The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 3 (June 1, 1935)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 27 — Dr. Peter H. Buck (Te Rangihiroa), D.S.O., Doctor, Soldier, and Ethnologist
Famous New Zealanders
Dr. Peter H. Buck (Te Rangihiroa), D.S.O., Doctor, Soldier, and Ethnologist.
Dr. Peter H. Buck (Te Rangihiroa), D.S.O., Doctor, Soldier, and Ethnologist.
The mingled blood of Pakeha and Maori has given New Zealand some very gifted and distinguished men, who have risen to the highest offices the State can bestow on them. None of the brilliant little band of native sons has given greater service to his country, than Dr. Peter Buck, D.S.O., whose Maori name is Te Rangihiroa. He has nobly helped his people along the paths of health and renewed hope in life. He has a record of splendid service in the Great War, on Gallipoli and in France, both as Medical Officer and combatant officer. He was second in command of his Maoris, the Pioneer Battalion, with the rank of major. He was director of Maori Hygiene on his return from active service. For many years he has been engaged in scientific research among the islands of Polynesia, for the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and to-day he stands foremost among Maori-Poylnesian ethnologists; a great and scholarly and gallant figure whom New Zealanders would like to see at the head of Pacific anthropological studies in his own homeland.
Doctor to the Maoris.
PEter Henry Buck was born in 1880, at Urenui, North Taranaki, the son of William Henry Buck, a veteran of the Maori wars, and the chieftainess Ngarongo-ki-tua. His race-blend gave him, for one thing, one may suppose, his love of adventure and for another the poetic trend of mind and the eloquent tongue that are the hereditary gifting of the Maori. As a youth he had his sound schooling at famous Te Aute College, and he continued his studies into the University. His taste was for the medical profession, and in that excellent school, Otago University, he obtained his M.D. diploma. He was for a time house surgeon in Dunedin Hospital, and then, after the late Sir Maui Pomare had initiated the beneficent crusade of health and new life for the Maori people, young Te Rangihiroa became a health officer among his mother's race, holding this position for three years, 1905–8. He married in 1905 Margaret Wilson, of Milton, Otago, and that lady has been a true co-partner with him in his varied career. While he was on the fighting fronts in the Great War she was constantly engaged in hospital and other useful work for the New Zealand soldiers, and since then she has assisted him in his anthropological research duties in the Pacific. A lady of fine courage; she fearlessly toiled beside him in the smallpox epidemic among the Maoris in North Auckland when he became a Government health officer.
It was in grateful recognition of this great self-sacrificing work for the native people that the Ngapuhi and their allied tribes invited Te Rangihiroa to become their representative in Parliament. This was after the death of the popular Hone Heke, who for many years had been member for the Northern Maori district. So the Doctor turned politician, and more than mere politician; he developed a statesmanlike outlook which embraced a wider range than New Zealand, in his concern for the well-being of the ancient race. Besides representing the Maori people, he had under his care as Minister the Cook Islands and other Polynesian isles over which New Zealand's flag had been raised.
Then, after six years of politics, came the Great War, and Te Rangihiroa was one of the first to offer his services to the country and his race, when the Government yielded to the enthusiastic desire of the tribes to meet Britain's foes in battle overseas. He left with the First Maori Contingent for Egypt in February, 1915, and it was four years before he saw the shores of New Zealand again.
In the Great War: Gallipoli.
It was on July 3, 1915, that the First Maori Contingent landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. The boom and crash of artillery that was to be a familiar sound for the next three years on the Peninsula and in Europe first startled and delighted the Maoris' ears that morning. “At last,” they said, “here is the real thing!”
From that day on there was the almost continual ordeal of intense shell-fire, varied by sharp infantry fighting.
At Sari Bair the Maoris went into the attack on Table Top, their first battle with the bayonet, in a mood of savage determination and delight. They had endured shell-fire patiently; now was their opportunity for utu.
Desperate Work at Sari Bair.
They went for those Turks, bayoneted them in their lines, and cleared the trenches, and burst into a haka page 22 yell of “Ka mate, ka mate! Ka ora, ka ora!” then silence as they pressed on to the next point.
“… We could hear our men doing splendidly,” Captain Buck wrote in his diary (August 26). “Rattle of musketry, then silence, and the loud English cheer, followed by a Maori haka. Owing to the Maoris being distributed, the hakas came from every ridge. Everybody is pleased with our men.” Captain Buck had a most strenuous time of it with the wounded; he tended many besides his Maoris.
