A new biography of White, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
John White was born on 3 January 1826 at Cockfield, Durham, England, the third son of Francis White (1800–77) and of Jane, née Angus (died 1868). He was a nephew of the Rev. William White, one of the early Wesleyan missionaries who served at Wesleydale and Mangungu. He arrived at the Bay of Islands with his parents in October 1835 and settled at Hokianga, where his father entered the timber trade. Towards the end of the decade White and his younger brother were sent to England to finish their schooling, returning to New Zealand in October 1840. At Hokianga White spent much of his time among the Maoris and came to speak their language fluently. Friendly tohungas taught him Maori lore and customs and initiated him into the mysteries of the sacerdotal speech and ceremonial. The family remained at Hokianga throughout the Heke uprising, and White himself was present at the Ruapekapeka engagement. In 1851 White moved to Auckland, where he secured employment as a Government interpreter. He interpreted for Grey and Gore Browne and assisted Wynyard while the latter was negotiating for the Coromandel goldfields. When the goldfield was proclaimed, White was appointed Goldfield Commissioner under Heaphy, but soon transferred to the Survey Department as Native Lands Purchaser. In this post he arranged the purchase of the Waitakere block near Auckland. During the Taranaki War he acted as field interpreter to Generals Pratt and Cameron. He was present at the battle of Puketakauere and had several narrow escapes during the fighting. Shortly afterwards White was appointed Resident Magistrate for the central Wanganui district. Here he soon became acquainted with the principal chiefs of the district, attended all their meetings, and instructed them in English law and customs. He conducted his Court so satisfactorily that Hemi Hape, the chief who had led the Wanganui uprising of 1848, gave his adherence to the Crown. Prior to the Moutoa Island battle (1865), White warned Eponaia and his Hauhau band not to invade the lower Wanganui district. In 1867 he returned to Auckland to handle claims for the newly established Native Lands Court. He was transferred to Napier in 1874 and for some time edited Te Wananga, a Maori language newspaper.
By this time White was widely known as a Maori scholar. He had published a number of books and papers, including Maori Superstitions (1856); Lectures on Maori Customs and Superstitions (1861); Nga Tikanga o te Whakatupu me te Mahinga o te Tupeka (1867); Te Rou – or the Maori at Home (1874); and Plan of Maori Mythology (1878). In 1876 the New Zealand Government commissioned him to prepare a compilation of the traditional history of the Maoris. This work, the Ancient History of the Maori (1887–91), was originally planned to occupy 12 volumes. The Government's interest in commissioning such a work is easily explained. It was realised that the increasing spread of European education would entail the closing of traditional tribal schools and that, as the old tohungas died, much valuable tribal lore would be forgotten. White, who was the foremost European authority on the Maoris and who had been partly educated by the old tohungas, was paid to collect as much of this material as possible in the hope that most of the Maoris' traditional lore would be preserved. Altogether, six volumes were published in White's lifetime and four more were drafted. In 1885 he moved to Wellington, where he continued his work on the Ancient History in addition to his duties with the Native Land Court.
In 1854, at Auckland, White married Mary Elizabeth Bagnall. He died during a visit to Auckland on 13 January 1891, leaving three sons and four daughters.
White enjoyed a high reputation in public and private life. Although recent authors have criticised his mode of presenting the material in Ancient History, it must be remembered that he was not writing a history of the Maoris but compiling their traditional lore from authentic sources. His presentation therefore follows the traditional Maori pattern. Besides his published works White left several manuscripts. These included a large Maori Dictionary; a novel, Hani – or the New Zealand Revenge, which is similar in design to Te Rou; and another novel, Revenge – A Maori Love Story, which was published in 1940.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Revenge – A Maori Love Story, White, J. (1940)
- White's Ancient History of the Maori, Andersen, J. C. (1947)
- Auckland Evening Star, 13 Jan 1891 (Obit).