The reality of New Zealand history
By John Robinson
I have introduced myself, in “Revisionism of revisionism: taking history back to reality”, (Scroll down to August 10), as the author of several books on New Zealand history, with a focus on the key role of the Maori actors in the unfolding drama.
Here I note some features of pre-contact Maori tribal life, to consider what the movement of tribes meant for those whose lands, and lives, were taken from them.
As I have read further historical accounts, I have often found a common story, repeated many times over the centuries, of tribal movement to conquer and replace the then ‘people of the land’.
Further confirmation of brutality
I have just come across two more.
One is a book about Tuwharetoa of Taupo. There Maruiwi, “one of the aboriginal tribes of New Zealand”, had been driven out by Te Atiawa, then “hunted and slaughtered as they retreated”. The next residents, Ngati Hotu, were in turn overwhelmed by Tuwharetoa, who took over that land.
The other is of Northland, where Chief Pairama told Andreas Reischek “the tribes formerly living here had been very good at working and cultivation, but who knew little about fighting. His forefathers had conquered them, eating those they killed, and enslaving the rest.”
There was a similar happening around Kapiti when Rangitane came through the Manawatu.
Buick describes how, after one of the last battles, “so important a battle was celebrated by a great feast, and for the next few days the ovens were kept hot for the reception of the dead bodies, which as fast as they were cooked were served up with all the horrors attendant upon the savage orgies and cannibal banquets of the ancient Maori.”
The Ngatiawa survivors retreated and sheltered on the island of Kapiti.
Fear and insecurity
Many communities were driven from their ancestral lands, and many were living in fear of attack from their neighbours.
The insecurity was immediately evident to Cook in 1769.
“The perpetual hostility in which these poor savages who have made very village a fort must necessarily live, will account for there being so little of their land in a state of cultivation; and as mischiefs very often reciprocally produce each other, it may perhaps appear that there being so little land in cultivation will account for their living in perpetual hostility.”
While some battles were for conquest, other fighting had no meaning other than adventure and the glory of battle.
Two such great taua passed through our region.
- In 1819-20 a war party of Ngati Whatua and Ngapuhi from Northland were joined by Ngati Toa at Kawhia as they moved down the west coast to Wellington, and back again.
- In 1821-22 another war party, from Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto, with other tribes joining in, moved down the east coast to the Wellington region, which had been decimated a short time before, before returning up the west coast, passing and attacking Kapiti.
This Amiowhenua (‘round the island’) expedition was probably the longest overland raid that any Maori force ever undertook, the distance travelled being around 800 miles.
Buick’s assessment was that this war party “longing for some new excitement, had journeyed down the East Coast for no particular purpose except to kill, eat, or make slaves of whosoever might fall into their hands”.
Ongoing conflict and insecurity
Many of these events tell only of the exploits of the warriors. But the victims should not be forgotten. “The resident people were everywhere defeated, and those who were not killed, captured, or eaten, were driven into mountain fastnesses, there to miserably survive, or as miserably perish if they could not”.
The triple damage to Kapiti communities left them easy prey for conquest shortly after.
Intertribal warfare was widespread in those years, with an extraordinary number of fights.
Historian James Rutherford counted 203 battles in 1821-1825, one every 9 days. Some 11,300 were killed in those battles, a death rate of around 10% of the population in just five years, while others were slaughtered, enslaved or driven off.
The threat from the Waikato tribes
Ngati Toa at Kaipara and Te Atiawa in Taranaki were under frequent attack by more powerful Waikato forces.
Te Rauparaha decided then to acted on the advice of Te Wherowhero – on a hilltop at Makara on the Wellington coast he had pointed to a passing vessel and “With unrestrained excitement he called out to his comrade: Oh, Raha, do you see that people sailing on the sea? They are a very good people; and if you conquer this land and hold intercourse with them, you will obtain guns and powder and become very great.”
Both Ngati Toa and Te Atiawa decided to move to the south, away from the threats of Waikato, to a land where tribes had been weakened by the two great taua and were easy picking.
The people of the Kapiti coast, and of Wellington, were attacked yet again, driven off their lands.
Descendents of that last wave of invaders, and killers, now claim wrongs by the system that put an end to that repeated sequence of invasions, and profit from yet another round of ‘final’ Treaty settlements.
The Treaty brings peace
Peace did not come until the Treaty. There were disputes and fighting between Ngati Toa and Te Atiawa, and among other allied tribes.
The last battle of the intertribal wars Kuititanga, at Waikanae in 1839 between Raukawa and Te Atiawa. Te Rauparaha, who was friendly with both sides, watched from the sidelines.
When the fighting along the beach was over, the victorious Te Atiawa took their prisoners to Kenakena, where they were executed and buried in a mass grave. One estimate is of 90 dead, another of more than twice that number.
Meanwhile back in Taranaki the few remaining Te Atiawa, who were living in constant fear of a further attack from Waikato, welcomed the New Zealand Company and sold the land in 1839. Then they could be safe under the protection of colonial forces.
The consequences of inter-tribal war
The migrations, the killing and the social disruption of those tribal wars left problems that would continue or fester for more than a generation.
After the Treaty, those Te Atiawa who returned to Taranaki from slavery in the Waikato, and those living at Waikanae, disputed the sale of the land they had left, and feuded over ownership.
Eventually a decision by Governor Brown to apply the law and allow one chief to sell his own land was to lead to war.
One hidden, and unrecognised, consequence was that the disruption and social breakdown had produced a demographic imbalance, a deficit of young girls and women, that assured a population decline for some 40 years after the Treaty.
This is the topic of my next article.