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Legends of the Maori

Virgin’s Isle. — The Story of Te Wharerangi and the Fall of Motu-O-Puhi Pa

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Virgin’s Isle.

The Story of Te Wharerangi and the Fall of Motu-O-Puhi Pa.

As you come out of the fragrant twilight bush on the southern side of the Ponanga ridge, where the short-cut track goes from Lake Taupo’s shore to the mountains of the Tongariro National Park, you have before you as fair a picture of unspoiled beauty as this island has to show. There lies the calm, soft-blue lake called Roto-a-Ira, rounded of outline, dreamy as a lake of fairyland. Its surface is seldom ruffled, except for the fanlike wake left by the black swans as they sail about its glimmering surface. It is nearly always calm at Roto-a-Ira. The great hills have it in their keeping and Lady Pihanga and her companion mountains look down on their unmoving blue and green shadow pictures the livelong day.

A long low peninsula, terminating in a green mound of a hill, projects into the lake on its north-western side. This island-like peninsula, a wooded place of silence and tapu—it is a tribal burial ground—was once a populous home of the Maori. Its name is Motu-o-Puhi, or literally, Isle of the Virgin. Puhi is often a personal name but the story is that the island was so named because of its security as a fortress isle, a maidenrefuge camp unconquered. On one memorable occasion, however, fire and slaughter overran the Virgin Isle, and Taupo took grim revenge on the invaders, a cannibal band from the North.

* * *

It was a hundred years ago, according to the old men of Tokaanu, that a war-party of the Ngati-Maru tribe from the Lower Waihou (Thames) and the Hauraki shores, marched down to the South Taupo country. The intention of this taua, which consisted of a hundred and forty men—the favourite number for a swift-moving expedition—was to deal a deadly blow at the power of Ngati-Tuwharetoa, the Taupo tribe, who had not hitherto been attacked successfully by any outside tribe, and who had always been able to retain their territory, though surrounded by warlike neighbours. The proud boasts of the very independent Taupo folk had, in fact, been taken as a challenge by Ngati-Maru, though in their distant Hauraki and Thames homes, more than a hundred miles away, they had no friction with Ngati-Tuwharetoa, and no excuse for a proclamation of war. But the page 208 invaders did not proclaim their intentions; their only chance of success was to resort to treachery, to take Taupo unawares.

Now, Ngati-Maru had become possessed of firearms, the new and wonderful weapon of the pakeha, while Ngati-Tuwharetoa, by reason of their isolation and their distance from the sea-coast, had not yet been able to obtain any. Ngati-Maru, a few years before this period, and before they procured muskets from the traders, had been given a fearful lesson in military unpreparedness, when Hongi Hika and his conquering Ngapuhi had descended upon them and captured many forts and villages, and had slain hundreds upon hundreds of people and carried away hundreds more into captivity. The Hauraki people never rested after that until every warrior had been able to procure by barter a gun, and powder and lead for it. Now they must try their weapons on some tribe less well armed, and the Taupo people were an inviting, unsuspecting target.

The Hauraki warriors (who were accompanied by several women of rangatira rank) marched through the Patetere forests and down across the plains and over the ranges to the west side of Lake Taupo, passing through the territory of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe. These people, although closely allied by blood with Te Heuheu’s tribe, were persuaded by some of their chiefs to ally themselves with Ngati-Maru. They led the way on the march through country to which the Northerners were strangers, and gave information as to the strength of the various fortified villages in South Taupo.

On the advice of the Ngati-Raukawa leaders, the Ngati-Maru chiefs sent forward messengers, declaring that they were visiting Taupo in a friendly manner, as kinsmen of Te Heuheu—the ancestors of all three tribes had come to New Zealand in the same canoe, the Tainui—and that they were carrying arms, not for the purpose of attacking Taupo, but for making war upon the Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa tribes, who were the hereditary foes of Ngati-Tuwharetoa. They therefore asked Te Heuheu for a promise of safe conduct through his land.

