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‘Paikea’s Men’: Mobilising the Māori War Effort

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Angela Wanhalla
11 May, 2020

In a piece for Auckland Museum to mark Anzac Day 2020, historian Aroha Harris reflected on the long history of Māori mobilisation during war and peacetime. She noted that in addition to wartime demands ‘many Māori communities also turned their attention internally to the welfare of themselves, their homes and their marae, in the process laying the foundations for community work that would follow in the second half of the century.’[1]


One of the crucial Māori-led organisations formed in response to wartime needs was the Māori War Effort Organisation (MWEO), comprised of hundreds of tribal committees that mobilised and organised recuitment for the armed services and for essential industry.


Often regarded as a state-sanctioned Māori organisation, in fact when we look closer at the work of the committees it fostered the MWEO enabled community-led initiatives. In supporting the Māori war effort these committees also sought to protect the welfare and interests of their marae-based and urban communities.


Its founder was Paraire Paikea (1894-1943), Member of Parliament for the Northern Māori Electorate, and a Ratana minister.[2] While Paikea’s role in the story of Māori mobilisation is significant, he has been somewhat forgotten in our understanding of the Māori war experience. This is perhaps explained by a focus on Māori service overseas, rather than at home.


On 11 May 1942, he addressed a letter to the Prime Minister Peter Fraser that set out a plan for ‘the better organisation of the Māori war effort’.[3] Māori, he said, were contributing to every aspect of the war effort, inclusive of home defence, forces for overseas service, food production and manufacturing, as well as patriotic work.


In order to ‘awaken the people generally to a full realisation of the gravity of the position, and to give them a lead as to the avenues to which their activities could be more efficently directed’, Paikea argued greater organisation was needed.


The scheme he proposed became known as the Māori War Effort Organisation. Tribal committees in each electoral district were to be formed; each district was to have a Māori Recruiting Officer drawn from the armed forces who worked closely with the committees and reported to the Chief Liaison Officer, an Army officer of high rank. Overseeing it all was a Parliamentary committee comprised of all the Māori representatives from both houses of government, which worked with the War Cabinet, and promoted the establishment of tribal committees in their respective electorates.


War Cabinet approved the proposal on 3 June 1942.[4] The four electoral districts (Northern, Western, Eastern, Southern) were divided into twenty zones led by a recruiting officer. Most of these men were drawn from the Army, or the Home Guard. Eight men were apppointed to the Northern Māori electorate, five to Eastern and six to Western Māori. Just one recruiting officer had oversight of Southern Māori, the largest electorate in terms of territory.[5]


These men reported to the Chief Liaison Officer, Lt-Col. Hemphill, who worked closely with Paikea in his role as Minister for the Māori War Effort, a position he held until his untimely death in April 1943. Hemphill stepped down from his position in June 1944 and was replaced by James Paumea Ferris (Ngāti Porou), formerly the recruiting officer for the Gisborne district.


In setting up the MWEO Paikea’s goal was not only to organise the Māori contribution to the war effort, but to foster self-determination through tribal leadership. In this the organisation was successful. In his 11 May letter Paikea imagined the total number of tribal committees needed would amount to five or six. This was an underestimate for by January 1943, 315 had been established across the country: 99 in the north; 115 in the west; 82 in the east; and 19 in the south.[6]


Owing to the large number of tribal committees established, it was decided to create Executive Commitees to enable greater co-ordination in each zone.[7] In addition to the 315 tribal commitees, 41 executives had been set up by January 1943. By March 1945, there were 398 tribal committees and 51 executives.[8]


When the War Cabinet approved the setting up of the MWEO in June 1942, they restricted its term to six months. In those six months the MWEO had placed 10,825 people into essential industry, recruited 4844 men for service overseas, enlisted 2040 for the Territorial Forces at home, and had enrolled 9875 for the Home Guard.[9] In total, 27,584 people out of an estimated population of around 95,000 were engaged in some aspect of the war effort.


In addition to recuitment for work and defence, the MWEO fostered food production, collaborated with Manpower Officers and the National Service Department to manage employment issues such as absenteeism. In the area of food production they sought to collaborate with Primary Production Councils set up by the Department of Agriculture, but struggled to gain a voice in this forum.


Tribal committees also assisted returned servicemen to access rehabilitation services, and advocated on their behalf. With the appointment of welfare officers, the organisation also provided social support and guidance for those who had moved to towns and cities for work.


Although a state-sanctioned organistion, the MWEO succeeded in demonstrating the capacity of iwi control and Māori leadership during a global crisis, and it did so rapidly. As Eruera Tirakātene, the representative for Southern Māori, reflected in 1945: ‘Whether it was reinforcements for overseas, [picking] agar seaweed, kumeras, potatoes, men for the freezing industry, shearers, girls for the factory or market gardening the Maori people through the organisation responded immediately.’[10]


Sadly, despite its success and the desire of the tribal committees and Māori political leaders, the MWEO did not last much beyond the war. Its structure and functions was absorbed into the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945, which came into force on 1 April 1946.


This mobilisation of a people could not have happened without the vision of Paraire Paikea, something that his colleague Eruera Tirakātene acknowledged at a July 1945 conference of Māori recuitment and liaison officers. ‘You are all Paikea’s men. Paikea had something in view, something greater than what was in operation at the time that he died. He had a vision for the future, and I feel that we can become not only a great asset to the Government and the Nation as a whole, but also to ourselves, irrespective of what Government might be in power’.[11]


The scale of the Māori war effort was immense. With a total population of around 95,000, of whom 58 percent were under age of 21 in 1945, the majority of the adult population was engaged in some form of war work. It was also largely a voluntary effort from tribal and executive committees. Only the Chief Liasion Officer and Recuiting Officers were paid for their work. Although absorbed by the newly created Māori Affairs Department in 1946, the MWEO laid the foundation for new forms of post-war Māori leadership and organising.


Image: "Maoris' War Effort: Recruiting Conference in Auckland", Auckland Weekly News. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19420916-19-10.


[1]Aroha Harris, ‘Māori mobilisation: Wartime, Peacetime, Covid-19 time’:

[2] Angela Ballara. 'Paikea, Paraire Karaka', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 May 2020).

[3] P. K. Paikea to Prime Minister, 11 May 1942, Constitution and Administration – General – Maori war effort, 1942-1946, EA1 81/1/11 part 1 (ANZW).

[4] War Cabinet to Prime Minister, 3 June 1942, Constitution and Administration – General – Maori war effort, 1942-1946, EA1 81/1/11 part 1 (ANZW)

[5] Lt-Col Hemphill to Paikea, 11 July 1942, EA1 81/1/11 part 1.

[6] Paikea to the Minister of Defence, 19 January 1943, EA1 81/1/11 part 1.

[7] Paikea to the Minister of Defence, 19 January 1943, EA1 81/1/11 part 1.

[8] Eruera Tirakatene, Memo, 22 March 1945, EA1 81/1/11 part 1.

[9] Paikea to the Minister of Defence, 19 January 1943, EA1 81/1/11 part 1.

[10] Tirakatene, Memo, 22 March 1945, EA1 81/1/11 part 1.

11] Address delivered at Conference of Māori Recruiting and Liaison Officers, Wellington, 20-22 June 1945, report dated 24 July 1945, EA1 81/1/11 part 1.

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