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Story: Harris, Edward Francis

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Harris, Edward Francis

1834–1898

Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti and Rongowhakaata; public servant, interpreter, landowner, genealogist

This biography, written by R. De Z. Hall, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

According to family information, Edward Francis Harris, also known as Eruera Paranihi Hārete, was born on 13 May 1834 at Tūranga (Gisborne). He was the elder of two sons of Tukura-ā-Rangi and John Williams Harris. Through his mother he had affiliations with Ngāti Oneone of Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngāi Te Aweawe of Rongowhakaata, and Te Whānau-a-Ngāherehere, kin to Ngāti Kōhatu. In 1831 his father, John Harris, had arrived to start a trading business for a Sydney firm. He was welcomed by Māori leaders (including Rawiri Te Eke, Tukura's relative), acquired a wife and a little land, and later became a farmer.

It was decided that Edward should have a European upbringing and in 1839 he was sent to the Normal Institution, Sydney, for his education. He stayed there, under the care of Harris relatives, until the end of 1845. By this time his mother is thought to have died.

Back in New Zealand at the family farm on the Ōpou block, near Awapuni on the Poverty Bay flats, Edward and his brother, Henry, were misfits. They had no prospects and little in common with the children of the neighbouring Māori settlement, Tapatahi.

In early 1851 Donald McLean, working as a land purchase commissioner, came to Poverty Bay to assess – and reject – the possibility of European farmer settlement there. He stayed near Ōpou, and he and John Harris took a liking to one another. When McLean was about to leave, John Harris asked if he would take Edward with him, to get him a start in life. McLean agreed to help. At first Edward went to work for the missionary Richard Taylor at Whanganui. While there he helped in the Māori school and carried out farm and labouring chores. Later he was engaged in farming at Waipukurau, but by April 1854 he had taken up a clerk–interpreter post in McLean's Wellington office. He seemed destined for a secure if humdrum career in a European environment.

It appears, however, that Edward Harris was ambivalent about both his future and his past. He kept in contact with his father; and then, in December 1854, John Harris married Jacintha Adelaide Hargraves. It is perhaps more than coincidence that Edward took leave soon afterwards and made enquiries about his mother's tribal affiliations. According to family traditions he approached the paramount chief Te Kani a Takirau at Uawa (Tolaga Bay), who referred him to an elder.

Like his brother Henry, Edward wanted to return to the East Coast, but he concluded, 'the fact is that Turanga is no longer a home for either of us.' However, in late 1855 Edward applied for and obtained the newly established post of resident magistrate's clerk at Ahuriri (Napier). He settled at Ahuriri and on 9 March 1857 at St Peter's Church, Wellington, married Annie Cheesman, the daughter of a Wellington solicitor. The couple were to have seven children, one of whom died in infancy.

In the succeeding years Edward Harris found it increasingly difficult to find peace of mind and make a settled living. In 1859 he resigned from his job because of, he reported to McLean, an 'imputation cast upon me'. He then appealed to his father for assistance. John Harris had acquired land near Ōpou, and he set his son up with the means of developing it. Within a year the venture had failed, and a despairing John Harris wrote to McLean that any further aid would only impoverish him with no prospect of result. His fear was that Edward might 'relapse into the style of many of our old Pākehā Māori' and earn a living from casual employment.

Edward Harris himself ceased to hope for success. He too wrote to McLean early in 1861: he had decided to go abroad to a place where 'European labour being so much in demand, one could not readily be placed in a situation of pecuniary distress'. Meanwhile, his father-in-law, R. S. Cheesman, had offered to care for his wife and children, and they had left him. However, Harris did not act on his first intention. It is believed that he worked in a store of the principal Poverty Bay trader, G. E. Read, for several years.

In the end, Harris went with two neighbours to the Otago goldfields, where his family rejoined him. His eldest son, Frank, later recalled a series of gold rushes which took the family to the West Coast. During the mid-1860s Harris held various official positions, including registrar of marriages for the districts of River Grey and Cobden, and clerk at the District Court of Westland.

