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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (December 1, 1933)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 9 — The Mair Brothers, Soldiers and Pioneers

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 9
The Mair Brothers, Soldiers and Pioneers.

In this month's sketch of notable New Zealanders two gallant and distinguished brothers are linked together as men who deserve to be held in remembrance for their splendid services to their country in the Maori wars, and for their work as frontiersmen and as intermediaries between the two races. Major William Mair and Captain Gilbert Mair were men of exceptional gifts and of truly heroic achievements; good and useful New Zealanders in every sense of the word.

Major William G. Mair.

Major William G. Mair.

The adventurous conditions of our earlier days produced two kinds of frontiersmen–the rough, unlettered bush-fighters and scouts and Pakeha-Maori settlers, and men of gifts and culture who made brave and capable leaders in wartime, who were perfect in their knowledge of forest warfare, and who in days of peace held high official positions in the service of their native land.

There were many of the former class who could be cited, hard, plucky fellows like the late Ben Biddle, of Whakatane, and big Tom Adamson, both New Zealand Cross men. The Mair Brothers were the born leaders of such men and of the Maoris, whom they held in as high esteem and affection as their own blood. They fought hostile Maori tribes strenuously in the course of duty, and when the gunpowder smoke drifted away from the outer lands they worked as strenuously in the cause of peace and the advance of settlement. No men did more to make this North Island fit for peaceful pursuits than these sons of New Zealand, the whole of whose lives were spent practically in subduing the borderlands and in bringing the two peoples closer together.

Major William Gilbert Mair and Captain Gilbert Mair, N.Z.C. (both sons were given the name of their father), were the two most distinguished members of a large pioneer family. One of the other brothers was the late Mr. Robert Mair, whose name is held in high regard at Whangarei, his life-long home town, to whose people he gave a beautiful park; and another was Henry Mair, a rover of many strange South Sea adventures, who was killed by the savages of Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides, in 1881. There were twelve children in the family; the parents were Gilbert and Elizabeth Mair, of Wahapu, Bay of Islands, and Whangarei. Mr. Gilbert Mair was a Peterhead man, who settled at the Bay of Islands over a century ago and who assisted the ex-Navy officer and famous missionary, Henry Williams, in the designing and building of the first Mission vessel built in New Zealand. Gilbert Mair was a shipwright as well as a sailor, and he was sailing-master of that pioneer schooner when Henry Williams made his first cruise down the East Coast. He was present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and he and his family were acquainted with many of the noted men who visited the Bay of Islands in those days of our beginnings.

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Captain Gilbert Mair, N.Z.C. (from a photo in 1880).

Captain Gilbert Mair, N.Z.C. (from a photo in 1880).

Major Mair's Career.

William G. Mair, the elder of the two soldier brothers, was born at Wahapu, where his father had at the beginning of the Forties a large trading establishment. Maori was as much his tongue as English from his earliest years, and, as with his brother, his perfect mastery of the language largely determined the bent of his life's work. His first opportunity of making his accomplishments known came in 1863, when the Waikato War began. He joined the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, organised in Auckland by a veteran British soldier, Colonel Marma-duke Nixon and received a commission as Ensign, and before long he was acting as an interpreter to the Commander of the Forces, General Cameron. He saw his well-beloved Colonel mortally wounded in the fight at Rangiaowhia early in 1864, and ran to his assistance and helped to carry him off under fire. At the siege of Orakau a little later he took part in the cavalry charge on the first day, and in the final scenes of that famous battle he was one of the most prominent figures, for it was he who conveyed the General's call to surrender to the Maori garrison. He stood at the head of the British sap, with the muzzles of the Maori guns pointed at him over the parapet less than twenty feet away. His coolness in that and many other thrilling moments prompted one of the British staff officers, with memories of his classics, to christen him Julius Placidus.

In those closing episodes of the Waikato War, Mair was useful to his Commander as an intelligence officer, gaining information about the Maoris and the country; and he fired the last shot in the campaign, in a kind of unofficial reconnaissance out beyond Orakau, where the present much-travelled motor road from Te Awamutu goes up to Aratitaha, on the way to Arapuni.

Fighting the Hauhaus.

