Te Rangihiroa's Rich Life,
Rich Distinctions, Rich Legacy
Aotearoa had no better known ambassador-at-large, the Maori people no greater champion than one of their own sons, the distinguished, wise, human, learned but modest, Te Rangihiroa. As Sir Peter Buck, K.C.M.G., D.S.O., M.A., Litt.D., D.Sc., M.D., Ch.B., doctor, politician and soldier, he was the last of New Zealand's Maori knights.
His accomplishments in ethnology and anthropology—particularly when he was Director of Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu—spread far beyond the Pacific seas over which the ancestors of his people steered their sturdy canoes centuries and centuries ago in search of land and a home.
He died in office at Honolulu on December 3, 1951, in his seventy-second year. Countless people knew him simply as ‘Peter’. The well-deserved honours bestowed on him made him none the less approachable nor warped the strains of modesty and friendliness uppermost in his many-sided character. His greatest asset, of which he was most proud, was the Maori blood he inherited from his mother. This was complemented by the Irish strain of his father.
In point of fact his father's name was William Henry Neal, better known in the Taranaki, Whanganui and Wairarapa districts as ‘Buck’ Neal, and his wife as Mrs ‘Buck’. It was from this nickname that Peter gained his European surname, and from his mother's only brother he took, when he had reached his ‘teens, the name Te Rangihiroa, or more correctly, Te Rangi Ihiroa. It was through the death of this same uncle that he received his very first name of Materori— ‘death on the road’. The uncle became ill while travelling to his home and collapsed and died on the roadside.
‘It must always be borne in mind that I had the good fortune to have a Maori mother,’ he said speaking in Ngati Poneke Hall, Wellington, during his last visit to New Zealand and his people. His mother, a Ngati Mutunga chieftainess, Ngarongokitua (‘Tidings that Reach Afar’), taught him to read and write in the Maori tongue. She died when he was but a youth and his grandmother, Kapuakore (‘Cloudless’) cared for
him until his early teens. She lived to be 102 years old and she was, he recalled, ‘more tattooed than any woman I have ever seen or heard of among my people.’
Discussing his mixed blood Peter has said, ‘I would not change for a total of either.’ And again, ‘To my despondent fellow halfcaste I can truly say that any success I might have achieved has been largely due to may good fortune in being a mongrel.’ It would take a man with terrific pride in his ancestry and race to say that.
Peter was never more sincere than in these utterances, and in them can be found the key which so often turned his thoughts toward the future of the Maori race. He expressed his feelings plainly more than once during his visit to New Zealand, thus: ‘It is impossible for us to maintain our isolation as a pure Maori people. The process of mixing has been going on for generations and it will continue. We cannot make any law about it, and it is not desirable to make a law about it.
‘We must have freedom. They talk of freedom of thought, the freedom of worship. In this country there is the freedom to mate with those you live. And under these conditions this process of mixing … is a law which has come about out of a human law and I think it is one which will bring about a greater unity and fellow feeling and cooperation between the two races in this country.’
Peter saw in the fusion of Maori and European blood the rising of future generations in which there would be no difference between Maori and Pakeha. ‘We are all New Zealanders,’ he said, ‘and should go forward together … I see in the future the development of a fine race of New Zealanders composed of Pakeha and Maori.’
Peter Buck Becomes a Medical Officer
‘Peter, my boy, you come to school tomorrow,’ said the man who was to be his first schoolmaster at Urenui. He obeyed and was the only Maori boy in a roll of 17 pupils. He resolved that he would succeed in his work as well as the best of the others, and did so.
When he left Urenui primary school he accompanied his father to the Wairarapa and worked on Ica station, near Masterton, for 10s. a week. His thirst for learning was quickly noticed. He was always asking for books, and a pedlar and a parson helped him with his learning.
The parson was Rev. J. C. Andrew, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, Mainly because of his influence Peter was enrolled at Te Aute College (1896-1898). While he was there two medical scholarships were offered. Peter worked hard to obtain one, and was successful, but not until he had compressed a tremendous amount of study into a very short period. In less than a year he absorbed sufficient of the Greek language required for a pass in the medical preliminary examination—a feat which has never been equalled by any other New Zealand scholar. In athletics, too, he shone.
