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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 11 (January 1, 1939)

The Massacre at Mapoutahi Pa — The Story of a Southern Maori Inter-Tribal — War Before The Coming of the Pakeha

page 43

The Massacre at Mapoutahi Pa
The Story of a Southern Maori Inter-Tribal
War Before The Coming of the Pakeha

Legend and tradition have enriched the North Island of New Zealand with a wealth of knowledge concerning the history of the Maori before the advent of the white man. On the other hand there is perhaps not so much tradition connected with the southern Maori which enables us to follows his doings before the pakeha came. This is due chiefly to the fact that the Maoris colonised the southern part of New Zealand a long time after their first arrival, and then only very sparsely on account of the more rigorous climate. Then again, it is on record that the southern Maori was several times almost exterminated by his overpowering northern brother.

Although little Maori history about Dunedin is known, tradition has recorded for us two outstanding episodes. Both are tragic—one, a tragic romance on the coast near the Taieri, the other a tragic massacre, also on the coast about fifteen miles north of Dunedin.

It is the latter which I propose to relate.

From two sources only could I get information about this intensely interesting history. The first was a brief account in a small hand-book entitled “Dunedin and its Neighbourhood,” published in 1904—the other a newspaper article of 1929 regarding research carried out among the Maoris concerning Mapoutahi Pa. The latter sums up very well the difficulties of acquiring information, as the old Maori is passing on:—

“There is much which remains to be told concerning the history of the Maori Race in Otago and with the passing of the years traditions as they relate to historic incidents are becoming more and more extinct … however it is possible to trace the history of Mapoutahi Pa from the tradition handed down from generation to generation.”

Soon after leaving Purakanui station the traveller by train northwards from Dunedin sees from his window as the train winds its way round the precipitous cliff face a green and picturesque little island almost completely surrounded by steep cliffs, and lying close to the long stretch of white sand washed by rows of creamy breakers which is Purakanui Beach. As the panorama unfolds it can be seen that this so-called island is really a small peninsula connected to the high cliff of the mainland by a small isthmus three or four feet wide and a few yards long. On one side of this neck of land is a little golden half-moon beach, while on the other side the sea rushes in with a turbulent swell threatening to undermine the narrow pathway. On the slopes of the “island” itself long green grass sways in the sea breeze, while the leaves of the numerous cabbage trees rustle continually as if mournfully trying to tell the story that exists beneath their roots.

“There is nothing to suggest the tragedy of which it was once the scene, yet these green slopes once ran red with blood and the yells of the victors and the vanquished could have been heard above the noise of the surf that laves its rocky base.”

Goat Island it is called, no doubt because its outline bears some resemblance to the head of a goat. There in the 18th century stood a fortified pa—Mapoutahi Pa.

Some six or seven generations ago a chief named Taoka or Taonga lived with his people in a kaika near Timaru. As was customary at times he set out with a small party to visit his cousin, Te Wera, of Ngatimamoe, who had a large pa at Karitane Peninsula, or Huriawa. After enjoying Te Wera's hospitality for three days
Goat Island—now a popular seaside resort near Dunedin.

Goat Island—now a popular seaside resort near Dunedin.

Taoka set out with his host, who it might be mentioned was a man of very fiery temper (he had killed his own wife—a princess of the Kaitahu) to visit another relative, Kapo, in Mapoutahi Pa, at Purakanui. While staying here these two—Te Wera and Taoka—as relatives often do, had a heated argument which developed into an open quarrel, resulting unfortunately in Te Wera killing Taoka's son. Taoka vowing vengeance returned to Timaru, gathered all his fighting men about him and laid siege to Karitane Pa. For twelve long months he waited, but only once did any of his men gain entrance—several climbed up a blow-hole into the pa and stole Te Wera's god-stick. Next day Te Wera saw them doing a haka and, noticing the loss of his god-stick, induced his tohunga to chant for its return, whereupon it came flying back through the air to him.

Unable to sack the Karitane Pa, whose massive entrenchments remain to-day, Taoka went home but came back again the following winter and this time made to attack the Mapoutahi Pa whose chief, Pakihaukea, was a close ally of Te Wera. After besieging the pa for ten days, since both the invaders and defenders were wary, Taoka, thirsting for the blood of his foeman and seeing a snow storm approaching, decided that the hour for revenge had come. Snow fell for many hours. That night, with the snow eighteen inches deep and all the hillside quiet he sent out a scout to ascertain if the palisade were defended. The scout returned to say that it was fully guarded. Not satisfied, Taoka himself crept silently to the palisade and discovered that the supposed guards were merely dummies hanging from the palisade and moving occasionally as the wind caught them. The page 44 besieged natives in the pa had committed the same human error which many besieged peoples in European and ancient history had done. They had thought themselves secure within their walls and had relaxed guard.

Taoka and his men silently scaled the palisade and cautiously arranged themselves among the whares. Suddenly the blood-curdling war-cry of the invaders roused the sleeping natives and, dazed by sleep, as they stumbled from their whares, they fell victims to the weapons of the enemy. Altogether, 250 were mercilessly slaughtered, and only one or two escaped by rushing to the cliff edge and throwing themselves 60 feet or 70 feet into the sea.

As day dawned the rising sun revealed a ghastly sight. The dusky bodies of the victims had been piled in a huge heap and covered in places with a mantle of snow they resembled a huge pile of wood. So they named the place Purakanui, meaning “a large pile of wood.” That was about the year 1750 and to-day, nearly 200 years later, little evidence remains of that terrible massacre save the name of the district and the line of the trenches beneath the palisade in which human bones have been found.

Goat Island is now a scenic and historic reserve under the administration of the Otago University Museum, where there is a model of the “island” and the pa.

To-day as the holiday maker wanders over its sunny slopes or fishes from its craggy rocks or shouts as he plays in the surf, he does not think much of its tragic history—it would seem absurd. But as night falls and the rising moon casts long dim shadows of the rustling cabbage trees across the grass it almost seems that one can hear sad cries above the moan of the surf.