How small town Maketu took on the world

Map of Maketu

World War II Maketu

 In September 1939 the outbreak of World War II gave many New Zealand men the opportunity to volunteer for active service abroad. Men living in Maketu signed up with the local Native Recruitment Office. The contribution of volunteers from some families was extraordinarily high; sometimes three, four or even five brothers enlisted in either the Māori Battalion or other New Zealand Battalion Infantry units. Whatever their reasons for joining the thousands of volunteers in answering the call to arms, the new recruits were following the same paths as their veteran fathers, who had fought in previous wars here and abroad.

There were frequent farewell hui held at the local Maketu Whakaue Marae[1] in honour of the men embarking on a journey into unfamiliar territory far from home. “Now and again my father Kouma Tapsell would orate a farewell eulogy…and then the last dance…The next day the soldiers would board the bus to wailing and tears….other soldiers would have their own transport to the Te Puke railway station”.[2] On 2 May 1940 most of the 28th Māori  Battalion of enlisted servicemen and non-commissioned officers began their journey as combatants, leaving from Wellington’s Pipitea Wharf[3]  on board the British troop ship Aquitania, bound for Europe.[4]

At first, the families remaining behind were relieved their sons and husbands were going to fight and save them from the Germans. However, as the months passed and war on the frontlines was brought closer to home through BBC war correspondence, Maketu people listened to wireless reports and watched weekly newsreels at the local picture theatre with mixed feelings.

“Our lives were governed by the war years….as kids we saw what was going on. There was a consciousness and awareness of the men overseas that they were in danger. The war was getting dangerous and we were always afraid that we would get a letter to say they were killed”.[5]

Māori  War Effort Organisation

In 1942 the New Zealand government paved the way for the formation of the Māori  War Effort Organisation (MWEO) to assist in recruiting Māori  for overseas service and the Home Guard.[6] Creation of the new MWEO coincided with the Japanese air raids on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.[7] Within the structure of the MWEO, tribal committees were formed with the responsibility of recruiting Māori  for the military services, the Home Guard and other essential wartime social and economic services. By all accounts Māori  conscientiously responded to the war effort. Huia Tapsell recalled as a child how the life in Maketu changed from a sleepy town to a place of industry and purpose. These tribal committees played a major role in bringing communities together throughout New Zealand in response to the war effort:

“As the war raged overseas the people rallied to help in the Maketu war effort for the soldiers overseas.”[8]

Agar seaweed Industry

In Maketu the remaining people at home, consisting of women, kaumatua and young children, set to work gathering agar seaweed.[9] “The rocky shoreline on the western side of Maketu’s Town Point was dotted with makeshift shelter for families who devoted their time at low tide gathering agar and filling flax kits. It was spread out on vegetation above the shoreline and at the bottom of the cliff.”[10] Once dried and crisp to touch the agar was bagged and taken to homes to be cleaned of broken shells and other sea debris. On a regular basis the carrier drivers would arrive to bale-up the agar and weigh the bags. The local gatherers received one shilling and threepence (13 cents) per pound.[11]  The agar was transported by carrier to Mangere in Auckland and sent on to Christchurch for refining into a food preservative, antibacterial iodine and seameal custard for the soldiers overseas.[12]

Shellfish kaimoana and finfish kahawai were dried and preserved in agee jars destined for the Māori  Battalion in the North African desert.  Lawrence Hemana recalls: “At the time I was about ten years old and all the kids, ten and eleven year-olds gathered and shelled pipis, the old kuias dried the pipis and mussels in their backyards”. [13]  The Motiti island whanaunga across the bay and separate from the mainland grew crops of vegetables and delivered them by rowing their dingies to Maketu:

“Boats with sails would appear on the horizon from the direction of a small island on the western shore of Motiti…from the Te Awhe Marae above the cliff, overlooking the estuary entrance we could see the boats coming across the sea… all the Maketu people would gather on the beach to welcome them…it was always a big occasion”.[14]

Lawrence Hemana recalled his grandparents’ role in Maketu as vital to the community’s war effort: “My grandparents were the driving force for sending parcels to the soldiers. They supervised the food destined for overseas…every day my grandparents visited the homes to collect parcels”. [15]


 The fascination in writing historical events is very much like emptying a box of puzzle pieces and fitting them together to reveal the whole picture. In my search for answers regarding my ancestral rohe ki Maketu, I have rallied my whanaunga round me within Te Arawa. Their pieces of information like gems are spread out on my computer canvas and slowly I am putting them together to reveal the most intriguing picture.


[1] The Whakaue Marae beside the estuary was used for all hui while the carvers were still working on Te Awhe Marae situated on the hill above the estuary.

[2] Unpublished memoirs by Huia Tapsell, July 2010.

[3] http://www.radionnz.co.nz. Retrieved from website, 7 August, 2010.

[4] http://www.28th Māori  Battalion.com. Retrieved from website, 7 August, 2010.

[5] Interview with Huia Tapsell, July 2010.

[6] G.V.Butterworth, & H.R.Young, Māori  Affairs:Nga Take Māori . Wellington: GP Books, 1990, p, 83-84.

[7] The Japanese air raids on the United States (US) navy and airforce based in Hawaii brought the US out of Isolation and into the war, hence began the Pacific War between Japan and the US and allies.

[8] Interview with Huia Tapsell, July 2010.

[9] Prior to WWII Japan supplied New Zealand with agar seaweed. The industry developed in NZ when it was discovered red agar seaweed was growing in the coastal waters of the Bay of Plenty and East Coast.

[10] Unpublished memoirs by Huia Tapsell, July, 2010.

[11] Unpublished memoirs by Huia Tapsell, July, 2010.

[12] http://www.teara.govt.nz

[13] 81-year old Lawrence Hemana is the grandson of Hemana Pokiha and the great grandson of Ngati Pikiao chief Taranui Pokiha aka Major Fox. Te Arawa asked Taranui to lead the Maketu people during a period in the 19th Century. Taranui had a thriving community round him. He lived where the existing and rundown Te Awhe Marae remains today.

[14] Interview with Huia Tapsell, July 2010.

[15] Interview with 81 year-old Lawrence Hemana, 9 August, 2010.

One comment

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