Story: Te Tomo, Te Taite

Page 1: Biography

Te Tomo, Te Taite

1871/1872?–1939

Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Raukawa historian, politician

This biography, written by Angela Ballara, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Te Taite Te Tomo was born probably in 1871 or 1872 near Otaki. His grandmother, Te Rerehau, a woman of chiefly rank of Ngati Tuwharetoa, married Te Tomo (also called Tute) of Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Raukawa. Te Tomo moved with Ngati Raukawa to the Otaki area, taking with him his son, Tauaiti, later called Te Piwa Te Tomo. Te Piwa married Kerenapu Te Parehuia, whose father, Henere Te Herekau, was an Anglican minister of Ngati Whakatere, a hapu of Ngati Raukawa; their son was Te Taite Te Tomo.

Little is recorded about his youth and education, but he was thoroughly trained in whakapapa and traditional lore; he developed a phenomenal memory and was treasured as an expert source of this knowledge all his life. As a young man he worked as a navvy, bushman, drain-digger, fencer, shepherd, shearer and bullock-driver; what English he knew was learned in these rural occupations.

Te Taite Te Tomo married Karetu Te Iti, of Ngati Rongomaiwahine hapu of Ngati Kahungunu. He had at least one son by this marriage, Turau Te Tomo, who, like his father, became an expert in traditional knowledge. Te Taite settled with his wife's people at Opoutama on the Mahia Peninsula.

He was soon involved in local issues; in 1905, when the loss of 4,000 acres of his community's land was threatened because of an unpaid mortgage of £6,000, he interceded on their behalf with Archdeacon Samuel Williams of Te Aute. Williams gave Te Taite a letter of credit which cleared the mortgage and saved the land. Part was later leased to repay their benefactor. In February 1913 he represented Ngati Kahungunu in the attempt to revamp the Kotahitanga movement at Manutuke. Te Taite signed the movement's petition opposing the individualisation of Maori land titles.

The Manutuke Kotahitanga was not Te Taite's first introduction to politics. From 1909 he campaigned on behalf of the Reform Party, opposing Apirana Ngata's consolidation schemes. From 1911 he was organiser for Maui Pomare, MP for Western Maori. Pomare needed the support of representatives of the traditional tribal leadership, and Te Taite could provide him with that from within Ngati Raukawa of Manawatu and amongst Ngati Tuwharetoa. In 1914 Te Taite supported the candidature of Te Kani Pere against Ngata, and the following year was still opposing Ngata's early consolidation schemes. That Christmas he attended a King movement hui called to discuss their stance on involvement in the First World War.

In spite of Te Taite's opposition to Ngata in politics, in matters pertaining to Maori culture they had a fruitful relationship. Probably Te Taite's greatest achievement was his enormous contribution to Ngata's collection of waiata, first published in book form in 1928 as Nga Moteatea. Ngata said that Te Taite possessed the most extensive knowledge, and compared him favourably to all the tohunga he knew. Pei Te Hurinui Jones acknowledged that he had a phenomenal memory, but criticised much of his material. Ngata himself criticised his tendency to evolve 'positive statements out of intangible impressions'. Nevertheless, a large number of Te Taite's versions of waiata and explanations as to subject and source remain unchallenged. Te Taite was also a prolific correspondent to Te Toa Takitini. In 1933 he taught Te Puea Herangi the Tainui traditions based on the teaching of the elder, Marumaru. In the 1934 festivities held at Waitangi to mark the gift by the governor general, Lord Bledisloe, of the Waitangi Treaty House property to the country, Te Taite judged the cultural competitions; he combined his awards with instructions on the proper performance of poi dances and waiata.

In 1926 Te Taite was appointed to the newly established Tuwharetoa Trust Board. About this time, Te Taite Te Tomo was farming land at Kakariki, near Halcombe on the east bank of the Rangitikei River. According to some sources, his first wife had died by this time, and he married Ngahuia Matengaro.

After the death of Maui Pomare in 1930, Te Taite, whom Pomare had designated his successor, contested the resulting by-election. The other candidates included Haami Tokouru Ratana, who represented the Ratana movement with tacit support from the United Party. Pei Jones represented the Young Maori Party with open support from Te Puea and good wishes but tactical silence from Ngata. Te Taite was greatly assisted by the support of the Maori King, Te Rata, who was honouring his commitment to Pomare's nominee even though other King movement factions had other preferences. Te Taite Te Tomo retained the seat for the Reform Party with 3,921 votes; Toko Ratana came close with 3,101; Pei Jones had split the opposition with 886 votes.

Ngata was initially dismayed at Te Taite's election, complaining that he would not fit the image of an efficient parliamentary representative. But during his parliamentary terms (he was re-elected with an increased majority over Toko Ratana in 1931) he recanted his former criticisms of Ngata and supported the coalition government wholeheartedly. Ngata patiently cultivated Te Taite, taking him on a number of tours of the consolidation schemes; Te Taite, seeing what was being achieved, became convinced of their worth. During the period of increasing criticism of Ngata's administration in 1933 and 1934, Te Taite defended him on a number of occasions.

Although he spoke on all the issues confronting Maori – the confiscations, the effects of rating on communally owned land, instances of breaches of Maori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi – Te Taite Te Tomo was less than effective in the House because of his lack of English language and formal education. He was one of the last of the old-style Maori MPs, regarding it as his duty and right to comment only on affairs affecting Maori. He frequently complained that he could not understand the proceedings and asked for bills and Hansard to be translated into Maori. He said that, like the majority of his people, he did not understand law, and he regarded the use of English alone in official documents as a form of deliberate disempowerment of his people. Similarly, he opposed the secret ballot for Maori because he said at least 7,000 of the 16,000 Maori of his electorate could not read and would make their marks opposite the wrong names. He used his speaking time to bring up local grievances from his electorate or to draw attention to instances of discrimination against Maori. His eloquence in Maori was frequently praised by his colleagues, as he used phrases from marae oratory, whakapapa and other traditional knowledge to illustrate his speeches. He served on the Native Affairs Committee, and sat on various boards and commissions including the Board of Maori Ethnological Research.

Another election loomed in 1935, and Ngata, Tau Henare (MP for Northern Maori) and Te Taite became concerned at the rise of the Ratana movement. In November 1934 Te Taite criticised Tahupotiki Ratana in the House as an opponent of land consolidation. Ratana accused Te Taite of saying that he, Ratana, wanted to make himself king of New Zealand. The triumvirate issued a series of pamphlets; one explained and justified the unemployment relief policy of the coalition; another accused the Democratic Party of bribing the King movement with a promise of an annuity of £1,500 for King Koroki. Despite the declared support of the King movement for Te Taite, Toko Ratana took the seat with a margin of just 38 votes. Te Taite tried again in the 1938 election, but the Ratana–Labour alliance was by then firmly established; he was unsuccessful.

Te Taite Te Tomo developed bronchial pneumonia after a bout of influenza, and died suddenly and unexpectedly at Kakariki on 22 May 1939. He was survived by his second wife, Ngahuia, his son Turau, and several other children. Toko Ratana appealed successfully to the prime minister, M. J. Savage, for a government contribution to the tangihanga since Te Taite's widow and other relatives could not manage all the expenses of the expected huge gathering. Te Taite Te Tomo was buried at Kakariki on 28 May 1939.

How to cite this page:

Angela Ballara. 'Te Tomo, Te Taite', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4t9/te-tomo-te-taite (accessed 20 November 2019)