The prow of a giant canoe thrusts from a wild tumble of New Zealand bush high on a hillside above Urenui. For Taranaki people heading home from the north, this is a sign they have made it safely through the winding, gear-grinding gorges and can swoosh south on easier roads. Some see the landmark as a farewell sign and a more difficult journey northwards. Others see the prow for what it is - the mark of respect for one of Aotearoa's great men and a Taranaki treasure. This is the memorial for Te Rangi Hīroa, also known as Sir Peter Buck.

This powerful symbol, which appears to be surfing a giant wave of green, is on the site of the Ōkoki pā, the home of the Ngāti Mutunga people. This is where Peter's ashes were interred 50 years ago.

Taranaki historian Ron Lambert offers the first glimpse into the life of this great man. On a round-the-mountain history tour he turns towards holiday baches at Urenui, but stops way before that winter-desolate quirk of kiwiana.

Birthplace of Buck

Instead, Lambert climbs a fence into the golf course and tramps determinedly to the fifth hole, marked Waterloo, par 3. There's another sign here, one with no relation to the French battle site. "This is Sir Peter Buck's birthplace," he says, standing over a small concrete memorial chiselled with the date, 15 August 1880. There is some debate over the great man's birthday, with Urenui Primary School records saying he was born in 1877.

"Until Edmond Hillary, Peter Buck and Ernest Rutherford were the two most internationally known New Zealanders," Lambert says. The researcher knows this because he collects cereal cards. "If the number of times you turn up on Weetbix cards is any indication of fame in New Zealand, well, then he (Buck) has got it."

Peter's claims to fame are numerous.

His many faces

He was one of the first Māori medical doctors to graduate in New Zealand, was Minister of Native Affairs, an internationally renowned anthropologist, administrator, sportsperson, World War One veteran, Yale scholar, museum director and leader of the Māori people.

He went to Te Aute College in the Hawke's Bay and gained his medical degree at Otago Medical College. "He came back and doctored here," Lambert says.

His Taranaki links always kept him grounded. They came from Ngarongo-ki-tua, the woman he believed was his mother, and from Kapuakore, the kuia he always treated like a grandmother.

Blood mother

In reality, his mother was a young woman called Rina, a close relative of Ngarongo. When Irishman William Henry Buck and his wife, Ngarongo, failed to produce children they turned to Māori custom. Rina was brought into the household to provide William with a child.

Not long after Peter was born, Rina died of a serious illness. Therefore, the youngster grew up under the care of Ngarongo and her mother, Kapuakore, who was actually Peter's great-aunt.

At Urenui, Peter learnt colloquial Māori from these two women, but his first language was English. His father taught him about poetry and at the school up the road, lessons were in English.

In 1892, Peter's adopted mother died. Two years later, despite protests from Māori relatives, the gifted boy left Urenui and stayed with his father who was working on a sheep station in the Wairarapa.

She who was cloudless

But he always stayed in touch with Kapuakore (cloudless), whom he fled to for comfort as a boy. She taught him the genealogies, legends and songs of her people. He loved her deeply and she always wept over him when he was to leave again.

When she died in 1908, he let the tears flow unashamedly. After the tangi, when everything of Kapuakore had been buried with her, Peter went into her sleeping hut for a private moment. As he looked around he saw a paddle leaning against the wall and it spoke to him of a time when he was transported across Urenui River as a boy, the old woman dipping and pulling, dipping and pulling, carrying him safely to the other side.

So, he took Kapuakore's paddle with him and wherever he lived it took pride of place on the wall, even in Honolulu where he worked at the Bishop Museum. This is what Peter wrote about that taonga (treasure): "It hangs on the wall of my study as my most precious family heirloom. I have studied under learned professors in stately halls of learning. But as I look at that paddle, I know that the teacher who laid the foundation of my understanding of my own people, and the Polynesian stock to which we belong, was a dear old lady with a tattooed face in a humble hut walled with tree-fern slabs."

