Classics and Māori Culture in New Zealand: Sir Apirana Ngata

Simon Perris

On 11 June 1947, members of the Polynesian Society (a scholarly society devoted to the study of Polynesian cultures) attended a public lecture in Wellington, New Zealand. They met in the hall of the Ngāti Poneke Māori Association, a community group for local Māori (indigenous New Zealanders) in Wellington. The subject of the talk was the fate of traditional Māori knowledge in the 20th century. The speaker and then president of the Society was a man known to most New Zealanders today yet mostly unknown anywhere else: Sir Apirana Ngata (‘Tā Api’) (1874–1950), perhaps the most distinguished Māori public figure of the twentieth century.[1]

Apirana Turupa Ngata, c.1905.

Ngata’s achievements are legion. He attended Te Aute College, a prestigious school for Māori boys at which – controversially for the time – they were taught ‘academic’ subjects like Greek and Latin, and actively prepared for university matriculation. Ngata was the first Māori person to be awarded a university degree. As a young man he grew heavily involved in public affairs, seeking at all times to improve the lot of Māori people. After qualifying as a lawyer, he became a founding member of what would later be known as the ‘Young Māori Party’ – not a political party as such but rather an association of like-minded Māori which grew out of the Te Aute Students’ Association.

Ngata later became a pre-eminent and long-serving MP, public intellectual, and spokesperson on Māori issues, winning lasting renown as an orator and a statesman. He was knighted, becoming ‘Sir’ Apirana Ngata in 1927, only the third Māori person to receive that distinction. His face still graces the $50 note today. All of which is to say that Apirana Ngata is a major figure in New Zealand’s social, political, and intellectual history. Not only that, though. He is also a notable early example of Classical education and Classical traditions in Polynesia.

50 NZD.

The audience at Ngata’s 1947 talk included both Māori and Pākehā (New Zealanders of European ancestry) alike, and from all accounts they enjoyed a fascinating, entertaining, inspiring lecture.[2] His overall theme was the importance of preserving traditional Māori knowledge: “In the Maori villages he often found that their old culture was being lost, but that the Maoris [sic] who had gone to the towns and cities soon learned that it had substance, virtue and colour that the Pakeha could not quite replace.” But there was more to Ngata’s exhortations than this. To wit: “His comparison of Greek and Roman classical legends with those of the Maori was pungent and apt, justifying the claim he made that Maori lore should be still more highly rated in the University curriculum.”

So: a senior Māori statesman, speaking in the middle of the 20th century after a long and distinguished career, under the auspices of a group devoted to understanding Polynesian culture, publicly advanced the claim that New Zealand university curricula should make more of indigenous knowledge. More than that, though, he made this claim specifically with reference to Classical myth. Speaking as a Māori individual – that is, offering what an anthropologist might call an emic perspective – Ngata actually drew on Classics, as a positive point of comparison, to promote Māori culture.

The chiefs Waikato and Hongi Hika with missionary Thomas Kendall in England, James Barry, 1820 (National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand).

Apirana Ngata was of mixed ancestry, and he received what we might call a mixed education. His main family connections were to Ngāti Porou, an East Coast tribe. But his maternal grandfather was an itinerant Scot. After four years at Waiomatatini Native School, he went to Te Aute College, where subjects in the senior school included Latin and Greek. Then in 1890, Ngata began studying at Canterbury University College, Christchurch, where the dominant intellectual figure of the time was John Macmillan Brown (1845–1935), founding Professor of English and Classics and ethnographer of Māori and other Polynesian peoples. At Canterbury, Ngata took Latin, Greek, English, Constitutional History, Political Economy, Mathematics and Geology. After completing his BA and MA, he transferred to Auckland, where he completed an LLB.

John Macmillan Brown (1845-1935), c.1930.

Ngata’s relationship with European culture (broadly defined) was complex and multi-faceted. On the one hand, his success at British-style education might seem, to some, proof positive of an assimilationist mindset. More broadly, ‘Young Māori Party’ members tended to pursue their aims from within conventional European socio-political structures. Ngata had relatives who fought on the side of the Crown in the land wars of the 1860s, while he himself urged men from Ngāti Porou to fight for the British Empire in World War One (1914–18). Ngata also expended a lot of energy (particularly while Minister of Native Affairs) pursuing Māori land development so as to improve economic outcomes and work towards self-sufficiency. On the other hand, he was also ambivalent about European culture. Even as a university student, for example, the history of the Roman Empire and the British Empire specifically led him to become sceptical of assimilation. And he remained acutely aware that adopting European life-ways – whether by choice or not – could potentially harm Māori people.

