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History and traditions of the Maoris of the West Coast, North Island of New Zealand, prior to 1840

[The Taranaki Coast prior to 1840]

It is deemed advisable, in the interests of those who are not personally acquainted with the country to which the following Traditional and Historical notes refer, to briefly describe the coast, and indicate its main features—topographical and otherwise. First, let it be understood that the term "Taranaki Coast," is here given a very much extended meaning, and includes all the West Coast from Kawhia to Wellington, a distance of about three hundred miles. Moreover, in this description, an endeavour will be made to depict the appearance presented by the country, at about the year 1840, when the first European settlers arrived, and commenced those operations incidental to the conversion of a wild into a cultivated country. This may prove of interest; for, immediately our energetic race came into occupation, changes set in, and went on so rapidly that now, after sixty-five years or so, the whole face of the country has so completely changed that little idea of what it was like originally can be formed. It is evident that the country, at the period mentioned, was not greatly different from what it was in those ancient times when the ancestors of the Maori people first occupied it. The changes introduced by a people in the neolithic stage were insignificant, and consisted, principally, in clearing the edges of the primeval forests by aid of the stone-axe and fire; the cultivation of a little land here and there, and the building of fortified pas and villages. Under' these processes the forest margins had receded from the coast line to a greater or less extent, for it seems probable that the forest originally came right down to the sea before human occupation took place.

At the extreme South-west corner of the North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) of New Zealand (Aotea-roa), stands the magnificent volcanic cone of Mount Egmont (Taranaki), that dominates the coast for very many miles north and south. The subterranean fires that originated page 2this noble mountain, have for ages ceased their action, leaving, as their handiwork, a symmetrical cone that rises to a height of 8,260 feet, the top of which is ever covered with a cap of snow. A sweep of the compasses, with a radius of sixteen miles and with one foot on the summit, closely defines the base of the mountain, which, from a point due north to another due south of the summit, is washed by the waters of the Tasman Sea, and Cook's Straits. From the snows of the top descend a vast number of pellucid streams, that make this the best watered part of New Zealand, and in the rapid beds of which the blue duck, or whio, was formerly very common. From about 4,000 feet downwards, extended the great forest that was continuous in a northerly direction to near the Manukau Heads, and to the south as far as Wellington; whilst inland, it approached the shores of Lake Taupo. North-west from the mountain extend the Pouakai and Patuha ranges (4,590 feet and 2,240 feet in height), which terminate at about twelve miles from the summit, and are still covered with forest. These ranges are probably of a more ancient date than Mount Egmont, a fact which seems, strangely enough, to have been known to (or guessed at by) the ancient Maoris, as we shall see later on in the legend of the origin of the mountain.

Beyond these, the only other mountains in the district under consideration worthy of the name, are the Tararua range, which, at the Manawatu Gorge, are about 2,000 feet in height; from which point they run in a generally south-west direction, gradually rising to Mount Dundas (4,940 feet), and as gradually decreasing in height until they end in Cape Terawhiti on Cook's Strait. The Herangi range, north of Mokau River, is not above 2,000 feet high, and it runs northwards to Mount Pirongia, throwing out spurs which gradually fall to the coast between Kawhia and Mokau. Both these ranges were entirely forest clad formerly, but the axe of the settler has already made considerable inroads into them.

The long stretch of coast line, included in the term "Taranaki Coast," offers some diversity of feature, but for long stretches it is very uniform in character. From Kawhia Harbour, south, to Mokau River it is generally precipitous, with undulating and broken lands on top of the cliffs, covered with light wood and forest for a mile or so inland, where the main forest commenced. There are beaches here and there along which was the only route in former days, but travelling along this coast was an arduous undertaking, from the constant steep cliffs that had to be climbed. And yet it was the road generally made use of by the many warlike incursions into Taranaki that will be related. This part was never apparently very thickly inhabited, though page 3there were several well-known pas and settlements, notably at Taharoa lakes, Marokopa river, Waikawau and the Awakino river. Mokau river was the seat of a much more considerable population, for several branches of the great Ngati-Mania-poto tribe lived near its mouth and up the course of this most beautiful river.

