The Rapaki – a hybrid couture
Long before we armed ourselves with phones featuring front-facing cameras and Instagram, the average New Zealander had to work much harder to produce a ‘selfie’. In 1860, Aotearoa’s unmatched king of the self portrait was one Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky. Without the aid of hashtags, Von cultivated his celebrity status via the favoured social media of the day – ‘carte-de-visits’. These were a sort of personal calling card featuring posed portraits, which became a collectable craze in the colony. Demand for images of the flamboyant Von outstripped photographers supply – and his carte-de-visits [Fig. 1] became highly sought after. Within these proto-Polaroids lies an illuminating story of Pākehā and Māori hybrid battle couture – the rāpaki.
Gold-rush lured the Prussian born von Tempsky to these isles following adventures in Berlin, the Caribbean, California, Mexico, Guatemala, Salvador, Glasgow, Liverpool, Victoria and Melbourne. As war broke out across New Zealand the young von Tempsky traded the goldfields of the Coromandel for the battlefields of Taranaki. Despite one-fifth of the burgeoning colony’s population consisting of British soldiers, Māori allied to the Kīngitanga movement were proving a resilient, elusive foe to the Imperial Army. In response the Forest Rangers were formed to match Māori at their own guerilla game; it was within this elite irregular force that Von would make his name. The Forest Rangers were about as badass as their name suggests – today the SAS can trace their lineage to this group, and in the 1860s they became the heroes of the frontier. Abandoning redoubt building and marching for covert missions into the depths of enemy territory, they were rewarded with double rum rations, higher pay, and as Von’s carte-de-visits testify – fame.
Though his selfie output was decidedly less prolific than today’s teen, Von is captured in several carte-de-visits exhibiting his flair for fashion with Garibaldi shirts and out of the ordinary weaponry. His wife Amelia wrote to let him know “you are fast becoming the laughing stock of everyone with eccentricities of costume” (Von Tempsky’s Ghost, MP4). Other carte-de-visits and paintings capture him in full military costume, but none capture him in what he and his Forest Rangers became famed for fighting in – the rāpaki. Perhaps it was a vague wish to uphold some of the Victorian value placed on formality; whatever the reasons, Von’s calling cards did capture his outlandish appearance, but it was eyewitness recollections of his rāpaki battledress which cemented his reputation as an adaptive antipodean warrior.
Rāpaki is the noun which describes a Māori garment of woven harakeke worn from the waist to the knee. They were constructed from a woven base (kaupapa) which tags (hukahuka) were attached to [Fig. 2]. Māori had worn it for centuries, but the Forest Rangers were perhaps the first Pākehā to realise it was truly a garment honed for Aotearoa – and shed their trousers for what is effectively a skirt. An accurate point of adoption is untraceable, though eleven kūpapa (pro-government) Māori are recorded as serving in the Forest Rangers and could have instigated the move. Initially the Forest Rangers were issued with standard army uniforms, but in the wet bush they found their trousers quickly rotted and tore. So they improvised their own uniforms by wearing the rāpaki, subsequently enhancing their public image as that of a rough and ready band of adventurers.
Von Tempsky’s men succeeded where the British Army could not by adapting Māori methods of dress and warfare. Forest Ranger J.M. Roberts explained: “This [the tactics of the British commanders] was not the way of the colonial soldier who knew his business. We learned very early to look on a tree as a friend. If it could shelter a Māori it could also shelter us” (Cowan 25). British commanders dreaded the New Zealand bush, it was a terrain unfamiliar to them. Historian Danny Keenan explains: “The bush was just this great big primordial thing they were afraid of. It was so thick, so terrible” (Von Tempsky’s Ghost, MP4). They preferred to square up to their enemy on open ground where they were more comfortable in conflict. However for much of the New Zealand Wars the British were forced to toil over unmapped land in search of a flitting enemy, through unroaded swamps, bush, ranges, and unbridged rivers. Each man adorned with conspicuous red jackets, wrapped with radiant sashes and capped with shining regiment badge. Their army was slow to adapt and the British soldier stood out from the bush like a lighthouse in the dead of night.
The adoption of the rāpaki is a significant moment within the New Zealand Wars as it highlights a Pākehā concession to a Māori concept. Whilst the British were quick to recognize Māori chivalry and courage, they did not afford them recognition for military intelligence or technology. Within the New Zealand Wars the rāpaki can certainly be framed as technology: the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes. Just as the pā was constructed in rapport with the land, so Māori had conceived the rāpaki to be in harmony with the bush environment. The lightweight garment allowed the wearer to move quickly through the bush with an ease of movement incomparable to trousers; perhaps why Māori named Von Tempsky ‘Manurau’ (one hundred birds) for his ability to move through the bush like a flock of birds, seemingly being in many places at once.
The rāpaki shed water naturally but dried easily over a fire when saturated. Army issue trousers rotted, ripped and were difficult to repair by comparison. Importantly rāpaki allowed rapid crossing of rivers, streams and movement through swamp [Fig. 3]. Whereas trousers had to be rolled up, removed or worn heavy and soaking until dried. As weaving skills waned Māori and Pākehā replaced harakeke for woven wool in the form of blankets. Wrapped around the waist the tartan pattern of most contributed to their similarity in appearance to the Scottish kilt, both variants can be seen in later images of the Armed Constabulary. The transfer of a Māori form re-imagined with a Pākehā material – constitutes perhaps one of the first hybrid forms used by both cultures.
For most of New Zealand’s history the two primary cultures, Māori and Pākehā, have been separated in many ways. Conflict and confrontation has been more common than collaboration and reverence. Our relationship with the past has been an uneasy one, and the New Zealand Wars are remembered with less clarity and certainly less commemoration than wars fought elsewhere. Von and his Forest Rangers adaptation of the rāpaki, and its subsequent evolution of form is trivial within the wider context of the Wars. But it is one of many refutations to the belief that transfer of ideas and knowledge was a one way street – from Pākehā to Māori. Long held paradigms of materials, craft and conventions is upturned by an intimate understanding developed over decades, and acquired and tested within immediate environments.
The rāpaki is a salient sign of the true blurred nature of the New Zealand Wars. Neither side truly won or lost, and the sides themselves were often a tangle of Pākehā, Māori, Pākehā-Māori and kūpapa Māori [Fig 4]. At a singular time Māori and Pākehā alike utilised this bush fashion – woven from flax or wool, and paired with pounamu mere or Bowie knife. Conflict forced an eschewing of status quo for the best possible tools, forms and fashions taken and transformed from both cultures. Today, in a relative world of peace, this collaborative approach is surely a valuable weapon in forging a new New Zealand.
Cowan, James. “Famous New Zealanders: No. 11: Colonel J. M. Roberts, N.Z.C: The Story of the Forest Rangers,” The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10. Feb. 1, 1934.
Von Tempsky’s Ghost. Dir., Writ. John Milligan. 2002. NZ On Screen, 2011. MP4 File.