Heeni Hirini (Ana Rupene) and child, Gottfried Lindauer, 1860s (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK).

Let us jump back 27 years to a 1920 parliamentary debate, in which Ngata made a Classical reference of a different sort altogether. The question at hand was what the New Zealand government should do about Samoa. (Western Samoa was governed by New Zealand from 1918 to 1962; among other recent developments, incompetence on the part of the New Zealand administration had directly caused a catastropic epidemic of pneumonic influenza there in 1918.) In this particular debate, Ngata himself advocated a laissez-faire approach. The Hon. Mr Parr asked Ngata whether New Zealand should educate Samoan people or ‘just leave them alone?’ Ngata replied:

Is the learning of the English language the only education? Is knowledge of arithmetic, algebra and Euclid the only education? Do not these people possess the key to happiness? Do they not have poetry of their own? Do they not have traditions handed down to them from their forefathers quite sufficient for them, without having to worry their heads as to when Cicero was born, or whether Demosthenes was a Britisher or a Greek? The honourable gentleman is speaking to one who knows something about the education of the Pakeha, and there is a good deal taught that is useless. Is the white man’s the only scheme of life?[3]

Statues of Demosthenes and Cicero, Justin-Chrysostome Sanson, c.1880 (Palais de Justice, Amiens, France).

It is surely no accident here, during a conversation about British-style education amid the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate, that Ngata mentions the greatest orators of antiquity, two men celebrated together in Plutarch’s double biography: Cicero and Demosthenes. In fact, this particular double reference lives on in Māori public oratory. In the 2005 Apirana Ngata Memorial Lecture, the Minister of Māori Affairs, Hon. Parekura Horomia, quoted this exact passage, including the references to Cicero and Demosthenes, as an illustration of Ngata’s attitudes to education.[4]

On the face of it, Euclid, Cicero, and Demosthenes stand in for “the education of the Pakeha”. The immediate sense, on any natural reading, is pejorative or at least dismissive. Yet there are subtleties afoot. Earlier in the debate, Ngata said, “I have yet to be told that the contact of the white with the Polynesian race has always made for the happiness of the Polynesians.” But he also said, “My solution of the problem is to keep Samoa under the aegis of the Anglo-Saxon race.” He himself had successfully navigated “the education of the Pakeha” under that same aegis, the “aegis of the Anglo-Saxon race”. Elite educational capital (English, Greek, Latin…) materially contributed to his own success in various endeavours. This brand of Māori success was not always welcomed by the Pākehā establishment.

Heke fells the flagstaff at Kororareka, A.D. McCormick, 1908, Illustration from Reginald Horsley’s New Zealand; Romance of Empire.

Ngata, and other Māori like him who had excelled at British-style education, were seen as a threat: in the years after Ngata matriculated, Māori secondary-school curricula were officially cut back, explicitly so as to keep Māori in agriculture and out of the more profitable, Pākehā-dominated spheres of industry and trade.[5] All of which is to say that Cicero, Demosthenes, ‘the education of the Pakeha’, and the ‘white man’s… scheme of life’ were not entirely stable symbols.

Example the third is a poem, ‘A Scene from the Past,’ which won a poetry competition run by the Canterbury College Dialectic Society in 1892, when Ngata was but a teenager. First published in the Auckland Star (25 Oct. 1894), this poem was later included in R.A. Loughnan’s Royalty in New Zealand (1902), where it accompanied Ngata’s own description of a famous hui (meeting, gathering) held in Rotorua in 1901 for the future King George and Queen Mary.[6] ‘A Scene from the Past’ has since been anthologized as a pioneering example of Māori poetry in English and of Indigenous literature from the colonial ‘Maoriland’ period.[7] This poem also holds special significance in the history of Classics in Aotearoa New Zealand: the earliest documented instance (so far as I know) of unmediated Classical allusions in Māori writing.

Portrait of C.F. Goldie in his studio with Patara Te Tuhi, Alfred Hill (attrib.), c.1905.

‘A Scene from the Past’ falls into two parts. In the first, the speaker celebrates pre-colonial Māori society; rebuts the charge that modern Māori are “traitors to the past”; and observes that British modernity, for all its technological superiority, threatens indigenous cultural memory. The second part presents a series of ceremonial vignettes, structured by analogy with a pōwhiri (formal welcoming of visitors) onto a marae (precinct and meeting area for tribal gatherings). The tone of the poem is elegiac, its style late Victorian, its Classical allusions quite conventional for 1890s New Zealand: to the “cruel Fates” (in the opening lines), to nymphs and naiads, to the gods:

Ye nymphs and ye naiads, beware of your laurels!
These children untutored, by Nature endowed,
May charm yet Apollo, the god of all graces.