South of the Mokau to Puke-aruhe pa, just south of the White Cliffs, a distance of about twelve miles, was the home of the Ngati-Tama tribe—generally known as Pou-tama. This country has played a most important part in the history of the coast, and, therefore, is worthy of a little more detailed description, which Mr. W. H. Skinner supplies, as follows:—"From Puke-aruhe northward, the forest clad ranges and steep ravines effectually barred all passage, other than that by the narrow strip of beach at the base of Pari-ninihi,* or White Cliffs. The old Maori track wound down the slopes of the Pukearuhe plateau, and came on to the beach at the Waikaramarama Gorge. From here northward to Te Horo, at the north end of the White Cliffs, a distance of three miles, the route lay along a fine stretch of sandy beach, but quite impassable at high-water, for the waves washed the foot of the high cliffs that rose for 900 feet from sea level the whole way. About mid-way, the Wai-pingao stream flows out of a gorge in the cliffs, and offers a coigne of safety to those caught by the tide. It was here a tragedy occurred to be related later on (see chap. XI.) At Te Horo the old Maori track turned abruptly up the cliff, the ascent being made by stakes driven into the earth to which ropes were attached. This ascent was necessary owing to a point of land jutting out into the sea called Te Rua-taniwha (the Taniwha's lair), and which presented an impassable barrier to those desirous of proceeding along the beach. Horo it was that Te Whiti was killed (see chap. XI.) Strange to say, the small plateau at the summit of Te Horo, over which the old track passed was not fortified, the reason possibly being, that, although practically impregnable from an attack on the south, where no danger to Ngati-Tama was to be apprehended, the place lay open to the north, towards the enemy's country. From here the track descended into the Wai-kororo (probably Wai-karoro, the latter word

* The name comes from, pari, a cliff; ninihi, a species of taniwha, or fabulous monster. Probably there is some story connected with the name.

Wai, water, stream; pingao, name of a plant that grows on the sand; the seed vessels of which are furnished with arms some two inches long, that radiate so as to make a ball, which is often seen trundling along the beaches before the wind. The botanical name is Scirpus frondosus. The long tough leaves were formerly used in making belts, &c.

Te Horo means the land-slip.

page 4meaning a sea-gull) valley at its junction with the sea. From here, at low water, the track led along the beach all the way to Mokau river; but at high water, Wai-kororo and Tamure-nui (great schnapper) streams were crossed; whence the track ascended to the plateau, which here lies along the top of the cliffs at an elevation of some two hundred feet above the sea. Here was situated Katikati-aka pa, at three and a-half miles from Puke-aruhe, and which was an important fortress in former days. It was built on a crag which jutted out into the sea, and on three sides was protected by perpendicular cliffs about two hundred feet high, and on the fourth, or inland side, by a steep ravine; the narrow neck between the edge of the cliff and slope of the ravine being only from thirty to forty feet wide. This was cut off by a deep double artificial ditch twenty-five to thirty feet deep, and served to make this pa one of considerable strength."

Between these two pas—Puke-aruhe (fern hill) and Katikati-aka, the White Cliffs, 900 feet high—offered an almost impassable barrier to warlike incursions from the north, for the very broken ranges of forest clad hills that ended in the cliffs, presented very great difficulties to any one attempting to penetrate their ravines and cliffs. Any force holding these pas, thus practically held the keys of Taranaki.

"About one hundred yards beyond Katikati-aka, the track turned down again to the beach—along a fault in the cliff—and then passed, at a-half mile further on, the Wai-kiekie stream, inland of which, on a slope, stood the Tihi-manuka (Leptospermum summit) pa, to be referred to in chap. XI. From this pa a track led through the forest country, directly inland to the Whanganui, striking that river at Marae-kowai. This and the Taumata-mahoe* track, starting from the Ure-nui river, were the only two in this part of the country affording means of communication between the sea coast and the upper Whanganui and the interior. For this reason, Tiki-manuka on the Tongaporutu track and Puke-whakamaru on the Taumata-mahoe track, were built as pas of refuge, to be used only in cases of great danger, or of defeat. Along these tracks Ngati-Tama and Ngati-Mutunga could retreat into the interior, or seek aid from their allies the Ngati-ha-ua, of Upper Whanganui, as has often happened.

