John White was born in the village of Cockfield in Durham, England, on 3 January 1826, one of a family of eight children born to Francis White, a blacksmith, and his wife, Jane Angus. The White family emigrated to New Zealand in 1834. They were probably encouraged by Francis's brother, William, then a Wesleyan missionary in Hokianga. After being shipwrecked on Norfolk Island on 17 May 1835, they reached New Zealand on the Surry in November. They settled at Mata in Hokianga, where Francis established a farm and timber trading enterprise. The family were active Wesleyans, socialising mostly with local Wesleyan missionary families, although, as a young man, John White also mixed with other settlers and the Maori community. White was a short man, 5 feet and 6½ inches, with a beard. Later in life he became a teetotaller and smoked a pipe. He had an inquisitive, stubborn and argumentative disposition.
By his early 20s White was finding his life monotonous and isolated and so embarked on a course of self-improvement. He felt his education, a mixture of mission schooling and private tuition, to have been insufficient (attested to by his phonetic spelling and poor handwriting). He revised his lessons, took up music and began to read widely. His reading programme included poetry (particularly Byron and Moore), some novels, a few plays, a number of works by Dr Johnson, Burke, Addison and Blair, and historical tomes and religious tracts. He relished the Poems of Ossian, a collection allegedly translated from oral and written Scottish traditions in the eighteenth century. This work, White claimed, led him to collect Maori song poetry. He had very soon accumulated several hundred songs and traditions.
In the late 1840s White gained the attention of the governor, George Grey, by sending him manuscripts of Maori traditions. When the family moved to Auckland in 1851 White became Grey's secretary and translator. On 3 November 1852 White was officially appointed interpreter, assisting in negotiations to open the Coromandel goldfields. He remained as assistant commissioner for the field's northern districts.
In 1854 he transferred to Donald McLean's Land Purchase Department. On 13 March of the same year he married Mary Elizabeth Bagnall in Auckland; there were eight children of the marriage. During the next few years White travelled the North Island as a government official. He purchased Maori land in Auckland, interpreted for senior officials and, in 1860, for British forces fighting in Taranaki. In late 1862 he was acting assistant native secretary. Between 6 October 1862 and 17 April 1865 he served as resident magistrate for the Wanganui region, hearing civil and criminal cases between Maori, and providing intelligence information to the military authorities. He transferred to the Auckland Native Land Court, but did not take up the position as on 12 May 1865 he was appointed a land purchase commissioner.
After the Land Purchase Department was disbanded in October 1865, White assumed a similar position in the Auckland provincial government. In 1866, to supplement his salary, he briefly became a private Maori land agent. This work involved negotiating for and purchasing Maori land on behalf of interested clients, Maori and Pakeha. On 10 December 1867 the provincial government terminated his appointment because of a lack of funds.
No longer in permanent government employment, White became involved in other ventures. He was interested in the Thames goldfield, having obtained a mining licence on 17 October 1867. He periodically visited the field and provided funding for a mining partnership, but this did not prove successful. By late 1869 he was a partner in an Auckland Maori land agency. On 19 May 1870 he was appointed a Native Land Court interpreter and soon after assisted at Chatham Islands court sittings. Early in October he was a private interpreter and Maori land agent, and the following January he was providing intelligence on local Maori for the Waikato military command. He then returned to private land work.
From 2 July to 31 October 1872 White worked in the Auckland Native Land Court and the civil commissioner's office as an interpreter. Subsequently he became a land agent for Ngati Te Ata. Early in 1874 he travelled to Napier, working as an interpreter, and as an agent for H. R. Russell, the government East Coast agent. Russell, with White's help, provided secret support for Henare Tomoana and Karaitiana Takamoana, who were trying to prevent a Napier trader, Frederick Sutton, from acquiring large tracts of Maori land.
