The urban migration of our people continues, writes Tainui Stephens. But for a long time, the reverse has also been true. More and more of us are returning home to continue the family stories where they started.
When my father Vince died in 2012, he left behind some tales of the beginnings of the Stephens family. As a little boy, he was a beloved mokopuna, and he remembered much of what he was told. He’d barely come to know his family before life and war tore them apart, and they left their Far North home forever.
In 1916, Mary Roberts was a young Māori woman, newly widowed. She didn’t grieve for her violent husband. She’d also buried three of her four children before they were six. Māori were vulnerable to Pākehā diseases. Tuberculosis was the most common cause of death among our people at that time.
At 24, Mary fled her Ahipara home and went further north to a five-acre block she owned in Houhora. She took Harriet, her sole surviving child, with her. Mary had suffered a brutal marriage alone, with no support from her whānau. She distanced herself from Māori ways and had an aversion to tangihanga for the rest of her life.
Mary was a determined and attractive woman. She was single, with no real roots, and a sickly child to care for. She looked for companionship at the weekly dances and found herself having to fend off the many single men who swarmed around her. She wasn’t interested in the Māori suitors. She wanted a new life without the dangers of the old.
After a year, a new Pākehā arrived in the district. He was presentable but seriously shy. Mary noticed he wouldn’t join the queue of men asking her to dance. She also noticed that, over several weeks, he managed to dance with every girl except her. Mary was intrigued, but the Pākehā ignored her.
So she did her research. His name was Arthur Stephens. He was a businessman who came from an English family who had migrated to New Zealand before he was born. He’d opened a general store in Waihopo and traded many goods, especially gum. The buried resin from ancient kauri trees was exported to Europe and the US to make varnish and linoleum.
Arthur had a reputation as a fair man who never cheated his customers. He went out of his way to be with Māori and had learned the language. For Mary, things came to a head when he showed interest in a friend of hers. All the other women withdrew to leave them alone. But not Mary. She had to do something about it.
She had gum to sell. So she filled up the saddlebags on her old horse and went to Arthur’s shop. To do business — and to flirt. She invited Arthur to inspect her gum. She was pleased to see his interest extend beyond the contents of her saddlebags.
She told him that she often saw him at the dance, “but you never see me”. Arthur said: “I see you all right. So do all the young men in the hall. But I can’t dance like them. I can’t compete with that crowd.” Mary said: “I’d love to dance with you. Why don’t you ask me?”
And so he did. The following Saturday they danced all night. Mary knew this was the man she wanted to marry. He was a successful and kind businessman. Most of all he could give her a new family. Like everyone else, she saw that most Pākehā didn’t die from their own diseases. She believed half-caste children would have natural immunity and a greater chance of survival.
Arthur Stephens was six years older than Mary and already experienced in the ways of the world. He was in no hurry to commit. Mary made it clear to all the single women that this Pākehā was hers. But Arthur refused to swallow Mary’s bait and propose marriage. She next offered to work in his Waihopo shop. He was delighted as she made herself indispensable. But he remained a perfect gentleman with no improper behaviour and no interest in marriage.
While Mary loved his decency, it drove her batty and she wondered what the problem could be. She soon found out. One day at work, Arthur explained that he was lonely for a church community. He needed a place to worship to truly feel at home in the isolated Far North. Mary was thrilled to discover that he too was Presbyterian.
She invited him to her own church and was delighted that he accepted right away. She rode her horse home that night floating on a cloud of hope. And the following Saturday, after dancing only with Arthur, she said: “See you in the morning at church?” He smiled. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
After the service, Mary knew it was only a matter of time before Arthur would propose. She was right, and they were married three months later in a formal Pākehā wedding ceremony.
Arthur built an English-style cottage on Mary’s land. Their first child Millie — my grandmother — was born in 1917. Mary couldn’t believe her luck. Arthur was a loving husband who paid as much attention to his family as he did to his business.
Both were booming. There was a big demand for gum in the closing days of World War One — and Arthur kept adding rooms to their house as new children came along.
After Millie, there was Andrew (Dick), and then Darby, Winifred, Annie, Murray — and the last was Clare in 1926. Life was hard but good.
But by 1931, it had all turned sour. The world-wide economic depression hit New Zealand and the market for gum ended overnight. Men walked the streets looking for any kind of work just so they and their families could eat.
Arthur’s shop was well-stocked but there was no business. As a family, they agreed that they’d been blessed and should share what they had with others. Arthur and Mary set up what they called “God’s tab for the Bank of Heaven”. Although they paid their own creditors, they offered free credit to anyone else who needed it, knowing they wouldn’t get their money back.
They were beloved and respected by many in the Far North for their generosity, and by 1933, they’d run out of goods and money. However, they owned their house and their land, and were able to live off their orchard and garden.
In 1934, one of Mary’s nephews Bobby came to stay. He and Millie, the eldest daughter, had a fling and she got pregnant. Mary was furious at the betrayal and banned Bobby from the home. There was a lot of tension in the family. Millie was angry at being kept from Bobby, and had to cope with a father and siblings who were hurt by her actions.
Millie’s child (who became my father) was born in 1935. Mary adored her first grandchild and raised him after Millie went to live in Auckland. Mary and Arthur and their children gave Vince (or “Winty” as they called him) a wonderful childhood. Dad remembered it as the happiest time of his life.
During this time, Arthur worked hard to revive his store. He got the whole family digging for gum — and eventually they made enough money and bought enough stock to start trading again in the old Waihopo shop.
Things were looking up, but in 1938, Arthur passed away. Mary was devastated, and worse was yet to come. The world was once again at war and her sons wanted to sign up to fight. Despite all her protests, the first to go was Dick, then Darby, then 17-year-old Murray. My father was then taken from Mary because Millie got married and wanted her son with her in Auckland.
After Mary’s sons went to war, her remaining daughters soon moved to Auckland to start their own families. She had no choice but to leave her Houhora home to live with them. In doing so, she joined countless other Māori families in the migration to the big smoke and all its opportunities.
Mary suffered deeply in 1943 when Dick died of his wounds at the battle of Takrouna in Tunisia. She remained anxious for her other sons who returned from war alive but emotionally wounded. She spent her last years missing Arthur, yet at peace with her faith and herself. She passed away in 1952 and was buried in a Pākehā cemetery in Auckland, just as she wished.
The cottage in Kimberly Road, Houhora, was abandoned — and the Stephens family never returned until I turned up in the late ‘70s looking for my roots. I was the first Stephens in decades to tread the overgrown land that now hid crumbling and rusted remnants of a previous era. Some years later, I took Dad back there. He cried.
The general histories of those years are well-known, but they played out dramatically and in various ways in all Māori families. It is the way of our people to reach for new horizons and, by doing so, create new worlds and new ways of living. It is also the way of some of us to return home, to the places of our origins.
Although I made the first reconnection with our ancestral lands, I’ve not lived there permanently. The first of my side of the family to return north to live full-time is Barry Kipa, son of Clare. (Dad always thought of his Aunty Clare and her husband George as his real parents.)
Barry and his daughter Medadane moved to Kaitāia to establish their butcher shop Whānau Meats. My dad had taught Barry the meat business back in the ‘60s. There’s a photo of him on the wall of the shop.
Mary’s mokopuna are coming home.
There are other Stephens cousins now living in our Te Rarawa hood. They might have different surnames, but they all descend from two people who loved each other and who passed that love on. As I write these words, Mary’s great-great-great-grandson has just been born. His name is Arthur.
Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.
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