Did you know that the Maori Contingent, which left New Zealand in February 1915, was the first organised effort by Māori to represent themselves in an overseas theatre of war?
On 14 February 1915, the 500-strong Maori Contingent left New Zealand’s shores for the First World War. The Contingent – a unit made up of Māori volunteers – had begun their training at Auckland’s Avondale Racecourse the previous October. This was the first time Māori from so many different tribes had been brought to one place to live and train together for a sustained period of time. It was also the first time, as Private Rikihana Carkeek recounted, that ‘all the tribes unite[d] to fight one common enemy.’
In the earlier Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) the government declined Māori offers of service on the understanding that British Imperial policy was not to employ ‘native’ troops in a ‘white man’s war’.
At the outbreak of the First World War a request by Māori leaders for a unit based on ethnicity was not at first permitted. Māori could, however, enlist individually for service in other units within the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) and some did.
When it was learnt that France and Britain were mobilising colonial troops from Africa and India to the seat of war, the five Māori parliamentarians made a second appeal in the New Zealand House of Representatives. This time they were successful, Prime Minister Bill Massey reminding parliament, ‘Our Maori friends are our equals in the sight of the law. Why then should they be deprived of the privilege of fighting and upholding the Empire?’
The recruitment of the 500-strong Maori Contingent was left to the Māori members of the House, the senior member of whom was Sir James Carroll (MP for the general electorate of Gisborne). Each member of this committee organised his own electoral district to ensure the following quotas:
- Eastern Maori electorate 180 Āpirana Ngata
- Western Maori electorate 180 Dr Māui Pōmare
- Northern Maori electorate 100 Pita Te Rangihīroa (Dr Peter Buck)
- Southern Maori electorate 40 Taare Parata
Within a month the volunteers had been selected and from 17 October 1914 500 young men began arriving at Avondale Racecourse in Auckland where the Māori contingent was to be trained. The first to enter camp was a group of about 30 men from the Kaitāia and Mangōnui regions, along with some 15 to 20 men who enlisted in Auckland. Tribal detachments from all over the country followed, with the last group arriving on 22 October.
Members of the district recruiting committees, or an officer appointed by the committee, accompanied each group of recruits. It was the East Coast-Gisborne detachment who brought with them the name Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu (the seventy twice-told warriors of the war god Tu), that would be adopted by the Contingent. They had been escorted by their kaumatua, Wi Pere, one-time MP for the Eastern Maori electorate, and he gave the name.
The detachments were the pick of their tribe’s youth, and while a handful had received little schooling, the great majority were well educated ―the product of the church colleges Te Aute (Hawke’s Bay), St Stephens (Parnell), Three Kings (Mt Roskill), Otaki Native (Otaki), Hikurangi (Clareville, Carterton) and Waerenga-a-Hika (Gisborne).
The average height of the men was 5ft 9½in (181cm) which was higher than that of other NZEF units. The maximum weight limit that the military authorities had set for NZEF volunteers was 12 stone (76 kg) but there were a good number of Māori who weighed in well over 13 stone (82 kg). Private Rikihana Carkeek of Otaki recalled that the ‘men were of fine physique, deep chested and broad shouldered.’
Most recruits were between the required ages 21 to 40, but some had slipped through who were outside those limits, helped by the fact that Māori were not legally required to register births prior to 1913. When Hori Karaka Te Awarau, still a pupil at Waerenga-a-hika College, learnt that his father was in camp, he promptly finished school and proceeded to Avondale where he begged his father’s permission to join the Contingent. Although only 17 years of age he was accepted because of his expert knowledge of signalling.
The volunteers trained at Avondale for almost four months. By the New Year they formed a well-drilled and impressive military unit. On 14 February 1915 the Maori Contingent set sail for war.
At first they were assigned garrison duties on the Mediterranean island of Malta – a deployment that was deeply unpopular amongst the troops, who were keen to see active service alongside the Pākehā units at Gallipoli. As casualties on the Gallipoli Peninsula mounted, the Maori Contingent was finally brought in as reinforcements on 3 July 1915. A total of 50 men of the Maori Contingent would lose their lives during the Gallipoli Campaign.