Page 1: Biography
Tapsell, Ngātai Tohi Te Ururangi
Ngāti Whakaue woman of mana
Ngati Whakaue leader, policeman, customs officer
This biography, written by Sherwood Young, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Retireti Tapsell, also known as Tāpihana, was the eldest son of Phillip (or Philip) Tapsell, a Bay of Plenty trader, and Hineitūrama (Hineatūrama) Ngātiki, a high-ranking member of Ngāti Whakaue, a section of Te Arawa. In early 1836 a war party of Ngāti Hauā from Matamata destroyed Maketū pā, driving the family first to Matatā, then to Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua. Hineitūrama, with the birth of her second child imminent, was carried on a litter between Te Kapenga and Ōhinemutu. This first son was named Retireti (Retreat) to commemorate the family's hasty departure from Maketū. Retireti had an elder sister, Kataraina, and there were to be four more children: Piripi (Philip), Ieni (Hans), Ewa and Tote (Dorathy). Later in 1836 Retireti Tapsell accompanied his parents to Sydney, where his father obtained a supply of goods before returning to Whakatāne to resume trading shortly afterwards.
Retireti Tapsell came to prominence in Maketū in the early 1860s, by which time he was married to Ngātai Tohi Te Ururangi, daughter of Ngāti Whakaue leader Tohi Te Ururangi and his wife, Tāniko Te Haukau. According to family information, Ngātai had been born at Ōhinemutu in 1844; as the only surviving child of Tohi Te Ururangi she had a great deal of mana. She and Retireti were to have seven sons: Rewi Tereanuku, Kiri, Taa, Kiharoa, Kouma, Pita and Ropihana; and one daughter, Nira.
On 4 December 1862, under Governor George Grey's new runanga system, Retireti Tapsell was appointed one of six wardens in the Tauranga Hundred; he was partly responsible for 40 constables. As the only warden in Maketū itself he became known as the sergeant major or sergeant of police. On 6 January 1864 he added the position of customs officer to his duties.
Tapsell was one of very few Māori policemen to have authority over Pākehā as well as Māori in the 1860s. In 1864, when Maketū was attacked by anti-government forces, he travelled along the beach to Tauranga to obtain reinforcements – only to be arrested in the belief he was an enemy spy; he was quickly released. In the same year he served in the Native Contingent of the Colonial Defence Force at Lake Rotoiti. He was awarded the New Zealand War Medal for this service in 1871.
Tapsell continued as a native constable, employed by the Native Department, into the 1880s. He played a leading role in the affairs of Ngāti Whakaue as one of the principal signatories to the 1880 agreement with the Crown which provided for the development of the township now known as Rotorua. He was also a primary negotiator in the discussions which brought the railway to Rotorua in the 1880s. During the years of depression in the same period he was noted for his unselfish selling of his own lands to feed his starving Ngāti Whakaue people. He lived on as a highly respected member of the Maketū and Ōhinemutu communities until his death on 21 April 1913.
Ngātai Tapsell's standing in Ngāti Whakaue and her active involvement in tribal affairs gave her a status equal to that of her male contemporaries. She was among the small number of Māori women who gave evidence in a Te Arawa Native Land Court hearing, and was a major shareholder in most large blocks of land in the Te Arawa tribal district. In the 1920s she used the proceeds of the sale of her interest in a block of land to purchase timber for the building of the Te Arawa meeting house, Whakaue; it was opened at Maketū in April 1928. This was, however, after her death, which occurred at Maketū in January of that year. Ngātai and Retireti were buried alongside one another at the family burial ground, Wharekahu, at Maketū.