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Māori Farmers and the War Effort

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Ross Webb
17 October, 2020

In July 1940, Wiremu Tau Hapa of Ōtangaroa wrote to Prime Minister Peter Fraser offering land and labour for the war effort. He had 200 acres on the Pararahi Block, and all the ‘seeds and implements for this undertaking’.[1]  Tau Hapa was responding to a number of circulars sent by both the registrar of the Native Department, J.H Robertson to ‘leading Maori elders’ and from the newly formed Māori Primary Production Council. The message from Robertson reads as follows:

“E mihi atu ana kia koutou i roto i te pouritanga mo tenei taimaha nui e peehi nei ia tatou ara, i te pakanga e kaikino mai nei i te tangata i tera taha o te Ao nei. Itemea kua riro a tatou tamariki ki te whawhai e tika ana tatou nga tangata noho kainga kite mahi oranga mo ratou. He nui nga kai e kainga tuku ana e nga tangata o Ingarangi, engari itemea ko etahi o nga whenua tuku kai mai ki Ingarangi kua riri ki raro i te mana o to hoariri, kua titiro penei mai ratou ki a tatou pata, tiihi, poaka piiwhi matene hoki.

In these times of stress when the War-clouds are hanging over the head of all of us, I send you Greetings. While our young men, amidst the roar and rattle of the guns are facing the foe, it is for us who remain at home to do our part in a worthy manner. The people of England consume great quantities of food. Some of the countries from which they previously received supplies have been over-run by the enemy. They look to the countries of the Empire to make up these deficiencies and to send them greater quantities of butter, cheese, port, beef and mutton”.[2]

The undersecretary of the Native Department replied to Wiremu Tau Hapa in August, thanking him for his efforts, but claimed that the lands mentioned were unsuitable and would not justify expenditure required.

“Kei te mihi te Kawanatanga ki te Iwi Maori e awhina nei i nga mahi mo te whaiwai a ko a koutou take e kaha ake ai te piki haere o nga mahi hei awhina i nga tikanga mo te whawhai kaore e kore ka whiriwhiria paitia e te Kawanatanga ina kokiritia mai aua take ki tona aroaro

The Government appreciates the efforts being made by the Maori people to further the War effort and every proposal will be considered”.[3]

The letter from Wiremu Tau Hapa -  and the response from the Government – speaks to an often ignored story of Te Hai Kainga / the Māori Home Front: the role of Māori farming during a period in which the Government pushed for more production. While the story sometimes is told through the lens of promotional work, the archival records demonstrates that while Māori farmers offered their services, it was not unconditionally, and often against government officials and Pakeha that held onto long-standing negative attitudes towards Māori land use.


‘The most important job to be done in New Zealand today’, proclaimed the New Zealand Primary Production Council in 1940, ‘is to produce more foodstuffs’.[4] Like Wiremu Tau Hapa, there were numerous offers of support from Māori farmers as part of this effort. In 1940, the Waiariki District Māori Primary Products Committee formed in order to ‘co-ordinate the resources of the Maori Race in Man Power, Material and Land in a whole hearted endeavor to increase generally the output of those Primary products that are essential to the successful prosecution of the War’ and to ‘assist members of the Maori Race individually in their farming activities in order that they may increase their output’.[5]

In July 1940, a hui was held at Tūnohopū marae in Ōhinemutu, Rotorua, to discuss the primary production needs for the war effort, attended by Āpirana Ngata, Henry Taipōrutu Te Mapu-o-te-rangi (Tai) Mitchell and Judge Harvey, among others. Attendees discussed maize and pig production and how best to ‘organise ourselves for the coming struggle’.[6] Tai Mitchell told those attending that the home front war effort would aid the ‘forces at the front’. At a meeting of  the newly formed Māori Primary Products Committee in Rotorua the previous month, Mitchell described ‘the necessity of increased production’ because ‘without an abundance of food and food stuffs the war cannot be prosecuted to a successful conclusion’.[7]

In a circular published soon afterwards, Harvey, Mitchell, Ruhi Pūruru and Tīweka Anaru - the leaders of the newly formed Māori Primary Production Committee -connected the war effort to a long history of organising and food production for war:

“Our soldiers, Maori and Pakeha, in England must be supplied with food in plenty because without food the strength of a warrior leaves him. In our own Maori history the place of the warrior was in the fight and if fighting Pa was a long way from home[,] the food cultivations and supply we noted that fact that recording it in the naming of the Pa… today our fighting pa [is] in England… the problem is an old one to our people and it will be solved if only we turn back the pages of our history and tackle it as our tipuna would have done.”

