Page 1: Biography
Barrett, William Daniel
Ngai Tahu leader, land court agent, trust board secretary
This biography, written by Aroha H. Reriti-Crofts, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
William Daniel Barrett was born on 27 October 1878 at Riverton, Southland, the fourth of eleven children of Louisa Hunter and her husband, Henry Barrett, a labourer. His paternal grandparents were Richard Barrett, a renowned whaler and owner of Barrett’s Hotel in Wellington, and Kararaina Hinehou, a Ngāi Tahu woman from Kaiapoi. Bill Barrett attended Kaiapoi Native School, then, in December 1891, enrolled at Te Aute College, staying on with the assistance of a Te Mākarini Scholarship. On returning to the South Island he worked as a labourer and then as a farmer at Tuahiwi, near Kaiapoi. He was to live there for the remainder of his life.
On 25 April 1902, at Kaiapoi, Bill Barrett married Tini Weepu (also known as Jennie Webb) of Ngāi Tahu; they would have five children. Tini died in September 1911, leaving land in various parts of the South Island in trust for her children and her husband. The rental from these latter lands gave Barrett a steady income. Two years later, on 13 December 1913, in Christchurch, he married Meri Hinewharitea Tīkao of Ngāti Irakehu; they were to have one son. Meri died from tuberculosis in 1916, and on 30 August 1918 in Christchurch Bill married Mere Rihiani Ruru of Ngāi Tūāhuriri from Koukourarata. The couple were to have three children before Mere’s death, also from tuberculosis, in 1928. Barrett fathered two further children: a daughter with Tui Weretā of Waitōtara, and a son with Tini Hinewetea Rehu of Arowhenua.
During the 1920s Ngāi Tahu became increasingly active in pursuit of compensation from the Crown for land sold in 1848 at a low price, and for reserves that had not been set aside as agreed. A commission of inquiry in 1920 had found that the Crown had not fulfilled its obligations under the sale agreement, and suggested that compensation of £354,000 be paid to South Island Māori. The Reform government offered £100,000, which Ngāi Tahu refused, and the issue festered. When a by-election for the Southern Māori parliamentary seat was held in 1922, Barrett stood as an independent against the Reform Party candidate. Although he was unsuccessful, his candidature demonstrated his growing involvement with Ngāi Tahu affairs. By this time Barrett was working as a native agent and conducting cases in the Native Land Court.
The question of compensation for the reserves remained important to Barrett. In 1925, when the Native Land Court sat at Tuahiwi to determine who was entitled to benefit from any forthcoming compensation, he was a member of a committee appointed to compile a list of beneficiaries and to assist people prepare their whakapapa. Barrett believed the list should be limited to those who could trace their ancestry to a kaumātua living within the boundaries of the land sold in 1848, while others thought anyone of Ngāi Tahu descent should benefit. This dispute led to the reassessment of the lists in 1929, and Barrett again reviewed evidence and validated whakapapa before the court. The evidence was heard at Tuahiwi, Temuka, Puketeraki and Colac Bay, which necessitated much travel at Barrett’s own expense.
Legislation authorising the establishment of a Ngāi Tahu trust board had been passed in 1928, and when the first members were gazetted in 1929 Barrett became secretary; he held this position until 1946. The board met infrequently, but Barrett constantly discussed and sought terms for a settlement. In October 1935 he presented the board’s case at a meeting with the prime minister and native minister, George Forbes, and the minister of finance, Gordon Coates. A change of government two months later slowed negotiations, but Barrett was persistent, arguing that the delay was keeping South Island Māori impoverished. In 1938, when the government agreed to a round-table conference, he was Ngāi Tahu’s reserve delegate. From this time Barrett became less prominent in negotiations. Nonetheless, when a settlement was reached in 1944 and a new board was created in 1946 to administer the funds, he was again elected a member, representing the Maahunui district until his death in the 1950s.
While lessening his involvement in Ngāi Tahu compensation negotiations after 1938, he was entering the period of his greatest importance as an elder and spokesman for the iwi. In October 1944 he attended the national Māori conference at Wellington, which considered plans for the future of Māori by converting the Māori War Effort Organisation into a peace-time vehicle to fulfil Māori aspirations for a measure of self-government. Here he argued in support of the South Island compensation claim and for Māori fishing rights in rivers and lakes. Although not opposed to Europeans leasing Māori land, he was critical of the low rentals that often accrued to Māori. He argued further that Māori land should not be leased to non-Māori until provision had been made for Māori soldiers returning from the Second World War.
A lover of Shakespeare, Bill Barrett enjoyed reciting passages from plays and acting parts. His fine features, well-modulated voice and expressive face made him a natural actor. From the mid 1930s until 1953 he was head of Ngāi Tūāhuriri Runanga. In this role he was also a trustee of the Tuahiwi hall and chairman of the Tūāhuriri Tribal Committee. He was active in the New Zealand Labour Party, and president of the Tuahiwi Labour Representation Committee during the 1930s. In 1940 he represented Ngāi Tahu at the New Zealand centenary celebrations at Wellington. His services to the Māori community were recognised in 1953, shortly after his death at Tuahiwi on 23 May, when he was posthumously awarded the Coronation Medal. He had seen the initial settlement of the Ngāi Tahu claim in 1944, and his contribution to this, and the establishment of a comprehensive genealogical record for his people, had been a life’s work. He was buried at Tuahiwi and survived by eight children.