FREDERICK AUGUSTUS BENNETT
The Bennett family has a tradition for “firsts”.
John Boyle Bennett, a Doctor of Divinity and a Doctor of Medicine, emigrated to New Zealand at the invitation of Sir George Grey, to become the first Registrar General of New Zealand. He died in 1880 and is buried in the Bowen St. Cemetery, Wellington.
His grandson, Frederick Augustus Bennett, became the first Maori Anglican Bishop when he was consecrated in the Napier Cathedral in 1929. His brother, Henry, was the first deputy Mayor of Wellington.
Paratene, a son of Bishop Bennett's, obtained his commission in the Royal Navy, becoming the first Maori to do so.
Now Charles Moihi Bennett, a brother of Para's has, with his appointment as High Commissioner for New Zealand in Malaya, become the first Maori to enter the diplomatic field.
Fred Bennett spent his childhood at a little place called Te Mu, at Wairoa in the Rotorua district. His Irish father, Jackson Bennett, married Raiha Ratete, a high chieftainess of Te Arawa and from this union, the boy Fred received a thorough grounding in both English and Maori. As a mere child of nine or ten years of age, Freddie, as he was affectionately called by all who knew him, acted as interpreter to the elderly Maori folk who, in most cases, had no English. One can picture this child, surrounded by his tattooed elders, teaching them as best he could the rudiments of English. It is also possible to picture the older folk, sitting round in a semi circle, drinking in the pearls of pakeha wisdom that fell from the child's lips. This was to prove a great training ground for the able speaker and church leader he was later to become.
One day, Bishop Suter, who was the Bishop of Nelson, accompanied by Archdeacon Chatterton, paid a visit to Te Mu after sending word that they intended holding a service there on the following Sunday. Freddie had never seen a pakeha Bishop, and, full of excitement, gathered the people round and announced the news of the Bishop's pending arrival. Immediately after the announcement, preparations were put in hand for the feast which would, as a matter of course, follow the service, conducted by such a celebrity.
The eagerly awaited Sunday duly arrived and found young Freddie speeding along to ring the Church bell which was one of his self-imposed tasks. He became very attached to the little bell.
Even as a youngster, Freddie had a sweet voice, an asset which he possessed to the end of his days and which was to change the whole course of his life, for when the Bishop and the Archdeacon heard his voice singing lustily a hymn called ‘Oti rawa’ they immediately began an unsuccessful search for the singer. Finally they departed, but the Bishop, as if drawn by some spiritual impulse, returned unannounced, and held another service. The same hymn was sung and on this occasion the Bishop managed to locate the singer. At the conclusion of the service the Bishop asked Freddie if he would like to go to Nelson with him and receive a pakeha education. Freddie quickly agreed but stipulated that it must be with his parents consent and forthwith, in his excitement, ran most of the fourteen miles to obtain it. This being granted, they eventually made their way down to Nelson. The Bishop, however, was faced with a problem, for he realised that he would have to notify Archdeacon Chatterton of his impending arrival and that he was bringing Freddie with him, but the Archdeacon was not aware of the boy's name. Finally he compromised by sending a wire saying that he would arrive on a certain day and that he was bringing ‘Oti rawa’ with him—the name of the hymn they had been singing at the service when they had first noticed the boy.
CALL TO THE CLERGY
At Nelson, Fred Bennett first attended the Bishopdale School which was conducted by the Bishop, and later attended Nelson College, applying himself diligently to his studies, and also excelling at sport, particularly swimming and rugby.
When Bishop Suter died in 1891, Fred Bennett went to Wanganui where he worked as a lay evangelist. There he was very happy to renew his acquaintance with his beloved mother tongue. In 1896 he returned to Nelson to be ordained deacon, and was priested the following year.
From Nelson he moved to Taranaki and later, to his old home at Rotorua where he spent many happy years. From Rotorua he moved to Hawkes Bay where he supervised the Maori Mission work.
THE FIGHT FOR TEMPERANCE
While stationed at Taranaki, he found it increasingly difficult to combat the influence of the prophet Te Whiti who, with his followers, wanted to isolate himself entirely from everything pakeha. Fred Bennett found the work most frustrating. The people would not permit him to even take a baptismal service. Then, one day, in the midst of this opposition, he was told that he might conduct a funeral service. At last, he felt, he was making a little headway. A total abstainer through the conviction that the people
At Rotorua, he continued his campaign against liquor. On one occasion out of respect for this young man, all hotels closed their doors for the duration of a conference among the Maori people.
One of the finest orators in New Zealand, Fred Bennett was, during the past half century, possibly the greatest single influence upon the Christian outlook of the Maori people. Equally at home in either English or Maori, his eloquence was such that he invariably held his audiences and congregations enthralled.
THE BISHOP OF AOTEAROA
In 1929, Fred Bennett was elevated to the episcopate, becoming the first Anglican Maori Bishop.
