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Pomare, Maui Wiremu Piti Naera


Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Toa; medical officer, Maori health reformer, politician

This biography, written by Graham Butterworth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Maui Wiremu Piti Naera Pomare was one of the generation of Maori leaders educated at Te Aute College in the 1890s who were to assume positions of leadership in both the Maori and Pakeha worlds. His birthplace was Pahau pa, Onaera, near Urenui, Taranaki. According to a school register he was born on 24 August 1875, but his death certificate gives the date 13 January 1876. His mother, Mere Hautonga Nicoll (also known as Mary Nichols) of Ngati Toa, was the daughter of Kahe Te Rau-o-te-rangi, one of the few women to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. His father, Wiremu Naera Pomare, was of Ngati Mutunga, and had connections with Te Ati Awa. He was the adopted nephew of Wiremu Piti Pomare, who in the 1820s migrated with other Taranaki leaders to join Te Rauparaha at Kapiti Island. Wiremu Piti was given the land around Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour), but quarrels with Ngati Toa led to his taking the dissatisfied Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama to the Chatham Islands in 1835. Maui Pomare's father thus found himself with land interests in Taranaki, the Chathams and Wellington.

Maui attended primary schools at Waitara and the Chathams, St Stephen's Native Boys' School, and the Church of England Grammar School in Parnell, Auckland. Because his parents were followers of Te Whiti he also sometimes lived at Parihaka, and was present when the Armed Constabulary invaded the settlement in 1881.

Wiremu Pomare died when Maui was 11. In his dying words he encouraged his son to obtain a Pakeha education and pass its benefits on to his people. Maui was thus sent to Christchurch Boys' High School in 1887. He was fond of swimming and was willing to fight at the least provocation. On the death of his mother in 1889 his aunt, Heni Te Rau Nicoll, became his guardian and transferred him to Te Aute College. The headmaster, John Thornton, was dedicated to providing his pupils with an education that would equip them for professional careers and as leaders of their race.

Thornton also made the boys familiar with James Pope's pamphlet Health for the Maori, in which Pope argued that Maori would be vulnerable to disease until they understood the rules of hygiene. Thornton wanted boys to take this message back to their homes. In June 1889 Pomare and two of his fellows, Reweti Kohere and Timutimu Tawhai, went round the villages of Hawke's Bay passing on the message that Maori had to improve their way of life. In 1891 some of the students organised the Association for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Maori Race. This body presented drastic proposals for reform, which included the prohibition of alcohol and the abolition of injurious customs and meetings deemed to be useless. The elders, taken aback by the assertiveness of the young men, were hostile and the association soon faded from existence.

While at Te Aute, Pomare was introduced to Seventh-day Adventist leaders in Napier. They suggested that he enter their college in Battle Creek, Michigan, and become a medical missionary. His relatives had wanted him to study law and go into Parliament, but he felt he could do more for Maori as a doctor. In 1893 he left New Zealand for Michigan where, except for one short return visit in 1895, he was to remain until 1900. Before he left New Zealand he was instructed by an old tohunga, Tepene of Ngati Mutunga, in tribal traditions and knowledge.

Pomare was embarking on a long course of study in a country where he would be without any of his own people. He would have to depend on his own skills to raise money to pay for his education and had to display that self-reliance and independence he was to urge all Maori to show. Pomare capitalised on the interest his arrival caused and advertised a lecture on the history, legends and culture of the Maori. He was a competent public speaker and during his period in the United States he gave numerous lectures on this topic. A newspaper report of the time described him as 'a sturdily built, sunny-faced young man,…bubbling all over with wit and good nature'. Pomare also served behind the counter at a drugstore, supervised cotton picking in the South and served in kitchens, and took the opportunity to travel extensively in the United States.

After completing the prescribed course of studies at Battle Creek, Pomare went on to the American Medical Missionary College at Chicago and graduated MD in 1899. He spent some time at Cook County Hospital, Chicago, before he returned to New Zealand in August 1900.

He arrived at a propitious time. The Te Aute College Students' Association had emphasised the need for Maori doctors, and as a result Peter Buck and Riwai Tawhiri agreed to study medicine. As well, an outbreak of bubonic plague in Australia and the threat of its spreading to New Zealand had focused attention on the notoriously bad housing conditions in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and in Maori villages. Joseph Ward, as minister of public health, had already passed the Bubonic Plague Prevention Act 1900, followed by a Public Health Act.

In March 1901 Maui Pomare was appointed Maori health officer. He had the same powers as the district health officers and ranked immediately below the permanent head of the department. His first major assignment was to the great welcome hui for the duke and duchess of Cornwall and York at Rotorua in June 1901. James Carroll, the minister of native affairs, set it up as a display of Maori loyalty to the monarchy and as a demonstration of the new way of life for Maori. Pomare worked with the committee responsible for health and sanitary arrangements. Although there were nearly 3,500 Maori from all parts of New Zealand, the camp was a marvel of order and cleanliness without drunkenness or any outbreak of disease. It provided a valuable introduction for Pomare to many of the Maori tribal leaders and helped to introduce them and their people to the practice of health reform.

