Rongowhakaata (Rongo) Halbert was born in Waerenga-a-Hika, Gisborne, the youngest and only surviving child of Hetekia Te Kani Pere and Riripeti Rangikohera Ranginui and grandson of politician Wi Pere. He was educated at Gisborne Central School, Gisborne High School and Nelson College. In 1915 he became a licensed interpreter and in the same year married Patehepa Tamatea. The couple went on to have seven children.
During his working career, Rongo worked for the Tairawhiti Native Land Court, was a dairy farmer at Pukepapa, and from 1925-1928 was employed by McCulloch Butler and Spence Chartered Accountants. He was a member of the Home Guard during the Second World War.
Rongo Halbert devoted much of his life to researching the history and whakapapa of the Bay of Plenty and East Coast tribes and regions. His written work was published in the Whakatane Historical Society’s Review and he also wrote a monograph on genealogies for the Society. His major work, published after his death, is Horouta: The History of the Horouta Canoe, Gisborne and East Coast. His daughter Nona Haronga writes: “For Rongo, what started with research into the history and genealogy of the family lands, found him devoting more and more time collecting, collating and writing history and genealogy involving the early Māori pioneers of the Gisborne/East Coast region. Although his desire was to see his book about the waka ‘Horouta’ completed in his lifetime, it was not to be.” Horouta: The History of the Horouta Canoe, Gisborne and East Coast was published in 1999.
Alongside his research and writing, Rongo served on various Māori Land Incorporations and had memberships on the Māori Purposes Fund Board, the Board of Māori Ethnological Research, and the Gisborne Art Gallery and Museum Board of which he chaired the Māori Museum Committee. He was an honorary Secretary of the Tairawhiti Māori Association, was a member of the Waerenga-a-Hika Trust Board and was secretary of Tairawhiti Native Interpreters’ Association. He was part of the team that worked on the sixth edition of the Williams Māori dictionary. He was a trustee and chair of the Wi Pere Trust Estate and a Māori adviser to the Gisborne Borough Council, New Zealand Geographical Board and Department of Education (Gisborne). He was a keen member of the Tairawhiti Historical Association and the Whakatane and District Historical Society. Rongo was also an active sportsman and was involved with golf, tennis, hockey and bowls. He died in Auckland on 11 April 1973.
Nona Haronga writes: “Rongo always signed himself R. W. Halbert but called himself Rongowhakaata Halbert”.
- Correspondence from Alan Haronga and Jerry Haronga, 31 August 2005.
- Correspondence from Nona Haronga, 1 August 1998. Phone conversation with Alan and Nona Haronga, 17 July 1998.
- Gordon, Peter. "Halbert, Rongowhakaata Pere 1894 – 1973." Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 7 July 2005.
- URL: http://www.dnzb.govy.nz/
- “Biography of Rongowhakaata Halbert.” Horouta: The History of the Horouta Canoe, Gisborne and East Coast. Prepared for publication by Te Nonoikura Haronga, Peter Gordon and the Rongo Halbert whanau. Auckland, N.Z.: Reed, 1999. 10-11.
- "Waituhi Pit Dwellings: History of Ramaroa Pa, Near Ormond. Life Near Gisborne Hundreds of Years Ago." Echoes of the Pa: Proceedings of the Tairawhiti Māori Association for the Year 1932. Gisborne: Tairawhiti Māori Association, Gisborne Publishing, 1933. 25-34.
- In this address given to the Tairawhiti Māori Association on 22 Feb. 1932, Halbert gives a detailed account of the series of single and double pits attached to Ramaroa Pa within the Waituhi Block which he argues are not kumara pits but residential dwelling pits. He compares these pits with similar ones in the Chatham Islands and in the Japanese Archipelago, and discusses the tribal history surrounding the construction of the pits at Ramaroa.
- "Te Tini o Toi." Historical Review: Bay of Plenty Journal of History 9.3 (1961): 66-116. Rpt. as Te Tini o Toi. [Whakatane]: Whakatane and District Historical Society, [1961?] Memoir (Whakatane & District Historical Society); no 1.
