Harry Delamere Barter Dansey was born in Greenlane, Auckland, on 1 November 1920, the eldest of four children of Harry Delamere Dansey and his wife, Winifred Patience Barter. His father was a civil engineer, and is thought to have been the first Māori to qualify in that profession. He was of Ngāti Rauhoto of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Tūhourangi of Te Arawa, with connections to Ngāti Raukawa.
Harry began his education at Remuera primary school in Auckland. The family moved to Rotorua in 1930, where he attended primary school and then high school from 1934 to 1939. He excelled at English and demonstrated a gift for art, particularly drawing. His mother, who was New Zealand born, had completed her schooling in England and France. She instilled in him her love of poetry and reading. His father told young Harry stories of taniwha and tohunga he had heard from the old people in the meeting house. This gave Harry a passion for Māori culture, and in Rotorua he was able to absorb its riches.
He also began a lifelong association with the Auckland Institute and Museum: during the school holidays he often returned to Auckland and spent days there learning about the taonga and history of his ancestors. The family lived near Whakarewarewa and he joined other boys diving for tourist pennies from the bridge at the entrance to the thermal area. His mother encouraged him to learn Māori, and he practised it with these children.
On 19 May 1943 at Ōeo, Manaia, Taranaki, Harry Dansey married Te Rina Makarita (Lena Margret) Hīkaka, who was from Ngāti Tama-ahuroa of Ngā Ruahine in South Taranaki and had Ngāti Tūwharetoa connections. His marriage, and his experiences with the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion during the Second World War, strengthened his ties to Māori people and culture. He embarked for Egypt on 31 March 1944. While in North Africa and Italy he was often required to collect and report intelligence information prior to the advance of the main battalion and he sketched buildings and landscapes of strategic interest. He was discharged from the army in 1946 having gained the rank of sergeant.
Harry and Lena Dansey settled in Hāwera, where Harry completed a journalism apprenticeship with the Hāwera Star. Later, they moved to Marton and he became editor and part-owner of the Rangitīkei News. In 1952 the family returned to Taranaki when Harry took up a position with the Taranaki Daily News in New Plymouth. He worked on many of the large news stories of the district, including the Tangiwai railway disaster of 1953. In 1954 he accompanied the cortège bringing the ashes of Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) from Wellington to Ōkoki in Taranaki, calling at marae throughout the North Island. This assignment earned him third place in the Cowan Memorial Prize for journalism.
Harry Dansey became well known locally as the newspaper’s resident cartoonist and his Cartoons on international affairs was published in 1958. However, although according to journalist Noel Holmes he ‘could draw elegantly’, he was not a great cartoonist since ‘he lacked the cruel sense necessary’. He regularly wrote feature articles on Māori custom, contributed to Te Ao Hou , and commented on Māori issues on radio. In 1959 he attended the Young Māori Leaders’ Conference at the University of Auckland.
In 1947 his first book, How the Māoris came to Aotearoa , was published. A second, How the Māoris came , published in 1956, was written by A. W. Reed and illustrated by Dansey. The Māori people appeared in 1958 and The New Zealand Māori in colour was published in 1963 with full-page colour photographs by Kenneth and Jean Bigwood.
In 1961 Harry Dansey and his family moved to Auckland, where he took up a position with the Auckland Star as writer on Māori and Pacific Island affairs. He also undertook general reporting assignments, building up a broad network of contacts which would prove helpful when he entered local body politics. His writings, including a long series on Māori custom, folklore and place names, made his name well known to the public and earned him awards within his trade.
Harry Dansey was awarded the English-Speaking Union of New Zealand travelling scholarship in journalism in 1967. He toured Australia, lecturing on New Zealand and studying Aboriginal issues. In 1968 he won the Cowan Memorial Prize for outstanding journalism, in particular for a series on Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. In 1969 and 1970 he visited Tonga and the Cook Islands, first as the New Zealand Press Association representative on the Royal Society of New Zealand Cook bicentenary expedition and then as the New Zealand newspapers representative to Tonga’s independence celebrations. He lectured part time in Māori studies at the University of Auckland.
After leaving the Auckland Star in 1970, he continued writing as a free-lance journalist, publishing in various newspapers, magazines and journals. In 1971 his most influential work, Māori custom today , based on articles printed in the Auckland Star during the first half of the year, was published. That year, as a tribute to his wife’s family, Harry Dansey wrote Te raukura: the feathers of the albatross , a full-length play based on the Taranaki passive resistance movement of 1879–81. It first played at the 1972 Auckland Festival.
He also pursued other interests. He became one of station 1ZB’s first talkback hosts and was a frequent broadcaster on current affairs programmes. In 1971 he was elected to the Auckland City Council, serving until 1977. His contribution to the city was recognised by a park in central Auckland being named after him. In 1973 he was seconded to the Department of Māori Affairs to assist in developing its public relations profile.
In 1974 Harry Dansey was made an MBE for his services to journalism. The following year he was appointed New Zealand’s second race relations conciliator. In addition to investigating complaints, his goal was to affirm and promote racial harmony and equality in New Zealand. He articulated the need for people to respect other cultures and attempted mediation before resorting to prosecution – a power he used infrequently. Positive action was promoted in the community; stereotyping was challenged; racial harmony was promoted in the education sector by targeting teachers, students and parents; and consultation and training was encouraged in business, government, and legal and professional organisations. He held the belief that New Zealand society would develop its own culture, drawing from the strengths of both Māori and Europeans. He became a member of the Human Rights Commission in 1978.
The job of race relations conciliator had many challenges, and some situations became quite bitter. Harry Dansey was a gentle man and the work he did was at some cost to himself. He retired from the position in October 1979, and died a few weeks later, on 6 November at Auckland, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter. He is buried alongside his father, other relatives, and Te Arawa veterans from two world wars at Muruika cemetery in Ōhinemutu, Rotorua. The concluding lines of his poem, ‘The divided heart’, written in 1970, perhaps best sum up his ideal for racial harmony:
We would not choose to tell apart
The things we love by race or clime
For they are one within the heart;
And equal joy in them we take
That in this place by chance are set
Tall kauris of Waitakere
Or oak and elm of Somerset.