Sunday, August 8, saw the Maoris in the fiercest fighting of all, the desperate attack on Chunuk Bair, as a preliminary to the general assault of Koja Chemen Tepe, the apex of the range held by the Turks. The fighting continued till on the 10th the Turks made so strong a counter-attack that the ground won by the New Zealanders and others had to be abandoned. The Maori casualties were severe in the four days' fighting—the first battle in Europe in which Maoris were ever engaged. During August 6th—10th they had 17 killed, 89 wounded, and two missing, out of 400 men, the total strength of the Battalion.
The Maoris' medical officer was in the thick of it, attending to the wounded. Of the work on August 9, he wrote: “We had a very bad time with shrapnel which burst all about our gully, the aid post. Only the fact that we were dug in a little saved us.
… The shrapnel bursts were only a few feet beyond us. Once, while I was dressing a wounded Ghurka, I had to lie down beside him, as the shrapnel was striking the ground just beyond us.”
Mr. John Masefield eloquently joined our Maoris with the other fighters of the Empire when he wrote in his “Gallipoli,” describing the storming parties in the battle of Sari Bair: “Men of all races were banded together there. There were Australians, English, Indians, Maoris and New Zealanders made one by devotion to a cause, all willing to die so that their comrades might see the dawn make a steel streak of the Hellespont from the peaked hill now black against the stars.”
Later on, in September, there was some of the most severe fighting in the campaign, and the Maoris suffered severely. The Australians were camped near them, and Captain Buck tended some of their wounded under heavy artillery fire. Then came the dramatic evacuation scene, on October 3, a rest on Lemnos; and departure for Egypt.
The Maori's Warrior Worth.
Captain Buck wrote from Egypt to the New Zealand members of Parliament representing the Maori race:
With the Pioneers in France.
In February, 1916, when the Maoris were reorganised for service in France, and were constituted a Pioneer Battalion, under Major G. H. King, Captain Buck was appointed second in command, and now became a combatant officer, Captain H. M. Buchanan (from the Otago M.R.) taking his place as medical officer. Major King was promoted to Colonel and Captain Buck to Major.
Thenceforth the Maoris' work was trench-digging on the Western Front, with now and again a raiding party by way of relief from the trying trench labour under heavy artillery fire. The story of that long and harassing service of the Maoris until the Armistice is told in full in the official history “The Maoris in the Great War.” Heavy shelling was the daily and nightly experience, for month after month. There was a constant drain of casualties.
A Close Shave.
There were innumerable narrow escapes; for example an incident during trench work on Bezantin Ridge (September, 1917). Major Buck and Lieut. O'Neill were returning to camp down “Fish Alley” when a “whizz-bang” grazed O'Neill's right shoulder, knocking him down, and burst in the ground just in front of Buck's feet. O'Neill, who was walking behind the Major, sustained an abrasion of the shoulder. Twelve days later O'Neill was killed by a shell.
In June, 1917, the Pioneers had their share in the great battle of Messines; their casualties in three weeks were 17 killed, 88 wounded, 45 gassed. In October the New Zealand Division had its part in the third battle of Ypres, where the artillery hammering fell heavily on the Pioneers.
The New Year of 1918 saw the Maoris hard at work around Ypres; hard indeed, for the ground was frozen. On January 17, Major Buck left the Battalion on transfer to the New Zealand Medical Corps, after a period of most courageous and useful service with the Pioneers. All his comrades deeply regretted his departure. He was the ideal officer, never sparing himself, always looking to the welfare of his men, and often battling with the higher powers for decent treatment for them. Thenceforward to the end of the war he was on medical duty at the front with the Ambulance and in the New Zealand hospital. He received the decoration of the D.S.O. in recognition of his long and gallant service. At the same time Mrs. Buck's work in England was rewarded with the honour of Member of the British Empire Order.
Maori Polynesian Researches.