But there was more important work in store for Mair, when the Hauhau campaigns began in the Bay of Plenty country the year after Orakau. Now he had an opportunity of proving his inborn capacity for dealing with the Maori as well as his gift of leadership. The Government quickly recognised his twin talents of command and diplomacy, and gave him practically a free hand in organising the friendly Arawa tribe for service against the rebels of the coast who had been converted to the Pai-Marire cult by Kereopa and other emissaries of Te Ua, the Taranaki founder of the fanatic faith. After the murder of the missionary Volkner at Opotiki, and the Government half-caste agent James Fulloon, at Whakatane, he raised and led a force of over four hundred Arawas against the Hauhau tribes, and for months skirmished over the Lower Rangitaiki and Whakatane and Matata country, himself the only white man in the operations. He closed the campaign by capturing the great rebel pa at Te Teko, on the bank of the Rangitaiki.

The Saps at Te Teko.

This spot is in the present little township of Te Teko, where the main road from Rotorua to the East Coast crosses the river. It was a most skilful piece of work, indeed brilliant. Mair profited by what he had seen in the way of sapping in the British regulars’ operations at Orakau. He had five clans of the Arawa under his command, and he directed each to drive a separate trench, zigzag fashion, up to the rebel palisades. The rival sappers-women as well as men-went at the spade work with tremendous zest, under fire. When the saps were close up to the pa, and preparations were being made for the final attack, a white flag was hoisted and the whole garrison surrendered, and at Mair's order marched out, tribe by tribe, and laid down their arms.

Those lines of sap are still to be traced in the turf of the old fighting ground, where the farmers’ cows graze peacefully on the scenes of Mair's triumph that combined military science with consummate, tactful leadership after the Maori manner.

Mountain Campaigns.

That was only one of many battlefields which won Mair his Major's commission and his reputation as the ideal commander of the Maori allies, so often difficult to handle. He was al- page 19 most constantly in the field from that time up to the end of the campaigns against Kereopa and Te Kooti. He was tireless in the field, dashing where swift action was required, cautious when occasion demanded it, and always giving his men the example of perfect fearlessness. He fought in the first invasion of the Urewera Country, in 1869, and on the return of Whitmore's forces from Ruatahuna to Fort Galatea, on the Rangitaiki, he was detailed to carry out the wounded, by way of that awful bit of wild country, the Horomanga Gorge. He himself was the last of the rearguard, keeping off the pursuers with his carbine. He was in scores of skirmishes, but as he was so often his own commanding officer, with none to recommend him for honours, he did not receive the New Zealand Cross, to which he was undoubtedly entitled. All his active life, in peace as in war, he was the same unassuming character, carrying out his duty regardless of praise or blame.

Mair the Peacemaker.

In his years of official duty as Government Native Agent and Magistrate, he did much to promote permanent peace between the two races, and it was he who was finally the means in 1881 of inducing King Tawhiao and his followers to abandon their policy of isolation and opposition to Government overtures of friendship.

A few years later he, as Judge of the Native Land Court, investigated the tribal titles to the great Rohepotae, the King Country. That was a historic court, at Otorohanga, the first ever held in the King Country, the first step in the opening for pakeha settlement of this territory, now covered with farms and homes and townships.

Such were some of William Mair's deeds of service to his country. A book could be written about him, as about his gallant brother Gilbert the Captain. Like many a very brave man, he was one of the quietest spoken; indeed, the Mair brothers were a pleasure to listen to, and William particularly; his gentle, musical voice, fingers in the memory.

Captain Mair and his Arawa.

Turn now to Mair the younger, Gilbert, winner of the New Zealand Cross for distinguished valour in the field, like his brother a leader for years of Arawa tribesmen in the service of the Government. His eighty years of life were full of incident and adventure; indeed, of all the men of hazardous frontier experiences whom I have known, Gilbert Mair's career was the most colourful and varied. A great bush-man and explorer, horseman and farmer, as well as guerilla soldier, he could turn his hand to anything, like a true native-born, and his powers of endurance were almost incredible, certainly far beyond those of most men. He was a man
Fifty years after. Captain Gilbert Mair at the grave of Captain Travers, Tatahoata Pa, Ruatahuna, Urewera Country, in 1921. (Photo. by J. Cowan.)