So the Taupo clans living on the west side of the lake offered no opposition to the march of the Ngati-Maru musketeers, and actually assisted them with canoes to cross the lake to Waitahanui, the great palisaded pa a little to the north of the Tongariro River mouth. On arrival there the war-party was received with the customary dances and speeches of welcome, and with the usual rites of hospitality accorded to friends and relations. In their speeches, the Ngati-Maru leaders reiterated the assurances given by the heralds, that they were on their way to the East Coast to attack the Ngati-Kahungunu people. They made avowals of peace and goodwill, and as a pledge of their friendship, they would, they told Te page 209 Heuheu, leave with him four of their women—the chieftainesses who accompanied them—to hold as hostages until they returned from their war excursion.

Te Heuheu and his tribe gave Ngati-Maru of their best, treated them as honoured guests and kinsfolk. After several days’ halt at Waitahanui, the warriors continued their march. As they were near the south end of the lake, they would naturally take the Rangipo track towards Waiouru, thence the trail through the Murimotu country. That was the belief of their hosts.

But Ngati-Maru, as soon as they had rounded the base of the Pihanga range, dropped all guise of friendship. They turned in by the south short of Roto-a-Ira, towards Tongariro, and marched along it (parallel with the present motor road) for about four miles until they came to a small village called Mapouriki. Here they surprised the inhabitants and slaughtered them, among them an old chieftainess named Te Maari (whose memory is preserved to-day in the name of the craters and hot springs on the north side of Tongariro Mountain). Their objective was the large village on Motu-o-Puhi, where the chief Te Wharerangi lived with his hapu. This place had been described to them fully by their Ngati-Raukawa allies, and they were desperately bent on capturing it.

Te Wharerangi was the son of Te Maari, the woman killed at Mapouriki. (His son Matuahu, who escaped the Ngati-Maru weapons, was living at Taupo forty years ago; he married the youngest daughter of Te Heuheu Tukino.)

Now, Te Wharerangi, so soon to meet a fearful fate, had been warned by Te Heuheu some time before this not to trust to his semi-island village at Motu-o-Puhi as a defence against Waikato and Ngati-Maru. The paramount chief of Taupo had heard that such attacks were contemplated; it was only the treacherous alliance of Ngati-Raukawa with Ngati-Maru, and the repeated avowals of friendship, that had lulled his suspicions. When the chief of Motu-o-Puhi was thus warned by his kinsman, he was disinclined to take the advice to leave his Roto-a-Ira home and join forces with Te Heuheu at Waitahanui. Te Wharerangi declared that he could defend himself, whereupon Te Heuheu told him that if he were so small-minded, because of jealousy or false pride, as to refuse his protection, he deserved to perish with all his hapu.

“What you have said is true,” Te Wharerangi admitted; “nevertheless Motu-o-Puhi is my own pa. If my neck is to be twisted, let it be in my own home.” So saying, he returned to his lake village at Roto-a-Ira.

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The Ngati-Maru invaders, after the capture of Mapouriki, remained in that village until nightfall, and under cover of darkness they set about the assault of Motu-o-Puhi. For this purpose they needed canoes to cross the lake, and these were supplied by a sub-tribe called Ngati-Waewae, living on the shores; these people were thus traitors to their own tribe. Embarking, they quietly paddled the few miles intervening, and surrounded the island pa. At the first glimmering of dawn they dashed on shore, and with their muskets spread terror and slaughter. The long and straggling defences were quickly penetrated; Motu-o-Puhi fell before the people were fairly awake.

Terrific war yells and, more terrifying still, the thundering reports of the invaders’ muskets, the smoke of the ahi tipua (the demon fires), made hell on the unhappy Virgin Isle. Tomahawk and stone club completed the work that the guns began. Many of the people plunged into the lake and sought safety by swimming to the opposite shore—it must be remembered that Motu-o-Puhi is almost an island; it is connected with the mainland only by a low swampy neck of raupo, flax and rushes.

Te Wharerangi and more than a hundred of his men were captured. The victors, closing round them with their muskets, placed them in a row, with the chief at one end of the long file. The warriors then deliberately slaughtered them one by one, reserving the head chief for the last. One after another the death-stroke was given, a blow on the head with a sharp-edged stone mere.

Te Wharerangi, as the executioners approached him, made a desperate effort for life. The place where he stood, on the marae or village green, was near the verge of the low cliff above the lake. With a sudden bound he cleared the space between him and the edge of the bank and leaped into the lake, and struck out for the shore. He was a strong swimmer, that brave chief, but his flight was hopeless. He was pursued by warriors in canoes, and after a chase of about a mile he was overtaken and killed in the water. His body was taken ashore and was cooked and eaten by the rejoicing savages; so, too, were eaten the bodies of some of his fellow tribesfolk. The victors completed their work by setting the village on fire, and high into the still morning air rose the dense black smoke from the ravaged island.