"A short distance beyond Wai-kiekie there is a remarkable archway in the cliffs, and several isolated pillars of rock detached from the main land, forming islands at high-water. On one of those pillars, a

* The Taumata-mahoe (mahoc-brow) track was first traversed by Mr. (afterwards Sir Donald) McLean in the very early fifties, he being the first white man to make use of it.

page 5small party of Ngati-Tama took refuge from a large taua of Ngati-Mania-poto, and successfully defended it, finally making good their escape.

"The Tonga-porutu river is next reached, at a distance of seven miles from Puke-aruhe. Here, on the south bank stands Pa-tangata,* the great island pa of Taringa-kuri, and said to have been the scene of the treacherous murder of Rangi-hapainga, a Ngati-Maniapoto chieftainess of high rank; which was afterwards fully avenged at the taking of Tihi-manuka, for which see chapter XI. Pa-tangata is an island at high water, standing about 200 yards off the line of cliffs forming the shore. Its sides rise sheer to a height of from seventy to eighty feet, making it practically impregnable in the days before fire-arms were introduced.

"From Katikati-aka to the Mokau river, the edge of the forest recedes from the coast for a distance varying from a quarter to half a mile to the foot of the ranges. This open strip of coast land is usually very fertile, and at one time must have been highly cultivated to support the large population that dwelt in the numerous forts that are still to be seen perched on every point of vantage. The sea swarmed with fish, and along the coast are to be found some of the finest mussel reefs on the West Coast of this Island, the possession of which was a fruitful source of quarrels. Stories are told of many desperate fights that have taken place for the right of gathering this valuable article of food.

"About a mile north of the Tonga-porutu river the way is barred by another great fort—Omaha—originally a projection of the coast, but which has since been severed from the main land by a huge trench forty feet deep and sixty feet wide at the top, by which it was converted into an island at high water. The other sides are sheer cliffs one hundred feet high. Half a mile beyond Omaha the track again turned inland at the Otukehu stream, and at a mile further on comes down to the beach at the famous pa of Te Kawau—nine and a half miles from Puke-aruhe, and four and a half miles south of the Mokau river.

"Te Kawau pa, was in former times the key to the whole of the West coast, the buttress which for generations stemmed the tide of invasion from the north, by tauas of the powerful tribes of Ngati-Mania-poto and Waikato in their attempted incursions into the fertile Taranaki country to the south; and it was the home of the warlike

* See Plate No. 1.

page 6brothers, Raparapa and Tupoki. The lament for the latter refers to Te Kawau, in the line:—

'He tumu herenga waka, no runga, no raro'.

'The anchorage of canoes (war parties) from north and south.'

"The main pa was situated on an isolated rock partly surrounded at high water; the extent of the top was about seventy-five yards by forty yards, and the only approach was from the landward side, by using ladders which were drawn up after the inhabitants had retired within the pa. On all other sides the cliffs rose sheer to a height of from eighty to one hundred feet. The other part of the pa was separated from this citadel by a deep rift or chasm* twenty yards wide and thirty-five yards deep. It was into this rift that the Ngati-Mania-poto chief Pahi-tahanga fell, in trying to escape after the failure of their attempted surprise of the pa. The landward portion of Te Kawau is one of those ready-made strong holds, which the ingenuity of man has converted into an impregnable retreat. The narrow neck—about twelve or fifteen feet wide—which connects this part of the pa with the main land, is almost completely severed by a deep trench, and along the neck was the only approach to the pa, and on all other sides the cliffs rose perpendicularly from the sea, and from the Kira-tahi stream, and sea beach, forming an impassable rampart. Around the base of this double pa, and northward on the beach called Rangi-kawaka, many a fierce battle has been fought. Some three hundred yards north of Te Kawau pa a reef or ledge juts out from the base of the cliff, and runs down to low-water-mark; this ledge was a favourite fighting place between the tribes; each of which sought to be the first to secure advantage of its height to hold it against the foe.

"Tho beach between To Kawau and Hukunui at the mouth of the Mohaka-tino—a length of two miles—was the scene of numberless battles and skirmishes. Midway stands the historic Pou-tama rock, which gives its name to the surrounding country. Within the breakers in fine weather, it is only to be seen at very low tide, and when the beach is partly denuded of sand. Here stands Pou-tama transformed into a rock, in shape and form like unto a man (see the legend, chapter VII.) About one hundred yards from the south bank of the Mohakatino, on a small detached position on the coast, is Hukunui the last and most advanced stronghold of Ngati-Tama—the Mohaka-tino river just beyond being the boundary between that tribe and Ngati-Mania-poto. Near by is the Waiana Cave, the scene of a treacherous murder, to be described in chapter XI."

