Page 1: Biography
Ngata, Hēnare Kōhere
Ngāti Porou; leader, soldier, accountant
This biography, written by Monty Soutar, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021. It was translated into te reo Māori by Tautohe Kupenga.
A Māori Battalion veteran and the first Māori to qualify in accountancy, Hēnare Ngata became an important Māori leader in the 1950s after the death of his father, Sir Apirana Ngata. Like his father he was closely involved with the political affairs of Ngāti Porou and Māori people in general, and was devoted to the pursuit of equality.
Hēnare Kōhere Ngata was born at Waiomatatini near Ruatōria on 19 December 1917, the youngest son of eleven children of Māori leader and politician Apirana Turupa Nohopari Ngata of Waiomatatini and his wife, Arihia Kane Tāmati of Whareponga. He was named in memory of his father’s close friend, Lieutenant Hēnare Kōhere, who died of wounds on the Somme the previous year. Raised at The Bungalow, the Ngata residence at Waiomatatini, his formative years were spent in the Waiapu Valley during a period of great Ngāti Porou land development. He was educated at Waiomatatini Native School.
Apirana Ngata was a member of Parliament from 1905 to 1943, and when he was home The Bungalow doubled as his political base where he met constituents to discuss their concerns. Next door was Porourangi Pā where important tribal hui were held. From a young age Hēnare was exposed to political, religious and tribal thinking at both the homestead and the pā. His parents were devoted Anglicans and momentous hui, like the opening of St Mary’s Church war memorial at Tikitiki in 1926, reinforced for Hēnare the central importance of the Anglican faith and patriotism in Ngāti Porou affairs. Arihia died of dysentery in April 1929, when Hēnare was 11, after nursing her eldest son who also died of the disease.
University Education and Second World War
Following in his father’s footsteps, Hēnare boarded at Te Aute College for Māori boys in Hawke’s Bay, a school which produced many twentieth century Māori leaders. He matriculated after three years and qualified for university, and in 1938 and 1939 studied for a BA at Victoria University College. He was one of a handful of Māori students living at Weir House, where the shift from sheltered, disciplined boarding school life to independent city living took some adjustment. He enjoyed socialising with others, joining other Māori in the newly-established Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club and becoming ‘a dab hand at billiards’.1 He gave less effort to studying, however, an attitude that was to change when he returned to his studies after the war.
It was here he met his future wife, Rora Lorna Metekīngi, who was enrolled at Wellington Teachers’ College. Lorna was the daughter of Maihi Rangipō and Doris Metekīngi of Pūtiki (Whanganui). Along with Charles Bennett (later Sir Charles) and Wiremu Parker, also ex-Te Aute students, he had also secured employment as an announcer at 2YA, the national radio station in Wellington. Hēnare had a year’s study left to complete his degree when the Second World War broke out in 1939.
He enlisted for military service in October, and the following month was among 150 Māori recruits hand-picked by Māori leaders to serve as officers and NCOs in the 28th Māori Battalion, which was formed in Palmerston North in January 1940. He graduated from the course as a company sergeant major. Without knowing how long he might be overseas, Hēnare proposed to Lorna and the couple wed at the church at Pūtiki on 24 February 1940. Second Lieutenant Ngata left on active service in May 1940, one of the original officers of C Company, which consisted of some 120 members of his tribal kin.
In England Hēnare witnessed the Battle of Britain while the Māori Battalion was stationed outside London, before heading to Egypt in 1941. In late March he took part in the Allied defence of Greece. Most of the Māori Battalion was evacuated from the Athens area to Crete when the British command decided to abandon Greece, but Hēnare was among 81 Māori soldiers left behind and captured at Kalamata on 29 April 1941. He spent four years in prison camps – first at Corinth in Greece, then at Biberach in south-western Germany – until liberated by American forces. These were harrowing years, with food uppermost in prisoners’ minds, boredom to overcome, and the anxiety of never knowing whether loved ones would be seen again. He had plenty of time to read and resolved that if he ever got the chance to attend university again, he would not waste it.
His outlook on life was in part shaped by his experiences as a prisoner of war. When he returned to New Zealand in late 1945, initially he just wanted to hide away at Waiomatatini. His father, however, encouraged him to return to university. He and Lorna took a flat on The Terrace in Wellington before moving into a unit at Naenae, while he completed his BA and an accountancy degree. These were hard times financially, but nothing in comparison to what Hēnare had endured during the war.
In 1948 he graduated BA/BCom in economics, in a graduation ceremony in which his father also received an honorary DLitt. At that time Hēnare provided journalist Eric Ramsden with his own brief analysis of his father’s lifetime of work, which Ramsden published in a booklet about the elder statesman. It is an insightful description of his father’s motivations and commitment to a lifetime of advancing Māori progress, and a fine piece of prose that suggests Hēnare might have had a successful writing career had he chosen that field.