Between 1874 and 1878 White edited Te Wananga, a Maori newspaper published by Henare Tomoana. This experience and the reputation White had acquired as an ethnographer resulted in his appointment in early 1879 as the compiler and writer of an official Maori history. The task took over 10 years, from 10 April 1879 to 30 September 1890. The work was published in six volumes between 1887 and 1890 as The ancient history of the Maori, his mythology and traditions. In 1890 White once again became a Native Land Court interpreter. He died on 13 January 1891 while proceeding to a Whakatane court sitting.
In the 1840s White, prompted by a lack of reading material, had begun to write. His early poetry and prose attempts were haphazard and many did not proceed beyond sketches. Indeed his efforts to combine ethnography with imaginative writing led to one story's being published as authentic Maori tradition. Influenced partly by the British historical novelist Charles Kingsley, he began writing further works cast as fiction but based on Maori ethnographic data. T. B. Gillies, a politician and amateur scientist, provided funding. Two historical novels were eventually published: Te Rou: or, the Maori at home (1874) and Revenge: a love tale of the Mount Eden tribe (1940). These works, which White regarded as popularisations of Maori history, were written in an attempt to recoup goldfield losses suffered around 1870. His contemporaries were impressed.
White also produced scholarly, ethnological pieces, including Maori superstitions (1856); 'Lectures on Maori customs and superstitions' (1861); Plan of the Maori mythology (1878); 'Legendary history of the Maoris' (1880); and 'A chapter from Maori mythology' (1890), which was prepared at the invitation of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.
White's largest and best-known work was the official collection of Maori historical traditions, The ancient history of the Maori. It was favourably reviewed or commented on by Edward Tregear, an up-and-coming scholar of Maori; A. S. Atkinson, an old friend of White and a skilled Maori linguist; William Wyatt Gill, a collector of Cook Islands traditions; Adolf Bastian, a German ethnologist; Max Müller, an Oxford university orientalist; and E. B. Tylor, a British anthropologist. Reviewers considered White's translations of Maori chants and songs especially impressive.
However, the path to publication had been strewn with difficulties. Changes of government, unsympathetic ministers and officialdom's obsession with cutting costs and imposing rigid completion dates very nearly scuttled the project on several occasions. The work also suffered because of a lack of supervision by government. White had a tendency to overwork and his organisational skills were at times inadequate. The project was curtailed when Parliament cut it from the estimates in 1890. This was widely regarded as a short-sighted retrenchment.
Later scholars have criticised White's collection, recording and preparation of traditions for publication. Some have suggested he falsified sources and took information without acknowledgement. Others have questioned his competence in the Maori language. Certainly his methods could be unsophisticated. Until the 1850s he randomly selected Maori informants. Owing to lack of paper and work pressures, recording was often from memory or brief headlines. He also on occasion prompted informants' responses by telling some story often derived from his reading. However, where a tradition's exact words were important, he provided informants with manuscripts so they could check for accuracy.
White was not discriminating about information; informants were asked to record everything, no matter how trivial. As a result he collected a wide range of material from most tribes, including songs, proverbs, genealogies, historical and legendary traditions, and ethnographic notes on every aspect of Maori belief and practice. After 1883 informants were paid at fixed rates for the quantity rather than the quality of information provided. Contributors (Pakeha and Maori) were solicited by letter, or quoted from other manuscripts or published sources.
The preparation of The ancient history of the Maori was typically somewhat disorganised. At first a systematic approach was adopted. Sources were collated into various subjects, numbering systems showing from which manuscripts an item originated. Notations were made if a document needed copying, translation or transferring. But these methods were not uniformly applied. Numbering systems were not always consistent and traditions were sometimes recorded on odd bits of paper or by persons not expert in Maori history and culture. Comparative notes from other Polynesian traditions, which were to be included, did not appear in the published work.
Nevertheless White was regarded by contemporaries as a distinguished Maori scholar. It is certain that he was a competent speaker of Maori: evidence suggests he was by the 1870s the equal of a native speaker. Despite recent criticisms, his collection of manuscripts and published material provides a valuable source for nineteenth century Maori traditions. Considering his early isolation and lack of advanced education, his achievements are remarkable. As a historical novelist and a collector of traditions he made a distinctive contribution to the literature on the Maori.