On his return to New Zealand after the great adventure of his life, Dr. Buck was engaged by the Government to attend to the health of the Maori people, and he went into the duty with the same zeal and devotion he had displayed in his life as a soldier. But another and even more absorbing occupation presently claimed him, anthropological exploration in the Pacific, with special reference to the Maori-Polynesian zone. His unexampled knowledge of the Maori in his own country and his excellent lectures and papers in the “Polynesian Journal” on various branches of native culture attracted the attention of the authorities of the Berenice P. Bishop Museum, in Honolulu. He was invited to become a temporary member of the Museum ethnological staff, and since 1927 he has been engaged page 23 chiefly on research work in the islands of Polynesia, with Honolulu as his headquarters. America also had its scientific eye on Te Rangihiroa, and he was engaged to deliver courses of lectures on anthropology in Yale University. A great honour this for New Zealand, and for our Maori race. Dr. Buck could not be bettered as a lecturer; he has that touch of blended wisdom, humour, and poetic fire that most agreeably coats the pill of solid knowledge.
From Island Unto Island.
But it is field work among his beloved Polynesian cousins that is Te Rangihiroa's most absorbing pursuit. He delights in that life for which most of us have longed at one time or another, cruising in the glamorous tropics. It is not always glamour; and the Eastern Pacific inter-island auxiliary-screw trading schooners are very different from comfortably-appointed yachts. But “Pita” and his wife are content to take the rough with the smooth, and there is always a warm welcome for them in the islands, everywhere from Hawaii to Rarotonga (you can at least reach those places by mail-steamer) and from Penrhyn of the pearl-lagoon away south-eastward to Tubuai and romantic Mangareva or Gambier islands. Te Rangihiroa has made intensive studies of the various branches of culture in several groups, particularly Samoa and the Cook Islands, and the French islands that make a Pleiades of archipelagos across the chart of the Eastern Pacific. From Tonga in the west to the almost countless atolls of the Tuamotus, or Paumotus, his range of scientific explorations extends.
The Island of the Stone Men.
When Dr. Buck visited New Zealand at the beginning of this year, I remarked to him that the only Polynesian scene he did not seem to have visited in his anthropological cruising was Easter Island, famous and mysterious Rapanui. “Yes,” he said, “and I am disappointed that I have not been able to set foot there yet, but it is not an easy place to reach; and then there was a French expedition there last year, and the Bishop Museum heads thought that probably its members would be able to carry out the work necessary.”
But then no one with Te Rangihiroa's special knowledge and qualifications has yet visited Rapanui. All the previous scientific inquirers have required interpreters to communicate with the native inhabitants, and research under these conditions is never satisfactory. No wonder the savants who tried to unveil the secrets of Rapanui described the natives as reticent, often sullen. I am sure a sympathetic New Zealander like Te Rangihiroa—speaking the tongue that is practically identical with that of Rapanui, and besides that conversant with the various other dialectical forms of Maori in the islands—would soon establish good accord with the remnant of the Easter Islanders on that melancholy wind-swept mountain top of theirs, last peak, perhaps, of some long-vanished land. I hope Te Rangihiroa will yet be able to see these farthest-east Maoris for himself.
Te Rangihiroa's Monographs.
But, setting that aside, we have a vast amount of recorded information about the Polynesian isles for which to thank our far-travelling fellow-New Zealander.
An example is his very complete yet concise survey of the people of Mangaia, that strangely formed island of the Cook group where the Rev. W. Wyatt Gill long ago gathered so splendid a series of legends and folksongs. “Kila” and “Pita,” how they would have rejoiced to meet each other! The liberal-minded missionary's spirit still haply haunts his beloved Mangaia. He and Te Rangihiroa between them have made that coral land and its hospitable people live for the great world of readers who will never set eyes upon its curiously-walled tropic garden.
New Zealand's Duty.
Te Rangihiroa is serving a noble purpose in his ethnological researches under the Bishop Museum auspices. It is unfortunate that New Zealand has not been able to offer him any inducement to make this country his base of scientific work. Truly, clever New Zealanders are too often insufficiently appreciated in their own country. The foreigner knows their gifts and worth, and quickly secures their services. It is a reproach to this country that Honolulu should be the headquarters of Polynesian research, instead of New Zealand, which by situation, traditions and associations is the natural base for scientific as well as commercial connections with the South Sea groups. Private munificence made Honolulu the research centre of Polynesia, remote as it is geographically. The late Professor Macmillan Brown was strongly of opinion that New Zealand should become the chief home of Polynesian studies, and to that end he bequeathed a large sum to the Canterbury University College. But handsome as that gift is it is inadequate for its purpose as yet.
Some day I hope to see State and private generosity combine to provide a school of Maori-Polynesian studies here, and perhaps then if our distinguished native son Te Rangihiroa is still available we may have him with us to direct and develop those branches of research which lie closest to his heart.