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Legends of the Maori

Motu-Ngaio Pa and the Stage of Heads. — A Story of Old Kawhia

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Motu-Ngaio Pa and the Stage of Heads.

A Story of Old Kawhia.

Huge earthworks, scarped, trenched and terraced, crown the steep hill above the giant pohutukawa trees on the Powewe beach on Kawhia Harbour, a castle carved out of the mount by the vanished people. When I first explored those great earthworks many a year ago and tried to plot out the fortification scheme the deserted pa was in almost perfect condition, except for the disappearance of the palisades, which defended the successive terraces. On one of the broad terraces directly above the Maori village on the beach, a pioneer pakeha trader had built his house, and a beautifully snug little home it was, with its fruit trees and its flowers sheltered from the ocean winds by the hill scarp behind it.

The story of this hill-pa, called Motu-Ngaio, goes back centuries before ever a pakeha sail appeared off Kawhia Heads, and this is an incident of its history, gathered in a rather curious way. Down at Porou-tawhao, in the Manawatu country—it is a little settlement in the reclaimed flax swamps between Levin and Foxton—there lived a big, very tall, black-bearded man of the Ngati-Toa tribe, by name Tatana Whata-upoko. It was said of him that he closely resembled in burly figure and great physical strength his famous warrior kinsman Te Rangihaeata. Tatana now lies close by Rangihaeata, on the tapu burial hill above his old home. From him I heard many stories of Ngati-Toa’s conquest of the Manawatu-Horowhenua country, under Rauparaha, and a question about the origin of his conjecture-provoking name brought far-away Motu-Ngaio pa into the picture. A pakeha-Maori combination, like many a Maori name, Tatana was the Maori form of Turton, a pioneer missionary and Government official family of the early days. Whata-upoko means Stage of Heads—that is, an elevated platform on which the heads of the slain were of old set up for the public gaze. And this is the tale of the five tattooed heads of Motu-Ngaio.

A hundred and fifty years ago, Tatana narrated, Motu-Ngaio, the great fortress of Kawhia, was held by Ngati-Toa, and their kin. A day came when all the able-bodied men and many of the women of the pa launched their canoes, and crossed the harbour to Rakaunui and Waiharakeke, on the south side of Kawhia, to attend to their crops of kumara. Besides the women and children in the hill stockade, there were five old men. Two of these were high chiefs, Tuhaha and Kimihia.

The Ngati-Toa had been at war with the Waikato tribes, over the ranges, but peace had come, and the tribe of warriors toiled happily in their page 202 food patches, all unsuspicious of danger. But their departure from the great fort had been watched by savage eyes in the bush at the head of the harbour. Scouts from the bush cautiously reconnoitred the pa and found it all but defenceless. It was a war-party of Waikato that lay in secret there, awaiting the report of the scouts. A warrior with the high-sounding name of Te Aho-o-te-Rangi led the army.

“The fort lies open to us,” said the scouts. “There are but a few old men and some women and children. We lay in the ditch outside the big house, and we heard them talking and singing, and the children crying, and the mothers scolding and soothing them.”

To Aho gave the order to march. Under cover of night, the warparty silently surrounded the pa, listened a while, and then stole up to the topmost terrace and, with a horrible battle-yell, burst in with patu, stone axe, and spear. It was easy work. Tuhaha and Kimihia and the other old men were killed; the women and children were made captive.

The dead chiefs were decapitated and the five tattooed heads, hastily smoke-dried, were set up on a whata, or staging, just outside the pa. Before the trophies Te Aho-o-te-Rangi paraded, bragging of his victory, deriding the dead, taunting the weeping women, who would be led away as concubines and slaves to the Waikato.

The bodies of the dead were the warriors’ feast, and the women and girls were portioned out among the warriors as slave wives. In the way of armies from time immemorial, women in old Maoridom were the most prized of all booty.

Next evening, the war-party set out on its return march, by way of Aotea, on the north. Te Aho-o-te-Rangi refrained from setting fire to the captured village, lest the absent Ngati-Toa should come paddling furiously after them.

Under the blanket of night, as before, they marched along the waterside and toward the eastern hills of Aotea. Their prisoners bore on their backs the loot of the captured fort.

* * *

That night’s march was short. The war-party halted a short distance from Kawhia’s head waters; the prisoners served their masters with food. The lustful men of Waikato, each with a woman in his embrace, enjoyed the choicest spoils of war.

