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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Missionaries of Matamata

page 14

The Missionaries of Matamata

MUCH has been written of the pioneer missionaries' life and work in North New Zealand, where there were many to chronicle the trials and successes of the Church toilers and where there was frequent contact with the outside world by ship. Conditions were very different in the interior of the country, in particular at Rotorua and the station established in the remote Maori stronghold that is now the beautiful and closely-settled district of Matamata. From a manuscript narrative left by the Rev. John Morgan, who was one of the founders of the Matamata mission station exactly a century ago, I take some extracts which give a picture of the troubles and perils of daily life in that savage corner of the land. A life of danger that was shared by the missionaries' brave wives who taught the school and strove to introduce some of the ways of civilisation into the Maori home.

A kind of forlorn hope; the station had to be abandoned through stress of war. But while it lasted it was a little epic of heroic effort, an enterprise of self-sacrifice and stout endurance in a barbarous place far from help. By comparison with this far-back outpost of the Church, the missionaries of the Bay of Islands, Waimate and Hokianga lived in luxury and perfect safety in the decade before the British flag went up.

At various times during the brief life of the mission, 1835–36, the Revs. John Morgan, Thomas Chapman, A. N. Brown and R. Maunsell had their wives with them at Matamata, and the missionaries J. Wilson Fairburn and Preece visited the place. Morgan and page 15 Chapman were there the whole time, and on them and their wives the chief burden rested. The church station at Puriri, on the Waihou River, was the base from which the advanced field post of the mission was established. The river was the only road. The mission was making good progress when the war of 1835 broke out, between the tribes of Waikato and Matamata on the one side and those of Rotorua and Tauranga on the other, and until at last the white pioneers sorrowfully abandoned the place and took canoe down the Waihou River they lived in the midst of armed camps and scenes of cannibalism. John Morgan's story is dipped into here by way of reminding readers that it was not always comfort and safety and butterfat at Matamata.

I pass over the more harrowing descriptions; Mr. Morgan could paint blood-curdling pictures. Here are some of the milder bits:—

“The little children have been fetched away from our schools to feast upon the bodies of the enemies carried home by the returning warriors. I have known about sixty bodies cooked in a day… . I have often seen that after feasting for several days upon human flesh, their (the warriors') eyes protrude exceedingly, and become bloodshot, and their countenances altogether assume a much more savage appearance.”

The great warrior chief Te Waharoa was then the supreme leader in the Matamata country. “On one occasion,” Mr. Morgan wrote, “I went down to Waharoa to converse with him, and endeavour to persuade him to give up the war, but it was like casting chaff before the whirlwind. The old savage thirsted for blood.” He told the missionary, “When I return you will see a pile of heads.”

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The missionary described the daily and nightly scenes at the Ngati-Haua pas at Matamata when the victorious war parties had returned from Rotorua after the fierce battles there in 1836: “All was bustle and excitement; every exertion was made to put the forts into a state to resist an invasion from the Rotorua tribes. After prayers all the mission natives returned for the night within the forts half a mile distant from our station. No one except the missionaries would sleep outside the stockades. As night came on the sound of the pahu, or war-gong, rang across the plain. The pahu was an oval of wood, partly hollowed in the centre, and suspended by cords on a stage 15 ft. or 20 ft. from the ground. It was beaten with a mallet by a man seated on the stage. The watchmen, or kai-whakaara, went their rounds, and with a loud voice called upon the people to watch lest they be surprised by the enemy. Young and old chiefs and slaves, of both sexes, assembled within the pas, and there danced their savage dances and made the air ring with their horrid yells and songs. Everything without reminded us that we were no longer in a Christian land.”

When the invading war parties arrived from the Arawa country the missionaries, though momentarily expecting to be attacked, resolutely stood their ground. Morgan and Brown packed a box containing changes of clothing for their wives and themselves and a few valued articles, and at night dug a deep hole in the station garden and buried the box, “which ere long might contain all we could call our own in this wilderness.” It was necessary to take up the box about once a week to air the clothing. This was done with the utmost caution, page 17 at daybreak, lest they should be discovered either by their friends or their enemies. “Our friends, if we except a few, would have dug up our little reserve behind our backs, but the enemy would have taken it before our eyes.”

“We found ourselves isolated in a savage land,” wrote Mr. Morgan in another letter. “Mrs. Maunsell and Mrs. Morgan were at Matamata, but they did not appear anxious for their personal safety, or desirous to be removed from that scene of strife and bloodshed. In fact, during the long season of anxiety and war through which we had to pass I never heard any of the wives of the missionaries regret that they had left their native land, the comfort and quiet of the family circle, to engage in mission labour and bear the heat and burden of the day in a foreign and savage land. On the contrary, they wished to work while it was called day, and endeavour by every means in their power to bear in company with their husbands their part in the labour of love and mercy. When the state of affairs became such that we deemed it our duty to remove them, they left their stations with regret, earnestly desiring the time when they should be recalled.”