The circular was spread widely, inspiring meetings from Te Teko, Matakana, to Kaikohe. The Committee called for four things: ‘Man and Women Power’, ‘Land and Material’, ‘Spirit and Morale’, and ‘Organisation’. And they asked for Māori to ‘take stock of its strength, record that strength in terms of bacon pigs or other primary products; and let us know what assistance is essential so that your full weight can be applied to the Government’s drive’.[8]

Indeed, part of the problem from the outset was the need for knowledge of what was needed. As Ngata said early, ‘we are doubtful of what is required of us’.[9] Māori needed ‘more guidance from the Government’.[10] The Government itself scrambled to maintain statistics on production, but the general focus was simply to ‘increase production’, and in particular of pigs, barley, and maize. When the production of potato was suggested, the Government responded that New Zealand ‘already grows a surplus of potatoes. We should not unduly encourage the Maoris in this direction’.[11]

The Māori Primary Production Committee travelled the country to promote this work. The Government was pleased with the response. Judge Harvey wrote to the Native Department describing the meeting where ‘our Maori people are exceptionally keen to be moving in the effort asked of them’. ‘We met the Ringatū meeting at Ruātoki last Sunday’, he added, ‘and could not but be pleased with the response of that representative gathering’.[12] Ngata, too, publicised the efforts. ‘Everywhere in the Waikato, the King Country and North Auckland, the Maoris are also making an effort to produce more than last year’.[13] The Native Department estimated that because of these efforts production would increase by 25 per cent.[14] Yet despite this, officials still held the attitude that in calling for subsidies and investment in farms, Māori were simply attempting to find ‘another way of drawing sustenance’ from the Government.[15] Other officials expressed outright racist views.[16]


At some point, the Māori Primary Production Committee became the Māori Primary Production, Man Power and Rehabilitation Committee. It met again Rotorua in 1942.

Much had happened in between: the Māori Battalion departed for Europe, the US entered the war, and its troops were stationed in New Zealand – between 15,000 and 45,000 at different times. And, in June 1942, the government approved the establishment of the Māori War Effort Organisation (MWEO). Often ignored in studies of the MWEO was its role — and especially the role of the tribal committees — in encouraging primary production. One of the requests from the Government to the MWEO and to Maori farmers at the September 1942 meeting was to produce 2000 tons of kumara for the American Service Troops.[17]

Into 1942, the government continued to receive letters offering support in primary production. ‘The tribe of our old friend Pouaka Wehi are anxious with myself to use some of our large tract of available land to assist the war production effort in the shape of wheat growing…’ wrote Gabriel Elliot to Paraire Paikea, Member of Parliament for the Northern Māori Electorate, and the Minister in Charge of the MWEO, in September 1942. ‘Many of our people are working full time in the timber industry and these are willing to pool their services during Saturday and Sunday to assist in securing the maximum production’.[18] The Government was opposed, viewing such as offer as ‘obviously an attempt to get free wheat seed’. The Minister of Primary Production for War Purposes refused to make recommendations either of ‘free money or free seed’, and such offers would have to come from the Native Department.[19]

Indeed, by 1945, near the war’s end, the Maori war effort ‘from the land’ came under scrutiny and criticism, when one Pakeha farmer R.L. Cassie of the North Taranaki Primary Production Council in New Plymouth claimed that Maori had ‘not played the game during the war’.[20] Cassie’s statement was widely reported and roundly condemned. ‘I can’t agree with that’, replied the district manpower officer, J.H. Flowers. ‘The Maoris have kept up their battalion without conscription. They have steadily increased production right through the war and have not called for men to come out of the Army to help. They have stepped up maize production, sometimes as a lot. They have done shearing and worked in the timber industry and the railways as a war effort. I know how they have answered every call without question and without thought of gain’.[21]  T. Wipiti from Mangorei wrote the Taranaki Herald in response to Cassie’s comments.

That we are proud of, and above all, they have also unselfishly given unto the war effort production, their human strength with unselfish denial… Hoping the public will see fit to interpret the remarks made in our endeavour to uphold production and not shirk conscription, which all goes to help the war effort.[22]

The previous year, 1944, MWEO recruiting officers kept records of production returns for the year ‘over and above the people’s own requirements’. While officials debated the accuracy of the figures, they could no doubt applaud the ‘Maoris’ contribution to the War Effort from the land’. Maori were ‘producing considerably more proportionately than the Pakeha farmer’.[23]

‘Aid to Britain’ 1947

The end of the war did not mean the end of pressure for increasing primary production. While the Māori war effort wound down after the war, farming efforts continued. In 1947, the Government launched the ‘Aid to Britain’ campaign and again sought the ‘fullest co-operation of all of our Maori farmers’. The campaign involved continuing to produce food for Britain and economic assistance, so that Britain could ‘win the peace’. Its message was that ‘our future economic progress depends on the restoration of world trade’ and Britain was ‘our main market’.[24] While the Government did not appoint any Maori representative on the Aid to Britain Committee, it asked for ‘a co-opted member to serve on the Committee and generally to represent the Maori viewpoint and serve as a Liaison Officer in matters affecting the calls which were made on the Maori peoples in regard to extra production and other matters connected with the extended Aid for Britain Campaign’.[25] Tipi Tainui Rōpiha, Assistant Under-Secretary and Deputy Native Trustee, was appointed in the role.[26] Among those who also served were Te Rangiātaahua Kiniwē (Rangi) Royal.

