A new biography of Ruatara appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Ruatara was a member of the chiefly line of the Hikutu hapu of the Ngapuhi tribe and was the son of Kaparu. He was a nephew of Hongi Hika and of Te Pahi, and was a close relative, probably cousin, of Waikato. Inspired by his relatives' tales, Ruatara decided to visit some of the countries they had seen. In 1805, therefore, he shipped as a seaman in the whaler Argo, but after 12 months' service he was abandoned by the captain in Sydney. He then sailed in the whaler Albion and returned to the Bay of Islands after a six months' voyage. In 1807, in the hope of reaching England, Ruatara joined the sealer Santa Anna. He spent five months in sealing at the Bounty Islands. He then went via Norfolk Island to England, arriving at London in July 1809.
Shortly after his arrival, Ruatara asked if he could see the King and was disappointed when this could not be arranged. Fifteen days later, when the captain had no further use for his services, he was put on the convict ship Ann, bound for Sydney via Rio de Janiero. Marsden, who happened to be returning to New South Wales on the ship, took care of him and arranged for him to work his passage. They arrived in Sydney in February 1810 and Ruatara spent the next few months at Parramatta, where he joined several Maoris who were learning agriculture. In October 1810 he sailed for New Zealand in the Frederick, but the captain refused to land him at the Bay of Islands and finally abandoned him at Norfolk Island. He was picked up, almost destitute, by the Ann and returned to Sydney and was in Marsden's care until late 1811 or early 1812, when he returned to New Zealand.
Ruatara brought a large quantity of wheat back with him and, a little later, Marsden gave him a mill to grind it. By 1814 he had laid the foundations of a flourishing wheat industry. When Kendall arrived at the Bay of Islands, Ruatara and Hongi accompanied him to Sydney to make arrangements for Marsden's proposed mission station. He returned with Marsden in December 1814 and was present at the first Christian service. Unfortunately, his many adventures had undermined his health, and when Marsden arrived he was declining rapidly. Ruatara died on 3 March 1815; the task of protecting the mission passed to Hongi.
Marsden found Ruatara “a man of comparatively great knowledge, who loved his country, and was most anxious for its welfare”. In addition, however, Ruatara possessed considerable business acumen but plans for milling wheat for export to Sydney ended with his illness and death.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Marsden Letters and Journals, Elder, J. R. (ed.) (1932).