Educating Peter

This was a great tribute, because Peter was a well-educated man. In 1896, he went to Te Aute College, a place that forever helped his future. When Peter started at the boarding school, it was under the leadership of John Thornton, who taught the boys unforgettable lessons in life. "I remember that he once emphasised the fact that everyone, no matter how humble his walk in life, was necessary to the fullness of human society," Peter wrote.

List of leaders

The list of Māori leaders produced by Te Aute College is long. In hindsight, Peter deduced that these men weren't overly gifted, but simply fortunate to receive the education that moulded them. "I do not think that there was anything extraordinary about Āpirana Ngata, Māui Pōmare and others of our generation, but we studied hard at Te Aute and we made the most of the opportunities that came our way. I do not see why other Te Aute boys should not equal or even exceed our record," says Peter, who was dux in his last year there. He also captained the athletics team and the 1st XV rugby side.

Letters after his name

After leaving the college, Peter and fellow student Tutere Wirepa went to Otago Medical School, the first Māori to train there as doctors. Learning became a life-long passion for Peter and he ended up with so many letters after his name, it looked like a strange alphabet.

He achieved and received:

Medical (MB) and chemistry (ChB) degrees from Otago in 1904.

A doctorate in medicine (MD) from Otago in 1910.

Honorary degrees from Yale, M.A (1936) and D.Sc (1951)

Honorary doctorates in science from universities of New Zealand (1937) and Rochester (1939).

A doctorate in letters from the University of Hawaii (1948).

A Distinguished Service Order (1918).

British and Swedish knighthoods, the K.C.M.G. and Royal Order of the North Star (both in 1946).

A host of scientific prizes 


Spears and sport

Life wasn't all work and winning. Peter also had a great sense of fun. In 1903, he took part in a set-up photograph involving a reconstructed moa. The Otago University's registrar, Augustus Hamilton, had pieced together a skeleton of the extinct bird and even added feathers. Then he placed it in the Dunedin's Woodhaugh Gardens and convinced three Māori men to dress as warriors and stalk the moa with spears. The ferocious threesome were Peter, Tutere Wirepa and Koroneho Hemi Papakakura, who performed admirably for the camera.

At athletics, Peter showed his strength for real. In 1900 and 1903, he was the national long jump champion and in 1902-04, he won the inter-university long jump title.

Loves lost, won

Straight after his high school days ended, Peter headed to the East Coast with a fellow Te Aute student from Ngāti Porou iwi. There, he met and fell in love with a beautiful young Māori woman called Materoa Ngarimu. Sadly, she was out of his reach. Materoa was of the highest born rangatira family, and the people of Ngāti Porou didn't believe this young Taranaki man was a worthy suitor.

Peter found his match in the South Island. After finishing medical school he worked as a locum in Greymouth where he met and wed Margaret Wilson, a 24-year-old from Northern Ireland. Peter and Margaret's marriage was childless and sometimes troubled, but they stayed together. Margaret always supported Peter, pushing him to make decisions that would further his career. Lady Buck, as she became after Peter was knighted, would always accompany him on his travels, even to remote places where conditions were primitive. At their homes, she provided a welcome environment for friends and visiting colleagues.

Memories of Peter

Taranaki woman Marjorie Rau-Kupa remembers the day Peter came to visit her father with an unwelcome request. "I very nearly became an adopted daughter/slave of Lady Buck," says Aunty Marj, who turned 90 in early 2003. "I was there when he [Peter] asked my father if he could take me back to Hawaii, and my mother's eyes nearly popped out of her head and she shook her head to say no. My father was blind, you see."

Aunty Marj was in her early teens at the time. Her father shunned the request with anger: "How dare you ask my daughter to be a slave for your Pakeha wife." Even now, Aunty Marj shudders at the memory. "He was quite rude because he disliked Sir Peter's wife intensely. I felt so embarrassed, my father saying that to Peter Buck of all people."

