MEMORIES OF PRINCESS TE PUEA
To-night I join with the Maori people in mourning the loss of the greatest Maori woman of our time—perhaps of all time—Te Puea Herangi, ariki tapairu, of Waikato. Te Puea never liked the title of Princess, and never applied it to herself. On the other hand, she was always insistent that her cousin—and nephew by marriage—Koroki, the fifth Maori King, should be referred to as such.
I speak to-night with the memories of an association of more than 30 years with Te Puea. When I knew her first she was struggling with a band of entertainers, attempting to raise funds for the establishment of the village now known as Turangawaewae on the banks of the Waikato River. To the Pakeha world she was then little known. But in the Maori world her rank as the grand-daughter of King Tawhiao was, of course, acknowledged.
At that period she was a stout, well-built woman, dominating in character, shrewd as always, and wise. With her children, as she called them—they were actually orphans she had mothered following two epidemics—she had worked on the roads, cut gorse and flax. Her ambition was to re-establish the Maori King's home at Ngaruawahia. All tribal land there had been confiscated. But she had her eye on ten acres sacred to all Waikato, because it contained a spring at which her grandfather, King Tawhiao, once drank.
That ambition was realised.
Yet it took many years of planning and hard work before the model settlement, as we know it nowadays, was established. It is curious to recall that, in those days, the Pakehas of Ngaruawahia objected to her presence, and sought to have her ejected by the health authorities. Te Puea showed the earth-floored and bag-walled huts to the inspector. ‘We are poor,’ she said, ‘but we are clean!’ …
Sir Apirana Ngata once gave me the key to her complex character when he said: ‘First, she is a woman. Secondly, she is a Potatau (a member of the kahui ariki, or Maori Royal Family, as all the descendants of the first Maori King, Potatau Te Wherowhero, are known). Thirdly, she is a Maori.’ If a woman, and sometimes subject to the vagaries of her sex, Te Puea seldom let her emotions sway her judgment. In all things she was essentially practical. Nevertheless, there were times when she could make use of her undoubted charm to achieve her objectives. As a dirct descendant of Potatau, she was always conscious, though never foolishly so, of the blood within her veins: her whole life was devoted to the ideals of the Kiingitanga, or Maori King Movement. And, of course, as a Maori, her stand on Maori affairs was always that of a Maori. Indeed, it could not have been otherwise.
Once I heard her upbraid King Koroki early in his reign for not leaving punctually to attend a meeting in his honour. ‘Never keep the people waiting,’ she admonished. ‘Remember, if there were no people there would be no King. We are the servants of the people!’
To Te Puea the Kiingitanga was a sacred trust, one that had been accepted unwillingly perhaps by her great-grandfather, King Potatau, but, nevertheless, an inheritance that must never be departed from. When Te Puea took a prominent part in its affairs in the reign of her uncle, King Mahuta, the Kiingitanga had, historically speaking, reached its lowest ebb. She lived to see it stronger than at any period since Tawhiao's days. That, undoubtedly, was her doing.
Let me speak of her for a moment as a Maori:
Though Te Puea had one Pakeha grandfather, it was as a Maori that she lived and died. At times her motives were misunderstood and criticised. When her people were imprisoned during the First World War because conscription was forced upon them, she led a passive resistance movement. If she had but lifted her finger there would have been bloodshed. Instead, she walked among them, a switch in her hand, as the police carried out her cousin, the late Te Rauangaanga, and though the people moaned in their anguish, not a soul stirred.
Maoridom, among the most conservative of the tribes, was her background, her environment, her heritage. Therefore, one must never assess Te Puea otherwise than as a Maori. From phase to phase she developed. When I knew her first she would not allow a Waikato child to go to school—though she was always grateful, and it stood her in good stead, for the little schooling she had had. Later, she became an earnest advocate of education for all Maoris. The prejudice that she had inherited against education was common to all Waikato in her young days. How many times have I heard her say: ‘Why educate our children? So that they may come back and rob us?’ …
Te Puea was a deeply religious woman.