He graduated in medicine at Otago Medical School (M.B. and Ch.B. 1904; M.D. 1910), later joined the Department of Health and became chief medical officer for the Maori people (1905–1908).
As chief Maori medical officer he travelled widely in the North Island and gradually acquired an extensive knowledge of Maori metaphor and simile, and an almost complete education in Maori classics and traditions. He saw, too, the necessity for sweeping health reforms among his people if the race was to increase, progress and prosper.
In his time he saw the Maori population increase from 45,000—its lowest ebb—to 50,000, and thought that advance a minor miracles In later years he was to confess his amazement and astonishment that the race could have doubled to 110,000 and his great pleasure at the non-fulfilment of dire predictions that the Maori race would die out.
Brief Adventure Into Politics
After the death of Hone Heke in 1908 Peter the following year made his first excursion into politics. He ‘married’ the Northern Maori ‘widow’ and won his byelection without making a single speech. The mother of the dead statesman regarded the seat in Parliament as the ‘widow’ of her son and to show her appreciation of the fact that Hone Heke's body had been brought back to the north by chiefs of the south, she and her people made an unprecedented gesture by asking that someone outside Ngapuhi tribe carry Hone's mantle. Peter was chosen.
He wanted to resign before the next general election, but he was persuaded to fight for the seat, and he won. In his electioneering campaign he experienced an incident which brought home to him the truth in the old adage, ‘Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return unto you a thousand-fold.’
At Pawarenga a big 20-stone Maori suffered a deep cut right down the middle of
his head when he was tipped from his ‘four-wheeler’ while collecting kauri gum. Peter was called on to attend him and eventually sewed up the wound with a darning needle and some silk thread. A few days later he examined the wound and found that it had healed perfectly despite his ‘bush’ surgery. The stitches were removed and he forgot all about the matter.
Some time later he arrived at Sweetwater to advance his election cause and was greeted by a man he thought he had met, but wasn't sure. However, he was evidently the leader there and called the people together to listen to the visitor's political speech.
After the speeches the man, addressing Peter, said they had already been visited by ten other candidates for the seat. ‘I have given these other ten the same reply: ‘My vote is for the man who sewed up my head.’ Then he removed his battered old grey hat and revealed the scar—.
Subsequently Peter found himself in the short-lived Mackenzie Cabinet and for three brief months was Minister representing the Native race with the rank of Hon. Dr. Pita Te Rangihiroa. He was also Minister in Charge of Cook Islands, the Public Trust and the Government Life Insurance Offices.
Peter put a lot of care and thought into his Parliamentary speeches, as Hansard records will show, and when he could he infused a delightful sense of humour into either criticism of or comment on whatever was before the House at the time. One of the contributions to debates for which he will be remembered occurred during the discussion on the Daylight Saving Bill. He said during his visit to Wellington in 1949 that he did not like the idea of daylight saving being considered a discovery of the 19th century. The Maoris had daylight saving long before when, according to Maori mythology, the sun moved so quickly over the arc of heaven that they did not have the time to cultivate their plots and do the many other things they wished. The famous Maui and his brothers prepared a noose and they went to the hole in the east where the sun came from, and snared it.
The sun could not struggle because his arms were tied, and Maui ordered the sun to cross the sky more slowly. But Maui could not keep pace with the sun and so he broke his legs with a club, and the result was that the god was lamed and moved slowly according to orders.
In 1914 Peter resigned the Northern Maori seat to Tau Henare, then failed by 100 votes to capture a Pakeha seat—in emulation of Timi Kara—and with the outbreak of World War I left New Zealand as a medical officer. His wife—he was married in 1905—also accompanied the contingent as a nursing sister. It is one of the few instances on record of both husband and wife going overseas to serve in the same war.
Photo: Otago Daily Times.
The Dunedin Public Library Association some years ago asked Sir Peter Buck for a statement of his beliefs as an anthropologist. Sir Peter's reply (above) is kept in the city's collection of letters of New Zealand notables.
