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Legends of the Maori

A Cartridge from Taraia

page 150

A Cartridge from Taraia

This story may more properly be classed as a historical narrative than as a folk-story. It is the story of an intertribal war episode which developed curious complications and called for Government intervention with a military demonstration in the form of an expedition to Tauranga, and sundry cannibal incidents far removed from the original argument. But it comes in as a popular tale of old oft-told in the meetinghouses, especially by the descendants of Taraia’s warriors of the Thirties and Forties, who live in the Waihou and Ohinemuri country.

* * *

Where the main road to Tauranga from Paeroa and Waihi, in the Ohinemuri, goes down to the long crooked shore of Katikati Harbour, there is a half-circle curve round the base of a beautiful mountain facing the entrance to the estuary. This height is Hikurangi, a topographically descriptive place-name that occurs in many parts of New Zealand; an ancient Polynesian name, literally “tail of the sky”; it means sky-line, the place where the last light of day lingers. That is the modern motor way, but the ancient Maori trail goes right over the top of the peak; the wary oldtimers liked to keep to the top of the ridges.

My story, as told by Ngati-Tamatera, and also, with some variations, by the Ngai-te-Rangi people, goes back eighty-seven years to the era when New Zealand, newly placed under the British flag, was only just emerging from the cannibal era, despite the fact that missionaries had been toiling away for two decades at the task of taming Tangata Maori. The most conservative pagan of them all—”conservative” is an extremely mild adjective in this case—was Taraia Ngakuti, the head chief of the Ngati-Tamatera tribe, of Ohinemuri. Taraia was lord of the high, low and middle justice in the Waihou River Valley, from the Hauraki waters inland to Te Aroha mountain. To his last day (in 1871) he was the very perfect and complete savage.

It so happened at this period, the year 1842, that Taraia’s nearest neighbour on the Tauranga side of the range, the chief Whanake, of the Ngai-te-Rangi, set about establishing a close season for sharks. It must be explained that the shark fishery of Katikati Harbour was greatly prized by the Maori. The mango of these waters was a specially desirable kind, and provided a great part of the tribe’s food supply. Whanake had a feud with Taraia over the rights to land near Nga-Kuri-a-Whare, on the Katikati shore, and the shark-catching privileges were involved in the quarrel. There page 151 was also a blood vendetta. Taraia’s mother had been killed in an olden battle, and her body carried off by Ngai-te-Rangi for a cannibal meal.

Taraia had fought the coast dwellers many a time, but he considered he had not yet taken sufficient utu. The grim warrior awaited his chance. Whanake proclaimed a rahui, forbidding the catching of sharks on the debatable shores. Taraia was soon informed of this, and he determined to assert his claim to the sea-harvest. He despatched a herald to his rival with an ultimatum in the symbolic fashion of the Maori. It consisted of two articles. One was a rourou, or round flax basket containing smoke-dried eels. The other was a musket cartridge. With these silently eloquent emblems the bearer delivered this message: “Ki te whawhai mai koe ki te ngeangea he ra kai tua; ki te whawhai mai koe ki te taonga a Tu, ka tangi te whatitiri, ka hikonga te uira ki runga o Hikurangi” (“Should you choose to make war with eels only [i.e. to accept the basket of eels], then the day of our combat is far off; but should you choose to wage battle with the weapons of Tu the war god, then presently shall the thunder crash and the lightning flash on the summit of Hikurangi mountain”).

Whanake, in no way loath to defy his hereditary enemy, accepted the musket cartridge and rejected the basket of eels, which symbolised the food treasures of the Ohinemuri and Waihou rivers. It was an acceptance of the war challenge. The speedy result was a fighting expedition launched by Taraia against the Ngai-te-Rangi chief.

Whanake and his sub-tribe occupied a fortified village on the island-like peninsula of Ongare, yon green mound jutting out into Katikati harbour. Expecting an attack, the inevitable sequel of his acceptance of the emblematic cartridge, the chief strengthened his palisades and saw to his arms and ammunition.

Taraia’s column of seventy warriors from Ohinemuri cautiously approached Ongare under cover of darkness, and came stealthily scouting up to the pa. It was in the midnight hours that Whanake’s wife, in a sudden fear, awoke her husband and said: “E haruru ana te waewae a te tangata” (“I hear the resounding tread of men’s feet”).

Whanake rose and went outside. He listened intently a while in the darkness, and returning to his wife said: “E hara, e kui; ko te tai e akiaki ana ki te naenae” (“Not so, wife; it is but the tide lapping on the shells of the beach below”).

So, satisfied, the pair turned to slumber again. It was the sleep of death. A little while before dawn, Taraia and his war party burst into the pa, swept all before them with musket-shot and tomahawk, and slaughtered the too-confident Whanake and eleven of his tribe.

The cannibal victors hurried back to their own country, across the ranges, with their newly-made slaves and their booty. The miserable cap- page 152 tives bore on their backs flax baskets containing several bodies of their own dead, cut up for the oven. When a little way over the top of Hikurangi they came to a grove of trees where there was a good spring of water. At this sylvan spot, a favourite resting-place of Maori travellers, Taraia ordered a halt.

“Cook food for us,” he ordered the captives. “Make ovens and cook your accursed tribe for us. I shall eat Whanake myself!”

So the haangi were made, the steam-ovens of hot stones in the earth, and there by the mountain spring, the hunters of men feasted on their kill.

Soon all were on the march again, the slaves carrying the rest of the bodies for the home-stayers. Taraia returned down the Waihou in his war-canoe from Ohinemuri to Kauwaeranga, near the sea waters of Hauraki. There the tribes feasted on the “fish of Tu,” and then Taraia fortified his pa against an expected expedition from Tauranga, for he knew that Ngai-te-Rangi would not readily forego revenge.

It was at this juncture that the Government at Auckland intervened, with the result that it was bluntly told by Taraia to mind its own business and refrain from interfering with matters of purely Maori intertribal politics. With true native logic he enquired why the Government should be so solicitous about his foes, the Ngai-te-Rangi. “Did they not eat my mother?” It was even proposed that a constable should serve Taraia with a summons in his stockaded pa. They did not know the Maori then. That experience was to come.