Page 1: Biography
Ngāti Awa leader, carver
This biography, written by Hirini Mead, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993, and updated in November, 2010.
Wēpiha Apanui (also known as Wēpiha Te Mautaranui) was the son of Apanui Te Hāmaiwaho and Mīria Tārei of Ngāti Awa. He was the first-born of two brothers and two sisters; the date and place of his birth are unknown. Wēpiha had family connections with Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Hokopū based in Whakatāne, and Ngāti Wharepāia, also of Whakatāne. He was trained as a carver by his father; they worked as a team for a number of years. It is not known which meeting houses, storehouses or canoes they carved, with the exception of the meeting houses Mātaatua and Hotunui.
As a carver and a member of a chiefly family, Wēpiha epitomised the educated élite of Ngāti Awa and indeed of the Mātaatua tribes in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When Sir George Grey introduced his rūnanga policy in 1861 Ngāti Awa embraced the idea with enthusiasm. The very first rūnanga o Ngāti Awa was established in 1862 and included Te Tāwera, Ngāi Te Rangihouhiri, Ngāti Hikakino, Te Pahīpoto and Patutātahi. Ngāti Pūkeko did not join. Each sub-region of Ngāti Awa formed its own regional rūnanga. On 14 May 1862 at Te Awa-a-te-Atua a rūnanga consisting of Te Tāwera, Ngāi Te Rangihouhiri and Ngāti Hikakino was formed. Whakatāne was represented by Hoani Poururu, Pauro Heipoti and Wēpiha Apanui. This was called Te Rūnanga o Te Horo; Wēpiha was an active member of the rūnanga.
Wēpiha played a part in some of the most traumatic events of Ngāti Awa history. The Hauhau movement reached the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast early in 1865. Sections of Ngāi Te Rangihouhiri and Ngāti Hokopū became interested, and Wēpiha is said to have been a convert. He was present at Ōpōtiki in March 1865 when Te Whakatōhea, with the encouragement of Kereopa Te Rau, decided the fate of the Anglican missionary, Carl Völkner, who had been accused of spying for the government. On 2 March 1865 the unfortunate Völkner was executed by the Hauhau. Ngāti Awa made strenuous efforts to distance themselves from any association with Völkner's death. Wēpiha wrote a letter to Grey saying Ngāti Awa had no part in it and that Te Whakatōhea had been totally responsible. The letter was signed by the chiefs of Whakatāne including those of Ngāti Pūkeko. The chiefs were Tamarangi Toihau, Apanui, Heremia Mōkai, Kawakura, Kapaiere and Wēpiha Te Mautaranui.
Wēpiha also signed a letter written in March by the assessor Hōhaia Mata-ka-hokia of Ngāti Pūkeko in order to give it additional force. This letter informed Te Arawa that an aukati or boundary had been placed around Ngāti Awa territory, which was therefore a prohibited area. Evidently the chiefs had been informed that Te Arawa were making plans to invade Ngāti Awa on behalf of the government. In the previous year Te Arawa had prevented reinforcements from the Bay of Plenty from reaching the beseiged Ngāti Maniapoto pā at Orakau. On that occasion Te Arawa were supported by the government with arms and gunboats, and this technological and political advantage was not lost on Ngāti Awa.
In July 1865 James Te Mautaranui Fulloon came to the Bay of Plenty to arrest those involved in the killing of Völkner. He was a kinsman of Wēpiha Apanui but was working for military intelligence. After disregarding a warning at Tauranga not to proceed further, he was killed at Whakatāne. In response to these events, martial law was declared in September. A force of militia invaded the Bay of Plenty. Wēpiha seems not to have been involved in the subsequent fighting. Much Ngāti Awa land was confiscated and redistributed to non-combatants and to chiefs seen to have been supporters of the government. The scene of battle then changed to the courts of the settler government. Wēpiha was involved in many of the cases and his name appears often in the lists of owners of various land blocks.
Wēpiha will be remembered most for two important meeting houses which he helped to build and carve. The first was the meeting house Mātaatua. The Apanui family played a large part in the carving of this house, with Wēpiha being in overall charge of the building and the artwork. Mātaatua took four years to build and was opened at Whakatāne on 8 March 1875. Sir Donald McLean, then native minister, was the guest of honour. Mātaatua has had a chequered history. It has been asserted that it was offered as a gift to Queen Victoria, but there is no contemporary evidence for this and certainly no proof that such a gift was ever accepted. It stood at Whakatāne for a number of years before beginning an exhibition tour which included Sydney and London. At one point Wēpiha became so annoyed with the use of the house for this purpose that he offered to sell it to the government; the offer was refused. Mātaatua was eventually lodged in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. There it was discovered, in a rather dilapidated condition, by H. D. Skinner, who secured its return to New Zealand in the 1920s. The government conveyed it to the Otago University Museum (now the Otago Museum) where extensive renovation work was carried out. Ngāti Awa have for many years asked for its return, and this happened in 1996.
Wēpiha and his team also built and carved the meeting house Hotunui. It was built in 1878 as a wedding gift for Wēpiha's sister, Mereana, and her husband, Ngāti Maru leader Wīrope Hōtereni Taipari. Many of the pieces were carved at Whakatāne. An escort of 70 Ngāti Awa people then took the carvings to Pārāwai in the Hauraki–Thames region. Mereana later attributed the building of the house to her father, Te Hāmaiwaho, and not to Wēpiha, but it is plain in the stories told about the house that it was Wēpiha who was the effective builder and carver. Hotunui now stands in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Hotunui was, in part, a tribute to Te Hura Te Taiwhakaripi of Ngāi Te Rangihouhiri, one of the leaders in the wars of the 1860s. One of the poupou (uprights) in the porch is a carved representation and commemoration of Te Hura so that the tragedy of the confiscation suffered by Ngāti Awa is memorialised in the meeting house.
That two of the greatest works of a Māori artist should have survived into the present time is surprising. It is even more surprising that Wēpiha and his people were able to create these beautiful buildings during a time of traumatic change. Mātaatua and Hotunui stand as monuments to Wēpiha's artistic skills.
It is not known when or where Wēpiha died. If he married he left no issue, and the chieftainship passed to the line of his brother, Hoani. Hoani's son, Hurinui Apanui, became the leading chief of Ngāti Awa. He also had no issue, so that the Apanui line became a whare ngaro (lost house), with continuation eventually resting in the female line.