Story: Whaitiri, Te Waari Kahukura
Whaitiri, Te Waari Kahukura
Ngati Mutunga and Ngai Tahu; master mariner, community worker
This biography was written by Reina Ann Whaitiri and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Te Waari (Ward) Kahukura Whaitiri was born at Kairakau, Chatham Islands, on 11 September 1912, to Meriana Ngapohe Rawiri of Ngati Mutunga and Ngai Tahu, and her husband, Te Wera William Whaitiri, a labourer and seaman, of Ngai Tahu. His father was a relative of the Ruapuke Island Whaitiri family. His mother died when he was six and he was raised by foster parents. In 1923, when in standard two, Ward left Te One School to run away to sea. The Whaitiri whanau had strong links with the ocean and it seemed natural to Ward that he continue this tradition. The 11-year-old lied about his age in order to be taken on as deck boy, one of the lowest positions on a ship – his duties included darning the captain’s socks. Maori was his first language but with the sea as his classroom he quickly learnt English as well as seamanship, discipline, determination and independence. As he acquired skills and knowledge he began to rise up the ranks. On 3 April 1940 Ward married Norma Sybil Lord, a waitress, at Sydney, Australia. They were to have three children, two of whom survived infancy.
During the Second World War Whaitiri served in merchant navy convoys from Britain to Murmansk; his ship was torpedoed four times. Determined to win his own peacetime command, he read and learnt from officers he worked under. In 1946 he became a seaman for the Nelson-based Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company and then briefly for the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand before rejoining the Anchor company. In 1947 his first marriage ended in divorce, and on 26 April 1949 he married Rita Charlotte Finall at Wellington, with whom he had two children.
Whaitiri sat his Home Trade Masters Certificate of Competency in 1951 and, after winning a dispute with the London examiners regarding the correctness of his answers, was issued with the certificate in 1952. He was one of the first Maori to become a master mariner and one of only two Maori qualified ship’s captains between 1952 and 1975. For 23 years he commanded ships for the Anchor company, which ran general cargo around the coast of New Zealand. Among the ships he skippered were Zephyr II , Titoki , Nikau , Puriri , Mamaku and Totara. Most were small vessels, less than 1,000 tons. As a captain he was a strict but fair disciplinarian; ashore he was similarly firm with his children.
In 1975 Ward Whaitiri lost his job. Company takeovers and the replacement of the type of small ships he captained with roll-on roll-off container vessels were changing the shipping industry. Although he came ashore reluctantly, Whaitiri maintained links with seamen; he became vice president of the Ex Royal Naval Men’s Association and was a warden and life member of the New Zealand Company of Master Mariners. He also continued to be known as ‘the Captain’. Throughout his 50 years at sea Ward had been a meticulous dresser, and after he came ashore he maintained high personal standards of behaviour, adhering strictly to social etiquette.
In 1975 he began working for the Department of Maori Affairs as a friend of the court, helping Maori and Pacific island youngsters in trouble with the law. He worked to regain his fluency in Maori and became involved with the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club. For this work he received the New Zealand Maori Leadership Award in 1981. In 1984 he took the part of the kaumatua in the operatic production Waituhi, by Witi Ihimaera and Ross Harris. He also appeared in a number of television films, and in 1987 organised a petition calling for a Maori radio station in Wellington.
Ward Whaitiri was a life member of the Wellington Savage Club and of the SPCA, which he had joined soon after the Second World War. In 1988 he received the SPCA award and in May 1996 was made patron of the Wellington Zoological Society. He was also associated with Wellington senior citizen organisations. He was a member of the Golden Age Movement and president of a pensioners and beneficiaries association. In 1987 he received a Wellington City Council Civic Award and in 1990 a Queen’s Service Medal for his community work.
Ward Whaitiri died at his Kilbirnie home on 26 November 1996. His tangihanga was held at Pipitea marae, where his family, friends and associates farewelled the old sailor as he set off on his final voyage to Hawaiki. His wife had died in 1987; four of his children survived him.