in the northern Bay of Islands 200 years ago last Monday. Yet in every sense that matters, it was the day that the country we live in today came into being.
On December 22, 1814, the brig Active entered Rangihoua Bay, at the southern end of the Purerua Peninsula. Those on board were far from the first Europeans to come here, but they were the first who would call these islands home: Thomas Kendall, John King and William Hall, with their families and servants.
The newcomers arrived as the result of an agreement between the Australia-based missionary Samuel Marsden and Ruatara, the local chief whose pa occupied the hill above the bay. These two had met on a voyage from England, and Ruatara had stayed in Parramatta, where Marsden had a farm.
The site Ruatara had chosen for the first settlement was far from ideal, from the settlers' perspective; historian Jamie Belich in Making Peoples remarks that if the new arrivals had "searched the whole coastline, a more dismal location could scarcely have been found". Its southern aspect would have made it cheerless in winter and the soil was poor. Locals today will tell you that the wind, funnelled by the landforms, hammers the slope when the weather turns ugly.
But for Ruatara and his people it was a perfect spot, right next to Ruatara's pa where they could keep an eye on the newcomers, who would remain dependent on their hosts for food. More important, they could ensure that no other tribe could steal away "their Pakeha", and what they brought: nails, tools, cows, horses and -- best of all -- muskets.
Among the more than 500 people who gathered last Sunday on the hill above Rangihoua for the official opening of a heritage park on the site, the Christian (particularly Anglican) community was well represented.
It was a big event for them. The arrivals came under the aegis of a missionary society and their mission was a Christian one. On Sunday, representatives of an organisation called the New Zealand Christian Network were distributing a handsome booklet they had prepared to mark "the bicentenary of the first recorded preaching of the gospel ... in Aotearoa".
But that bicentenary, which actually occurs tomorrow, Christmas Day, is only part of the story. We know that Marsden's sermon on the day was based on the words in St Luke's Gospel, in which an angel is supposed to have said to some shepherds near Bethlehem: "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy ... Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour".
But the vast majority of the 400 Maori in Marsden's "congregation" would have relied entirely on Ruatara for their understanding of what was being said.
Hugh Rihari, the kaumatua of the local hapu Ngati Torehina, is one who regards it as "debatable" whether Maori understood the sermon.
"Some may have understood some of it," he told me after Sunday's formalities, referring to the few present who had worked for Pakeha whalers and transtasman traders and would have had some command of basic English. "But certainly most didn't."
Far more likely, he says, is that Ruatara would have talked to his people about the newcomers, in particular about how Marsden was a "very good friend" whose goodwill was worth cultivating.
So if no one understood the sermon, if Marsden's words were not rendered literally into Maori (How do you say "shepherd" to people who have never seen sheep? What is "the city of David" in te reo?), what the people heard was what Ruatara, not Marsden, wanted them to hear. And what Ruatara was doing was strategically smoothing the way for the arrival of "his" Pakeha.
This was the beginning of the bicultural society that, 200 years later, many New Zealanders are still learning to understand.
That, as much as the first preaching of the gospel, is something we might reflect on as the relationship between Maori and Pakeha enters its third century.
?Disclosure: The idea of the unheard sermon is discussed in research by Professor Alison Jones, of the University of Auckland, who is the writer's wife.