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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 IV — The Golden Age Before the War.

page 18

Chapter IV.

The Golden Age Before the War.

The period from about 1845 to 1860 was the era of peaceful progress and industry among Waikato and Ngati-Maniapoto. It was not until the latter year that the outbreak of the Taranaki War, the forerunner of that in Waikato, interrupted the new and profitable era of wheat-growing and flour-milling and the pleasures of the annual canoeing expeditions down the Waipa and Waikato to the city markets.

These farm-settlements of Morgan's making were in what may be called their zenith of prosperity in the year 1852, when prices for produce were high. In February of that year a visit was paid to Te Awamutu and Rangiaowhia by a party of travellers from Auckland and Onehunga, among whom was young Heywood Crispe, later a well-known Mauku settler and volunteer rifleman. Describing long afterwards this memorable Waikato expedition, Mr Crispe said, after narrating that the canoe voyage ended at Te Rore, on the Waipa:

“I can well remember the first sight we got in the distance of the steeple of the church at the Rev. Mr Morgan's mission station at Te Awamutu, for some of the party were getting a bit tired when it came into sight, and it seemed to put new life into them. The natives at Rangiaowhia had made preparations for a goodly party, as they had two days' racing in hand. They allotted to us a large, newly-erected whare, the floor being covered with native mats, and it was on them that we indulged in sweet sleep. There was a line of whares erected on the crown of Rangiaowhia Hill, from which we could obtain a fine view of the surrounding country, and it all had a grand appearance in our eyes. There was a long grove of large peach trees and very fine fruit on them. Such a waste of fruit it seemed to us, but of course they were of no value there. One never sees such trees of peaches now. We, the Europeans, must be the cause by the importation of pests from other countries. A large portion of the ground round the hill was carrying a very good crop of wheat, for the Maoris believed in that as a crop, and they used to convert it into flour at the various flour-mills they had. It was of a very good quality, and some of the Waikato mills had a name for page 19 the flour they produced, a good deal of which was put on the Auckland market, being taken down the Waikato, via Waiuku and One-hunga. It had taken our canoe party about three weeks to reach this, our journey's end, but there was no iron horse then by which to make a rapid journey. Now it is only part of a day's journey to get to the same spot.

“We spent several days in our camp on the Rangiaowhia Hill, taking walks and viewing the country. We attended the races, which afforded some good sport, all being managed by the natives, assisted by some pakeha-Maoris of the neighbourhood. They were white men living a Maori life. Some of them had been well-brought-up young men, rather wild perhaps, who had drifted away from home and had taken up an idle life among the natives, getting regular remittances from their people at Home.

“The Maoris provided all their pakeha friends with a most excellent meal on the ground, and peaches galore, as well as horses to ride. We rode some distance round to view the country, the Maori flour-mills, and cultivation. There were a lot of good cattle and horses about, and the crops of wheat and patches of potatoes were particularly good, although no bonedust was used in those days. The Roman Catholics had a very nice place of worship at Rangiaowhia, where regular worship was conducted. There were mission stations all up the Waikato and Waipa Rivers in those days, and as far as Te Awamutu.”

Everywhere the Maoris of those days showed the travellers on their six weeks' trip the greatest hospitality. On the canoe voyage the pakehas called in here and there at native settlements and got a supply of pork, potatoes, and peaches.

When the aged Potatau te Wherowhero was made Maori King (1858) there were great gatherings at Ngaruawahia and Rangiaowhia. At the latter place the Europeans in the district—the mission people, the traders, and artisans—were invited to the festivities. The abundance of food at Rangiaowhia was probably the reason why that large village of Ngati-Apakura was selected as one of the principal gathering places of the Waikato in 1858–60. Rangiaowhia in those days was a beautiful place, with its comfortable thatched houses, shaded by groves of peach and apple trees, dotted along the crown of a gently-sloping hill, among the fields of wheat, maize, potatoes, and kumara, and its flour-mills in the valley. On the most commanding mound was the Roman Catholic Church in front of page 20 Hoani Papita's home; a few hundred yards to the south was the English Church, locally greatly admired because of its large stained-glass window, sent out from England by Bishop Selwyn. The Maori congregations have vanished long ago, and the pre-war whare-karakia are used by the white settlers.

A pioneer colonist, Mrs B. A. Crispe, widow of the late Heywood Crispe, the only survivor of the Europeans who witnessed the gathering, recalls some of the scenes in the Rangiaowhia of 1858, when she was a girl at school at Mr Morgan's mission station at Te Awamutu. She describes the venerable Potatau as a feeble old man with his face completely tattooed; he wore a long black coat and a dark cloth cap with a gold band round it.