He was transferred to the infantry and raised from captain to the rank of major and was appointed second-in-command of the Pioneer Battalion. ‘Although I got that elevation in rank with an increase 5s. a day I lost 10s. 6d. a day medical corps pay!’ he said remarking on his promotion. Peter served with the First Maori Contingent on Gallipoli (1915), was second-in-command of the Battalion (1916-19), and in actual command in the later stages of the war. Also
in 1918 he re-joined the N.Z. Medical Staff. He had two amazing escapes from death, once on Gallipoli when he had only just reached shelter as a shrapnel shell burst uncomfortably close overhead; again near Flers, on Bezantin Ridge. The major and a machine-gun subaltern were returning to camp when a ‘Whizz-bang’ grazed the latter's shoulder and burst in the ground in front of the major's feet.
Much of the history of the Maoris in World War I was taken from Peter's diaries which he kept with meticulous detail and accuracy. He repeated on many occasions when he was last in New Zealand that the Maori had proved in two great wars that he was a man who could hold his own with any other race. No one will dispute that assertion.
Anthropological Work in the Army
Peter returned from World War I with a D.S.O., the British General Service Medal, 1914–18 Star and the Victory Medal. Four times he was mentioned in dispatches. His wife was awarded the M.B.E. for her nursing services. He resumed work with the
Photo: Taranaki Daily News.
Sir Peter Buck and Mr Papakakura, during their student days in Dunedin, shown chasing a (stuffed) moa. The photograph was arranged by the then director of the Dunedin museum at a time when it was still believed that moas of this giant type (dinornis) were still extant when the Maoris landed in New Zealand. It is now known that the Maoris only found smaller species here to grapple with.
On the way home to New Zealand in the battalion's transport he followed up his earlier anthropological work by measuring the heads of 424 full-blooded Maori troops. The Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, accepted and welcomed this data and found it of great value when, in 1921, it conducted a systematic survey throughout Polynesia of the head measurements of all its peoples. Thus was forged the first link with the famous institution of which in later years he was to become director.
Peter was conscious of the great and important need for the recording of Maori culture. He was a fairly early contributor to the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute and to The Journal of the Polynesian Society, which published his Evolution of Maori Clothing (1926) as a memoir. This study was an elaboration of a paper read before the Congress of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held in Wellington in 1923. The foundations for the study were laid in 1908 when he wrote his first ethnological paper, ‘The Maori Art of Weaving’ (Dominion Museum Bulletin, No. 3).
The production of his Maori clothing study was made possible by the Board of Maori Ethnological Research (now the Maori Purposes Fund Board), which still assists financially the Polynesian Society to publish its memoirs and other Maori material. Peter (in the technological field), the late Sir Apirana Ngata (famous for his collection of classic chants, dirges and laments), and the late Sir Maui Pomare (mythology was his province) were mainly responsible for the formation of the old Board.
I began with the process of weaving, said Peter later to a large gathering in Ngati Poneke Hall, that I learned from Tira Hori, one of the Whanganui women who was a skilful weaver. Her husband,
Hori Pukehika, used to say, ‘He mea whangai’ (she has been fed), which means that when she was young and wanted to learn she got her instruction and then made a rough sampler … One of the elders would then take Tira to one of the sacred places or tuahu. The sampler was placed on that tuahu. The old man lit a fire and he took some puha (sour thistle) and ran the leaves over the fire, and then as he recited a ritual chant he fed the puha to Tira. She swallowed it and that sealed the knowledge that she would have to weave, be skilful with her hand, be quick to pick up new patterns, and become an accomplished weaver—and Tira Hori did …’
In the process of trying to find out more about the native crafts Peter began to wonder about the crafts of peoples in outer Polynesia. How much was brought by the various ancestors of the Maori from Polynesia to New Zealand? In his monograph, The Evolution of Maori Clothing, he says, ‘From the available data it would seem that both diffusion and evolution have played their part, but the honours are with the latter.’
In later years he was able to prove that the Maori weaving technique, the forms of carving, pa construction and protective works, were all developed in New Zealand and by the Maori people themselves, and do not exist elsewhere in Polynesia. This was a most momentous deduction, and it was reached only after an opportunity to see more of the Pacific world had been presented to him.
