Gerry Te Kapa Coates
Heke-nuku-mai-nga-iwi Busby: Not here by chance by Jeff Evans (Huia Publishers, 2015), 288 pp., $45
This is the book of a life spent in discovery. It’s about Hec Busby – who he is and what he has done, from becoming a leader within Te Rarawa and a successful businessman, to helping the nascent waka voyaging resurgence become a reality. It is the tale of a life filled both with intent and chance events, and of Busby’s dogged determination to finish things that he began. His conviction that he is ‘not here by chance’ is obvious. The book chronologically follows his life, to the building and voyaging of Te Aurere, the first wooden double-hulled voyaging waka hourua built in Aotearoa in recent times, and his increasing knowledge and prominence in the art of traditional navigation that allowed his ancestors to arrive here, also not by chance.
Jeff Evans is an Auckland writer and photographer who has written other books about waka and Māori migration, including traditions and navigation techniques. Evans first met Hec in 1999, seven years after the epic Te Aurere voyage. The possibility that he might one day write Hec’s biography was a big challenge since he realised he was an outsider and had never written anything like it before. I have also followed with interest the revival of waka voyaging, and was on the waka Aotearoa One with Hoturoa Kerr as the fleet of seven canoes on the Pacific circumnavigation left Auckland in 2011, spurred on by a moving haka from our crew. My son Tiaki was there, and joined that fleet later in San Francisco. He had also been on an earlier round trip to Tahiti so he at least knew what perils they’d be facing as they turned to sail due east.
Hec’s whakapapa includes ‘respected chiefs with links back to a number of migration canoes’. His ancestors include Pōroa, recognised as the rangatira over land from Kaitaia to Ahipara, and his great-great-grandfather Puhipi Te Ri, who was an active participant in intertribal fighting under Pōroa. Puhipi is a transliteration of ‘Busby’: James Busby was the sponsor for his baptism into the Anglican faith in 1840. The family began using the European version of the name in the early twentieth century. Mumu Te Awha, Hec’s grandfather, was the last ancestor to be deeply involved in Te Rarawa’s affairs at a high level. Hec was born into what would today be called a ‘blended family’. His mother Wini already had five children when she married Hec’s father Timoti, with whom she then had a further six. The Busby’s were reasonably well off by the standards of rural Māori at the time. Hec’s great-aunt Whenu was a repository of ancient knowledge that had a huge impact on Hec, which would come to fruition later in his fifties. They lived a largely self-sufficient life off the land from a community garden, eels and kaimoana, and supplemented this during the depression by selling cream to the local dairy factory. Hec’s grandmother, Raiha, was a link to the old customs and a native speaker of te reo Māori, which Hec acknowledges was the reason he and his siblings can all speak it. Hec received his shortened name from a Pākeha teacher at his first and only school at Ahipara.
Hec’s epiphany came when he visited the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi and became enthused by the giant 35.7-metre waka taua Ngātokimatawhaorua that had been built for the 1940 centennial celebrations of the signing of Te Tiriti. He avoided the childhood illnesses that plagued many others and left school on his fifteenth birthday, intending to make his way with no qualifications other than being good at mathematics and having excellent woodworking skills.
After working at the local cement works, as a baker and in seasonal contracting work – the perfect pre-season rugby training – he was married at 18 to Kathleen. His father-in-law invited him to join a gum-digging venture near Pārengarenga harbour for two seasons, then it was fishing and finally bridge-building, where he was soon promoted to foreman. When the promised partnership with the owner didn’t eventuate, he decided to go into the construction business by himself in the late 1950s, aged just 26, with fishing as a sideline. The itinerant lifestyle of the bridge-builder took its toll on his marriage and he and Kathleen eventually separated.
Hec met Hilda Wilson soon after, and their enduring marriage was founded on working for the betterment of people. They set up home in Whangarei and Hec became more involved with working for Waitangi Day celebrations, looking after the waka taua Ngātokimatawhaorua and any visiting waka. Soon he was sitting on the paepae at Waitangi, and became involved in kapa haka at competition level and as a judge, becoming the Tai Tokerau delegate to the New Zealand Polynesian Festival (now Te Matatini) with Hilda also heavily involved.
