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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter XXI. — The Pole of Spears: A Tale of Old Rotoiti

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Chapter XXI.
The Pole of Spears: A Tale of Old Rotoiti.

[The following tradition of a Lakeland war episode is given as a typical example of the innumerable legends of intertribal strife, and of the resourcefulness and military skill of the Maori warrior.]

On the southern coast of Lake Rotoiti, opposite the little burial-island Pateko, is the steep woody headland or matarae known as Ngarehu; behind it is a deep gully, and then rises the cliffy hill Paehinahina (“ridge covered with hinahina trees”). This hill is the site of a celebrated fort of ancient times, a pa which occupied a very strong position. On three sides it was defended by cliffs; the only entrance, or kuwaha, was on the south side, where the approach was along a narrow ridge. The spot was an excellent one for a fortified village, for any canoes on the lake could be seen while yet a long way off, and the cliffy walls made the pa impregnable against a sudden assault. It was captured, however, on one occasion in a remarkable fashion.

One day, a hundred and fifty years ago, a small company of Ngati-Pikiao warriors filed out from the gateway of Pae-hinahina Pa, and took the narrow trail through the forest and over the manuka-clothed hills southward. “They went out to eat men,” said the old Rotoiti man who told the story, “they hungered for kiko-tangata, the sweet flesh of man.” The cannibal meat-hunters marched along until they reached the vicinity of the stream called Waimatā—“Obsidian Creek”—under the western page 235 bluffs of Moerangi hill. Here the war trail intersected the track which led from Roto-kakahi through the Pareuru Valley to Whakarewarewa and Rotorua.

Here the scout out ahead crept back and reported that there were three people in sight, coming along the track from Roto-kakahi. The “meat” was walking into the trap. The Ngati-Pikiao taua sank to the earth instantly, then their leader posted them ready for the deed of blood, half the taua on one side of the track and half on the other. The ambush laid, the man-hunters waited for their prey.

The three travellers were a chief named Torekāhe and his sisters, young women named Uakura and Ngarehu. Torekāhe was the chief of Ngati-te-Whetu, on Motu-tawa, the island in Roto-kakahi.

Suddenly Torekāhe's quick eye noticed something moving a moment in the low manuka shrubbery just ahead. It looked like a spear projecting above the bushes. Then he heard a sound of a breaking branch close by the track, and he caught a glimpse of a feather head-plume. He knew that he had walked right into an ambush. Torekāhe, death's hand is at your throat!

The chief of Motu-tawa divined instantly that he could not save his sisters, and that it would be marvellous if he succeeded in escaping himself. He turned, and exclaiming, “It is death!” he quickly pressed his face to the faces of his sisters in succession, in the greeting of the hongi, the touching of noses—his last farewell.

The next moment with a terrible war-cry the Ngati-Pikiao men leaped from their hiding-places. Torekāhe sprang to one side of the track and made a feint at the enemy with his taiaha, then like lightning he faced about, and leaping to the other page 236 side charged through his adversaries. He reached a near-by hill brow, and he cried to Ngati-Pikiao:

Haere, e hoki! E kore ahau e mau ia koutou; he manu honenga ahau no te pae!”

(“Go, return whence you came! I shall not be caught by you; I have escaped like a bird from the snare set for it!”)

Then, as he expected, he saw his sisters killed. Each was felled with a blow on the head from a patu. Their heads were hacked off with the sharp-edged stone weapons, and held up and waved in derision at Torekāhe on the hill above. And the brother cried his poroporoaki, his parting message to the unheeding ears:

Aku tuahine e! Haere, haere! Mo korua te tai awatea, moku te tai po!”

(“My sisters! Farewell, Farewell! Go you on the tide that ebbs in the light of day; I shall follow you on the evening tide!”)

And Torekāhe turned and spread the news of invasion and murder. And the savages of Pae-hinahina, bearing the bodies of their victims with them, hurried back to Rotoiti.

Torekāhe speedily raised an armed force, a hundred and seventy men. He himself had his matua or company of seventy men, (hokowhitu) the pick of his tribe, Ngati-Te-Whetu. The remaining hundred men, from Motu-tawa, Te Puia (Whakarewarewa), Owhatiura, and other pas of the Tuhourangi tribe and kindred hapus, were under the command of his comrade Te Rangikotua. The force marched by way of Rotokawa and Tikitere, and reached the shores of Rotoiti close to the place where the hot sulphur spring Manupirua bubbles up under its overhanging pohutukawa tree. Thence they travelled along the coastline until at night they reached a bay not very far from Pae-hinahina and lay in ambush there, having ascertained from a man who lived by the lakeside that a party of fishermen from the fort would shortly come down to draw their seine for inanga (whitebait).

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Early in the morning the men of Ngati-Pikiao came in their canoes, and sweeping their long fine-meshed net of flax round the shoals of the inanga, drew the ends in to the beach. Then Torekāhe's warriors rushed down and seized the net as it was being dragged ashore, and played patu and spear on their astonished enemies. The fishermen were defeated; a number were killed, and the rest fled in their canoes, and spread the alarm at Pae-hinahina. Ngati-Pikiao gathered within their strong cliff-top stockade and waited the shock of war.

