Story: Pitau, Otene

Page 1: Biography

Pitau, Otene

1834/1835?–1921

Rongowhakaata leader

This biography, written by R. De Z. Hall and Steven Oliver, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Otene Pitau is said to have been born in 1834 or 1835. His father, Thomas Halbert, was a trader of English descent who settled at Muriwai, Poverty Bay, with a woman of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki named Pirihira Konekone. Pirihira became pregnant, and soon after quarrelled with Halbert and left him. She found refuge in the household of Ngati Kaipoho leader, Tamati Waka Mangere, and later married a younger brother of Mangere, Pera Tawhiti. Sometime after her arrival she gave birth to a male child, who was adopted by Raharuhi Rukupo, another of Mangere's brothers, and given a family name, Pitau. He later acquired the name Otene, which was probably a baptismal name.

Raharuhi Rukupo became leader of Ngati Kaipoho hapu of Rongowhakaata around 1840. He had a part-European adviser named Tom Jones, whose sister, Mere Whiti Hone, became Otene Pitau's wife. They apparently had no children but are said to have adopted Mere Tahatu and Heta Te Kani.

No record has been found of any involvement by Otene Pitau in the armed conflicts of the 1860s during which Rongowhakaata suffered considerable losses. In 1869 the Poverty Bay Commission granted title to land, excluding those who had fought against the Crown since 1863. Otene Pitau was included in the lists of names of owners for numerous blocks of land in which Ngati Kaipoho, and in particular Raharuhi Rukupo, had interests. It seems that by this time Otene Pitau was Rukupo's designated ultimate successor. Raharuhi Rukupo died in 1873 and was succeeded by his brother Paora Kate, who had died by 1880. Otene Pitau, last of the Ngati Kaipoho line, became leader.

Otene Pitau was one of the two influential chiefs of the Gisborne area, who were known as the last of the rangatira of Turanganui. The other was Heni Materoa Carroll of Ngai Tawhiri hapu of Rongowhakaata who succeeded her mother Riperata Kahutia in 1887. She was a very prominent leader whose life centred on Turanga. Otene Pitau, on the other hand, lived at the southern end of Rongowhakaata land beyond the Waipaoa River estuary, and was conspicuous only within the tribe. He was significant for his contribution to the tribe in the period when its unity and standing were being restored following the destructive events of the 1860s.

By the 1880s Rongowhakaata was reviving, sub-tribe by sub-tribe. The revival was evidenced by the building of meeting houses. Ngati Maru opened a meeting house called Te Mana-o-Turanga at Manutuke in 1883. To the north-east Riperata Kahutia was building a complex comprising a meeting house, church and dwelling house at her Awapuni land: the meeting house was called Te Poho-o-Materoa. These activities prompted Otene Pitau to initiate the construction of a large modern meeting house at Pakirikiri, which was called Te Poho-o-Rukupo to commemorate the name and work of Raharuhi Rukupo. It was opened in mid February 1887, and there was a large attendance at the opening ceremony. A day was devoted to discussion of issues, ranging from attitudes to Te Kooti to pre-election addresses by James Carroll and Otene Pitau's half-brother, Wi Pere. Otene Pitau voiced his opposition to the attempt by Te Kooti to revisit Poverty Bay in 1887, but stated his acceptance of Te Kooti's Ringatu followers. Te Poho-o-Rukupo was later moved to Manutuke, where it still stands.

The tribal resurgence was matched by a revival of support for Anglicanism. At the opening of Te Poho-o-Rukupo, plans to build an Anglican church at Manutuke were announced and commended by Otene Pitau. The church was to be for all Rongowhakaata, and was to incorporate the carved panels of the former Maori church which had been opened in 1863 but dismantled in a state of decay in 1881. The completed church, which had a fine stained glass window, was opened in 1890 on a site just to the west of the present church. Otene Pitau's contribution was recognised later by his appointment to the native church board of the diocese of Waiapu.

In 1894 Otene Pitau was host to the Kotahitanga parliament when it met at Pakirikiri. The large attendance became legendary; the meeting lasted for well over a month. Otene Pitau became a member of the Tai Rawhiti District Maori Land Council in 1903. In 1906 he was appointed an advisory counsellor for the Takitimu Maori Council and the same year was one of the representatives from the East Coast who joined Maori from throughout New Zealand at the funeral of Premier Richard Seddon.

Otene Pitau was by then over 70 years old but his greatest achievement as leader of Rongowhakaata still lay ahead. The church which opened at Manutuke in 1890 was destroyed by fire in 1910. The diocese had fortunately insured the building and so reconstruction began. In late 1912 Otene Pitau placed a full-page advertisement in the Maori Anglican journal, Te Pipiwharauroa, to invite all to a hui for the opening of the new church on Sunday, 9 March 1913. Enormous crowds began to gather at Manutuke on 5 March. Knowing that there would be Maori representation from many parts of New Zealand, the Reform government used the occasion to promote the idea of assimilation of the Maori race with the European. The native minister, W. H. Herries, spoke at length on this matter and on land policy. Maui Pomare, James Carroll and Apirana Ngata were also in attendance.

Otene Pitau lived for another eight years after the church opening. He died at Manutuke on 13 August 1921.

How to cite this page:

R. De Z. Hall and Steven Oliver. 'Pitau, Otene', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2p20/pitau-otene (accessed 26 June 2019)