Polynesian Research Tour
In 1927 he met the director of Bishop Museum and other members of the museum staff who were in Auckland on their way to the Second Pacific Science Congress in Australia. Peter, with five other New Zealanders, was sent by the Government to represent the Dominion at the congress. In that year Bishop Museum embarked on a five-year research programme in Polynesia and he was invited to participate in this work. Before he left New Zealand, however, he saw into print his next Board of Maori Ethnological Research publication. The Material Culture of the Cook Islands (1927), the Board's first memoir.
Fate decided his length of stay overseas. At the end of the period Bishop Museum sent him as a visiting lecturer to Yale University's school of anthropology. The appointment was renewed for various terms which gave him the opportunity of examining the Polynesian material in several European museums—in particular that in the British Museum which comprises the finest collection. New Zealand and Hawaiian, in the world.
The next 20 years were to be the busiest and most productive in his life, and his energy and output are reflected in these handsome legacies he has bequeathed to posterity: Samoan Material Culture (1930); Ethnology of Tongareva (1932); Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga (1932); Mangaian Society (1934); Ethnology of Mangareva (1938).
Sir Peter Buck on his visit to New Zealand in 1949, addressing school children at his home village Urenui.
In his famous Vikings of the Sunrise (1938) the world was introduced to some of the romance associated with the settlement of Polynesia by a stone age people who rank among the world's great navigators, as well as to some autobiographical details of Te Rangihiroa himself. This work was followed by Anthropology and Religion (1939); Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands (1944); Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology (1945); then, finally, his classic, The
Coming of the Maori (1948).
This book in itself is a romance, and grew from a lecture with the same title given at Cawthron Institute in 1925, which summarized some phases of Maori history and culture. The lecture was later reprinted by the Board of Maori Ethnological Research, and years later the Maori Purposes Fund Board proposed another reprint as it was being used as reading matter in the subjects of Maori and anthropology for the B.A. degree of the University of New Zealand. Peter was asked if he had any alterations or additions to make to the original lecture and, he says, ‘In an optimistic mood I offered to write a book in place of the original lecture.’
The offer was accepted, but World War II and various other responsibilities delayed the fulfilment of his promise. “The seedling planted in 1925 has grown somewhat in twenty-odd years, but it retains its old title …” he said.
At the time of his death Peter was engaged on what he would have regarded as a labour of great love … a tribute to repay in some degree the debt he felt he owed to Bishop Museum and its founder, Charles R. Bishop, who was married to Bernice Pouahi, the last of the Kamehameha dynasty of Hawaii. Bishop was Hawaii's first banker. He amassed a fortune and the Museum was established as a memorial to his wife who predeceased him. It is known that Peter had prepared most of his material on Hawaiian arts and crafts before he visited New Zealand, and that for a few months prior to his death he was assembling more, but it is not clear whether his work had reached the stage where it was ready for the printers. It seems apparent that this monograph will be published posthumously. Doubtless it will stand as a memorial to the institution to which he brought added lustre, and through which he gained world distinction and honour.
All his scholastic honours, awards, medals and diplomas have been bequeathed to his old college, Te Aute—surely no finer gesture could have been made by any old boy, and nothing finer could he have done to inspire others to follow the lead he and other distinguished old boys have established. Indeed, if in this way he remembered his old college, which subsequently opened so many other portals to him, might not others make their contributions?
Ka pu te ruha
Ha hao te rangatahi.
‘The old net is laid aside, and the new net goes afishing,’ was a proverb Peter quoted frequently when he was last in his homeland. He used it, too, for the finish of his memorial ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’.
This is the Maori chant he liked best of all:
Piki mai, kake mai
Homai te waiora ki au
E tutehua ana te moe a te kuia
I te po, po, i rarua ai a Wairaka
Ka ao, ka ao, ka awatea!
‘Come hither, draw nigh.
Bring unto me the living waters of life.
Ah! Troubled has been the rest of the aged in the night,
But now it is down! It is down! It is light!’