- This extensive paper published in Historical Review: Bay of Plenty Journal of History in 1961, was published separately as a Memoir of the Whakatane and District Historical Society. Index New Zealand’s online abstract states "Te Tini o Toi deals comprehensively with Bay of Plenty traditions and antiquities, Māori lore and whakapapa, based on recorded tradition and genealogical tables, and using statistical methods. Provides a framework for tribal history by focusing on the early stage of Tino o Toi occupation in the Bay of Plenty, which lasted until about the beginning of the sixteenth century. Covers the following: Toi I, Toitehuatahi (Toi II), the Aratauwhaiti migration, Toikairakau (Toi III), Nga Oho, the migrations Rangimatoru, Tokomaru, Karaerae, PaePae ki Rarotonga and Kurahaupo, Tini o Marangaranga, Nga Potiki, Tini o Kawerau, Arawa migration, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngai te Rangi, Aotea and Matawhaorua migrations, and Kupe. Also provides a chronological table, and many tables of whakapapa."
- "The Chronology of Māori History (Dr J. W. B. Roberton)." Historical Review: Bay of Plenty Journal of History 12.2 (1964): 85-91.
- A critique of Dr J.W.B. Roberton’s paper "The Chronology of Māori History" which was printed in Historical Review: Bay of Plenty Journal of History 11.4 (1963): 193-198.
- "The Chronology of Māori Tradition." Historical Review: Bay of Plenty Journal of History 12.4 (1964): 182-184.
- Halbert responds to Dr J. B. W. Roberton’s ongoing discussion on chronology in Historical Review: Bay of Plenty Journal of History 12.3 (1964): 139-143.
- "The Mataatua Migration." Historical Review: Bay of Plenty Journal of History 13.1 (1965): 15-26.
- Horouta: The History of the Horouta Ccanoe, Gisborne and East Coast. Prepared for publication by Te Nonoikura Haronga, Peter Gordon and the Rongo Halbert whanau. Auckland, N.Z.: Reed, 1999.
- This text has been drawn from three main collections of papers that Halbert spent many years working on: a manuscript called "Horouta", 130 complete whakapapa charts, and a series of maps recording all his references.
- [Notes on Māori carved houses, in letters to W.J. Phillipps from Sir Apirana Ngata and Rongo W. Halbert] Apirana Turupa Ngata, 1943. Held at Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand.
- 7 leaves, 1 folded leaf of plates and genealogical table.
- Phillipps, W. J. "Carved Māori Houses of the Eastern Districts of the North Island." Records of the Dominion 1.2 (1944): 69-119.
- In this extensive account of carved meeting houses on the East Coast, W. J. Phillipps notes the "invaluable assistance" of Halbert in taking him "to a number of houses off the beaten track in the Poverty Bay area". Phillipps also acknowledges that Halbert provided the accounts in the text of Hamokorau and Poho o Mahaki meeting houses, that he translated an extract from "The Erection of Church Houses at Manutuke’ Pipiwharauroa 117 (1913), and that he also provided whakapapa tables. Sir Apirana Ngata also gave assistance to this publication.
- "Kaputerangi-Toi’s Pa." Historical Review: Journal of the Whakatane and District Historical Society 10.1 (1962): 18-19.
- Ilolahia, Nevak. "The History of Horouta: Detectives at Work." Mana: The Māori News Magazine for All New Zealanders 27 (1999): 66-68.
- Gordon, Peter. "Obituary." Gisborne Herald 12 Apr. 1973: 16.
- Journal of the Tauranga Historical Society 47 (1973): 18.
- The death is reported of a well-known Māori chief, Rongo Halbert, of Gisborne. As a Māori historian and genealogist, Mr Halbert has made a great contribution in this field. Some of his work has appeared in the Whakatane Historical Society’s Review; he also wrote a monograph on genealogies for that Society.
- "Notes and News." Historical Review 21.2 (1973): 138.
- It is with sadness that we record the loss of several members of the Society this year. Firstly, just as the last issue of the REVIEW was in the printer’s hands we learned of the death of a good friend and staunch member, Mr Rongo W. Halbert, Gisborne, who joined the Society in 1955 only three years after its formation. Mr Halbert was a Māori historian of outstanding ability and we were favoured by several Papers from his pen, his reference to Toi-kai-rakau and the Mataatua Canoe broke entirely new ground; they gave much food for thought, especially those who adhered to the traditional concept concerning the Canoe and its passage to New Zealand. The deceased was a prominent member of the Māori Purposes Board.
- Akuhata-Brown, Kathryn. "Significant Record for Horouta Descendants." Turanganui a Kiwa Pipiwharauroa 68 (1999): 7.
- "Respected Local Tribal Leader and Historian Remembered." Herald 29 Apr. 1999: Sup.3.
- Walsh, Kristine. "One of Centuries (Century’s) Major Tribal Histories Launched." Herald 11 May 1999: 3.