The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1 (April 1, 1935)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 25 — Brave Women: Two Heroic Figures. Ahumai Te Paerata, And Julia Matenga
Lord Bledisloe, in his capacity of Governor-General, untiringly urged the people of New Zealand to make a study of their stirring history, and he reminded his listeners that the Dominion had possessed heroes and heroines whom posterity at any rate would honour as having illuminated the country's national story. His advice cannot be repeated too often, for the young generation especially is apt to imagine, from its popular reading and the cinema, that one must go abroad for great stories of adventure, of frontier life and of heroic endurance and endeavour. The fine things of our past are too little known; the teaching of New Zealand history is insufficiently attended to in our schools. If ever there was a country that developed the spirit of the frontier and the life on the edge of peril and romance it is New Zealand. The episodes here narrated are selected as examples of the brave and self-sacrificing character of many New Zealand women who played a truly heroic part in the face of death on land and sea.
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 through the back country were accompanied by hazard, can appreciate thoroughly the trials and dangers to which many frontier women were exposed. But the new generation cannot know of 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 Women of the Farms.
The wives and daughters of the outback farmers had their anxious days and nervous nights, in the period of raids and alarms. Many a frontiers-woman had cause to dread the bush or the high fern that grew close up to their homes, and masked the movements of Maori hostiles.
I was once asked by a correspondent whether a woman had ever won the Victoria Cross or the New Zealand Cross in New Zealand. He was under the impression that one of the women in the Poverty Bay massacre had been awarded the Cross for her services, the wife of an officer who was killed on that red morning. This, of course, was not so; the War regulations did not recognise women as combatants or even as nurses, in the Maori Wars; at any rate they received no service decorations. That is not to say that the women did not earn a medal then, as our nurses did many a year later in the Great War. Many of them fully earned the Victoria Cross or its equivalent. But there were no decorations and no mention in despatches for the brave women of the frontier.
Many a Maori woman deserved a war medal for deeds of courage, even in the firing line. The white 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, and sometimes using a gun. Some of, those who served in the last Hauhau wars in their young days are still living. The lately dead Heni Pore, the heroine of the Gate Pa in 1864, who fought in 1865 on the Government side, used her rifle and also played a man's part with a spade in one of the Arawa saps before the Hauhau Pa at Te Teko. She fully earned a medal and a war pension, if such rewards had been for the women. 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 page 21 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.
The Heroine of Orakau.
But the shining example of woman's heroism in my mind just now is Ahu-mai te Paerata, whose deeds of noble courage were twofold; she fought for her national cause and she saved a pakeha's life when no other arm was stretched out to defend him. Ahumai of Orakau—she is one of those whose names will never die in our country's story.
Ahumai and her brother Hitiri te Paerata were the only survivors of their family at Orakau. Her father, brother and uncle fell on the battlefield. Her husband was killed soon after she had delivered her reply to the British request that the women and children should be sent out of the beleagured redoubt so that they would not meet the fate of the men. Major Mair (who was a young officer in the Cavalry Defence Force at Orakau) gave me the actual words of his request, as interpreter, when the warriors of the Pa had refused to surrender. He called out to the garrison, from the head of the sap:
“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!”)
Ahumai Saves a Pakeha's Life.
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.
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 just a decrepit old wahine, without any story to speak of. But in Ahumai I recognised a truly heroic spirit who could face death without flinching, and defy her people to 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.
Huria Matenga, the Brave Swimmer.
The second subject in this sketch of courageous women is Huria (Julia) Matenga, the young chieftainess of Whakapuaka, on the Nelson coast, whose bravery and humanity at the wreck of the Delaware in 1863 earned her the admiration and praise of both races. She came to be called “New Zealand's Grace Darling.” She was foremost in saving a distressed crew at the risk of her life, in a stormy sea, and her deed of bravery even excelled that of the plucky English girl who rowed off to a wreck with her father, braving the gale to save the perishing.
Julia Matenga, whose Maori name is the native form of both Marsden and Martin, was the wife of a young half-caste chief named Hemi Matenga (James Martin), who had been named after Sir William Martin, one-time Chief Justice of the Colony. They were each about twenty-eight years of age, a handsome couple, tall and stalwart, and they were both strong swimmers. I have never seen a more admirable specimen of the athletic pakeha-Maori blend than Hemi Matenga, erect and straight-backed and powerful even in his seventies. His beautiful wife was the granddaughter of a renowned warrior, Te Puoho, of the Ngati-Toa, the great Rauparaha's tribe (His amazing march from the Nelson country down the West Coast and into Otago and Southland is narrated in the book “Tales of the Maori Bush”). Hemi and Huria lived on their farm at Whakapuaka, near where the cable-station was afterwards established.
