Soldier and civil servant
A new biography of Mair, Gilbert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Gilbert Mair was a son of Gilbert Mair, an early settler and trader of the Bay of Islands, who later removed to Whangarei. Mair was born on his father's farm at Deveron, Whangarei, on 10 January 1843. During his early youth he assisted his father in his kauri gum export business, in the course of which he came to know many of the Arawa tribe who had come north to the gum-fields from the Rotorua district. He became a fluent Maori linguist and took a keen interest in the race, its traditions, history, and customs.
In 1860 Mair was articled to the Surveyor-General at Auckland and gained a provincial surveyor's certificate in 1864. He was acting as Clerk of Court and interpreter at the Resident Magistrate's Court at Tauranga when the Paimarire cult spread to the Bay of Plenty and fighting broke out. He immediately volunteered for active service, joining Colonel Haultain's Waikato Regiment. His natural military talent and knowledge of bush-craft soon brought him into prominence. During seven years of service in the field he took part in many actions, often in association with his elder brother Major W. G. Mair. His first action was at Irihanga and Whakamarama, and during the latter engagement, under heavy fire, he rescued a mortally wounded soldier. For this he was mentioned in dispatches. He took part in the savage fighting which followed on the Hautere plateau, and for gallantry in leading an attack on the enemy rifle pits at Te Taumata was promoted to Ensign. In a brilliant lone scouting expedition he ascertained that a large enemy force had gone off in the direction of Rotorua. With a small force he managed to reach Ohinemutu just as the Hauhaus arrived and, after a fierce fight, drove them back and later captured Puraku pa, held by the main body under Kihitu. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 25 April 1867.
In January 1868 Mair accompanied Hon. W. Rolleston to Chatham Islands to take charge of the Maori prisoners there, but was so dissatisfied at the conditions that he refused the position. While there he met Te Kooti. Their next encounter was when he assisted Major Mair to drive him back into the Urewera after the raid on Whakatane.
When the Government decided to attack the Hauhaus on their ground, Mair was placed in charge of a force of Arawa and attached to Colonel George Whitmore's column, which advanced on Ruatahuna by way of Ahikereru and the Tarapounamu Range. Acting as advance guard to the column Mair's force stormed Te Harema pa. After the junction with Colonel St. John's force at Ruatahuna, Mair was dispatched to ascertain what had happened to Colonel Herrick's force, which was to have come via Waikaremoana, but he soon ran into Te Kooti's advance guard returning from a raid on Mohaka and, after a brisk engagement, drove it back. In February 1870 when Te Kooti, after a fruitless visit to the Maori King to solicit support, attacked Rotorua, Mair again intercepted the Hauhaus in the nick of time and prevented a massacre of the inhabitants. In a long running fight he inflicted heavy casualties on the raiders and shot Peka Makarini, Te Kooti's notorious lieutenant. This bold and successful action, which Whitmore regarded as the turning point of the war, earned Mair promotion to Captain and the New Zealand Cross, awarded to him on 1 April 1886. From 1870 to 1872 he was continually engaged in the Urewera campaign harrying Te Kooti and his diminishing band in the rugged forest country which was now their only refuge. At Waipaoa he found the Hauhaus in a fortified camp which he attacked, driving out the enemy with loss and all but capturing Te Kooti himself.
After Te Kooti's escape to the King Country and the close of the war, Mair was appointed interpreter to the House of Representatives. He also gave valuable service as a land-purchase officer. For different periods he acted as Government agent at Tauranga, president of the Ikaroa Maori Land Board, member of the Arawa Maori council, and Native Resident Magistrate. In 1881 he acted as aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-Colonel Roberts at Parihaka.
During a period of 50 years following the close of hostilities, Mair served as guide to many notable visitors to Rotorua, including Sir George Grey and successive Governors, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Earl of Pembroke, Mark Twain, G. A. Sala, Trollope, and J. A. Froude. He married Katherine Sperry in 1888 and they had one daughter. After the termination of his position as interpreter, Mair farmed at Foxton, Waihi, Rerewhakaaitu, and Ohope. He died at Tauranga on 29 November 1923.
Gilbert Mair was perhaps the most colourful officer in the Colonial forces during the final stages of the Maori War. An expert Maori linguist with a profound knowledge of the people and their background, he was particularly well adapted to his tasks, both civil and military. Possessed of great courage, skill in bushcraft, and a tireless and athletic physique, he instilled a sense of devotion in his picked Maori force that rendered it a formidable instrument in subduing the desperate and fanatical followers of Te Kooti. Mair was the only European to be admitted to full chieftainship of the Arawa tribe, of which he remained a stout champion until his death.
by George Conrad Petersen, Editor, Who's Who in New Zealand, Palmerston North.
- Journals (MSS) Turnbull Library
- The Mair Family, Andersen, J. C., Petersen, G. C. (1956)
- Annals of a New Zealand Family, Jackson, J. H. (1935).