Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

NGATA, Sir Apirana Turupa

(1874–1950).

Maori leader, politician, statesman, and scholar.

A new biography of Ngata, Apirana Turupa appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Apirana Turupa Ngata was born on 3 July 1874 at Kawaka, commonly known as Te Araroa, near East Cape. He was the eldest son of the 15 children born to Paratene Ngata, of the Ngati Porou, and of Katerina Naki, a half-caste Ngati Porou from Waipiro Bay. His parents had been married in 1867 and, as the union appeared to be barren, they believed that conception would be possible only if certain rituals were performed by a Maori high priest or Tohunga. Katerina therefore subjected herself to a special ritual, which was later claimed as the reason for Ngata's birth. Young Ngata was brought up by his mother's sister, the wife of Major Ropata, and named Apirana, after Ropata's eldest son. Ngata received his early education at the Waiomatatini Maori School and, at the age of 10, went to Te Aute College, where the headmaster was John Thornton, a devout Anglican Churchman and an outstanding classics scholar. Under Thornton's guidance Ngata matriculated and gained the Senior Makarini Scholarship and an additional bursary which enabled him to further his studies at Canterbury University College. He graduated B.A. with second-class honours in political science in 1893. In 1894 he articled himself to Sir Theophilus Cooper in Auckland and studied for his M.A. (graduated 1921) and also for his law degree. In 1897 he gained his LL.B. and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor. He therefore became the first Maori to graduate in a New Zealand University and was one of the very earliest New Zealanders to hold the degrees of B.A., LL.B. The honorary degree of Doctor of Literature was conferred upon him by the University of New Zealand in 1948.

At the outset of his career Ngata might easily have made a name for himself in law, but after a brief period he experienced an urge to work more directly with the Maori people, a service he regarded as the highest sphere of all. During the last decade of the nineteenth century the Maori population had fallen to approximately 40,000, or about 60,000 less than in 1840. Little wonder that the Maori was called a “dying race”. In keeping with this idea of service Ngata became travelling secretary for the Young Maori Party, a movement that grew from the Te Aute College Old Boys' Association. Ngata realised that worth-while results would be achieved only through existing tribal organisations, and generally this was the method under which the Young Maori Party functioned. As its programme was aimed at influencing Parliament to obtain legislation directly beneficial to the Maori, it became essential for a member of the party to enter the House of Representatives. In 1905, Ngata was elected a member of Parliament, where he remained until 1943. He represented the native race in Sir Joseph Ward's Ministry (1909–12) and was Minister of Native Affairs and Cook Islands in Ward's second Ministry (1928–30) and under Forbes (1930–34).

As a parliamentarian Ngata was never a strict party man; for him Maori problems came first. His Maori Land Development Scheme, inaugurated in 1931 when he was Minister of Maori Affairs, was one of the greatest achievements of his Parliamentary career. Throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand, undeveloped Maori lands were brought into production through Ngata's schemes. Ngata was also tireless in his efforts to raise the living standards of the Maori people and fervently believed it could be achieved only by raising their educational level. He worked for equal opportunity in education for the Maori youth, for the defining of Maori land tenures, for the participation by Maoris in European sports, and for organising a scheme for consolidating communally owned lands. He inaugurated the Maori Purposes Fund, which has accomplished much in the construction of Maori secondary schools, and he assisted with the formation of the Board of Ethnological Research.

Ngata stimulated a revival of interest in the language, history, and traditions both of the Maoris and of their Polynesian relations. He was president of the Polynesian Society for nine years, was chairman of the Geographic Board – the body to which all New Zealand place names are referred before adoption – and he was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Dominion Museum. In arts and crafts he maintained that the ideal was to train Maori youth in taste and judgment, so that they could develop their indigenous art forms and thereby appreciate the achievements of their own race. He, himself, set an example by encouraging the building of carved memorials or meeting houses. These, such as the reconstructed Rangiatea Church, were intended to meet all the requirements of the community, and some of the finest Maori art and skill have gone into these carvings.

As president of the Polynesian Society, Ngata was able to encourage ethnological research, both financially and through his own stimulating articles. His chief personal contribution in this field was his two-volume work Nga Moteatea, published in 1929. Over a period of 40 years he collected and recorded hundreds of the songs and chants of the various tribes, and these form the basis of the book. When he retired from Parliament he interested himself in the tribal history of the Ngati Porou and in the revised translation of the Maori Bible, as well as in the revision of William's Maori Dictionary. Ngata also published an essay on Anthropology and Government of Native Races in the Pacific, which Professor I. L. G. Sutherland has described as an able analysis of the contact of British civilisation on Polynesian peoples. Finally, he produced a well known work on civics, The Price of Citizenship.

When it was a question of raising funds for community purposes Ngata had no peer. He knew every avenue from which Government grants could be obtained; he knew the financial resources of every tribe and hapu and could assess almost to a penny the amount that could be raised at the various huis he organised. It was he who planned the campaign to raise the £50,000 required to endow the Ngarimu and Maori Battalion Scholarship and, from his deathbed, he conducted a campaign to obtain funds to extend and renovate the buildings at Te Aute College and at Hukarere Girls' School, Napier, on the occasion of the Te Aute centennial. During the First and Second World Wars Ngata's efforts were outstanding. He acted as chief recruiting officer for all tribes, and it was largely due to his efforts in Parliament that the Maoris remained volunteers. In recognition of these and other services to the Maori people, Ngata was knighted in 1927.

Ngata's courage and vision sometimes led him into situations which became embarrassing both to himself and to those associated with him. The most outstanding of these dealt with the misuse of public moneys – not for personal gain but for the benefit of the Maori people. In 1934 a Native Affairs Commission was set up to inquire into and report upon the Departments of Government concerned with administration of native affairs. This Commission presented an unfavourable report about Ngata's work as an administrator, especially where the accounting for public moneys set aside for Maori land development was concerned.

Administration must be sympathetic, patient, and friendly, and Ngata possessed these qualities. Unfortunately, however, his careless methods and personal status created great difficulty in the fulfilment of his administrative duties. As a Minister of the Crown, Ngata was bound to refrain from using State funds in the interests of his own tribe without lawful authority. Moreover, he was bound to restrain himself, as well as the leaders of other tribes, from adopting methods which relaxed the official control over State funds and stores. The Commission stated that Ngata failed repeatedly in these matters and produced some evidence to support this conclusion.

Throughout his life Sir Apirana Ngata had one goal – to uplift the Maori race spiritually, culturally, and economically. First and foremost he was the leader of his people – well equipped by temperament and education to wrestle with the many problems that confronted him. His was a magnetic personality, strengthened by rich gifts of oratory both in English and in Maori. In Parliament he proved a gifted and eloquent speaker and was reputed to be second to none as a political tactician. Rarely has the Maori point of view been more forcibly expressed.

Ngata died on 14 July 1950 at Waiomatatini. In January 1895 Ngata married Arihia Kane Tamati, of Whareponga, East Coast. He left four sons and four daughters.

by Ihakara Porutu Puketapu, B.A., Administration Officer, Department of Maori Affairs, Wellington and Robert Ritchie Alexander, M.A., DIP.ED.(N.Z.), B.T.(CALCUTTA), PH.D.(MINNESOTA), Teachers' Training College, Christchurch.

  • Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1934. G. 11, Report of the Commission on Native Affairs
  • Sir Apirana Ngata and Maori Culture, Ramsden, E. (1948)
  • The History of Te Aute College, Alexander, R. R. (1951)
  • Bay of Plenty Times, 1, 8, 9 Nov 1934, 15–20 Jul 1950 (Obits).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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