Page 1: Biography
Keiha, Kīngi ĀBENNEreta
Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti; law clerk, interpreter, soldier, Maori welfare officer, farmer
This biography, written by Maata Rewanga Keiha, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Kīngi Āreta Keiha (usually known as Reta) was born in Gisborne on 24 December 1900, the son of Mīkaere (Mīkaera) Pare Keiha Tūrangi and his wife, Maraea (Maria) Hokiwi Ward. His father’s tribal affiliations extended from Wairoa to Waiapu but he was principally of Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki and Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti. His maternal grandparents were William Ward, a settler, and Taraipine Hokiwi Ward of Te Whānau-a-Rua, of Tokomaru Bay. Reta’s upbringing was influenced by his father’s sister, Hēni Materoa, Lady Carroll, and her husband, the politician Sir James Carroll (Timi Kara).
Reta Keiha was educated in Gisborne, and at Otago Boys’ High School from 1916 to 1919, where he took the commercial course and French. He was a rectory prefect and was active in the cadets as a platoon sergeant. A keen sportsman, Reta excelled at swimming and rugby and he was a member of the school’s First XV. On his return to Gisborne he played rugby, cricket and golf.
In 1920 Reta joined the legal firm of Nolan and Skeet as a law clerk and later qualified as a Māori interpreter, first grade. At Wairoa, on 5 April 1926, he married Mabel Ida Hinekauia Peakman, the daughter of William Henry Peakman, a sheepfarm manager, and his wife, Taraipine Pango Huka of Ngāi Te Ipu, a hapū of Ngati Kahungunu from Whakakī, Wairoa. Educated at Hastings, Mabel was employed as a typist in the Hawke’s Bay legal firm of Sainsbury, Logan and Williams.
After the beginning of the Second World War tribal representatives of the district met at Te Poho-o-Rāwiri, Gisborne, and supported the formation of a combatant Māori battalion. Keiha was an original member of the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, which assembled at Palmerston North and was declared on active service on 13 March 1940. He held the rank of second lieutenant in C Company, the personnel of which were drawn from the East Coast tribal areas from Gisborne to the eastern Bay of Plenty. The battalion embarked from Wellington on the Aquitania on 1 May 1940, reached Scotland on 16 June and was based in Kent and in the Aldershot area until 3 January 1941, when it proceeded to the Middle East. Keiha fought in Greece, Crete and then North Africa. For gallantry during the battles at El Alamein, Captain K. A. Keiha, now commanding officer of C Company, was awarded the Military Cross. The action in which he distinguished himself was part of a counter-attack against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s attempt to reach Cairo and Alexandria. The award citation stated he ‘prepared for his difficult task well and executed it excellently’.
In November 1942 Keiha was second in command of the battalion with the rank of major. Lieutenant Colonel C. M. Bennett was severely wounded at Takrouna, and as a temporary lieutenant colonel Keiha commanded the battalion from 22 April to 11 September 1943. With his evacuation to hospital, command of the battalion was handed over to Lieutenant Colonel M. C. Fairbrother.
In November 1943 Keiha left for New Zealand on furlough, and was then kept there to arrange for the eventual return of the battalion and to assist in setting up the Māori Rehabilitation Head Office in Wellington. In 1944 he was appointed Māori rehabilitation officer. He was transferred to the Department of Māori Affairs Welfare Division in the early 1950s and appointed Tai Rāwhiti district Māori welfare officer at Gisborne.
Reta Keiha was involved in setting up the Titirangi park reserve on Kaitī Hill, which was gifted to the people of Gisborne and which includes the site of the famous Titirangi pā. Although too young for service in the First World War, he was elected a trustee and member of Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū Māori Veterans’ Association. He was also a member of the Māori Soldiers’ Trust Committee. At Wairoa in 1958, returned servicemen of both wars established the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion Association. Reta was elected as president of the Gisborne branch and was a member of the Gisborne RSA executive.
He retired from the public service to manage his farming properties at Hexton, where he lived until his death on 29 May 1961. He was survived by his wife and four children. During the fourth national reunion of the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion Association the ex-servicemen assembled at the Keiha and Carroll families’ burial plot by the Makaraka cemetery for the unveiling of a memorial headstone to him by Brigadier George Dittmer, the battalion’s first commanding officer.