Doctoring the people

As the years rolled by, Peter's standing grew. In 1905 he became a medical officer to the Māori and worked as deputy to Māui Pōmare, who had completed his medical studies in the United States. The men covered the North Island, splitting it in half, so that at first Peter covered the central districts and the south. Then the men swapped and the younger Taranaki man worked in the northern regions. He was covering that area in 1909, when Hōne Heke Ngāpua, the MP for northern Māori died suddenly, and, surprisingly, Peter was asked to stand in his place.

'Young Colt' wins seat

The request came from James Carroll, who was determined to have his ‘Young Colts’ elected to Parliament. These Māori graduates later became known as the Young Māori Party. Peter got in, and was a member of the Native Affairs Committee and, in 1912, was briefly a Cabinet Minister. In 1914, he didn't seek re-election for the northern Māori seat, but did stand in the Bay of Islands. He was narrowly beaten and never stood for Parliament again.

To be Pacific

During his time as an MP, he became extremely interested in Polynesian culture. While in Parliament, he spent the recess of 1910 in Rarotonga, acting as a medical officer in the Cook Islands, and in 1912-13, he did the same in Niue. Before he was able to plunge himself into studying the cultures of the South Pacific, war reared its bloody head.

Horrors of Gallipoli

In World War One, Peter was a medical doctor at Gallipoli and in France. This is what he faced on the rocky Turkish coast on 9 August 1915: "I went over the crest with my orderly, asking the stretcher-bearers to follow at intervals so as not to attract fire. It was an experience popping over the ridge and knowing that one was in full view of the enemy sharpshooters.

"As I sprinted over, I slipped, rolling head over heels down the slope, momentarily expecting to hear or feel the zip of a bullet. However, I landed safe and happy in a dry streambed under perfect cover. We worked up the bed and came to a little terrace formed by two streams, which had converged to form that by which we had ascended. The terrace was crowded with wounded men and the two streambeds, instead of flowing with water, were flowing with a steady stream of wounded men..."

Fighting for hygiene

After the war, Peter returned to New Zealand and in 1921, became the director of the Māori Hygiene Division in the new Department of Health. His big drive was to improve sanitation among Māori to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. All the while, he kept up his interest in anthropology, and even became a celebrity on the lecture circuit, delivering speeches on ‘The Coming of the Māori’.

Heading for Hawaii

In 1926, Peter was offered a research fellowship at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. After talking to his old friend Sir Āpirana Ngata, he accepted and moved to Hawaii in 1927. After a great deal more study in the field and at Yale on the US mainland, Peter became the director of the Bishop Museum. He held that position until he died in 1951. Through all this time, from 1925 to 1950, Peter and Ngata wrote to each other extensively.

In 1949, Peter became ill with cancer. And during his suffering made a final visit to New Zealand to attend the Pacific Science Congress and receive his knighthood. Then, with Ngata at his side, he made a final pilgrimage to marae all over the country, including his own at Urenui.

Ashes to ashes

He died in Honolulu on 1 December 1951. Two years later his ashes were brought back and laid to rest in a huge ceremony at the hill fort of Ōkoki on 8 August 1954. More than 6000 people, both Māori and Pākehā, attended the farewell for this great man.

Sonny Waru and Aunty Marj performed at the homecoming ceremony. The nearby remains of both Ngarongo and Kapuakore were interred with his ashes, and later Margaret's ashes were placed there too.

So, next time you pass that thrusting canoe prow riding high on a froth of green bush above Urenui, don't worry about the road ahead. Instead, think about another life, one that began on the banks of the wide, swirling Urenui River and ended on an island far away. Think of the roads Peter travelled, the knowledge he shared, the people he cared for and the quiet humour and gentleness that made him a great, but humble leader.

Sir Peter Buck's mana will live on forever - way beyond Weetbix cards.


Condliffe. J.B. (1971). Te Rangi Hīroa: The Life of Sir Peter Buck. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs.

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