Keen to settle closer to home, the couple returned to Gisborne where they had a home in Endeavour Street. They adopted three children: Wikitoria Whyte, a granddaughter of his stepmother Lady Te Riringi; Lorna’s nephew Apirana Turupa Maihi Ngata; and Hēnare’s niece Sue Hinehou Rahera Cooper.
Hēnare was initially employed as a clerk at Gisborne Sheepfarmers’ Frozen Meat and Mercantile Company, where after two years he had gained valuable practical experience. He then spent three years at McCulloch Butler & Spence, an accountancy firm. In 1953, despite a potential partnership offer, he chose to strike out on his own, making him the first independent Māori accountant at a time when there were few Māori in business and little support from even Māori clients. ‘My professional friends said I was very brave,’ he recalled. ‘I don’t know whether they meant brave or foolhardy. I think it was the latter. I had slim pickings for a while, but I have never regretted it.’2 The Department of Māori Affairs was then in the process of returning control of Māori land to its owners, who sought Hēnare’s advice, and much of his early business came from the department’s properties. As new businesses started up and numerous Māori incorporations turned to him for help, his client base steadily grew until he had a staff of five.
Hēnare was a director of several companies including Gisborne Sheepfarmers’, which owned half the Kaiti freezing works, and aircraft engineering firm Fieldair Ltd. One of the largest Māori organisations that he was involved with was the giant Mangatū Incorporation, with its 40,000 hectares of land holdings. He was appointed to the board in 1959 and served as its chairman until 1987. Reflecting on Hēnare’s service to Mangatū in 2006, Minister of Māori Affairs Pita Sharples observed that Hēnare had always treated the shareholders ‘with professionalism, and always with cultural finesse. Indeed, his cultural expertise ensured his distinctive accountancy practice. He would present annual reports at AGM in te reo Māori, the kaumatua nodding their approval’.3
Campaigner for Māori causes
As one of the few Māori in business, there were regular calls for Hēnare to get involved in community initiatives. In 1957 he became an inaugural member of the Tairāwhiti District Māori Council, filling the role of secretary to Sir Turi Carroll. This brought him into contact with government bureaucracy. Later he became the chairman of the council and in 1962, as a delegate to the national body, he was able to bring East Coast Māori land issues before the government. During this period he was able to utilise his regional experience to campaign for the benefit of all Māori. He served as a member of the New Zealand Māori Council from 1962 until 1984, which helped many Māori landowners access development finance and, through persistent lobbying, to gradually get some of the difficulties facing Māori farmers removed.
Hēnare was soon a prominent figure in Māori politics and affairs. He followed his father into National Party politics, serving as its Māori vice president from 1967 till 1969 and unsuccessfully contesting the Eastern Māori seat in 1969. He continued as spokesman for East Coast Māori whenever proposals affecting them were submitted to the government, and remained a powerful behind-the-scenes force working for better Māori land laws, a workable treaty settlement process, and Waitangi Tribunal claims concerning state owned enterprises, fisheries and broadcasting. He also wrote numerous articles, submissions and papers which appeared in various publications. He was made an OBE in 1967 and a KBE for services to Māori in 1982, and Victoria University presented him with an honorary doctorate in law in 1979.
Hēnare retired in 1990 but continued to devote his energy to Māori causes, often without recompense – simply a labour of love. He was the architect of the Ngā Taonga a Ngā Tama Toa (C Company) Trust in the 1990s and the reconstitution of the 28th Māori Battalion Association in the 2000s; he had been the association’s chair from 1964 to 1966. Had he not approved or supported them, the country would not have had the benefit of the C Company Memorial Museum in Gisborne, the C Company history publication Nga Tama Toa (2008), or He Tipua, Ranginui Walker’s biography of Apirana Ngata (2001). He provided detailed feedback on the drafts of both books.
In retirement Hēnare remained an authority on many Māori issues, including the all-important Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the foreshore and seabed issue. In 2010 he was disappointed to be prevented from presenting his submission on the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill to the select committee, so as to ‘satisfy myself that I raised my hand to object.’4
Hēnare Ngata died on 11 December 2011, aged 93, at his Gisborne home. He was survived by his wife, their three children and many mokopuna. He was admired and respected by both Māori and Pākehā, who recognised in him his father’s standards of excellence. On the day of his death Hēnare had spent the morning reviewing changes to Māori land law, which he considered placed unfair restrictions on owners. His father’s prediction about his own life turned out to be just as appropriate for Hēnare – ‘Death will find me in harness,’ Sir Apirana had said, ‘working, working, working!’5 Lorna Ngata died in 2014.