* Sec Plate No. 2.

page 7

From the White Cliffs commences the level and undulating country which extends right away from there to Pae-kakariki, twenty-seven miles from Wellington. It is backed inland by broken ranges of no great height, as far as the Waitara river; the undulating country gradually increasing in width from its commencement at Puke-aruhe until at Waitara it is four or five miles wide. Most of this plateau was open fern land in 1840, with patches of wood here and there, especially in the valleys of the numerous streams that cross it to the sea, whilst the ranges behind were everywhere under forest. The coast line between these two points is generally lined with perpendicular cliffs, with breaks here and there, gradually declining in height until the Waitara river is reached, where the shore is low, with occasional sand hills. On the tops of these cliffs are many old pas, always situated at such points that the people could get down to the sea for fishing. It is a rich soil; and hence the numbers of pas scattered about this part, particularly at Ure-nui.

From Waitara southwards, the same level country continues, but with a greater width, sloping very easily and gradually up to Mount Egmont. It was open fern land for a width of from two to four miles in 1840, with many wooded gullies advancing towards the sea. The coast from Waitara to the Sugar-loaf Islands (Nga-Motu, the Islands) is generally low, with cliffs here and there, but of no great height, and the country is, as usual, intersected by many streams, along the banks of which, and scattered over the plain, are numerous old pas, which are invariably situated on some hill, or spur that has been taken advantage of to strengthen the artificial fortifications. It is a beautiful and rich country, now occupied by farms, and has always been from a very ancient date, thickly populated by the Native inhabitants; indeed, as we shall see, it was near the Wai-o-ngana (Ngana's river, for probably Ngana is a person's or a god's name) stream that the first settlement of Maoris on this coast took place.

At the Sugar-loaf Islands, the general outline of the coast is interrupted by a projecting point formed by a line of eruptive rocks that appear to be an offshoot from the Pouakai Ranges, and probably indicate the earliest symptoms of volcanic agency in the district. The point itself is emphasized by the remarkable rocky mount of Paritutu (pari, cliff; tutu, upstanding) that forms a land mark for many miles both north and south. It is 506 feet high, and on the top are to be found the signs of fortification; for this was a place of refuge during the warlike incursions that this rich district has so often been subject to. The same remark applies to the two larger islands, Motu-mahanga (Motu, an island; mahanga, twins) and Motu-roa (high island), both page 8of which were places of refuge. The surrounding district is noted for the number of Maori pas, some of large size; indeed, Pu-kaka* or Marsland Hill, in the Town of New Plymouth, is one of the largest in the district, and prior to the levelling operations undertaken by the Military in 1856, to form the site of the barracks, was a very fine specimen of a pa, its tihi, or summit, rising in terraces for over forty feet above the present level. Living as the Maoris did, very close together, this pa must have contained a large population prior to its abandonment. (See plan of Pu-kaka.)

From the Sugar-loaf Islands southward, the coast presents no prominent feature right away to Pae-kakariki (the parraquet's perch) twenty-seven miles from Wellington, and situated just at the point where the Tararua ranges wash their feet in Cook's Straits. It is alternately low, rocky or sandy, with here and there long lines of perpendicular cliffs of no great height, on top of which are many old pas as we shall see. Until Patea (white fort) is reached, there are few beaches, but south of that, most of the coast has fine hard sands that formed the ancient highway. This part of the coast is intersected by a large number of streams and some rivers of a good size, such as the Patea, Wai-totara (totara—river), Whanga-nui (big bay), Turakina (thrown down), Whanga-ehu (turbid stream), Rangi-tikei (place of high stepping), Manawa-tu (the startled heart), &c.

From Pae-kakariki round the south end of the North Island, the coast is iron-bound, the spurs of the Tararua Ranges falling steeply to high-water mark. Even in quite recent times the whole was forest clad, and, indeed, some parts are still clothed in wood, but the axe of the settler has played havoc with most of the forest. This part of the coast is broken by the small harbour of Porirua and by Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the great bay of Tara§) or Port Nicholson, on the shores of which the city of Wellington is built.

