Page 1: Biography
Rongowhakaata woman of mana
This biography, written by Steven Oliver, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Kate Halbert was born probably at Tutoko, near Waerenga-a-hika in Poverty Bay, in the early 1840s. She was the daughter of the trader Thomas Halbert and his fifth wife, Keita Kaikiri (Kaikeri). Through her mother she belonged to Ngati Kaipoho of Rongowhakaata and was descended from Te Hukaipu. Kate became an acknowledged authority on the lore of Rongowhakaata, and was therefore later able to be a persuasive advocate for her people at Native Land Court hearings in Gisborne. She moved in both Maori and Pakeha worlds, protecting her mana and interests through determination and skill in debate and discussion.
Kate is said to have been educated at the Anglican mission school at Waerenga-a-hika. According to family tradition, on 14 August 1854 she married James Ralston Wyllie. He was from Ayrshire, Scotland, and had been employed by the trader Captain G. E. Read. Kate Wyllie was also known as Keita Waere (Waera). She and James Wyllie were to have six sons and three daughters. The family had a farm at Tutoko until 1865, when it was devastated in the local fighting between Hauhau followers and government forces. In compensation, pro-government Maori gave them land in the Kahanui block. In November 1868 the family was warned in time to escape when Te Kooti and his followers struck at Matawhero, killing 54 people (including more than 20 Maori) and taking many prisoners. However, her son William was killed at Manutuke in a raid by Te Kooti in December.
In the following year Kate Wyllie was one of 17 owners who sold land at Turanganui to the government for the site of the township of Gisborne. According to the judgements of the Poverty Bay Commission in 1869, she was among the owners of 13 blocks of land, including the 19,200-acre Whataupoko block and the 9,000-acre Repongaere block. Kate Wyllie addressed the court several times in support of land claims, including land at Te Rahui, and the Kaiaua block. She was well known as a forceful and effective conductor of cases. Disputed land at Tutoko was also awarded to James Wyllie.
In the early 1870s Kate Wyllie lived in Gisborne and built a house, now known as Wyllie Cottage, across the Taruheru River from the township. James Wyllie died at Gisborne on 19 December 1875. On 9 June 1881, at Wellington, Kate married Michael Joseph Gannon, a licensed interpreter, and was sometimes known as Keita Kenana. They had two sons and two daughters. In March 1883 Michael Gannon appeared in the Native Land Court claiming on his and Kate's behalf that land he was living on at Whataupoko had been conveyed to him by Wi Pere (Keita's half-brother), Riperata Kahutia and W. L. Rees, the trustees of the block. However, the case was lost by the Gannons. In 1893 they moved to Auckland, where Michael Gannon worked as a mining agent and later as an interpreter.
In 1906 Kate became involved in a controversy with Pimia Aata (Euphemia Arthur) over the identity of Te Ratu, the man described in Captain James Cook's 1769 journal as the paramount chief of Turanga. Pimia claimed he was her ancestor. Kate did not dispute that Pimia had an ancestor named Te Ratu, but held that the one referred to by Cook was the great-grandson of Te Hukaipu and the ancestor of Heta Te Kani and not of Pimia. The dispute was conducted in the pages of the journal Te Pipiwharauroa, and on occasion, by public dispute in the streets of Gisborne.
Kate Gannon predeceased Michael Gannon; she died at her daughter's house in Remuera, Auckland, on 4 February 1913. She is remembered as a woman who sought to defend her rights and those of her people.