Often I was with her when, always at 7 in the morning, and again at the same hour in the evening, the folk would gather round her for the simple karakia Hauhau, or service. Men and women, also the boys and girls, would come in from the farm, from the cowyards, and leave their boots or shoes on the mat outside her door. More often than not Te Puea would be too ill to leave her bed. Throughout her busy life those religious observances were never forgotten. Yet she always resisted baptism by any orthodox church. The return of the Hauhau ritual to Waikato (once a stronghold of the Church of England) came about in those days when its people were deep in gloom and sorrow because of the conscription of their youth. As they sat with her in a house at Mangatawhiri, Te Puea looked up suddenly and asked: ‘Is there no one here who can karakia?’ For a time there was silence. Then an old man from Taranaki stood, and with some diffidence began the Hauhau chant. From that day Te Puea and her followers observed that ritual.
For almost 30 years her companion was Tumokai Katipa. He was only a boy when the people arranged their marriage. It was Te Puea's great grief that, though she had mothered more than 40 children, she had no offspring of her own. Over the years he has been her devoted friend, everything that a husband could be, and as the years went by she leaned on him more and more. It was not easy, incidentally, to play Prince Consort to a woman who was his superior in rank, a leader of imperious will.
It was Tumokai who followed Te Puea when she decided in 1928 to throw her weight behind Ngata's communal farming scheme. That move was by no means popular in Waikato, whose people had always been anti-Government. The most unpleasant epithet they could bestow upon her was borne in patience. Te Puea was then known as ‘Mrs Government’. In Maori its significance is far deeper than in English: literally, she was the woman belonging to, or who had given herself to the Government.
Supported by the children, she toiled on a gorse-stricken area at Waiuku, and later at Rotorua, where a small Waikato cell that still exists was established. It was characteristic of Te Puea and her children that before they attempted to turn over the soil they took portions of it in their hands and wept over it.
Te Puea was always grateful to Ngata, who understood the psychological difficulties of Waikato as perhaps no outside leader could have done at that period. Years before he had studied Waikato at first hand. Once, he declared that Waikato from the point of sheer intellect, had no superior among the tribes. The partnership between Te Puea and Ngata enriched many Maori homes. One had to see the poverty that existed in Waikato 25 years ago, before that association, to appreciate the sore plight of those people.
To-day there is fresh hope for the future:
It was due to Te Puea that the Fraser Government's offer to settle the long-standing confiscation issue was accepted. That led to the establishment of the Tainui Trust Board which, for all time, will distribute an annual income for the betterment of the Tainui peoples. That perhaps was her greatest achievement. However, it was because there was a tacit admission of wrong-doing by a Government of former days that she accepted—not because of any possible monetary benefit.
We shall not again in our time see a woman like her—
Waikato, though ever jealous of male prerogatives, obeyed her implicity in all policy matters. Te Puea was the power behind the Maori throne—a born organiser, practical of mind though ever the visionary and mystic: able, shrewd and far-seeing. Also, let me say, Te Puea was an exceedingly generous woman: her benefactions extended into the Pacific, and far beyond the shores of this country.
May we remember her precept: ‘I work, I pray, I sleep, and I work again!’ It was my duty, over the years, to attend to much of her correspondence. Soon after receiving her C.B.E. from the late King George V she was asked by the British ‘Who's Who’ to supply her biography. ‘What does this mean?’ she asked. At first she was tempted to throw the form away. I explained its purport. All went well until we came to a query as to recreations. ‘I have no recreations,’ she answered. ‘Tell them I work, I pray, I sleep, and then I work again!’
The tired old heart that had battled on so bravely is now stilled. Te Puea did not achieve all she set her mind to, but she achieved more than is given to most people. May she join the ancestors in peace.
To Tumokai, to Koroki, to the kahui ariki, to Waikato, to all who mourn the last of the great Maoris of our day and generation, and especially to those who served her so devotedly, I offer my aroha and sympathy …
Haere, e taku tuahine! Haere! Haere, e kui, haere ki te Po, haere ki te iwi! Haere! Haere! Haere!
(This talk was broadcast by Mr Ramsden on October 15, 1952, at 9 p.m.)