The pa was too well defended to carry by a coup-de-main. Torekāhe and his comrade Te Rangikotua had, therefore, to set their wits to work.

The assailing war-column was divided into two parties. Te Rangikotua's hundred men formed the matua to make the frontal attack, while Torekāhe remained in hiding, awaiting an opportunity to scale the walls secretly at the flanks or the rear of the pa. The main body therefore advanced boldly, and with much defiant yelling and war-dancing took up a position on the ridge leading to the kuwaha or front gateway of the fort.

The occupants of the hill stockade, seeing no other enemies than those who thus openly invested them, concluded that the hundred men of Te Rangikotua were their only assailants, and all the eyes of the pa were for the warriors on their front.

A dark moonless night helped Torekāhe's scheme. He reconnoitred the position in a small canoe, and returning to his hidden hokowhitu, led them to the north-eastern side of the pa. Here they crouched, concealed from view by the vegetation and the cliffs.

Torekāhe had observed that on this side of the pa a large pohutukawa tree grew just on the cliff-top; some of its branches stretched far out towards page 238 the lake. Under this tree he posted his men. The pa was full of excitement of war that night—watch-fires blazing, war-trumpets braying, chiefs shouting speeches of encouragement and instruction to their men. The watchmen, perched aloft in the puhara or slender tower-like balconies that rose above the palisades, chanted at intervals their high songs of battle. On the woody ridge burned the camp fires of Te Rangikotua.

Torekāhe instructed his followers to take a number of their spears and splice them firmly together with flax cords so as to form a long pole the height of the cliff above them. This was done, and then to the end of the long limber pole was tied a large wooden hook. The pole was carefully raised, and the warriors grappled with the hook one of the branches of the overhanging pohutukawa.

Making sure that the hold was secure, the daring chief climbed the pole of spears, hauling himself up hand over hand until he reached the tree, and drew himself up safely on the bough to which the hook was attached. He crawled cautiously along the branch and down into the pa, into the nest of his enemies.

Quite close to the huge knotty butt of the pohutukawa, a small hut stood by itself. Just at the entrance of this whare lay an old man asleep. Alongside him was a partly plaited flax rope; it was intended for one of the hauling ropes of a kupenga, or fishing-net. Torekāhe drew his stone patu from his flax waist-belt and swiftly dealt the man a death-blow. Then, tying the rope to the body, he lowered it down to his men below. It was the mata-ika, the “first fish” slain.

Dawn was approaching, and the sentinels on the stockade were chanting their songs to the morning stars. Torekāhe made fast his end of the flax rope page 239 to the pohutukawa, and his men quietly ascended one by one, assisting themselves by toe-holds on the cliff-face.

Now the daring leader raised his voice in a loud sentinel-song or Whakaaraara-pa. The people of the pa thought he was one of their own sentries.

This, translated, is part of his song, an “All's-well” chant to Tariao and Kopu, the first and morning stars:

This is the pa!
These the high palisades,
Bound with the forest vines.
And here within am I
Singing my song.
Shine brightly, O Tariao!
Let fear seize on our foes,
Death's fateful harbinger
Howl fearful in their ears,
Ngahue's red-toothed dog—
Moo-oo-i! Au-u-u!”

Keen blows the western wind,
Wafting a sound of war.
Aid us, shades of our sires,
Ahi-koriki, Rongotaha!
Here on the watch am I,
E-ē! I aha-ha!

Wakeful on watch am I,
Ready to rush to the fray,
Charge on the thickets of spears!
E-ē! I aha-ha!

Keen for the conflict are we,
Hot for the slaying of men,
Hungry for eating of men!
Like a ngarara monster our host—
Lo! the murderous sweep of its tail!
The snapping, the foam of its jaws!
Kopu beams forth in the sky,
Here on the watch am I,
E-ē! I aha-ha!

There was a pause, and then a sentinel in another part of the pa, all unknowing of the fact that the singer who had just ended his loud chant was an enemy, lifted up his voice in a song of his own. page 240 When he had ended, Torekāhe sang a second watch-song; and then when grey dawn was just approaching, and it was necessary to give the pre-arranged signal for the assault, he chanted loudly his third whakaaraara. These were the words:

Te ahi ra ra,
Te ahi ra ra,
Tahia ki uta,
Ko au kai tai,

In this chant Torekāhe addressed his comrades as “The fires burning yonder,” and warned them to gather on the land side and sweep down on the pa. “Sweep it!” he cried, “Here am I by the waterside.”

In another moment Te Rangikotua had given his men the order to charge—“Kokiritia!” and they dashed with fury at the stockade of their foes.

The garrison rushed to defend the main gateway and the stockade. Then Torekāhe, in the rear, made his attack. In the resultant confusion, the front matua swarmed into the fort, hacking their way through and over the stockades and gateways, and joined with their cliff-climbing comrades in the work of slaughter. Pae-hinahina fell. Many of its garrison went into the ovens of the conquerors, and many others were made slaves; and thus quickly did Torekāhe avenge the slaying of his sisters by the cannibals of Ngati-Pikiao.