Page 1: Biography
Ngati Awa leader, carver
This biography, written by Hirini Mead, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 2, 1993, and updated in November, 2010.
Wepiha Apanui (also known as Wepiha Te Mautaranui) was the son of Apanui Te Hamaiwaho and Miria Tarei of Ngati Awa. He was the first-born of two brothers and two sisters; the date and place of his birth are unknown. Wepiha had family connections with Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Hokopu based in Whakatane, and Ngati Wharepaia, also of Whakatane. 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 Mataatua and Hotunui.
As a carver and a member of a chiefly family, Wepiha epitomised the educated élite of Ngati Awa and indeed of the Mataatua tribes in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When Sir George Grey introduced his runanga policy in 1861 Ngati Awa embraced the idea with enthusiasm. The very first Runanga o Ngati Awa was established in 1862 and included Te Tawera, Ngai Te Rangihouhiri, Ngati Hikakino, Te Pahipoto and Patutatahi. Ngati Pukeko did not join. Each sub-region of Ngati Awa formed its own regional runanga. On 14 May 1862 at Te Awa-a-te-Atua a runanga consisting of Te Tawera, Ngai Te Rangihouhiri and Ngati Hikakino was formed. Whakatane was represented by Hoani Poururu, Pauro Heipoti and Wepiha Apanui. This was called Te Runanga o Te Horo; Wepiha was an active member of the runanga.
Wepiha played a part in some of the most traumatic events of Ngati Awa history. The Hauhau movement reached the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast early in 1865. Sections of Ngai Te Rangihouhiri and Ngati Hokopu became interested, and Wepiha is said to have been a convert. He was present at Opotiki in March 1865 when Te Whakatohea, 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. Ngati Awa made strenuous efforts to distance themselves from any association with Völkner's death. Wepiha wrote a letter to Grey saying Ngati Awa had no part in it and that Te Whakatohea had been totally responsible. The letter was signed by the chiefs of Whakatane including those of Ngati Pukeko. The chiefs were Tamarangi Toihau, Apanui, Heremia Mokai, Kawakura, Kapaiere and Wepiha Te Mautaranui.
Wepiha also signed a letter written in March by the assessor Hohaia Mata-ka-hokia of Ngati Pukeko in order to give it additional force. This letter informed Te Arawa that an aukati or boundary had been placed around Ngati Awa territory, which was therefore a prohibited area. Evidently the chiefs had been informed that Te Arawa were making plans to invade Ngati Awa on behalf of the government. In the previous year Te Arawa had prevented reinforcements from the Bay of Plenty from reaching the beseiged Ngati Maniapoto pa 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 Ngati 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 Wepiha Apanui but was working for military intelligence. After disregarding a warning at Tauranga not to proceed further, he was killed at Whakatane. In response to these events, martial law was declared in September. A force of militia invaded the Bay of Plenty. Wepiha seems not to have been involved in the subsequent fighting. Much Ngati 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. Wepiha was involved in many of the cases and his name appears often in the lists of owners of various land blocks.
Wepiha will be remembered most for two important meeting houses which he helped to build and carve. The first was the meeting house Mataatua. The Apanui family played a large part in the carving of this house, with Wepiha being in overall charge of the building and the artwork. Mataatua took four years to build and was opened at Whakatane on 8 March 1875. Sir Donald McLean, then native minister, was the guest of honour. Mataatua 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 Whakatane for a number of years before beginning an exhibition tour which included Sydney and London. At one point Wepiha 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. Mataatua 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. Ngati Awa have for many years asked for its return, and this happened in 1996.
Wepiha and his team also built and carved the meeting house Hotunui. It was built in 1878 as a wedding gift for Wepiha's sister, Mereana, and her husband, Ngati Maru leader Wirope Hotereni Taipari. Many of the pieces were carved at Whakatane. An escort of 70 Ngati Awa people then took the carvings to Parawai in the Hauraki–Thames region. Mereana later attributed the building of the house to her father, Te Hamaiwaho, and not to Wepiha, but it is plain in the stories told about the house that it was Wepiha 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 Ngai 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 Ngati Awa is memorialised in the meeting house.
That two of the greatest works of a Maori artist should have survived into the present time is surprising. It is even more surprising that Wepiha and his people were able to create these beautiful buildings during a time of traumatic change. Mataatua and Hotunui stand as monuments to Wepiha's artistic skills.
It is not known when or where Wepiha 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 Ngati 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.