A few years later, when on a voyage to Rarotonga to recuperate after a severe illness, the ship Tahiti, upon which he was sailing, sank in mid-ocean. There is a belief among Maori families of distinction and importance than an influence guards and watches over them. This belief goes back into antiquity. The Bishop's family influence was symbolised by the shark and on looking over the side of the sinking ship, sure enough, there was a huge shark swimming to and fro along side.
On his eventual return to New Zealand, he was told that Mita Taupopoki, Arawa chieftain, lay dying at Rotorua. The Bishop immediately set out from his home at Kohupatiki, Hawkes Bay, for Whakarewarewa. The old chief said that he was not going to pass on until he had seen ‘his boy’ as he called the Bishop, and heard all about his adventure on the Tahiti. When the Bishop duly arrived and began his tale, Mita showed his interest by questioning him closely. When Bishop Bennett admitted that he was more than a little scared at the thought of the huge shark which appeared to be patiently waiting for a Maori meal, the old, dying chief perked up and began to chuckle. “You should not have
been alarmed,” he said, “Had you forgotten that the shark was there to protect you?”
Bishop Bennett was born at Ohinemutu, Rotorua, on the 18th November, 1872, in a little raupo whare beside the lake on Te Arawa's sacred marae.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
It is difficult to imagine what such an opportunity as was presented by Bishop Suter, meant to the boy. He once confided to the writer that, as a child, he considered himself very fortunate to have a seat to his pants. It is a matter of conjecture as to what would have become of the lad had not the kindly Bishop shown an interest in him and provided an opportunity which was to permit him to climb to the top of his still-to-be-chosen profession. In those days it was the exception rather than the rule to find a Maori working at a ‘white collar’ job. In any case, less than a month after the boy had accompanied the Bishop, adjacent Tarawera literally blew its top, burying the village and destroying the church which had been the scene of Fred's encounter with the Bishop of Nelson.
On one occasion when visiting Rotorua, Bishop Bennett met a man who claimed to be able to locate metals by ‘divining’. The Bishop had never forgotten the little bell belonging to the Church at Te Mu and had always entertained a tender feeling for this bell which he had rung as a child. Thrilled with the prospect of finding the bell which had lain hidden all these years the diviner set to work and paced off first in one direction, then in another, with the rod always dipping over a certain spot. The men began digging through layers of earth, mud and stone, legacy of the Tarawera eruption. Their disappointment at finding, not the bell, but one of the huge, old fashioned, wrought iron hinges which were the vogue of the day, can be left to the imagination. Their surprise and delight can also be imagined at finding a wire running alongside the hinge, which the Bishop knew led to the bell. Feverishly they renewed their digging and soon unearthed the bell which had remained buried under the debris from 1886 to 1934.
The bell was removed to Whakarewarewa and deposited in the church there where a most uncanny atmosphere was created by the elders of the people, some of whom had been living at Te Mu at the time of the eruption, while others were their descendants. While yet far off, they began wailing and keening as though addressing a person recently returned from the dead.
One of the most brightly glowing jewels in the scintillating crown of Bishop Bennett's achievements was undoubtedly the invitation he received to preach in Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral, on the occasion of his visit to England in order to attend the Lambeth Conference. Both the Abbey and the Cathedral were packed and, as usual, his moving sermons held the congregations spell bound.
Bishop Bennett was held in such high esteem that at his death on the 16th September, 1950, he was mourned by many thousands of people, both pakeha and Maori. Freezing works near his home in Hawkes Bay ceased work and shops in Napier city closed their doors, as a mark of respect.
Arawa tradition lays it down that a body may not be brought on to the marae after sundown. The Bishop's cortege was held up all along the route between his home in Hawkes Bay where he died and Rotorua, by the many hundreds who wanted to pay their respects. As a consequence, it was nearly ten o'clock before they arrived on the outskirts of the town. Special dispensation had to be obtained before the coffin could be received on Te Arawa's marae.
Frederick Augustus Bennett, First Bishop of Aotearoa, lies buried in a vault beside the beautiful little church of St Faith's which he built as a young man, alongside the lake he loved at Ohinemutu—a fitting memorial to a great spiritual leader.
* * *
DECISION ON NGATIAWA PROFITS
After three years of litigation, the Court of Appeal has decided on the distribution of the profits from the Ngatiawa Maori Land Development scheme. Maori owners of the land are entitled to one-twelfth of the profits from the scheme.
The origin of the Ngatiawa scheme lay in the confiscation of Maori land after the murder of Rev. Volkner in 1865. Some of this land was later returned to Maori owners, and this land has been developed and farmed under Maori Land Development since 1930. However, along with the Maori land, the department farmed a further 4600 acres bought by the Crown.
When the Maoris in 1955 started their Court action, they contended that the land bought by the Crown in the 1930's had only been held in trust for the Maori owners, and that they were therefore entitled to the profits from that land. With this, the Crown did not agree.
In the end, the Court of Appeal decided against the owners for various reasons. The decision will be of interest to owners of other blocks in similar circumstances, for there have been more cases where the Crown bought and developed land along with Maori land development schemes. This not only helped to make development economic, but also provided work for Maori unemployed in years of depression.
In these cases the Maori owners are entitled only to such part of the profits as has been made out of their own lands.