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Māwhete, Rangiputangatahi

by Claudia Orange


William Arthur Moffatt (Māwhete) was born at Tiakitahuna (Jackeytown), south of Palmerston North, on 4 March 1880, the son of Emiri Mōkena (Emily Morgan) and her husband, William Moffatt. His mother, also known as Ārani or Ārini, was the grand-daughter of Wiremu Kīngi Te Aweawe. His main tribal affiliation was Ngāti Hineaute of Rangitāne, and he had connections to Muaūpoko, Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri, Hāmua and the Wanganui tribes. His father, an engineer working in the King Country, was killed by Māori near Taumarunui in November 1880. When young William was baptised in April 1881, he was given the name Rangiputangatahi and it was as Rangi Māwhete that he was later best known.

Rangi grew up in the Māori settlements of the Karere district and attended Rangiotū school before going to Te Aute College in 1890. On 11 April 1903, at Feilding, he married Ērana Ruta Durie of Ngāti Rangitepaia, Rangitāne and Ngāti Kauwhata; she was the daughter of Robert Te Rama Durie and his wife, Hurihia (Hēni), and the grand-daughter of Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotū. The marriage linked two great Rangitāne families, but Ērana died on 3 February 1904, at the age of 20. There were no children. At Westport, on 1 May 1906, Māwhete married Sydney-born Kathleen McGlone, daughter of a Denniston mining family. The couple were to have five children.

Māwhete worked in the Rangitīkei–Manawatū district as an interpreter and as a land and commission agent – occupations that often brought him into conflict with Rangitāne families. Initially he was based in Palmerston North; later he had a dairy farm at Awapuni. His kin were a dominant influence in his early years, and his maternal grandmother, Ērini (sister to the Rangitāne leader Te Peeti Te Aweawe), his mother and his aunt, Rewanui Apatari, drew him into family affairs involving land. In 1912 Mere Rikiriki, a local woman of mana, predicted the advent of an important new spiritual leader and for a time some identified Māwhete as the subject of this prophecy. Tall and good-looking, he carried mana and showed aspirations for a leadership role: he first stood for the Western Māori seat in the 1914 election, but was heavily defeated by the sitting member, Māui Pōmare.

Although he did not contest the 1919 election, possibly because of family commitments, in 1922 Māwhete stood as an independent in Western Māori. Again he made little impression. Other political opportunities were to open up, however. The New Zealand Labour Party, keen to expand its support, began to court Māori voters and made contact with Māwhete. In 1924 he was chosen as the party’s candidate for the Western Māori seat. On 20 December he organised the first official gathering between Māori and Labour. Held at Parewanui, near Bulls, the meeting was attended by Harry Holland, Labour's parliamentary leader, and members of the national executive. The aim was to lay the basis of a Māori policy that would be presented at the party’s 1925 annual conference.

Māwhete prepared for the conference by seeking elected Māori representatives from throughout New Zealand to form a Labour Māori advisory committee. With the exception of Waikato and the King Country, where King movement support for Pōmare was strong, he secured men from all areas. The group met at Bulls in March, with Māwhete as committee secretary, and on 13 April attended the conference in Wellington. Māwhete and two other representatives worked on a sub-committee to present a report, subsequently adopted as Labour's Māori policy. It covered rating problems and settlement of land claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, reform of Māori electoral processes, and the establishment of a Māori council to advise the government on issues affecting Māori: a voice in government that might meet Māori aspirations. The policy was soon attacked in Parliament by Pōmare, and in late July Māwhete sponsored a three-day meeting at Parewanui where Labour leaders gave assurances of their commitment.

At the 1925 election Māwhete was the official Labour candidate in Western Māori and the main opposition to Pōmare. On the hustings the two men campaigned together, but Māwhete took only 1,287 votes to Pōmare's 4,010. The Rātana movement did not contest the seat and it appears that many abstained from voting. Māwhete no doubt took stock of Labour's failure to attract Māori voters: policy and promises were not sufficient to shift Māori allegiance, and the party’s land policy at the time – usehold tenure – raised fears of confiscation.

Before the 1928 election Labour reaffirmed its Māori policy and was prepared to endorse candidates, although it would not cover their expenses. Māwhete did not stand, but was thought to have had a hand in drafting the Rātana programme, which closely resembled Labour’s Māori policy. Rātana candidates polled second in each of the four Māori electorates while independent Labour candidates made a poor showing. When Pōmare died in 1930 Māwhete was overseas and could not be contacted; Te Taite Te Tomo won the by-election.

However, it is possible that Māwhete had already decided to commit his energies to securing co-operation between Labour and Rātana – both were later to acknowledge the crucial liaison role that he now began to play. By 1930 Rātana was interested in Labour; looking to the bloc vote that Rātana could provide, Labour had begun to explore a possible agreement. Although Māwhete was well placed to act as a go-between, he shared the concern of other Māori who were supporters of Labour but not of Rātana, that broader Māori interests would not be adequately represented in a Labour–Rātana combination. Even as Māwhete brought the two groups closer to an agreement, this tension persisted.

