New Zealand’s premier historian of war memorials, Jock Phillips, once called Whanganui the ‘war memorial capital of the world’. It’s a big claim, but Whanganui certainly does seem to have more than its share of memorials – although not all are directly connected to war.
Whanganui’s most well-known memorials are probably those at Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens. Three of those memorials have connections to a remarkable wahine Māori, Pura Te Mānihera McGregor (Makarika), whose own memorial elsewhere in Whanganui is fascinating in its own right.
Pura Te Mānihera was born in 1855 at Karatia on the Whanganui River. She was the eldest daughter of Hōhi Te Aotūroa (Ngāti Ruakā and Ngāti Rangi) and Māui Te Mānihera (Ngā Poutama). Her father Te Mānihera was among the Māori who were killed fighting on the Crown side against supporters of the Pai Mārire movement in the 1864 battle of Moutoa. As such, his name appears (as ‘Manihera Maui’) on the Moutoa monument at Pākaitore, with its infamous inscription to the Māori who died fighting against ‘fanaticism and barbarism’.
While still in her teens, Pura herself became involved in the New Zealand Wars, accompanying her uncle Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp) as he led Māori troops pursuing Te Kooti on the East Coast in 1868-69. She reportedly climbed a tree to hoist the Union Jack while under fire and was recommended for a New Zealand War Medal, but this recommendation was denied because she was a woman. Te Keepa and the military campaigns he was involved in are commemorated by a memorial at Pākaitore, which I’ve written about elsewhere.
In 1879, Pura married Gregor McGregor, the son of Scottish settlers in the Whanganui district. From then on she was known as Pura McGregor (transliterated to Makarika in Māori), and in accordance with the sexist naming conventions of the time she commonly appears in the historical record as ‘Mrs Gregor McGregor’. Gregor subsequently became a station manager near Rānana on the Whanganui River, but Pura lived for most of her married life at the couple’s house in Whanganui township.
Pura was very involved with community life in Whanganui, and during the First World War she was President of the Lady Liverpool Māori Soldiers’ Fund in Whanganui. The Fund raised money to support Māori soldiers during the war, but a surplus remained at the war’s end and Whanganui Māori decided to use this money for a memorial at Pākaitore to Māori participation in the war (I’ve written about this memorial as well).
Pura was a woman of great mana and high standing among Māori and Pākehā alike. Her wartime activities led to her becoming the first Māori woman to be awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1919. Pura also made important contributions to the cultural life of Whanganui and Aotearoa New Zealand generally. She was involved in the Wanganui Beautifying Society, and worked with other Whanganui River Māori to obtain native plants for the area surrounding Rotokawau/Virginia Lake in Whanganui. Similarly, when Gregor was appointed site superintendent for the ‘model Māori pā‘ at the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906-07, Pura helped to recruit Whanganui carvers and builders, and to find materials, for the project. One of her greatest contributions to Whanganui was her donation of her collection of taonga Māori to the city of Whanganui, helping to form the collection of what is now the Whanganui Regional Museum.
Pura’s interests in civic improvement and taonga Māori came together in 1917, when the Wanganui Chronicle reported:
A ‘tiki’ in the form of a Maori canoe, which took part in a fight at Kapiti, has been acquired by the [St John’s Hill Beautifying] [S]ociety and is being carved under the supervision of Mrs. Gregor McGregor, and is being erected on ‘Pura’ Point, overlooking the far end of Virginia Lake.Wanganui Chronicle, 28 September 1917
However, when Pura died on 4 March 1920, this project was evidently uncompleted. In December of that year, the President of the St John’s Hill Beautifying Society feared it would not be possible to complete the carving of the waka, due to Pura’s death. A year and a half later, however, work on the tiki had resumed, and it was now being described as a memorial to Pura:
The canoe, from which the memorial is being prepared, is a very old one, but its timber is in a splendid state of preservation. It has been thoroughly overhauled, cleaned, and painted in a typical Maori manner, and will make an appropriate memorial.Wanganui Chronicle, 23 May 1922
By January 1923, the waka had been installed at the far end of Virginia Lake/Rotokawau, on the former site of Toronui pā, as a memorial to Pura. It was described as ‘a very old and fine Maori canoe erected on its end, and painted in true Maori style, and is visible from all parts of the lake’. The memorial was surrounded by an iron fence, and there was a plaque at the base stating that the tiki had been erected to the memory of Pura McGregor.
The description of the memorial as a tiki may seem unusual, as that term is more commonly used today for an abstract human figure worn as a neck ornament. However, another meaning of ‘tiki’ (according to Williams’ Dictionary of the Māori Language) is ‘a post to mark a place which was tapu [under a spiritual restriction]’. The use of the word tiki to describe the memorial to Pura probably refers to the Māori practice of using upturned waka as grave markers for people of high rank. Waka whakamaumahara (memorial canoes) has been recorded by Pākehā observers since the 1830s. When rangatira died, their waka might be cut in half so that the prow could be carved and painted, and erected as a memorial. The rangatira might be buried at the site where the waka whakamaumahara is erected, but more likely their remains would lie elsewhere and the waka would function as a memorial.
The waka whakamaumara for Pura McGregor was a memorial only: she is buried, together with Gregor, in Heads Road Cemetery, Whanganui. Unlike European memorials of stone or metal, waka whakamaumhara were not made of durable materials, and were perhaps not intended to survive indefinitely. In the case of Pura’s memorial, it become rotten and was removed in 1988.
In recent years, the Virginia Lake Trust decided to replace the memorial and, with support from the McGregor whānau, commissioned a new steel memorial by local artist Cecilia Kumeroa. The new memorial was opened in September 2020. It preserves the form of the waka whakamaumahara in a more durable material, and repeats the painted patterns from the original memorial as a cut-out design. It’s a striking and modern memorial which very effectively links past and present to commemorate Pura’s achievements in both the Māori and Pākehā worlds.
There are two things about the original memorial, and its modern replacement, that I find particularly interesting. First, it’s a rare example of a memorial to a Māori woman (indeed, memorials to women of any ethnicity are notoriously rare not only in Aotearoa but around the world). Second, it’s an early example of a memorial in a public place that draws on Māori iconography and commemorative practices, rather than copying the commemorative forms of Europe. The move away from European commemorative traditions is becoming more common now, with increasing use of pou (commemorative poles) and innovative memorials like those designed by Tūranga (Gisborne) artist Nick Tupara. By erecting the waka whakamaumahara to Pura Te Mānihera Makarika a century ago, Whanganui took a forward-looking step that the rest of Aotearoa is only just catching up with.
Miriam McGregor, ‘Pura McGregor’, in her Petticoat Pioneers: North Island Women of the Colonial Era, vol. 2, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975, ch. 19.
Michelle Horwood and Che Wilson, Te Ara Tapu: Sacred Journeys: Whanganui Regional Museum Taonga Māori Collection, Auckland, Random House/Whanganui Regional Museum, 2008.
Stephen Deed, Unearthly Landscapes: New Zealand’s Early Cemeteries, Churchyards and Urupā, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2015, ch 2.
Ewan Morris, ‘Māori Monument or Pākehā Propaganda? The Memorial to Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Whanganui’, in Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla (eds), The Lives of Colonial Objects, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2015, pp. 230-235.
Ewan Morris, ‘“Kia Mau ai te Ora, te Pono me te Aroha ki te Ao Katoa”: The Māori First World War Memorial at Whanganui’, Turnbull Library Record, vol. 46, 2014, pp. 62-79.