The story of Ngatau Omahuru is one of a number of similar ones from colonial New Zealand involving the kidnapping of white children by Maori and vice versa. An example in this directory of the opposite situation is the story of Caroline Perrott. In contrast to most, however, Omahuru's case had wide political-racial implications and he came to the attention of the most powerful men in the land. Unfortunately, most of the contemporary accounts are full of rumors, legends and deliberate lies by the adults involved; the version which follows is based on a recent biography which attempts to get at the truth from both the white and Maori sides.
Omahuru was born in the village of Mawhitiwhiti, son of a Christian lay preacher, Te Karere Omahuru and his wife, Hinewai, during a time of ferment, following the Maori Wars of a few years previously.
At the Battle of te Ngutu o te Manu in September 1868, a party of whites, intending to massacre a group of Maori adherents of the Pai Marire religion was ambushed by their intended victims. In the rout that followed the young Ngatau was captured by a Maori ally of the whites.
At first the boy was fostered by another mercenary and his wife. The next few months are shrouded in uncertainty, but early in 1869 the boy was baptized , with one of the most powerful men in the country, William Fox, as one of his god-fathers, and whose name he was "given" (Wiremu Pokiha is the Maori corruption of William Fox). Fox, a scoundrel and liar, served as premier of the colony for several terms both before and after Te Ngutu o te Manu.
Days later the boy was sent to Wellington and boarded at a government hostel for visiting Maori dignitaries, where he stayed for about three years while attending school, where he was the only child. He was then taken to live with Fox, who was now, for the third time, Premier of the colony, and his wife. Fox had no real interest in his young namesake, but a loving relationship developed between the boy and Mrs. Fox.
During these years he was spotted by the Nga Ruahine chief Tauke Te Hapimana, who told his parents where he was, but they were in no position to do anything about retrieving him, due to Fox's position. In 1875-86 the Foxes toured the USA, the UK, Egypt and Lebanon, where Fox senior, now retired from the premiership, was on the temperance movement's lecture circuit. (It is possible but not certain that young William accompanied the Foxes.)
When the family returned home young William, now 14 or 15, was apprenticed to a notoriously corrupt and rapacious lawyer, Walter Buller, a specialist in Maori land matters. On a visit in 1878 on Buller's business, to Parihaka, a large Maori village of the followers of the pacifist prophet Te Whiti, Fox was spotted and recognized by his older brother, Ake Ake, who told his parents. But by now Ngatau Omahuru had become William Fox, Jr., and he refused to acknowledge his family, except formally; he claimed that his "real" mother was Sarah Fox.
In spite of this his family entrusted their own land negotiations to Fox and Buller. Suddenly, without warning, Fox junior disappeared on a trip to Whanganui in September 1880. Although it is not certain, it seems that while on a second visit to Parihaka he learned that Ake Ake had been severely maltreated by government agents. This led him to reassess his position, and he decided his fate must lie with his ancestors.
He became a follower, confidante and legal assistant to Te Whiti, and in a speech the following March he denounced white society in general, and Fox and Buller in particular. He was in Parihaka in November 1881 when the village was illegally destroyed by government troops and the inhabitants forcibly dispersed. He and the Foxes never met again.
Now known as William Fox Omahuru, he never re-established close ties with his birth family and never married. He continued to live quietly in the rebuilt Parihaka, and was a professional interpreter and teacher of Maori. When he died he was buried at Leppertown, coincidentally where Caroline Perrett had disappeared, and his grave is now lost. Members of his family still live in Mawhitiwhiti.
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