Initially, with the fear of bubonic plague strong, the Liberal government supported projects for health and social reform. District Maori councils devised regulations on sanitation and hygiene; sanitary inspectors were appointed, usually selected from the leading chiefs who had the mana to insist on their instructions being obeyed. Pomare himself embarked on a regular programme of visiting villages, often travelling miles on foot to inspect the water supply, rubbish disposal and sanitary arrangements and to help the sick. He was concerned about the health risks of deserted whare, and in three years burnt 1,900 of them.

Although Pomare was at first anxious about his reception he found that his way had been prepared by the work of the Te Aute students and that people were at least willing to hear him, if not always to obey him. His encounters with Maori communities forced Pomare into becoming an outstanding orator. He developed the technique of using a microscope to show people the micro-organisms that inhabited impure water. He also had slides of the various microbes to show to sceptics.

In a number of his reports Pomare commented bitterly about the mortality that some of the new breed of tohunga caused; for example, by attempting to heal the sick by bathing them in cold water and administering alcohol. He strongly supported Carroll's introduction of the Tohunga Suppression Act in 1907.

Although Pomare believed that the decline in Maori numbers could be halted by the correct medical methods, he also saw that the nature of the Maori population was changing; a new population with European ancestry was emerging and he considered that they would have the best characteristics of both races. Unlike Apirana Ngata, who was concerned over the loss of Maori identity, Pomare welcomed intermarriage and Maori acculturation.

From 1902 to 1910 Pomare reported to Parliament on his work in a series of exuberant reports in which he dealt not only with medical matters but also gave his opinion on a number of issues, including education and land tenure, at times earning rebukes from his superiors. These reports make it clear that he believed in the radical modernisation of Maori society even if this meant the loss of all Maori land. He considered that Maori should adopt a European lifestyle, become self-reliant and, above all, work.

On 7 January 1903, at Gisborne, Maui Pomare married Mildred Amelia (Miria) Tapapa Woodbine Johnson from the East Coast. Her father was James Woodbine Johnson of Maraetaha, a wealthy runholder and orchardist; he had married Mere Hape of Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki. Miria's parents gave her a bicultural education. Her mother ensured that she learnt Maori and retained contact with her tribal kin; her father, a Cambridge graduate, ensured she had a good Pakeha education, through a governess and study at Gisborne District High School. She developed into a forceful personality.

Miria acted as Pomare's hostess, playing an active role in community organisations and, from 1911, working hard to further his political career. She also brought an independent income to the marriage. This meant that the couple could afford to build a gracious home, Hiwiroa, on seven acres of land at Lower Hutt with tennis courts and elaborate gardens, where they entertained in some style. Miria's inheritance was sufficient, with care, to meet their household needs. This meant that Maui could devote his parliamentary income to supporting his political ambitions and to fulfilling his constituents' expectations of generous hospitality and appropriate gift-giving. Maui and Miria Pomare had two sons and one daughter.

Pomare's last three years as medical officer must have been a frustrating experience. The Liberal government lost interest in health reform and gradually cut funding for health work. Sanitary inspectors were abolished, the work of the Maori councils was given to the records clerk of the Native Department as a subsidiary responsibility, and Pomare himself was shifted to the Native Department.

A new opportunity came for him in his native Taranaki. Over 200,000 acres of confiscated land meant to have been reserved for Maori had been leased to European settlers. In 1892 they were given the right to renew their leases in perpetuity. Not all exercised the right, and Te Kahupukoro became the leader of a campaign to recover some 18,000 acres when the leases expired. He and his followers lobbied Carroll, who promised them the return of the lands but urged them to select an intelligent young man to act for them. They interpreted this as advice to elect their own representative to Parliament. Pomare was accordingly selected as the Taranaki candidate for the Western Maori seat in 1911.

He gained the support of Mahuta Te Wherowhero, the Maori King, who was disillusioned with the sitting member, Henare Kaihau. Pomare reminded Mahuta of a debt of honour that his family owed because Te Rauparaha had once warned Potatau Te Wherowhero of an ambush and thereby saved his life. Pomare also promised to support Waikato's claim for redress for the confiscation of their lands in the 1860s. He used his whakapapa connections to establish a relationship with the chiefs and elders of the various tribes. He gained their interest and confidence by his oratorical skills and his ability to talk in parables and cite proverbs, while avoiding detailed promises that would have resulted in disappointment. The combined support of Taranaki and Waikato ensured his election.

When William Massey's Reform Party came to power in July 1912, Pomare was appointed member of the Executive Council representing the native race and put in charge of Maori councils. He was able to accomplish little in these minor posts, although he did succeed in obtaining compulsory registration of Maori births and deaths in 1913.

To Pakeha, Pomare presented a readily acceptable image of the Maori. He was well dressed, good-humoured and witty, and perceived as loyal to the Crown. He was much in demand as an after-dinner speaker. As a politician he could be trusted to weather a political storm, and his innate caution was no disadvantage in a party that did not favour dynamic reform. To his colleagues he was a loyal party man; they rewarded him with the CMG in 1920 and KBE in 1922.

