Story: Rankin, Hone Heke

Page 1 - Biography

Rankin, Hone Heke

1896–1964

Nga Puhi leader, medical worker, farmer

This biography was written by Angela Ballara and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Hone Heke Rankin, also known as John Rankin, was born at Gisborne on 13 January 1896 to Matire Ngapua of Nga Puhi, and her husband, John Claudian (Claudius) Rankin, a Kaikohe storekeeper. Matire was the daughter of Niurangi Puriri and Hone Ngapua, a nephew of Hone Heke Pokai, the Bay of Islands leader who signed the Treaty of Waitangi but later cut down the Kororareka flagstaff. Her brother, Hone Heke Ngapua, was MHR for Northern Maori from 1893 to 1911. Matire was working for a legal firm, Parr and Blomfield, in Auckland when she met John Rankin, an immigrant from Glasgow, Scotland, who was regarded as Kaikohe's legal expert. Hone Heke had an elder brother, Hepi. Their father seems to have played little part in their life, although the boys had the advantage of speaking English and Maori. Hone Heke’s main hapu was Te Matarahurahu, but he was also connected through senior lineage to Ngati Rahiri, Ngai Tawake, Ngati Tautahi, Te Uri-o-Hua, and to most of the northern tribes.

Hone Heke Rankin's skills as an orator on the marae and the position he eventually inherited suggest that he received a traditional Maori education. Later in life he called attention to his East Coast connections: he was kin through one line of descent to Ngati Kahungunu and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki and was related to Wi Pere, and said that he had stayed for years in the household of Apirana Ngata and had been educated at Waiomatatini. He had an enquiring mind and made the most of limited opportunities for self-improvement; in the 1930s he was to read the Bible – the only literature available to him – right through in Maori and English many times. Later in life he read voraciously, becoming something of a self-educated polymath.

On 13 December 1915 he enlisted in the army as a private; his occupation was listed as chauffeur. He embarked with the 11th Reinforcements and was posted to active service with the 2nd Battalion of the Auckland Infantry Regiment in August 1916. He was wounded at the Somme the following month and evacuated to England. In February 1918 he joined the New Zealand Medical Corps. He was discharged in 1919. After the war he continued in medical work for nearly 10 years, working in the department of radiography of Auckland Hospital for a period, then moving to Rotorua.

Eventually Rankin returned to Northland, where he worked as foreman of a mercury mine at Ngawha, sometime between 1928 and 1934. Later he purchased land at Punakitere where he was to farm for 30 or more years. On ll March 1924 at Kaikohe he had married Hinuoriwa Te Pirihi Whiu of Ngati Rangi, daughter of Maraea and Te Pirihi Whiu. There were three children of this marriage, but later the couple separated, Hinu returning to her people. About 1927 he met Parani Maihi of Ngati Hau of Hokianga, and took her as a second wife in a customary marriage. She was of very high rank, a schoolteacher by profession, and well known for her oratorical skills. There were seven children of this union.

By the 1930s Hone Heke Rankin was taking his place as a leader of his district, working on all the local projects, and often Parani was left to carry on the farm work assisted only by her older children. In 1936 Rankin was gazetted as a member of the Pewhairangi Maori Council, a post he was to retain until at least 1945. In 1937 he received a coronation commemorative medal. He was also one of a number of Northland chiefs invited by Eru Pou to take part in a hui to discuss plans for the 1940 centennial celebrations. In 1939 he was on a list of Maori notables invited to take part in the planned joint Pakeha and Maori pageant. At the re-enactment of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi he played the role of his ancestor Hone Heke Pokai.

During the Second World War Rankin farmed his land. He was probably involved in the Maori War Effort Organisation, but assumed a more important role when he was appointed to the Rehabilitation Board in late 1944, possibly through his friendship with Prime Minister Peter Fraser. The board was responsible for the resettlement of returned servicemen, Pakeha and Maori, through trade and farm training, assistance with employment, housing loans and loans for farm settlement. In April 1945 the board appointed a finance committee, with Rankin as a member, to take special responsibility for Maori returned servicemen. It was to pursue an active policy of purchasing or leasing land from undeveloped tribal estates on which to settle them.

In August 1945 Rankin and others toured Maori localities inspecting progress; they clarified and standardised a number of administrative procedures. But in January 1946, when Rankin toured Northland with other members of the board, they reported many deficiencies: lack of information, bureaucratic delays and the scarcity of available tribal land meant that little had been done to settle qualified Maori farmers on land. Rankin and the others feared they would drift to urban work, wasting their training, if nothing was done. He was responsible for the frankness of the complaints the board received, as he had insisted they travel without the local Maori rehabilitation officer in order to allow 'a freer expression of opinion'. In March 1946 he was part of a similar delegation to the East Coast.

