Hero Stories of New Zealand
Two Heroic Figures: Ahumai Te Paerata and Huria Matenga
Two Heroic Figures: Ahumai Te Paerata and Huria Matenga
THE courage and devotion of our New Zealand women, both pakeha and Maori, in the pioneer era of this Colony, have perhaps not been recognised adequately by those who followed after them in the days of peace when the rough places had been made smooth and the frontiers of settlement obliterated. Those whose memories carry them back to the times when there was a “furthest out,” when work on the land and travel were alike hazardous, know of the trials and dangers to which many frontier women were exposed. But the new generation cannot know these things at first hand; the times have changed, and New Zealanders, present and future, must rely on printed records, and these are all too few so far as the adventurous phases of Colonial life are touched upon. The real history of New Zealand was not made in the towns or in Parliament, but on the farms and the long, irregular border lines where Maori and pakeha touched each other, sometimes with friendly hands, sometimes at short rifle range or the point of the bayonet, or the swing of a tomahawk.
The wives and daughters of the outback farmers had their anxious days and nervous nights, in the period of raids and alarms. Many a frontierswoman had cause to dread the bush or the high fern that grew close up to the home, and masked the movements of Maori hostiles.
Many a Maori woman deserved a war medal for deeds of courage, even in the firing line. The white page 112 woman did not take the fighting trail, but Maori wives and sisters, and even grey-haired mothers, often accompanied their men in the field, carrying ammunition and food and attending to the cooking. When Te Kooti, in 1870, attacked the Government camp at Tapapa—close to the present motor road from Matamata over the Mamaku hills to Rotorua—the wife of Pehimana, a Nga-Rauru chief, turned imminent defeat into victory by her inspiring example. Her tribe were serving on the Government side. She climbed up on a whata, a high food platform, and waving her shawl she shouted her rallying cries, calling on her people to turn and charge. They did so, and Te Kooti's men were driven off. “Not a rap did she care for the bullets,” said Lieut.-Colonel McDonnell afterwards. But there was no medal for Mrs. Pehimana. Some of those who used to be called the “sterner sex” have earned crosses and D.S.O.'s for less.
“E pai ana tera mo koutou tangata; engari kaore e pai kia mate ai nga wahine me nga tamariki. Tukuna mai era.” (“That is well for you men; but it is not right that the women and children should die. Send them out to us.”)
A young woman of noble and fearless bearing stood up on the firing-step inside the earth parapet and cried to Mair:
“Ki te mate nga tane, me mate ano nga wahine me nga tamariki!” (“If the men are to die, the women and children will die also!”)
That was the final word of the defenders. Mair did not know then who the woman was, but soon after the war he discovered she was Ahumai. Indeed she was not a woman to be forgotten. She bore to her last days the marks of Orakau. On that fatal second of April, 1864, she suffered terrible wounds. She was shot in the right side, the bullet going through her body and coming out on her left side. She was shot through the right shoulder; the bullet went out at her back. She was also hit in the wrist, hand and arm. Yet wounded almost unto death as she was, she struggled through the swamp of death that lay between the Orakau ridge and the Puniu River, the line of retreat on which scores of her comrades were killed. She survived, she reached her distant home at Waipapa, near Lake Taupo, with her gallant brother Hitiri te Paerata and the mournful remnant of her tribes, the Ngati-Te-Kohera and the Ngati-Raukawa.page 114
In the year after Orakau Ahumai's tribe had become Hauhaus and were desperately eager to obtain revenge for their losses at Orakau. She was with them at a small village on the bush edge near Oruanui (on the present road from Atiamuri to Taupo) when an adventurous white man rode in to the settlement. He was Lieutenant Meade, of H.M.S. Curacoa; he had been escorted to Taupo by Major Mair, and was returning to Rotorua with a Maori guide. The fierce old chief and priest of the tribe, Te Ao Katoa (a big name—“The Whole World”) was leading the people in the ritual of the fanatic war-faith Pai-Marire, the chanting and processions round the Niu, the sacred flag-pole of worship. The tohunga seized the occasion to demand the sacrifice of the pakeha to the Hauhau war gods. A Maori stood behind the white man with a ready tomahawk, awaiting the word to strike. Meade, who sat on a log with his guide, was ready, for his part, to fire his hidden revolver through his coat if the executioner raised his tomahawk. But this would have availed him little in the midst of those armed men. The wild service ended; a council of war began; it looked dark indeed for the white man in the midst of his enemies.
But at the height of the barbarous council, a woman, wrapped in a shawl, rose from the seated crowd. She walked slowly across the marae. Without a word she sat down at the young Naval officer's feet. She was Ahumai; her wounds at Orakau scarcely yet healed. She had abundant reason for bitterness of soul. Yet she was generous enough to forgive all that, and risk the anger of her tribe, to champion the friendless pakeha when the grave was opening for him.page 115
Her silent act of succour and her high tribal rank saved Meade's life. He and his guide were allowed to leave the village; they rode off with thankful hearts from the nest of Hauhaus where they had all but resigned themselves to death.
Europeans at Taupo long years afterwards sometimes saw the tattooed white-haired dame as she hobbled into the township for her old-age pension. The stray traveller perchance would see in her merely a decrepit old wahine. But in Ahumai I recognised a truly heroic spirit who could face death without flinching, and defy her people so that she could save a friendless man of her enemies from the tomahawk. Ahumai died at Mokai, near Taupo, in 1908. Her warrior brother Hitiri, whom I knew very well and from whom I heard much of the history of Orakau, was not long in following her to the Reinga.*
* Lieutenant Meade wrote a book narrating his adventures in New Zealand and the South Seas (“A Ride Through the Disturbed Districts of New Zealand”), and illustrated it with some of his sketches. There is a small drawing of the scene in the bush village where he so nearly fell a sacrifice to the Hauhau spirit of war.