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The Old Frontier : Te Awamutu, the story of the Waipa Valley : the missionary, the soldier, the pioneer farmer, early colonization, the war in Waikato, life on the Maori border and later-day settlement

Chapter II — The Missionary Era.

page 11

Chapter II.

The Missionary Era.

It was the Rev. B. Y. Ashwell who chose the site of the mission station at Te Awamutu. This was in 1839. He had made a missionary reconnaissance of Upper Waikato with a view to establishing a station among the savage cannibals of the district, great warriors and apparently irreclaimable man-eaters, and in July of 1839 he returned to Otawhao to carry on the mission. Among Ngati-Ruru there were some who had already gained an inkling of the Rongo-Pai, the Good News, from native teachers, but the majority were pagan. Shortly after his arrival a war party of Ngati-Ruru, who had been away with Ngati-Haua and other tribes raiding the Arawa country, returned from the Maketu and Rotorua districts, under their chiefs Puata and Te Mokorou. The party was laden with human flesh; there were, as Mr Ashwell recorded, sixty pikau or flax baskets packed with the cut-up remains of their slaughtered foes. Then came a fearful feast on cooked man (kai-tangata).

Mr Ashwell induced many of Ngati-Ruru to leave Otawhao and establish a Christian pa, which was built on the ground now occupied by the old mission station and the Church of St. John's.

Mr Ashwell's establishment of the mission station at Te Awamutu marked the end of the cannibal wars and the periodical fighting expeditions of Waikato in the Rotorua and Bay of Plenty districts. The grim old warrior Mokorou became a follower of the missionary, and was baptised by the name of Riwai (Levi). Most of the people by this time had become tired of wars; there was a general longing for a more settled state of life and a desire to obtain pakeha commodities other than weapons and munitions of war. So Mr Ashwell soon had large and eager congregations, and his preaching of the Rongo-Pai fell on willing ears.

But it was Mr Ashwell's successor, the Rev. John Morgan, who truly civilised this Upper Waikato. Mr Ashwell had confined his teachings to the spiritual side. Mr Morgan took a more expansive view of his mission and his responsibilities. He introduced English methods of agriculture, brought in English fruit trees, taught the page 12 natives to grow wheat, and to grind it in their own water-mills. He it was who by his precepts and personal example made the natives of Te Awamutu, Rangiaowhia, Kihikihi, and Orakau a farming and fruit-growing people, with the result that long before the Waikato War adventurous travellers to this district found to their astonishment a series of eye-delighting oases in the wilds, with great fields of wheat, potatoes, and maize, and dwellings arranged in neat streets and shaded by groves of peach and apple-trees; each settlement with its water-driven flour-mill procured by the community and busily grinding into flour the abundant yield of the cornfields.

Mr John Morgan was a missionary of the London Mission Society, and had had some years' experience of the hazards of Christianising work on the Waihou, at Matamata, and at Rotorua. He and his brave wife lived in the midst of alarms, and more than once had to abandon their stations. In the most dangerous period of their life at Rotorua they had to take refuge, with the Rev. Thomas Chapman, of Te Ngae, on Mokoia Island, in the middle of the lake. After this sort of missionary pioneering it must have been a vast relief to Mr Morgan to receive orders in 1841 to take over the newly-established station at Te Awamutu. Here he carried on for more than twenty years, the religious teacher and counsellor and technical instructor for half a score of tribes in the Waipa basin. “Te Mokena” was in an infinite variety of ways the benefactor of his Maori flock; never did a missionary take a more liberal view of his duty to the native. In the later troubled days, when the war was looming and it was desirable that the Government authorities should be informed of the exact political conditions among the Maoris, he kept Governor Grey correctly advised of the views and intentions of the Kingites, and so came to be called “the watchman of the Waikato.”

At Wharepapa, the site of a one-time large Maori village on the south side of the Puniu, a few miles from Waikeria, I heard the story of “Mokena” and the “missionary grass.” Here Mr Morgan had a little native church in the days before the war, and on his travels from Te Awamutu through the Maori country he did not confine his sowing of the good seed to the Gospel brand. On his rides from kainga to kainga he took his dog, and to the dog's neck was tied a little bag filled with English clover-seed and grass-seed, which was allowed to drop out a seed at a time by a tiny hole.

In this way the pioneer missionary scattered seeds of civilisation page 13 which spread over many a part of this wild countryside. To this day in some of these old villages there is a beautiful sward that goes back to the good parson of Te Awamutu, and to Wharepapa not many years since the natives used to go for the seed of the “mission grass,” esteemed alike by Maori and pakeha for its making of pasture.

“Mokena's” fame hereabouts rests more, perhaps, on his thoughtful grass-sowing for future generations and on his practical teaching of English agriculture than on his preaching of the Faith to the Ngati-Maniapoto and Ngati-Ruru of the days before the War.