When war parties from other tribes were roving the country, the missionaries were cut off from communication with their friends outside; they could not send out messengers without risk of being killed by the murdering parties who lurked in the bush and laid ambuscades on the tracks. On one occasion, when Mr. Morgan was taking his wife and the other women down to Puriri station, seventy miles away, for safety, he and his Maori party had to be very careful of their fires lest the page 18 prowling enemy should see them and come down on the party in the night. When they reached their canoe at Waiharakeke, on the Waihou (nine miles from Matamata), and made camp for the night, they dug a trench about three feet long and a foot deep, in which after dark they made a small fire and boiled their tea kettle and pot of potatoes. On the following night they made their camp in a well-hidden place in the bush near the right bank of the river, to the north of the place where the town of Te Aroha now stands.

On some of the journeys to and from the mission station the white women were carried in litters made of saplings laced with supplejack and flax, across the deep swamps between Matamata and the canoe landing. But the Maori carriers stipulated that if they were attacked by their foes on the way they would put their burdens down anywhere and escape, leaving the pakehas to look after themselves.

Te Aroha Mountain, looming so nobly over the plain, was a kind of bastion of safety to those danger-surrounded pioneers who sought with little success to change the heart of the savage. As they toiled through the deep swamps of flax and raupo toward the Waihou, never knowing when some band of warriors might descend on them, they ever looked toward the lofty “Mountain of Love,” feeling that once they had reached its base and camped on the eastern side of the river they would be safe.

In September of 1836 the final blow fell. A party of Ngati-Haua, led by a villainous fellow named Marupo, looted a large quantity of the missionaries' property which was being sent to the canoe landing at Waiharakeke page 19 for transport to the station down at Puriri. The savages also made a raid on the mission house and there was imminent danger for the pakehas and the Maori children under their charge. But Tarapipipi, Te Waharoa's peace-loving son (the afterwards famous Wiremu Tamehana), came to the rescue, and through his intervention much of the property was recovered from the pa to which it had been taken. The looters took strange liberties with some of the ladies' clothing which was being sent down to Puriri. “Our patience was tried,” Mr. Morgan wrote in his mournful way, “by some of the sights we saw.” A warrior who paraded in front of the party he was leading, dancing about and brandishing his gun, proudly wore a black silk bonnet belonging to Mrs. Chapman, tied under his tattooed chin. That and a strip of print tied round his neck formed the whole of his attire. Another of the robbers wore a missionary's white shirt. Tarapipipi rushed at him, and the shirt changed hands in a few moments. It may be imagined that any garments recovered were somewhat the worse for wear.

Some of the Rotorua chiefs had expressed their determination to destroy the stations at Tauranga and Matamata, and carry the missionaries and their families as prisoners to Mokoia Island in Rotorua lake. It came to pass that before the close of the long war, and after the Matamata mission had been abandoned, Mokoia of romantic memory was an isle of refuge for two years for Morgan and Chapman and their wives and children. The Rotorua tribes were then their friends; Mokoia was the only place where they could be secure from the expected attacks of the warriors of page 20 Matamata and Tauranga. But, for all its beauty and fertility, that island home was a place of some anxiety and privation. “We had scarcely settled ourselves on Mokoia,” Mr. Morgan wrote, “when the Rotorua tribes determined to reoccupy Maketu, from which they had been driven by Te Waharoa at the commencement of the war. That chief, on hearing of their determination, was much enraged, and this circumstance caused the war to be carried on with fresh vigour (1838–39). When journeying by land we and our natives were constantly exposed to danger. Sometimes it was necessary to travel by-paths to avoid the murdering parties from the enemy who were prowling about in the woods and concealed about the roads seeking whom they could devour. We also found it exceedingly difficult to get in supplies from the coast, and our natives brought them in at the risk of their lives. It was not unusual for us to be several weeks without flour, tea or sugar. Our little daughter cried for bread when we had not any to give her, and clapped her hands when, after a lapse of some weeks, she again saw a loaf. We could not carry out any particular plan in reference to our mission work, property was unsafe, and life, except on the Island, was in danger. Our situation on an island in an inland lake was very lonely.”

At last, in 1840, Chapman and Morgan decided that the time had come when they could establish a new station on the mainland. So, loading their canoes, they and their native helpers crossed to the eastern shore, where, at Te Ngae, they formed a station which became an oasis of cultivation and beauty in the wild country. One of the Morgan children had died on the Island. “The page 21 storm of war which had driven us to settle on Mokoia had passed away and we felt anxious to extend our missionary operations. It was with much labour that we formed our station on the margin of Rotorua Lake. Timber was sawn and the houses built and floored, chimney erected, fences put up and gardens and orchards laid out and planted. The Gospel continued to progress and murders became less frequent. The war parties decreased, and the old chiefs, instead of leading 500 or 800 warriors to battle could now scarcely raise from 100 to 200 men, and under such circumstances it was useless and impossible for them to carry on the war although there were some discontented and wicked spirits who wished to do so.”

So gradually ended that heroic phase of mission endeavour in the dangerous land, slowly but certainly giving place to an age of peace and civilised progress. Chapman carried on at Te Ngae; he and his wife were the apostles to the Arawa for nearly thirty years. John Morgan went to the Upper Waikato to take over the work begun there in the mid-Thirties. He was the teacher of the tribes of the Waipa district, with Te Awamutu as his station; he introduced English methods of agriculture into the Maori country; and the beautiful old churches of Selwyn-period architecture at Te Awamutu and Rangiaowhia remain as memorials to “Te Mokena,” though the Maori flocks who once worshipped there were dispersed and dispossessed, and only pakeha feet cross their thresholds to-day.