Royal and Rōpiha would be expected ‘to meet and co-opt the services of the Registrars, Field Officers, the Tribal Executives and Tribal Committees in their drive for increased production’. And in August 1947, the ‘Aid to Britain’ council travelled the country to meet with representatives of Ngā Puhi, Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Ngāti Awa, Whakatōhea, Te Whānau a Apanui, Ngāti Porou, Takitimu, Ngāti Kahungunu, and Ruahine. Following the hui across the country, a member of the committee reported:

“We were fortunate in contacting most the leaders of Maoridom, and they assured us of their fullest support to the Campaign. In most cases, tribal committees have agreed to undertake the responsibility of organising the drive which the Maoris are supporting with the enthusiasm that has always characterised their efforts whenever there is a national crisis…. We feel confident that our recent trip would influence the Maori people to bring all their energy to bear on the problem of increasing food production for export to Britain”.

The report outlined the increased production of butterfat, bacon, maize, and ‘on the fertile flats around Gisborne, Wairoa and Hastings’ tomatoes, asparagus, cane fruit and peas.[27]  

As with the war effort in general, Māori support at the meetings did not come without conditions. Often, local iwi requested the tools and support for farming such as wire, fences and tractors. Yet there were other more general demands for community development, for the Government to deliver on unkept promises and the maintenance of Maori organisation. At a meeting in Rotorua with Arawa Confederation of Tribes pledged full support in ‘manpower and resources’ but wanted ‘efforts of Maori… kept separate from Pakehas’. Whakatōhea Tribal Committee said the same. Tūhoe pledged support but wanted river erosion investigated and a memorial dining hall apparently promised and undelivered by the government finally built. At Gisborne, the Takitimu Tribal Executive also pledged unanimous support, but wanted a school bus for children from Whāngārā to Gisborne and training of returned soldiers for arable farming.[28]

Research is yet to uncover how this worked in particular localities and how Māori communities responded. Nevertheless, the Chairman of the Aid for Britain National Council, Fintan Patrick Walsh, wrote to Rōpiha in November 1947:  ‘I have the pleasure in writing to you to express the Council’s keen appreciation of the encouraging efforts being made by the Maori people in their campaign to assist Britain’.[29]

Image: Maori Farming, Kakariki near Ruatoria, East Coast, Auckland [Province] Publicity Caption: Mr. and Mrs. Paul Toroa holding samples of their last year's maize crop. September, 1947 Photographer: Not identified, R21011135, Archives New Zealand.


[1] Wiremu Tau Hapa to Peter Fraser, 15 July 1940. Translation. Farm Productions - National War Effort - Aid for Britain Council, MA1 Box 379, 19/1/593, 1940-1947, ANZ, Wellington. All subsequent references are from this file.

[2] J.H Robertson, ‘Increase in Primary Production’, 10 July 1940.

[3] Under Secretary Native Department to Wiremu Tau Hapa, 20 August 1940.

[4] Primary Production Council Meeting, Wairoa, 20 June 1940.

[5] Waiariki District Maori Primary Products Committee, undated.

[6] Minutes of Meeting Held at Tunohopu Meeting House, Ohinemutu, 1 July 1940.

[7] Meeting of the Maori Primary Production Committee, Rotorua, 27 June 1940.

[8] Judge Harvey, Tai Mitchell, Ruhi Pururu and Tiweka Anaru, ‘To the Maori People of __________’, 3 July 1940.

[9] Minutes of Meeting Held at Tunohopu Meeting House, Ohinemutu, 1 July 1940.

[10]The Star, 24 July 1940.

[11] ‘Maori Primary Production’, 11 July 1940.

[12] ‘Primary Production’, 5 July 1940. 

[13] The Star, 24 July 1940.

[14] Native Department, ‘Increase in Primary Production’, 12 July 1940.

[15] ‘Primary Production’, 11 July 1940.

[16] ‘Increase in Primary Production’, 5 July 1940.

[17] ‘Meeting of Convening Committee of Maori Primary Production, Man Power, and Mobolisation’,  1 September 1942.

[18] Gabriel Elliot to Paikea, 3 September 1942.

[19] Minister of Primary Production for War Purposes to Minister of Native Affairs, 7 September 1942.

[20] The Taranaki Herald, 13 February 1945.

[21] The Taranaki Herald, 13 February 1945.

[22] The Taranaki Herald, 15 February 1945.

[23] Maori War Effort Production Returns, various dates, MA1 Box 379, 19/1/593, 1940-1947, ANZ, Wellington.

[24] ‘Aid to Britain’, undated, MA1 Box 379, 19/1/593, 1940-1947, ANZ, Wellington.

[25] F.P Walsh to Native Department, ‘Aid for Britain Committee – Co-opted Member Representing Maoris’, 15 September 1947.

[26] Chairman of Emergency Production and Trade Committee to Walsh, 29 September 1947.

[27] ‘Aid to Britain Campaign: Itinerary of Production Committee’, 2 October-18 October 1947.

[28] ‘Aid to Britain Campaign: Itinerary of Production Committee’, 2 October-18 October 1947.

[29] Walsh to Ropiha, 28 November, 1947.

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