This smoke cloud, as it mounted into the sky, was observed by some of the people on the south shores of Taupo Lake. It was at once concluded by Te Heuheu and his tribe at Waitahanui that they had been outwitted by Ngati-Maru and that Wharerangi had been attacked and his pa captured. The cry was raised, “Kua horo! Kua horo a Motu-o-Puhi!” (“The Virgin Isle has fallen!”)

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Te Heuheu, knowing only too well from that fateful smoke column that his tribesfolk and their leader had fallen victims to treachery, quickly gathered a band of his armed men to avenge the fall of Wharerangi’s fort. The war-party marched by way of Te Ponanga ridge—where our bush track goes to-day—and on reaching a point on the range from which the island-pa could be viewed they saw with anger and grief the extent of the destruction wrought by Ngati-Maru. Te Heuheu’s impetuous brother, Iwikau (who succeeded him as head chief on his death in 1846), was so eager to wreak vengeance on the enemy that he proposed an immediate attack on the Ngati-Maru as they were resting and feasting after their murderous exploit.

The Taupo Hotspur was supported by his younger brothers, Papaka and Manuhiri. But the elder brother, Te Heuheu, after a keen inspection of Motu-o-Puhi from the cover of the bush, and bearing in mind the fact that Ngati-Maru were armed with guns, while Ngati-Tawharetoa had only hand-weapons, formed the prudent opinion that an assault at that moment would fail. He made reply to his brothers and the warriors that the omens as made known to him by his god Rongomai were unpropitious. He would deal with Ngati-Maru in another way; and he ordered the immediate return of the war-party to Waitahanui.

Iwikau was greatly incensed at this delay, and he secretly sent off a trusted man to return with all speed to Waitahanui and kill the four women who had been left as hostages by Ngati-Maru.

But the great Te Heuheu was not only a high chief but a powerful priest and sage and a magician, says the Maori story. He divined the intentions of his brothers, and by his occult powers he caused the feet of the messenger to lag on the way, and so the war-party reached the home village at Waitahanui at the same time as Iwikau’s man, and the women were saved. The ariki of Taupo would not permit them to be murdered, though their tribesmen had committed such an atrocious deed of treachery.

* * *

But Ngati-Maru were not to escape. Te Heuheu, wise war-captain that he was, delayed his attack until they were off their guard and encamped at a vulnerable spot on the mainland. He presently marched his men through the Ponanga forest, made a cautious reconnaissance, and discovered that the invaders were at Ngongo, a village at the edge of the bush near the western end of Roto-a-Ira. There he fell upon them with the utmost fury. The fiery Iwikau could not now complain about his brother’s excess of caution. Ngati-Maru were attacked so quickly and fiercely that few of them had time to use their guns. The greater number of them were killed, among them a chief named Te Wharemarumaru.

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Only a shadow of that proud war-party returned to the North; the fall of Motu-o-Puhi was avenged.

* * *

That Ngati-Maru raid took place in 1830. It was about seventy years later that a grand old Arawa patriarch, Te Araki te Pohu, of Rotorua, told me that he and his parents were in Motu-o-Puhi when it was assaulted by the Arawa. After the defeat and slaughter of the Arawa people on the Island of Mokoia, by Hongi Hika and his Ngapuhi army, in 1823, Araki, then a child, was taken by his relatives southward to Lake Taupo; there they sheltered with Te Heuheu Tukino. From Taupo they went to Roto-a-Ira, and there they lived for some years in Motu-o-Puhi Pa. When Ngati-Maru surprised the place in 1830 the invaders carried all before them with their muskets—the pu that made a noise like thunder and whose lightning-flash was the “fire of death.” Young Araki, with his parents, escaped to the southern shore and took refuge in the bush at the base of Tongariro until Ngati-Maru in their turn were surprised and slaughtered by the Taupo men. Araki must have been very nearly a hundred years old when he died. Even when I knew him, in his nineties, he was straight of back, and he held himself like the veteran soldier he was, a perfect type of the old New Zealand warrior.