A Naiad, John William Waterhouse, 1893 (priv. coll.).

A haka (a kind of war-dance or challenge) is declared fit for Apollo and Mars:

Heads erect and bodies stately,
Proud, imperious, yet be graceful;
Arms and limbs in rhythm moving,
Mars, Apollo, are reviewing.

War dance, New Zealand, Joseph Jenner Merrett, c.1845 (National Library of Australia, Canberra).

Ngata found in British-style education “a great deal… that is useless”. But Classics and Classical traditions also meant something to him when he was a student and continued to do so in later years. It’s a paradox, to be sure, but not an intractable one. At times, he turned to Classics for positive comparisons, especially when describing Māori culture in an outward-facing context. (The audience for that 1947 public lecture included both the French and United States envoys.) Yet Classics was also always available as an example of European cultural hegemony.

We reck not that the day is past;
That Death and Time, the cruel Fates,
Have torn us from the scenes we loved,
And brought us to this unknown world.

In the parliamentary debate, Ngata was talking about Classical education in the real world as a negative example of British-style education. In the poem and the public lecture, he drew on Classical myth and literature for the sake of positive comparison. For Ngata, then, Classical references were a flexible rhetorical device – to connect with an audience, to present himself in a certain way, to make a point. This is not really surprising: for good or ill, Classical education was a major aspect of his intellectual formation. And he presumably did not think that knowledge of, let alone interest in, the peoples of the Ancient Mediterranean was intrinsically harmful to himself or to other Māori.

“Tena i takahia!”

With knee joints set loose,
With frenzy in gesture, with eye-brows contracting,
With eyes glowing fiercely, with bounding and leaping!
But, mark, mild Apollo the War-god is soothing.

“Powhiritia atu!” “Haere mai! Haere mai!”

Ha! warriors are leaping; the ranks they are surging;
The War-god has conquered; the war-cry is raised!
’Tis sounding, ’tis swelling, ’tis roaring, ’tis thund’ring!

Ngata leading a haka at the 1940 centennial celebrations, Waitangi, New Zealand.

What might we learn from all this? For one thing, that Classics is not monolithic. Then again, what discipline, or subject area, or sphere of human activity ever is? Classics is made and remade over time in and through different traditions, local and global. Traditions mean different things to different people at different times ­– sometimes the same person across one lifetime or even in the same moment. Māori literature – which has not been much studied by scholars and students of Classical receptions and Classical traditions – presents an object lesson in this regard for anyone willing to read each author on their own terms and each text on its own merits. For some, the natural response to Classics might be to ignore or attack it; for others, it might be admiration and emulation; for others, it might be selective, critical engagement.[8]

Ngata is only one among a number of Māori writers and speakers to have engaged directly with Classical antiquity, and his approach is particular to him. Ultimately, such differences can only be teased out through careful close reading; they cannot be predicted a priori. Acknowledging different inclinations and perspectives is not just a matter of common decency or interpretative tact. (Although it is both of those things.) Attending to individual diversity and idiosyncrasy also helps us to keep the ‘human’ in the Humanities. We are all of us large enough to contain multitudes.

Simon Perris is Associate Professor of Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of The Gentle, Jealous God: Reading Euripides’ Bacchae in English (2016) and co-editor of Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society (2017).


1 For his biography, see M.P.K. Sorrenson, “Ngata, Apirana Turupa,” first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1996), available online in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
2 Anon., “Sir Apirana Ngata: public address in Wellington,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 56 (1947) 223. Note that although macrons are frequently used today to indicate long vowels in Māori words, the quoted text is reproduced as originally published.
3 30 July 1920, New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol. 186, p. 936.
4 Parekura Horomia, “The Vision of a Great Leader: Tā Apirana Ngata,” Apirana Ngata Memorial Lecture, Ngata Memorial College, Ruatoria, 24 Nov. 2005, available here.
5 R.J. Walker, “Reclaiming Māori Education’, in J. Hutchings and J. Lee-Morgan (eds.), Decolonisation in Aotearoa: Education, Research and Practice (NZCER Press, Wellington, 2016) 19–38, at 25–6.
6 R.A. Loughnan, Royalty in New Zealand: The Visit of Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York in New Zealand, 10th to 27th June, 1901 (Government Printer, Wellington, 1902).
7 A. Ngata, ‘A Scene from the Past,’ in R. Whaitiri and R. Sullivan (eds.), Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English (Auckland UP, 2014) 5–9. See especially J. Stafford and M. Williams, Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872–1914 (Victoria UP, Wellington, 2006) 256–64.
8 For example, see now essa may ranapiri, Echidna (Te Herenga Waka Press, Wellington, 2022).