Pomare's first major political battle was to regain the leased lands in Taranaki. A commission appointed in 1912 decided that the settlers had had ample time to convert their leaseholds and recommended that the Maori owners be given the right to bid in the open market for the leaseholds. Pomare worked to reach a settlement with the lessees; they were given a further term of 10 years while two-thirds of the rents were to be paid into a sinking fund administered by the public trustee to pay for any improvements they had made. This was embodied in the West Coast Settlement Reserves Amendment Act 1913. Unfortunately, the government also passed legislation allowing the purchase of interests in reserves and much of the land was sold, so that less eventually passed into Maori hands than Pomare had hoped.

During the First World War Pomare chaired a committee to encourage Maori recruitment. He confronted the intractable problems of shortage of manpower and the resistance to recruiting of his own constituents in Waikato. He argued that willingness to serve would demonstrate that Maori were ready to be accepted as full citizens. Ultimately, he was forced to agree to the application of conscription, so earning bitter anger within Waikato. Nevertheless, the fact that many Maori did volunteer, and that the Maori battalion had a creditable record of service, later enabled Pomare and Ngata to press for more positive policies including the resolution of the confiscation grievances.

As minister of the Cook Islands from 1916 to 1928, Pomare wrestled with the problems of under-development. He tried to secure the money to improve services to the Cook Islanders, and assist the producers to compete successfully in the New Zealand market. During his term as minister the vote swelled from about £7,500 to almost £50,000. He was insistent, too, that the Cook Islanders be taught English. Pomare drew attention to the lack of facilities for sufferers from leprosy, and in 1926 arranged for them to be transported to a leper station in Fiji. He opposed self-government on the grounds that the islands were not ready for it, and was accused of failing to explain adequately legislation that replaced laws made by the island council. Nevertheless, his efforts and personality were appreciated by the islanders, who presented him with a large silver loving-cup and a memorial of thanks signed by every adult.

The peak of his ministerial career was his period as minister of health from June 1923. He inherited a difficult portfolio. As a result of the 1920–21 recession the Health Department's budget had been cut by £20,000. There were also considerable internal problems, and the medical profession was suspicious of the department. The major public issue Pomare faced was a high level of infant and maternal mortality. Maternity care was provided by private maternity hospitals owned by doctors and which provided an important source of their income. Health Department officials supported the use of aseptic techniques, although there was professional disagreement over their necessity in childbirth and concern over the expense of sterilisation equipment.

Pomare understood both the medical issues and the administrative problems. He promoted a campaign in 1924 for safe maternity, which directed attention towards antenatal care, asepsis, appropriate hospital policy and improved midwifery training. His officials devised sterilisers that were considerably cheaper and more efficient and provided a standard asepsis technique for labour and confinement. At the same time Pomare sought to increase the number of public maternity hospitals or maternity wards attached to public hospitals. Puerperal sepsis, which had been one of the prime causes of the deaths of young mothers, fell dramatically after 1927. Pomare lost his health portfolio in a cabinet reshuffle in January 1926. He retained other posts and in 1928 served temporarily as minister of internal affairs.

Pomare's last achievement, in collaboration with Ngata, was the setting up of a commission into land confiscation. He had long promised to pursue this grievance, but the rise of the Ratana movement, which also took up the issue, made it more urgent. Pomare was almost defeated in the 1922 election by H. T. Ratana, and he began to make an inquiry into the confiscations his political priority. He organised a fighting fund to which people from all over the North Island were encouraged to contribute. In Taranaki he asked all Maori farmers to contribute from their dairy cheques, and arranged with the dairy companies to have the amount forwarded to an account that he had set up in Wellington. Prime Minister Gordon Coates agreed to set up a royal commission in October 1926, for which Pomare prepared thoroughly. The commission found that some confiscations had been excessive and recommended compensation. In 1931 Taranaki accepted an annual payment of £5,000; Waikato bargained until 1947 before accepting the same amount.

In late 1928 Pomare fell ill with tuberculosis. Apirana Ngata, in return for the support Pomare had given him on various projects, managed his election campaign for him and later looked after his electoral correspondence. In a brief remission Pomare sought the climate and medicine of the United States. He died in Los Angeles on 27 June 1930. Pomare's cremation, rather than burial in accord with usual Maori custom, caused controversy. After their return to New Zealand, his ashes lay in state in Parliament before their eventual interment at Manukorihi pa cemetery, Waitara. A memorial house at Waitara was opened on 27 June 1936.

In 1911 Pomare, Ngata and Buck had agreed to divide between them aspects of the study of Maori history and ethnology; Pomare's portion was to be myths and legends. The two-volume Legends of the Maori, written in collaboration with James Cowan, was published posthumously. Miria Pomare remained active in welfare and community organisations. She died at Lower Hutt in 1971.

Maui Pomare dedicated himself to equipping his people to adapt and survive in the Pakeha world. He was able to do so because he was himself Maori and was well versed in Maori traditions. Equally at home in the environment of the marae and the world of politics and administration, Pomare pointed the way which he hoped others would follow.

How to cite this page:

Graham Butterworth. 'Pomare, Maui Wiremu Piti Naera', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 April 2020)