Hec’s interests with waka increased as he took responsibility for maintaining Ngātokimatawhaorua at Waitangi, learning about replacing lashings and recruiting crew for ceremonial events such as royal visits. He also discovered in the 80s that he had a gift for healing, and was encouraged by John Rangihau, the respected Tūhoe elder. John was also instrumental in bring Hec together with Nainoa Thompson, a 29-year-old slightly built Hawaiian who was a member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. This fledgling group was formed to prove that a voyaging canoe could have navigated the vast distances between Hawai`i and eastern Polynesia by design rather than accident. Nainoa’s intention on his visit was to use Hec’s property at Aurere to study the southern night sky for navigation purposes. After a rocky start Hec pledged to do everything he could to help the Hawaiians’ voyage with their vaka Hōkūle`a, and made a plea for Aotearoa to be one of its destinations. Nainoa had established himself as the primary navigator for the voyage, having learnt his skills directly from Mau Piailug, the famed iconic Micronesian master navigator. Hec and Hilda travelled to Hawai`i in 1984 at the invitation of Nainoa’s father, Myron ‘Pinky’ Thompson, who told Hec that he ‘wasn’t there by chance’ but was on a mission. Hec joined Hōkūle`a for a shakedown cruise to the Big Island, and also met Mau, who was willing to pass on his vast knowledge as a way of ensuring that this form of navigation would not die with him. For the voyage beyond Rarotonga, Stanley Conrad, another budding Tai Tokerau voyager and navigator, would join the crew at Hec’s request. On his return Hec was hospitalised with a perforated ulcer and, as the voyage progressed, was relieved to hear that Hōkūle`a was fnally in sight of Aotearoa. Hec kept his word and looked after the vaka on land at Te Tii marae once its crew returned to Hawai`i to await the next sailing season.
Hec’s knowledge of waka hourua construction increased, as did his thirst for more expertise. At the sesquicentennial of the Treaty in 1990 it was announced that the year would be dubbed the ‘Year of the Waka’. This stimulated Hec to build his first waka taua, under the guidance of Taupuhi Eruera, a Northland kaumātua from Utukura who helped him select the kauri trees. The waka was built with full Māori protocol and was named Mataatua-Puhi – linking it to Whakatane tribes – and launched on time. This started a new career in which Hec has built – or overseen construction – of some 30 waka, including a well-publicised one – Te Hono ki Aotearoa – for a museum in Leiden, Netherlands.
Hec’s wish to build a voyaging waka had grown along with his skills, and his plan was to build a double-hulled canoe capable of sailing to Rarotonga for the 1992 Festival of Pacific Arts. He encountered barriers from the outset – too much consultation, having his application to fell two kauri trees declined, a fishing accident – but he persevered. The waka was built on his own land at Tokerau Beach, near Taipā. Hec added certain Māori elements to the generic design, such as carvings copied from examples in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The launch was in the presence of the Māori queen, Te Atairangikaahu, and a strong contingent from Hawai`i. The new 17-metre waka was formally named Te Aurere after the beach near his home. Crew were selected from throughout Aotearoa, and training for the voyage to Rarotonga was overseen by Stanley Conrad and Nainoa Thompson.
The waka finally left in September 1992 after several delays due to windless conditions, with Hec on its support boat Nam Sang. He felt the full weight of responsibility for the crew and voyage. The trip was fraught with storms, navigation problems and uncomfortable conditions aboard, but despite being extremely fatigued, Hec saw his waka arrive off Rarotonga at dawn on 22 October and completed the karakia he’d begun back at Taipā before departure. They were warmly welcomed by the Cook Islands prime minister who said, ‘Over 700 years ago your ancestors left here to voyage to Aotearoa, and today you have finally arrived back. Drink deep from the niu (coconut). It is the drink of your ancestors.’ The return voyage was no less exciting, and they arrived back on 26 November, the culmination of an incredible achievement.
Hec’s skills as a navigator were acknowledged in 2008 at Mau Piailug’s home island of Satawal, when he was ‘capped’ in a pwo ceremony, said to date back many hundreds of years. This was the last ceremony that Mau presided over, as he died from diabetes in 2010. There were other voyages: to Rai`iatea in French Polynesia, where Hec was asked to lift a curse on an ancient marae; to New Caledonia for another Festival of Pacific Arts; to Hawai`i (during which Hilda became very ill, eventually dying just after Hec’s return); and to Rapanui (Easter Island), a journey of more than 9000 nautical miles. He is still sailing and being a kaumātua and mentor, as those who saw the movie Te Mana o Te Moana on Māori TV would know. Hec still takes the role of preparing upcoming generations for the future very seriously. His is a no-nonsense approach as I recall from the movie Te Hono Ki Aotearoa. When asked why he was willing to use modern tools like chainsaws to cut the profile of the waka, he said, ‘If Māori had these in the old days they would have used them too.’
This is the story of many journeys, but perhaps the greatest of all was that of Heke-nuku-mai-nga-iwi Busby’s own life, from school leaver at 15 to master navigator. Kiwis deserve to know about men like him who follow their life’s passions so keenly.
GERRY TE KAPA COATES (Ngāi Tahu) is a Wellington consultant and writer.