Fifty years after. Captain Gilbert Mair at the grave of Captain Travers, Tatahoata Pa, Ruatahuna, Urewera Country, in 1921. (Photo. by J. Cowan.)

of many talents, and of many very strange and wonderful memories.

Here I can but give a greatly compressed resume of his life and services to his country. Both the Mairs I knew from my boyhood, but Gilbert the more intimately of the two. Many a day, many weeks in fact, we spent together in his later years, exploring his old campaigning grounds, riding over battlefields where he had marched and fought half a century before.

“Tawa” was the name by which Captain Gilbert Mair was universally known among the Maoris. This was given to him by the Arawa after his birthplace, Tawa-tawhiti, at Whangarei. In his teens he was engaged in helping his elder brother buying kauri gum from the Maoris–many of them Arawas who had temporarily camped on the northern gumfields-and he acquired early a thorough knowledge of the native language and an uncommon insight into their modes of thought and ways of life. In 1860, when he was seventeen years old, he was articled to the Surveyor-General at Auckland, to learn land surveying, and he secured his provincial certificate in 1864. Shortly before the Waikato War began he assisted in surveying and cutting up a large area of native land between the Waikato Heads and Raglan. Later he was appointed clerk and interpreter to the Magistrate's Court at Tauranga, and when the war was renewed in the Bay of Plenty district in 1866 he was given an opportunity of developing his natural military talents conjoined with his native knowledge of bushcraft and his athletic, tireless physique.

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Daring Exploits.

When operations were set on foot against the Piri-Rakau natives, all Hauhaus, in the forest country inland of Tauranga, Mair accompanied the expeditions, at first as volunteer and interpreter, and soon distinguished himself by his dash and daring and his intrepidity and enterprise in bush scouting. He served as volunteer with the 1st Battalion, 1st Waikato Regiment, taking part in the bush action at Te Irihanga in 1867, and from that time on he used his carbine in many a skirmish in that rugged country of forest, range and gorge, between the Tauranga slopes and Rotorua. Once he had his horse shot under him; that was at Whakamarama, up in the hills at the rear of Tauranga. He was pinned down by the weight of his horse, but he kept the Hauhaus off with his revolver until his comrades came up. On another occasion, when commanding forty Arawa friendlies, he swam the Kaituna River at night, carrying arms and ammunition across on a raft made of dry flax-stalks. He led an attack on the Maori rifle pits at Taumata, and at a dozen other places in that perilous bush country he fought the Maoris after their own manner, and acquired a reputation for dash and vigour which distinguished him all his fighting career. More than once he helped to carry off wounded men under fire at close quarters. It was perilous work in the extreme, campaigning in that Piri-rakau bush, where any moment a volley might come from ambush in the twilight depths.

The Fighting Round Rotorua.

Then the scene of war changed to Rotorua. Here, in 1867, he saved Ohinemutu from a Hauhau raid. With thirty of the loyal NgatiWhakaue tribe, he attacked over a hundred Waikato rebels at the earthworks of Te Koutu Pa, defeating them, with seven of them dead and many wounded. With one hundred picked men of the Ngati-Pikiao and Ngati-Manawa tribes, under the chief Te Pokiha Taranui, he made a detour of eight miles through broken forest country to cut off the retreat of the rebel Wai-katos, four hundred strong, then holding the Puraku or Ahiria Pa, near the present Tarukenga railway station. A frontal attack by Colonel St. John was delivered prematurely, and only a portion of the enemy was intercepted. The Hauhaus lost, however, eleven men killed and twenty-two severely wounded. For this work Mair was mentioned in despatches and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.

With a small party of loyal natives he made a midnight attack upon the Rangiwewehi rebels’ camp in the dense forest at Ara-piripiri, west of Rotorua Lake, and himself captured their chief Te Raho-atua.

Defence of Whakatane.

