Among the Many Historic Maori Flags which have been unfurled on important and significant occasions is ‘Moutoa’, which made its first appearance before Royalty at Auckland in 1869, when Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (the ‘sailor son’ of Queen Victoria and her Consort) visited New Zealand.
The flag, of considerable import to Whanganui, now rests in Alexander Museum, and commemorates a pitched battle between hostile Hauhau and a defending Maori force which withstood the threat of the former to drive the Europeans from the settlement and into the sea. The action was fought on the lozengeshaped island of Moutoa, some 45 miles up river from the present city.
‘Moutoa’ was taken to Auckland on that occasion by the redoubtable Major Kemp (Keepa Te Rangihiwinui) and a detachment of his fighting men who joined in the greeting to the Royal visitor. Again, at the turn of the century, ‘Moutoa’ was seen at Rotorua, during the tremendous Maori reception in 1901 to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, who were later to become King George V and Queen Mary.
With the visit by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh scheduled for Whanganui early next January it is likely that ‘Moutoa’ will fly again, waving overhead its message of loyalty, and unfurling memories of stirring, anxious and unpredictable days.
Early in May, 1864, information reached the inhabitants of Whanganui that a taua, led by the fanatic prophet Matene Rangitauira, was on its way to attack the river settlement. A force of defenders was rapidly assembled, and left the township in five canoes, commanded by Kereti te Hiwitahi, Hemi Nape (both later slain in the battle), Riwai te Atua, Mete Kingi and Apereniko. Reinforcements were gathered at Pamoana—a famous river stronghold near Koriniti (Corinth).
Well up river, negotiations in Maori fashion between the opposing forces were opened, and it was decided that they meet to the death on Moutoa Island the following day—May 14, 1864.
The island is said to be a part of Taranaki, which broke from his flank as he drew the deep gorges of the Whanganui riverbed on his flight from the wrath of Tongariro and Ruapehu after he had failed to abduct Pihanga, Tongariro's wife.
The battle on Moutoa Island surged so much in favour of the hostile force in its early stages that victory was within an ace of the Hauhau's grasp. A rally led by Tamehana te Aewa, Haimona Hiroti and Mete Kingi with reinforcements saved the day, and the raiders, variously estimated at from 118 to 300 strong, were routed by the original 100 of the force—nearly 400 strong—who were put on the island to meet the first assault. Hauhau losses were between 50 and 80, with as many wounded, and the Wha-
nganui force suffered 14 killed and about 30 wounded.
One unusual incident of the engagement reported at the time was the use of chloroform by a doctor of the 57th Regiment, during an operation to amputate the badly wounded leg of the Whanganui man of rank, Tamehana. But perhaps the most amazing features of the clash were that it lasted only 15 minutes, and that when rank met opposing rank the riflemen shot at targets only inches away from them.
After the battle the women in the Whanganui district raised funds from which were purchased materials to make the flag, and clothing, and food. The flag was later presented to the survivors of the Whanganui force, and a distribution of the clothing and food was made to the families of all who participated in the action. Independent and individual gifts were made by residents of the town to their Maori friends. Presents of tobacco seemed to be among those most readily acceptable.
In addition, a memorial was built by public subscription to commemorate the battle, and the column, with its superlative inscription, rears high and proud in Moutoa Gardens, adjacent to the city's courts of justice.
The flag is made of white silk and oversewn with a Union Jack in the upper left canton and a gold crown in the centre, while underneath are displayed a European and a Maori hand clasped in friendship.
‘Moutoa’ was presented to the museum authorities 40 years after it was made and given, with full honours and ceremony, tribute and gratitude, to those who had defended with their lives the struggling river settlement. For many years it was in the safekeeping of the Mete Kingi family, and from them it passed into public possession.
The flag has been used on various occasions and flown in Moutoa Gardens, and it has paid its own silent tribute to Major Kemp and other notable Whanganui chieftains as it lay draped over their funeral caskets.
In this article an attempt has been made to outline the story of an historic flag and the event it commemorates. Elsewhere in New Zealand flags are known to exist with equally important historical backgrounds.
Before it is too late, before history itself perishes with these tribal and other emblems, could the author, through Te Ao Hou, make a plea that further flag histories be gathered and recorded with appropriate diagram, description and story?