The Wreck of the Delaware.
Early on the morning of September 4, 1863, the Maoris saw a vessel lying wrecked on the rocks off Whakapuaka. This was the Delaware, an English bri-gantine of 241 tons, a new vessel recently out from London; she had sailed from Nelson the previous day for Napier. A strong gale was blowing, and in endeavouring to beat out against it the vessel was driven on the rocks, about 100 yards from the cliffs, where she lay with the seas sweeping over her. The mate made ready to swim ashore with a line, but a sea caught him and dashed him on a rock, and he was hauled back badly injured. The natives on shore saw the wrecked craft, and several of them hurried along the beach until they reached the nearest point to the Delaware, eager to succour those in distress; some of them lit a fire on the shore and prepared for the reception of the imperilled mariners.
The three who came to the help of the crew were Julia Matenga, her husband and a man named Hohapeta Kahupuku. One of the crew threw a light rope, a lead-line, overboard, and Julia and the two men threw off their clothes and swam out, in spite of the great seas. They had no canoe or boat, but no small craft could have lived in that boiling surf. A terrifying sea was rolling in before the N.E. gale and breaking over the brigantine.
The three Maoris had a desperate struggle; it seemed half-an-hour before they were near enough to get the line which the sailor had thrown out. A rope was bent on to the ship's end of this line, and the Maoris hauled it ashore; the ship's end was made fast to one of the masts and the Maoris secured the other to a boulder on the narrow beach at the foot of the cliffs. Julia was the foremost of the swimmers and was the first to grasp the lead-line which the sailor threw. The swimmers dived under the great rollers that came roaring in
Helping the Crew to Land.
The line between ship and shore having been hauled taut, all but one of the crew struggled to the land holding to the rope, assisted by the three Maoris. This was a task of great difficulty. As each man neared the beach the Matengas and their companions rushed out, sometimes up to their necks in the surf, sometimes swimming, and helped him to the beach. All this time the line was being chafed through by the sharp rocks and it parted just as the last man to leave the wreck, the captain (Robert Baldwin), reached the land.
One life only was lost. The mate, a young Englishman named Henry Squirrell, had made a gallant attempt to swim to the beach with a line soon after the vessel struck, but he was badly hurt and was laid in a bunk apparently dead. But after all the others were safe on shore, they were amazed and greatly distressed to see him climb into the fore-rigging and wave for help. Hemi Matenga asked the captain, “Why did you not tell me there was still one of your men on board?” The Maoris would have brought him on shore had they known but now it was quite impossible, the tide was rising, and the seas were thundering right over the brigantine. The poor mate was washed off and drowned.
So all hands but one were rescued, thanks to the fearless and powerful Maori swimmers. Julia and her men were very much cut and bruised by the rocks, in their efforts to get the sailors to the shore, and Hemi Matenga related afterwards that when he rode the twenty miles into Nelson town to report the wreck he was scarcely able to sit his horse.
Maori Bravery Recognised.
The Nelson townspeople were greatly excited by the news of the Delaware wreck and the rescue by the Maoris. A fund was immediately raised, and a public presentation was made to the three swimmers. Julia and her husband each received an inscribed gold watch, and their companion, a youth, and the helpers on the shore each were given a silver watch. Sums of money were also presented to them. Julia's portrait hangs in the Nelson Art Gallery, and under it is this inscription:
“In Public Recognition of the Brave Deeds of Huria Matenga, Chieftainess of the Ngati-Awa, Ngati-Tama and Ngati-Toa Tribes, who, in company with her husband, Hemi Matenga, at risk of life swam for a rope through a stormy sea, thereby saving the lives of the crew of the Delaware, wrecked at Whakapuaka, September 3, 1863.”
The portrait of Julia Matenga which illustrates this article is from the painting by G. F. Lindauer in the Partridge collection of notable Maoris, in the Auckland Municipal Art Gallery. The brave woman of Whakapuaka died at her home there in 1909. Her stalwart husband followed her in 1912, at the age of seventy-seven. Hemi, who was half-brother of Wi Parata Kaka-kura, the chief of Waikanae, was a fine figure of a man to the last, lean and erect. When I last talked with him in Wellington he was on his way, notwithstanding his three score and fifteen years, to Matata, in the Bay of Plenty, duck-shooting, a sportsman to the end. Only a little while previous to our meeting he had rescued a Nelson man from drowning, near the very same place where he and his wife had saved the despairing crew of the Delaware forty-six years before.