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Sir Donald Maclean

Chapter VII — Taking the Tapu off a Road — A West Coast Episode

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Chapter VII
Taking the Tapu off a Road
A West Coast Episode

The hard, smooth sand extending from Mokau Heads southward to Taranaki was the great Maori highway in peace and war. The Waikato war parties invading the southern parts of the island came down the Mokau River from Totoro in canoes and from the South Head marched to Waitara most of the way along the beach. One of the old Ngati-Maniapoto warriors who fought the British soldiers in Taranaki in 1860, told me of the swiftness with which his company of gun-and-tomahawk men travelled in their eagerness to reach the battleground. The canoe passage down the Mokau was done in one day, and the forced march along the beach also took only one day.

It was easy for hostile tribes to bar that beach way. In later times when the Government built a redoubt at Pukearuhe (“Fernroot Hill”), a commanding cliff-top post near the famous White Cliffs, the garrison of the fort blocked the way at a place where the precipice fell directly to the sea, and the only path was a zigzag track up the cliff for some three hundred feet. The great white cliff of Pari-ninihi (pari means cliff and ninihi is lofty) was a barrier that could not be passed except when the tide was low; it towered for 800 feet above the surf.

Sometimes a chief of high mana raised another kind of barrier, none the less formidable because it was invisible. A tapu was laid on the beach road by the great chief Taonui, of the Mokau country, in 1846. This tapu interfered with peaceful travel and trade along the coast and was likely to cause a little war between Taranaki and the Ngati-Maniapoto.

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The origin of the trouble was a trifling matter in itself, as was often the way in Maori quarrels. It was all over a few pigs. Taonui's people at Mokau had sent down some pigs for sale or barter in Taranaki and these precious pigs, transported first by canoe and then driven grunting along the beach, were delivered into the hands of a European living at Tongaporutu, and a minor chief seized them because of some indebtedness. It was all very complicated and so very Maori that it was not easy to unravel.

Two factions were in fighting temper and on top of this came the tapu. No more pig-trading parties were permitted to use the beach, and as the new pakeha town of New Plymouth was the principal market for pigs on the west coast, and was the treasure-house of pakeha goods, and as it was no use going to Taranaki without a pig or two to sell, the closed road was a serious matter.

The tapu was presently tightened up until it applied to all travellers.

The missionary at Mokau Heads, the Rev. C. H. Schnackenberg (whose name the Maoris wisely simplified to “Henare”), wrote to Mr. Maclean about the tapu, and the young officer of the Government decided to make a trip up to the Mokau himself and deal with the trouble. He knew by experience how small quarrels quickly became serious inter-tribal feuds.

In January, 1846, he tramped up the coast to Taonui's country. He found when he arrived at Mokau that the trouble had advanced a stage further because of a curse—a Maori wizardly curse—which had been uttered by some Taranaki chief. Kanga is the term for such a curse. It consisted of comparing a chief's head to a stick of tobacco, a pig, or anything else which had to do with food. Taonui so strictly enforced the tapu that it now applied to Europeans as well as Maoris, and a Mr. Thatcher and the native constable and mail carrier to Auckland were stopped and sent back by one of the Mokau chiefs, who met them halfway along the beach.

Maclean took Thatcher with him to Mokau to forward him on his journey. He was accompanied by a party of the North Taranaki Maoris, who at his suggestion, took page 33 gifts wherewith to appease the wounded honour of the proud Taonui, and pay for the obnoxious words uttered. The payment they had collected consisted of £8 9s. 8d. in cash, two single-barrel guns, 100 figs of tobacco, four greenstone pendants, four coloured handkerchiefs, two “roundabouts” (loose brightly coloured blouses for the ladies), and one axe. That was the mollifying offering to be laid at Taonui's feet.

On the journey to the Mokau from New Plymouth, it was a day's travel from New Plymouth to the Mimi River, where the tapu commenced. Beyond there, on the next day's tramp, there were some dangerous and damp adventures in rounding the points where the surf came in to the base of the cliffs.

“We had a good ducking in the salt water,” Maclean wrote in his diary. At Tongaporutu, where they camped that night, they met the warrior chief Tikaokao, who welcomed Maclean. Maclean urged that whatever the Maoris might do among themselves in regard to a tapu on roads, they should not interfere with Europeans. He narrated how he had done away with tapus in various other parts of the Island.

Next day Te Ari, one of the chiefs, carried Maclean across the Mohakatino River on his back.

At the Mokau most of the chiefs were met, and although Taonui was up the river the messages left for him and the speeches of his leading men ensured that pakehas at any rate would not be stopped by the tapu. The return walk to Taranaki was stormy and often perilous, but journey's end was reached with the knowledge that the object of the trip had been attained.

The tapu presently was lifted altogether, and pigs as well as their owners and pakeha travellers could tread the sacred sands unmolested.