In the dead of night, when the sated warriors all slept, a young woman of Ngati-Toa heard a strange low voice in the bivouac close by her. She listened intently; she rose noiselessly; she knew it must be what she had hoped for desperately, a scout of her people.

“Be cautious,” said the man, “make no noise. You will be saved.”

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Springing the Trap.

Springing the Trap.

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In her mingled joy and grief the girl could scarcely restrain a cry. It was her brother’s voice.

The disaster at the pa had been discovered, and the young warrior had scouted out on the track of the Waikato. Now for retribution.

“Return to your sleeping place,” the brother bade her, “and quietly warn all the other women. Delay Waikato as long as you can, let it be a late start in the morning. Satisfy their lustful cravings; exhaust their powers. Draw from them all their strength! Use all the means in your power to hinder the march, and wait for our signal.”

* * *

It was well on towards noon of next day before the war-party left the eastern shore of Aotea Harbour, and struck into the bush on the trail over the ranges to the Waipa. The track soon entered a dark gully, thickly wooded.

Ngati-Toa e! Kokiri!” The fearful yell came from the gloomy wild wood on the right. It was the “Charge!” From both sides of the track rose the avengers. An overwhelming mass of warriors leaped at Waikato. It was over in a few moments. The women of Motu-Ngaio played the warriors’ part too. Some of them snatched mere or spear from their captors, and dealt the death-blow; others grappled their foes by the legs or feet and threw them, while the rescuers split skulls and pierced naked bodies.

Very few of the Waikato raiders survived that ambuscade. Front and rear and on both flanks they were assailed. Every chief fell but the leader, Te Aho-o-te-Rangi. He burst through his foes and dashed up along the trail to the ranges. Rushing after him came Marangai, greatest runner of the Motu-Ngaio party. Te Aho, too, was a famous runner.

The chase was long, but at last Marangai ran down his foe. Te Aho, exhausted, surrendered.

Marangai led his prisoner back to the triumphant Ngati-Toa, and the party returned to Motu-Ngaio. Some of the dead were carried there, too, for the warriors’ feast.

Te Aho, tightly bound, was set in the middle of the marae, the parade-ground of the pa. There he was assailed with bitter abuse and many curses by the widows of the five old chiefs whom he had slaughtered. Then Te Aho was killed—a blow on the head with a stone patu—and his body was cut up for the oven; his head was set up, with many another head of Waikato, on the very same stage where the heads of Tuhaha and Kimihia and the other chiefs of the pa had been displayed. There it remained, while Ngati-Toa gave voice to a mighty song of hate. And the heads of the five slain chiefs were set up apart, on a decorated platform, page 206 and the tribe made speeches in their honour and chanted ancient elegiac poems of lamentation. And thus was the capture of Motu-Ngaio quickly and fully avenged.

* * *

A few weeks after these events the young chieftainess Tapuha, who was the wife of the son of the slain Tuhaha, gave birth to a son. As was the way of the Maori, the child was given a name which would preserve and perpetuate the memory of the recent happening. He was named Te Whata-upoko, the Platform of the Heads.

And this boy, Tuhaha’s grandson, grew up to become one of the chief warriors of the conqueror Te Rauparaha, and he was trained as a tohunga. He fought his way down the West Coast with Rauparaha’s army a century ago, and with his leader he settled on Kapiti Island. There, at Te Kahu-o-te-Rangi village he was Rauparaha’s chief priest and the tohunga of the god Matairangi.* His grandson was my old acquaintance Tatana Whata-upoko, who is dead, but the name is carried on, and as long as there is a Whata-upoko in the family or the tribe the fame of Motu-Ngaio pa, the faraway grand old home in the North, the story of the self-sacrificing women, and of Marangai’s great chase, will be told with pride by the chieftain families of Ngati-Toa.

* Tatana te Whata-upoko gave me the following information concerning Ngati-Toa’s tribal belief in their god Matairangi: “My grandfather was the priest of our god Matairangi. He was a matakité, or seer. Matairangi was seen in dreams, and his appearance was read as an omen, good or otherwise, in connection with warfare. He sometimes appeared to warn his tribe of danger. If in a dream, the tohunga of Ngati-Toa saw a stone—which was the aria or visible form of Matairangi—fall from a cliff and shatter, emitting a shower of sparks or a glow of light, a chief of the tribe, or a chief’s son, would shortly die. If when it struck the rock and shattered, no sparks or light emanated from it, one of the common people would die. Pane-iraira and Wainui were other tribal gods of Rauparaha and his people.”