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Sir Donald Maclean

The Death of Te Heuheu

The Death of Te Heuheu

On 21 May 1846, Maclean wrote in his diary when camped at Upoko-ngaro, Wanganui: “Heard guns firing. A report that they were fired in consequence of old Heuheu, the chief of Taupo, being capsized in a canoe.” (This was not correct). “It is feared he might have been destroyed by a taniwha, or god of the water, on the Taupo Lake. It is wonderful to find the sensation this fine old veteran chief of the interior causes at such a remote distance from his place—regretted by all, and not by any more so than myself. The lovely valleys of Wanganui resound with guns. This year will form a singular epoch in New Zealand history, so many of its renowned old chiefs have died.”

A few days later the facts about the great chief's tragic end reached Wanganui. Maclean wrote on 26 May:

“It is with very deep regret that I hear of the death of the fine old chief, Heuheu. I may indeed say that the very page 26 pride and boast of New Zealand chieftains is now gone, nor will successive generations replace this with a more intelligent or well-disposed man, well versed in every tradition and history of his country's people, as well as the productions of the country, of all of which, from the largest tree to the smallest shrub, he had some tradition or knowledge. He was a skilful botanist, and knew the physical uses of many herbs and plants. Nor was he ignorant of the insects and birds of the country. What an irreparable loss to the Island! Would that I had half of his knowledge committed to paper. I would make a greater sacrifice to obtain what I shall never have another opportunity of knowing. This noble chief lost his life at his residence, Te Rapa, on the Taupo Lake, where he was with his wife and clever son, and fifty of his tribe, sunk in a land-slip. The natives suppose this to be the work of a taniwha or god, over whom old Heuheu had influence; but it is to be hoped that the God of Gods has not forsaken him, and that he is removed where superstition and heathenism are alike unknown. His brother, Iwikau, has written a letter to Mr. Taylor. He states that, as his brother died evincing friendship to all parties, he should now give up his warfaring propensities, and abide by his brother's disposition. The death of Heuheu causes a sensation of grief throughout the Wanganui River, more particularly amongst the Patutokotoko tribe, who were closely allied to him. The females of the tribe have decorated themselves with feathers, the mourning worn by New Zealanders.”

The village Te Rapa, where the elder Heuheu and his people to the number of fifty-two were overwhelmed by a huge slide of earth and rocks and trees, stood in a position inviting disaster, below the steam-soaked hillside of Hipaua, with its hundreds of boiling springs. The landslide occurred in a storm in the midnight hours, when the flooded stream Wai-mataii burst its banks in the hot spring valley and descended in a cataract of ruin. Only two people escaped. Iwikau with his section of the tribe was not involved in the disaster; his home was on a hill pa about a mile away.