It is not clear how Harris was occupied after 1870. One attractive possibility is that he was re-employed by the Native Department. McLean had returned to a position of power in the Fox–Vogel government formed in mid 1869. In 1873 a new native land act was passed to take effect at the beginning of 1874. It contained administrative provisions to ensure full preparation of land claims before they came up in the Native Land Court; one requirement was the recording of genealogies. There is a suggestion that McLean appointed Harris to compile Māori genealogies for the East Coast area in 1873.

Edward Harris and his family returned to Gisborne in October 1873, the month the new law was enacted. Harris built a house on the Kaitī block, across the Tūranganui River from Gisborne, and lived there until late in his life, a neighbour of the leading chief, Hirini Te Kani, and close to the meeting house Te Poho-o-Rāwiri. The division of the Kaitī block was about to be considered in the Native Land Court. The outcome, under the old legislation, was the grant of undivided freehold in general terms, recording only the names of the principal claimants. However, the flow of European settlers was just beginning, and Māori freeholders began seeking partition of their communal tenure into individual, negotiable portions of land. Edward Harris soon set up business as a licensed interpreter. The licence gave him standing to appear in the Native Land Court, and he found a talent for advocacy which in later years he displayed in Hawke's Bay as well as Gisborne.

In the mid-1880s Edward Harris became an owner of land, using his Māori name Eruera Hārete, when the Kaitī block was developed. W. L. Rees, under the auspices of the New Zealand Native Land Settlement Company, promoted a development scheme which excised nearly 250 acres from the block. This area was divided into small urban sections, bordered by larger suburban sections and peripheral smallholdings. Streets were named after the owners of the block, who were allotted sections. Conspicuous among the owners were Hirini Te Kani and Harris. They, with Wī Pere, became trustees for the land of the marae. Harris's sections were mostly scattered, but he had a compact 10-acre block to the north of Kaitī township. Here he built a new house, Mangamutu. He also owned an inland area, which by 1890 had a flock of sheep numbering over 1,000.

Meanwhile, the genealogy project, never again mentioned as a government undertaking, continued to be a personal interest for Edward Harris. He was assisted by his son, Frank, who from 1873 until about 1885 had been away from home, working on a farm. The first fair copy of a collection of whakapapa, well cross-referenced, has survived. Frank's contribution was as amanuensis, but there are interpolations in his father's hand. There may be around 2,500 names in this version. A later version, with twice the number of names, also has data in Edward's writing, but it is evident that at some point Frank took over the editing. Along with another large collection, which is wholly Frank's work, it was presented to the Native Land Court in 1920 and later transferred to Gisborne Public Library. In addition, Edward Harris kept a series of notebooks on his Māori interests. One notebook records Māori chants and songs, including the lament of his mother, Tukura, when he was sent away to school.

Edward remained prominent in the European community. He associated with the lawyers who specialised in land dealings, and took part in European recreational and civic activities. The Gisborne Bowling Club found a site after he arranged the first sales of sections by Māori vendors. His pair of bowls survives as evidence of active interest: when he died, he had been president of the club since 1896. He became a member of the Cook County Council, a trustee of Gisborne Hospital, and chairman of the Pouawa and Kaitī road boards. His genealogical interests ultimately included his own Pākehā ancestry: towards the end of his life he wrote a brief memoir of his father, John Harris.

Edward Harris died on 26 July 1898 from chronic kidney disease, at his home, Mangamutu, at Kaitī, and was buried in the graveyard of the Kaitī Anglican Māori church. A monument in the form of a squared stone column stands over his grave. The coffin was borne from house to church by 12 Māori and 12 Europeans, and the service was conducted by the Reverend Herbert Williams and the Reverend Mohi Tūrei. Committal to the grave was spoken partly in English, partly in Māori.

Edward Harris had a breadth of mind which was evident in his work as an advocate in the Native Land Court. In an open letter addressed to James Carroll, he commented on native land laws, and the anomalies introduced in the course of frequent revisions. This letter was published in 1889 as a booklet entitled, A few short views of the native land laws, as they principally affect the native race. What he had to say was cogent and well expressed, and he had constructive suggestions to make. His legacy to the future, the genealogical works, were likewise the product of critical intelligence and organisational skill. A man of no consequence in the Pākehā world of his youth, he later found security among his mother's people and in his last years was esteemed by Māori and European alike.

How to cite this page:

R. De Z. Hall. 'Harris, Edward Francis', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2h14/harris-edward-francis (accessed 17 June 2024)