Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 30, September 1986
By Cecile Read
Vernon Roberts, known to his many Maori friends as "Rapata", was a remarkable personality who traded for a time in the Kauaeranga, Thames and Hikutaia areas. This was from the late 1860's to the mid 1920's, when he became seriously ill and was confined to bed for some months. During this time he recalled many of his experiences as a trader, which were recorded by one of his sons, GT Roberts, and later published by Whitcombe& Tombs in 1929. The book "KOHIKOHINGA", is beautifully illustrated by drawings with a Maori flavour to match the text and is an historical treasure.
Rapata's Maori friends ranged from distinguished chiefs of the time, including Te Tahuna Herangi of Ngaruawahia, father of Princess Te Puea, to many of his humble customers, whose varied characteristics and escapades give vivid colour to his reminiscences. A letter from Ta Tahuna Herangi in his later years to Rapata, reflects in its beauty of expression the dignity and nobility of the old time rangatira. It reads in part:
"To you, Rapata, the faithful friend of many chiefs who have departed into the shadows,
"All the elders of the Waikatos and the Ngatimaniapotos have gone. You and I alone remain. Tawhiao, Rewi Maniapoto, Wahanui, Taonui, Wiremu Te Whero, all of these were your friends who dwelt in the shadow of Pirongia. From then on you were the one to whom they turned for counsel and guidance so that they might respect the law and behave as befits man of their standing.
"I did not know where you were dwelling until my daughter Te Puea wrote to me a few days ago. I feel a longing to see you again, and I hope there will come opportunity. Good health to you, and may Cod watch over us both. I salute you once more, the representative of the chiefs.
From you old friend,
Te Tahuna Herangi."
I should mention here that Rapata was, for part of his career, in the Civil Service. During his trading days he accepted kauri gum in exchange for goods from the stores he set up in various districts. On one occasion he had a good selection of sweets in stock. The locals bought largely of them and provided a plentiful supply of gum in return. However, warned by a friend who was waiting to be served, Rapata was less than pleased to discover that the gum had been purloined from sacks in his store and already bought and paid for.
Another story concerns a Maori woman who called on Rapata and his family after they had lunched on schnapper one day. Having no use for the head they had thrown it outside for the cat. Their caller, indignant at this waste of good food, fought the cat for possession of it, dusted it off and bore it triumphantly away inside her blouse. And this being a period of cultural transition for the Maori, it wasn't surprizing that there were some oddities of dress, such as the very large gentleman who wore a skirt made of flour sacks, with the manufacturer's name conspicuous across his broad rear. Rapata also ruefully recalled an incident at Hikutaia, when suffering from a chill caused by exposure. After some unorthodox medical treatment given him by Maoris with whom he sought shelter, consisting of scratching his chest with two needles inserted in a cork and an incantation, he realised his condition was worsening. Since, not unnaturally, he lacked faith in his present treatment, he managed to get help from a steamer captain from Paeroa, who was able to get far enough up the Hikutaia Stream to rescue him.
One of Rapata's sons, Charles Roberts - Charlie, as he preferred to be called - was a cheerful extrovert who, after his retirement from the Civil Service lived in a miner's shack at Tapu. In his seventies then, he made light of his years and travelled long distances around the country on a little Velocette motor bike called, appropriately, "Rapata". A frequent visitor to our home in the Maratoto Valley, he too had many fascinating stories of personalities he had known, including Princess Te Puea and Caesar Rouse of Hamilton, a forceful and colourful character whose exploits operating a steamship service on the Waikato River remain, as yet unfortunately, an unwritten saga.
"Charlie", was a kiwi of the old school. His friendliness and hospitality were truly heartwarming, and if the loaf he produced for lunch was a little mouldy - well, the store was a long way off and, as he said, "It'll be as good as new in the middle". It was a privilege to know him, and through him something of his father and the unbiased, deeply understanding picture he left of the Pakeha - Maori relationships of his day.