As the 1931 election approached, a Labour offer to endorse Rātana candidates was declined, although Rātana admitted that a successful candidate might support Labour in Parliament. The first opportunity came in August 1932 when a by-election in Southern Māori was won by Eruera Tirikātene. Māwhete had previously drawn Labour's attention to the need for non-Rātana involvement in the selection process, and he now organised and chaired a four-day conference at the Wellington Trades Hall to discuss the party’s Māori policy. He knew that the tentative agreement between Labour and Rātana had to be consolidated, but at the same time he was concerned about the need to expand and represent the non-Rātana element of Labour support among Māori. As part of a deputation, he bore this message to the party’s leaders and discussed setting up a Māori advisory council to the national executive. Māwhete also hoped that the conference would be the basis for establishing a New Zealand-wide organisation of Māori Labour committees. Over the next three to four years, though activity was sporadic and uneven, a number of branches were established. Between 1934 and 1936 he was also involved in a proposal for a Māori Labour newspaper, but nothing came of it.

With Labour's new leader, Michael Joseph Savage, espousing humanitarian ideals and equality between races, Māwhete enthusiastically supported the party’s cause in the lead-up to the 1935 election. He was probably responsible for translating its Māori policy, now further developed. When Labour won the election he warned that an exclusive Labour–Rātana agreement was sure to divide Māori supporters and would alienate Te Puea Hērangi and the King movement. Nevertheless, Labour took the two Rātana MPs, Tirikatene and H. T. Rātana (who had won the Western Māori seat), into its first caucus meeting in December; Māwhete was also present. In March 1936 his long-standing support was recognised by his appointment to the Legislative Council. He was a member of Labour's Māori Organising Committee and later president of its Māori Advisory Council, which toured the country to organise support beyond Rātana ranks. Māwhete later admitted that visiting numerous Māori settlements convinced him how ‘wretched’ their living conditions were.

Despite some continuing tension between Rātana and non-Rātana Labour supporters, Māwhete worked with the Rātana MPs to further Māori objectives. That these were not necessarily accepted by the government became apparent in the latter part of 1936, when it brought together mainly Pākehā experts to discuss Māori problems and embarked on an extension of programmes adopted by the previous government. The Māori Labour group organised a second conference to express Māori needs from their own viewpoint. After Rātana candidates secured the two remaining Māori seats in 1938 and 1943, Māwhete was the only non-Rātana Māori politician in Parliament.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he participated in discussions to dissuade the government from conscripting Māori. He was subsequently a member of the Māori parliamentary committee that helped establish the Māori War Effort Organisation – a concession by government to Māori requests for a degree of autonomy. The organisation successfully recruited for the forces and local manpower, as well as supporting the war effort through a network of tribal committees. Māwhete's three sons served in the war, two of them as pilots.

As a legislative councillor Rangi Māwhete was a member of the Native (later Māori) Affairs Committee for his entire term. The sole Māori in the council, he was a confident speaker with a command of detail, who committed himself to educating and informing Pākehā. He continued to support the Labour government, illustrating the beneficial effects of its special programmes in land, housing, health and education. As Labour implemented its broader welfare legislation, he drew attention to practices discriminatory to Māori, and to the need to make special provisions, such as the translation of forms, a suggestion he followed up with the Social Security Department.

Māwhete took some care to promote rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, most notably in the passage of the Petroleum Act 1937. He treated the council to a reading of the entire treaty, pointed out that Māori considered oil and minerals to be part of the land, and argued a case for royalties or compensation; lake and sea beds were also affected. His concern to secure treaty rights was expressed again in relation to the Wanganui River and the Waikato claim. Government failure to compile a Māori electoral roll was an ongoing irritation. Eager for Māori to gain equal treatment, Māwhete was nevertheless cautious. He warned that the end of prohibition in the King Country could increase liquor problems, and he promoted compulsory military training as one answer to increasing Māori crime. By 1949, however, he was obviously pleased at Māori advances under a Labour government.

Rangi Māwhete served on the Legislative Council until March 1950, shortly before its disestablishment. One of the first Māori to be made a justice of the peace, he was appointed an OBE in 1959. He spent his last years in Palmerston North and died there on 24 July 1961. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons; one son had been killed during the Second World War.

Fired by Labour's principle of equality between races, Māwhete worked for over 30 years to secure a role for Māori in national politics and to promote policies designed by Māori. The results under Labour were uneven. Within a year of his entry to Parliament, he saw the government diverge from the policy he had helped formulate. The more independent power sought through Māwhete's early political activity was allowed but brief expression.

Links and sources


    Obit. Evening Post. 24 July 1961: 16

    Orange, C. J. 'A kind of equality: Labour and the Maori people 1935--1949'. MA thesis, Auckland, 1977

How to cite this page:

Claudia Orange. 'Māwhete, Rangiputangatahi', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)