Rankin also contributed positively to rehabilitation in his local area. He played a crucial role in getting the Kaikohe Carpentry Training Centre established by March 1945, and at Punakitere he succeeded in getting a large block of land developed as a training farm for ex-service would-be farmers. The lands were of poor quality, being former gumfields, and this project succeeded only after many years when the right combination of fertilisers was discovered. In 1948 he wrote to the minister of rehabilitation, C. F. Skinner, of his 'deep concern that so few Maori ex-servicemen have benefitted from the existing policy of Rehabilitation Land Settlement’. He recommended a change in policy to facilitate the faster acquisition of land. He also asked for the appointment of an officer of the department to watch over the interests of Maori ex-servicemen who had been established in business, many of whom were failing because of lack of training in bookkeeping and accounting.

Rankin's letter caused a tremendous flurry in the Rehabilitation Department and sparked a major review of policy. In 1949 the under-secretary for Maori Affairs, Tipi Tainui Ropiha, convened a conference on the topic, and in July 1949 the Rehabilitation Board decided to appoint an executive sub-committee of the finance committee with Rankin as a member. Rankin demanded that as one of only three Maori involved at the decision-making level, he should be party to all the finance committee’s subcommittees, and to all valuations, fixing of charges and reviews of farming operations of Maori ex-servicemen settled under the board's various schemes. Rankin succeeded in his demands, and continued in this work into the 1950s.

Rankin's work at the national level together with his rangatira status gave him a high profile in his local community, and he figured at many events. In 1947, when the Kaikohe hospital buildings were converted into a technical and agricultural high school (eventually known as Northland College), Rankin was the principal Maori speaker. He had strong support in the local Maori branch of the New Zealand Labour Party and in 1949 made a bid for the nomination of the Northern Maori seat, but the Ratana party had too firm a grasp to be easily dislodged.

Over the summer of 1953–54 the young Queen Elizabeth II and her consort, the duke of Edinburgh, toured New Zealand. Plans for Maori receptions were marked by controversy. On 28 December 1953 the royal couple visited Waitangi, which was added to the itinerary only after sustained protest by Maori at its original omission. Hone Heke Rankin had been on the organising committee, and was among the official speakers. He abandoned the two-minute prepared speech that had been released to the media, and instead, spoke for four minutes on the Treaty of Waitangi as 'a statement of the historic and traditional rights of the Maori people’, claiming that it ‘is more than a legal document. It is a moral charter’. He declared his intention to escort the Queen and the duke of Edinburgh to Ngaruawahia to meet his kinsman, the Maori King, Koroki. This was a brief visit the government had been shamed into adding to the itinerary. After this, Rankin declared, he and Koroki would accompany the royal party ‘to the portals of Te Arawa’. Rankin then reverted to the carefully scripted programme, and, investing S. G. Holland, the prime minister, with the title of 'Queen's guardian and protector', he presented him, for the duration of the royal visit, with Te Uira, the highly tapu mere of Hongi Hika.

True to his word, Rankin escorted the royal party to Ngaruawahia on 30 December; when the party was challenged by the throwing down of a carved walking-stick at the gates of the marae, Rankin retrieved it, handing it to Holland who passed it to the Queen. But the controversy was not yet over. Rankin, with Pei Te Hurinui Jones, then escorted Koroki to Rotorua, and is said to have approached Te Arawa chiefs with the suggestion that Koroki be permitted to escort the Queen to the Arawa marae and royal dais. The request was angrily denied. Serious conflict was narrowly averted, and Rankin's words were deemed to have been sufficiently fulfilled in that Koroki stayed at Te Ruato, Rotoiti, not far from the Queen herself.

Rankin continued to be prominent during his last decade. He again played a major role in the 1963 reception for the Queen at Waitangi, though the organisers did not trust the man 'who would not bow to officialdom' to speak. He was made a member of the Te Tii and the Tai Tokerau trust boards and was appointed an OBE; he was also a justice of the peace. Shortly before his death the Tumatauenga meeting house was opened at Otiria by the governor general; Rankin had given it its name and played a large part in the organisation of its building.

Hone Heke Rankin died at Whangarei Public Hospital on 16 April 1964, survived by his second wife and 10 children. On the way home, his body lay in state on the Otiria marae, followed by some hours at Ngawha, finally lying at Te Kotahitanga marae, Kaikohe. He was buried at Kaikohe on 19 April, next to his uncle, Hone Heke Ngapua.