Mrs Crispe has memories of the Upper Waikato district as it was toward the end of the Fifties, before the Kingite war had destroyed the prosperous agricultural life of the Maoris, who then constituted the whole population of the interior with the exception of a few missionaries and their families and several traders and other pakeha-Maoris. Mrs Crispe, who was the daughter of Mr Mellsop, a pioneer settler of the Mauku district, was taken up by her father to the Rev. John Morgan's mission station at Te Awamutu—in those days usually called Otawhao, after the old pa. She was then a young girl, and she was placed with the Morgans to be educated; schooling for children was a difficult problem with the back-blocks settlers in those days. All communication with the Waikato and Waipa country was carried on by canoe, for there were no roads into the interior until the troops opened up the country in the Waikato War. In about 1858 the Mellsops embarked at Waiuku and passed through the narrow and crooked Awaroa Creek in kopapa, or small canoes, the only craft which could navigate this stream, connecting the Manukau harbour with the Waikato River. In the Waikato they transferred to a large canoe, about sixty feet long, well loaded with goods from Auckland for the mission station and the Maori settlements. Their Maori crew paddled them up to Te Rore, on the Waipa; the voyage occupied three days. Two nights were spent in camp on the Waikato banks; the third day was spent in working up the Waipa River from its junction with the Waikato at Ngaruawahia. From Te Rore the party rode across the plain to Te Awamutu. Here Mrs Crispe spent two years at school.

The farming missionary had succeeded in giving the wilds of Te Awamutu a thoroughly settled and home-like appearance, with page 21 wheat fields enclosed by hedges of hawthorn. The wheat grown by the natives in the Rangiaowhia-Te Awamutu district was ground at the mills, bagged, and sent down to the white settlements for sale. The flour-bags were sewn by the native girls in Mrs Morgan's sewing class at the mission boarding school; and when the flour was being ground there would be sewing-bees at the mills, where the girls stitched up the bags as they were filled. The flour was carted in bullock drays to Te Rore, where it was loaded into canoes. The cargoes were paddled down the Waipa and Waikato, along the Awaroa to Waiuku, there loaded into a cutter for Onehunga, and finally carted across the isthmus to Auckland town, a journey of over a hundred miles from the Rangiaowhia water-mills. The Maoris would invest the proceeds in clothes, blankets, tea, sugar, and all kinds of European goods, and then begin their homeward journey. Time was no object in those golden years, and a marketing party from Rangiaowhia and Te Awamutu would sometimes spend several weeks on the trip, returning with pakeha commodities to delight the hearts of their families and endless tales of all the sights they had seen in the distant town.

An incident of the visits to Rangiaowhia over sixty years ago is recalled by Mrs Crispe. She and the Morgan girls noticed a peach tree loaded with great white korako in an enclosure near the English Church, and presently they were enjoying a feast of fruit. A Maori woman came up to them in great alarm and told them that they must not touch the peaches; the tree was tapu, and she was afraid that the fruit would kill them as it assuredly would have killed any Maori who ate it. It often happened that the choicest fruit trees were under the ban of tapu for some reason, such as the recent death of the owner.

In front of Mr Morgan's mission house at Te Awamutu there was a row of almond trees. These almonds—so seldom seen in a New Zealand orchard now—were widely distributed among the natives; hence the remarkably large trees, up to about thirty feet in height, which grew on the old Maori cultivations at Orakau and elsewhere, and survived long after the land had been confiscated by the Crown and settled by white farmers.

Dr Ferdinand von Hochstetter, the famous Austrian geologist, on his expedition through the interior of the North Island in 1859, admired the settled aspect of Te Awamutu and the neighbouring country. He made an ascent of Mount Kakepuku, setting out from page 22 the Rev. Alexander Reid's Wesleyan mission station at Te Kopua, and from the summit viewed the valley of the Waipa: “The beautiful, richly-cultivated country about Rangiaowhia and Otawhao lay spread out before us like a map. I counted ten small lakes and ponds scattered about the plains. The church steeples of three places were seen rising from among orchards and fields. Verily I could hardly realise that I was in the interior of New Zealand.”

Now the scene has vastly changed. A far more richly-cultivated country than that which the wandering geologist saw in 1859 stretches in all directions, and the railway engine trails the smoke-banner of the pakeha past Kakepuku's foot, between him and his hill-wife Kawa. But some relics of Hochstetter's day remain. The picture-like spires of the English mission church at Te Awamutu and the English and Roman Catholic Churches at Rangiaowhia still rise above the tree-groves, heaven-pointing fingers that carry a suggestion of antiquity all too rare in man's work in New Zealand.