Starting southward from the base of Mount Egmont, the whole of the country inland of the coast line is either level, undulating, or

* The meaning of Pu-kaka is somewhat uncertain, and no Maori of the present day can say what it means. It probably means a bunch of parrots, when they are tied together by the necks for carrying. This would imply that the hill was forest clad in Maori times, and possibly was frequented by the kaka or parrot.

This name seems a misnomer; but, if the Maori traditions are correct, to the effect that the sea once came right up to where the town of Whanganui now stands, then the name is appropriate.

The origin of many names of places along the coast south of Patea are given in an old Maori song, published in Journal Polynesian Society, Vol. XIV., p. 133.

§ §So named after Tara, eponymous ancestor of the Ngai-Tara tribe that formerly owned Port Nicholson.

page 9slightly broken, which, character it maintains for varying distances inland, but gradually rises to the interior ranges. At the time of arrival of the first European settlers, there was a strip of open fern land varying in breadth all along the coast. The greatest width was about Feilding, some fifteen miles from the coast; but there were even here large patches of wood dotting the plain. Palmerston North, even as late as 1870, was a mere clearing in the forest, and from there to Paekakariki along the present Manawatu Railway line was practically one solid forest the whole way, excepting a narrow belt along the coast. From Whanganui southward, the vegetation of the open country was principally toetoe, flax, tea-tree and cabbage-trees, which took the place of the bracken of the northern parts.

It was along this open belt of country, described above, that most of the Native inhabitants lived; excepting on the Whanganui river, and in a few other places, the country inland was not occupied permanently, though excursions were constantly made inland to obtain birds, eels and other forest produce. The great forest that has been described extended, without break, from the site of Wellington City to near the Manukau Heads. Taking a somewhat sinuous line through the centre of it, it had a length of about 350 miles, and a varying width of from twenty to sixty miles of solid forest, which, but for the few native paths leading through it, and a few villages here and there, was practically uninhabited, and formed a barrier to incursions of hostile parties from outside. A large part of this great forest has disappeared in the operation of clearing and settling the country, and with it has gone much of the sylvan beauty that characterised the region. With the forests have also disappeared the vast number of birds whose song was at one time an ever present accompaniment to the traveller who passed through these parts. The forest was a storehouse of food for the Natives. In the season, expeditions were made inland by the whole of the able-bodied inhabitants of a village—men, women and children—where they gathered the forest fruits, speared the birds, such as pigeons, parrots, tuis, parraquets, bell-birds, and others; or hunted the kiwi and weka with the old breed of dogs brought with them from Hawaiki. Many trees that attracted the birds were individual or family property. Such trees usually had a special name, and many of them are famous in song and story. In the miro trees, vast numbers of pigeons were caught as they came to feed on the little red drupes, the eating of which caused great thirst in the birds. The Maoris took advantage of this, to place in the branches small wooden troughs filled with water, round the edges of which were snares made of the delicate epidermis of the stem of the Mouku (Asplenium bulbeferum) fern, that page 10was quite the commonest of the vast variety of ferns that carpeted the old forests, and added so much to their beauty. The long bird spear (here) often twenty to forty feet long with its six-inch barb of bone was also used with great dexterity, especially for spearing the kaka or parrot. Rough shelters of branches were built, sufficient to hide a man, and in front of it a horizontal rod was placed with tufts of rata flowers at either end; the bird-catcher, sitting within his shelter, a long rod in hand, would imitate the cry of several birds by aid of a leaf between his lips, especially the makomako, or Bell-bird, and as they alighted on the horizontal rod, would knock them over. In this manner large numbers were taken. The larger birds were frequently potted in their own fat for winter stores. It was a free life enjoyed by all, as they wandered through these grand old forests. The elders would take the opportunity of pointing out, to the younger generation, the boundaries of the tribal and family lands, repeating the names of each place, and telling of any incidents that had occurred there concerning their ancestors. It is astonishing how numerous these names were; every stream, hillock, or rock, or other natural feature was well-known and had a name, and generally each was derived from circumstances connected with individual or tribal history. Maori place-names are but rarely descriptive, or topographical; hence the uncertainty of the translations of them.