In the Whakatane campaign, 1869, Lieutenant Mair further distinguished himself. Te Kooti, with six hundred men, was attacking the friendly Ngatiawa and Ngati-Pukeko tribes in their pa at Rauporoa, near Whakatane, and Lieutenant Mair was despatched from Tauranga to raise a force of Arawas and go to their succour. By riding forty miles during the night, swimming the rivers, he reached Matata, raised 150 men of the Ngati-Rangitihi tribe, and marching them seventeen miles, reached the scene of action in the forenoon next day, but too late to save the pa. The garrison, having been forced to abandon it, were being pursued by Te Kooti's cavalry, who were slaughtering the old men, women and children. Most of the friendly natives were saved, and Te Kooti forced to retire, leaving twenty-eight dead, besides having many wounded. Lieut. Mair assisted in the defence of Whakatane township against Te Kooti's second attack. He commanded a force of Arawa natives in an all-day skirmish with Te Kooti's war party on the hills surrounding Whakatane, giving time for an Opotiki column to arrive in support, when the enemy was finally expelled.

In Pursuit of Te Kooti.

But there is not anything like enough space now to tell of all Mair's fighting exploits. He fought in Whitmore's invasion of the Urewera country in 1869, and in the following year he once more saved Rotorua from the Hauhaus. That great running fight, Mair and a few men pursuing Te Kooti and his two hundred, was the greatest feat in his career, and it won him his captaincy and the New Zealand Cross. For twenty miles he and his fastest runners of the Arawa followed Te Kooti, frequently engaging his rearguard and killing his best fighting man, the notorious Eru Peka, and nearly twenty others. Most of these fell to Mair's own rifle.

Now came the most arduous campaigning cf all, when Mair and his comrade Captain Preece for two years led their Arawa soldiers and scoured the Urewera forests and mountains in chase of Te Kooti. It was fearfully difficult work, sometimes carried on in the depth of winter, often without any food but what the wild country could give them, fernroot and hinau berries. In one of the last fights (August, 1871) Mair and Preece rushed Te Kooti's well-hidden bush camp on the Waipaoa River and killed several men. So the guerilla war went on until in 1872 Te Kooti was finally driven out of the Urewera and took refuge in the King Country.

The Closing Years.

In after years Captain Mair was an officer of the Native Department, until he retired, with very little monetary reward. Indeed, both the page 21 Mair brothers were treated with scant justice by Wellington headquarters, for old soldiers’ services are often slighted. But while they died poor in the world's goods, they were rich in the love and esteem of their fellow-men who knew and valued them. Gilbert Mair especially was beloved by the Arawa people, and when he was laid to rest in the Ohinemutu churchyard in 1923 the tribe whom he had led in peace and war for half a century mourned him as one of their own chiefs, indeed their greatest.

Captain Mair was in many ways a most gifted man. He was the most profoundly learned Maori scholar I have ever known; none in New Zealand was his superior in knowledge of the native people and their traditions and customs. He was a practical botanist; no one knew more about the bush and its life. Much of the information in Sir Walter Buller's book on New Zealand birds was derived from Mair, who was Buller's brother-in-law. His physical powers were marvellous. When he was seventy-eight years old he rode with me through the Urewera country once more, the last time, a rough bush ride, over the old battle trails, following down the Whakatane from its headwaters. On that camping tour, in 1921, Mair stood once more at the grave of his comrade, Captain Travers, killed, with several of his men, in the Ruatahuna Valley, in 1869. One of our photos shows him there; Tawa on the field of his fighting youth, brave, loveable old Tawa, last of a gallant band of brothers, New Zealand pioneers.

(From a photo. by Mr. Mundy.) Captain Gilbert Mair and some of his Maori soldiers, at Kaiteriria Camp, Rotokakahi, in 1870.

(From a photo. by Mr. Mundy.)
Captain Gilbert Mair and some of his Maori soldiers, at Kaiteriria Camp, Rotokakahi, in 1870.

London's Passenger Transport

London passenger transport has now been unified by the setting up of what is styled the London Passenger Transport Board, serving the whole of the metropolis and extending outwards as far as points such as Guildford, Hitchin, Luton, High Wycombe and Slough.

All forms of passenger transport are included in the plan-railways, underground railways, omnibuses, street tramways, etc. and provision is made for the co-ordination of the London suburban passenger services of the main-line railways. Passenger receipts of the Board are to be pooled with those of the main-line railways in the London area, and altogether the scheme is most comprehensive. To appreciate its magnitude, it may be noted that there are more than 600 suburban passenger stations on the main-line railways in the area involved. In this area something like 500,000,000 passenger journeys are annually undertaken, representing approximately 4,750,000,000 miles of travel.

(From our London Correspondent.)

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