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Legends of the Maori

Chapter VI. The Story of Whakatau and the Tihi-O-Manono

page 33

Chapter VI. The Story of Whakatau and the Tihi-O-Manono.

“About the blazing feasthouse clustered the eyes of the foe,
Watching, hand upon weapon, lest ever a soul should flee,
Shading the brow from the glare, straining the neck to see—
Only, to leeward, the flames in the wind swept far and wide,
And the forest sputtered on fire.…”

—“The Song of Rahero” (Robert Louis Stevenson).

Travellers to Samoa will remember the beautiful rounded island Manono, which rises in gentle slopes to a height of four or five hundred feet near the western end of Upolu Island. It is clothed nearly everywhere with trees—forests of coconut palms around the shore and forest timber higher up. It is a soft and verdant foil to the neighbouring small island, Apolima, the bold, black, rocky summit of an ancient volcano. Steamers to Apia pass through the Strait of Manono, separating the three islands from the large mountainous island, Savaii.

This island Manono is, in my belief, the scene of the crowning exploit of the ancient Polynesian hero, Whakatau, the burning of his brother’s slayers in the great meeting-house called Te Tihi-o-Manono, or Te Uru-o-Manono. Some students of Polynesian history have placed the principal events of the story in Haapai, Tonga Group. There seems no good reason, however, why we should not accept Manono Island as the locality. The period was about seven centuries ago.

Whakatau-potiki, or Little Whakatau, was a man of small stature, but from the traditions that have come down to us about him, his valour and his knowledge were great. In his chant of war he likened himself to a spider (pungawerewere), because of his insignificant size. His smallness was a positive advantage in some ways; it enabled him to play the part of a scout and spy to perfection. He was the son of a high chieftainess named Apakura, who was a poetess. A famous lament of hers is preserved and her name is applied to-day to some of the funeral dirges which form so large a class of Maori chants. He had an elder brother named Tuwhaka-raro (some accounts say that it was his father), who was killed and eaten by the people of Manono Island. The mother, Apakura, cherished fierce page 34 revenge. She sang a song to incite her son to obtain utu for the murder, and he set about preparations for avengement. He landed by night on Manono Island—his home was on Upolu—and he entered the great oval-shaped meeting-house of the Tini-o-Manahua clan, the house called Te Tihi-o-Manono (The Citadel, or Pinnacle, of Manono). He was so small of stature that he was not noticed as he mingled with the crowd of his foes. As he entered the house, he heard a strange sound; it was the rattling together of the bones of Tuwhakararo, which were hung up to the rafters in a bundle of matting. The bones rattled because of Whaka-tau’s coming; it was the brother’s spirit message.

There had been a great canoe battle some time before this, a Polynesian naval engagement, off Samoa, and the Manono people had been defeated; but they did not imagine their enemies from Upolu would follow them so soon. They saw Whakatau, but by enchantment he transformed himself into a spider and eluded them.

Leaving the Tihi, he rejoined his warriors, and they lay in wait until all in the great house were slumbering. Then they carried up many bundles of the most inflammable woods and quietly laid them round the house, the mat walls of which had all been let down for the night. Whakatau set fire to the piles of fuel, and in a few moments the meeting-house was in a blaze. The people awoke only to perish. All who attempted to escape were slaughtered; and the slaying of Tuwhakararo was avenged in full.

At her home on Upolu the watching Apakura saw the glare of the great fire, and she knew then that her son’s death had been paid for in blood and fire, and she chanted a song of exultation. Whakatau, too, composed his high-pealing song of triumph, which is remembered even unto this day.

Another Maori song has the memory of the hero thus commemorated, incidentally with other historical references:

Ko Whakatau anake
Nana i tiki atu
I te ngakinga mate mo Tuwhakararo,
Ka wera i te ahi
Te Tini-o-Manahua e—i!


It was Whakatau only
Who exacted revenge
For the death of Tuwhakararo,
And burned in the fire
The Multitude-of-Manahua.

Similar traditions of the burning of tribal meeting-houses, with the people therein assembled, are related of numerous islands, including New Zealand. In “The Song of Rahero,” lines from which are quoted at the head of this chapter, Robert Louis Stevenson dramatised a legend of Tahiti resembling in many of its details our story of Manono. I have heard from page 35
The Vengeance of Whakatau.

The Vengeance of Whakatau.

page break page 37 the Maori accounts of several such incidents, in particular the destruction of a section of the Titahi clan by the people of Taranaki. The scene of this occurrence was the summit of Whakamere, a flat-topped hill above the Patea River. The Ngati-Ruanui tribe, having decided to rid themselves of the roving and predatory Titahi, silently surrounded the village one stormy night, and discovering that all the people were gathered in the central meeting-house, they quietly fastened the one door on the outside and set fire to the thatched building. Only a very few escaped the fire and the spear and club.

There is a famous chant called the Maro-o-Whakatau, in which the heroic deeds of the Polynesian hero are kept in mind to this day. It is Whakatau’s song as he girds himself for war. I have heard this in the South Taupo district, where it was used as a sacred chant at the opening of new carved houses.

The memory of that far-away scene of Whakatau’s dramatic revenge is preserved, too, in a place-name in New Zealand. This name (given me by the late Mere Ngamai o te Wharepouri) is Te Ahi-o-Manono, the site of an old-time Maori village in the Hutt Valley, Wellington, on the bank of the Heretaunga River, a short distance above the present town of Lower Hutt. The name means The Fire of Manono, a reference to the ngakinga o te mate, the deed of avengement in coral lands seven centuries ago.