Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 24 (October 1958)
– 11 –

THE KNIGHT ERRANTRY
OF TAMAHAE

Once upon a time, somewhere, I should judge, about the time that Queen Anne sat on the throne of England, there lived on the East Coast of the North Island, three brothers. They were great-grandsons of that Apanuiwaipapa who gave his name to the great tribe of Whanau Apanui, which, in the days I am speaking of, occupied the East Coast from Te Kuri a Whare (the Watch-dogs of Whare) which are two small islands off the coast near Tauranga, right down to Tikirau which Captain Cook was later to rename Cape Runaway.

The names of these brothers were Kaiaio, Te Ehutu and Tamahae and all of them became famous in one way and another. We are concerned in this story with but two of them, the eldest, whose name was Kaiaio and the youngest who was called Tamahae.

You could not imagine two brothers more different in character.

As the elder Kaiaio was the upoko-ariki or paramount chief of his tribe. Indeed so many illustrious lines of descent converged in him that he started off a new tribe of which he became the eponymous ancestor. To be an eponymous ancestor is a great thing in any man's language for it means that your name goes down in history almost forever. Put more simply it means a man who gives his name to all his descendants. The original Scotsman named Donald was the eponymous ancestor of all the McDonalds, the original Irishman named Suanassey became the eponymous ancestor of all the Irishmen named O'Suanassey. So Kaiaio, when his descendants became so numerous that it was necessary for them to break away into a sub-tribe, gave his name to them. They became known as the Whanau-a-Kaiaio, or the family of Kaiaio, a name they still bear.

In addition to becoming an eponymous ancestor Kaiaio became moderately famous in another way. Had he been one of those stalwarts who love fighting and destroying their fellow men he might have become even more renowned. As it was, he was only a peaceful man whose interests tended to be useful rather than destructive, and this, naturally, tended to limit his fame.

Among the useful arts he practised was the pursuit of agriculture and, in particular, the cultivation of the kumara. He had what the pakeha calls a 'green finger', and what the Maori calls ringaringa makura. He became widely known as one who had skill in developing bigger, better and more prolific types of kumara. Not being averse to talking about his exploits and achievements he left behind many sayings of which one of the best known is “ko tahi taku huata, ki runga hauruia

– 12 –

te mano, te mano, te mano”. A free translation of this would be to the effect “for every kumara I plant in my garden at Hauruia there follows a progeny of thousands”.

It may well be admitted that Kaiaio was not much different from you and from me in his fondness for talking about his hobby. As his hobby was connected with food he had some justification for considering it important. Food was probably the most important single thing there was to the Maori of that day.

Tamahae, the youngest brother, was interested in the kumara only as an article of diet. He sometimes became bored with Kaiaio's talk about the kumara he had planted, was planting or intended to plant. “It that all you can talk about?” said Tamahae one day when Kaiaio was talking about some new strain he was developing. “Kumara? Pah ….! Food? Bah ….! You talk about nothing but food.” And he spat disgustedly.

Kaiaio paused in his discourse and looked tolerantly at his youngest brother. “My dear Tamahae”, he said gently, “do not scoff at food. When you go forth to your glory in battle remember it is food which ensures your conquests. Battles are not won by starved men. Indeed it could be said that the victories of Tamahae were planted with the kumara of Kaiaio.”

Tamahae was silent for awhile. The chiefs waited anxiously for his reply. The Maori of old, like the pakeha of old, were a touchy people. Bitter and lasting feuds had started from much smaller differences of opinion. They had heaved a sigh of relief when Tamahae, at length, answered his brother in equally gentle a tone.

“You are right, my elder brother,” he said, “I will remember your words. Every time I win a battle I will remember your kumara.”

Tamahae, though the youngest brother, was most noted as a warrior. He was a doer of doughty deeds which are preserved in the memory and story of his people. He is remembered as among the greatest of all the warriors of Whanau Apanui. From his earliest boyhood he delighted in practising his weapons. Like the European knights of the previous centuries he was always looking for trouble. Whenever he heard of a warrior who had a reputation for skill with any particular weapon he would seek him out to master his skill. He became expert in the use of patu, or short club; he became noted in the employment of the hoeroa, or throwing club, and he became, above all, renowned as the wizard of the taiaha, the favourite fighting weapon of chiefs. He became, in fact, so expert that no one in his neighbourhood could stand up to him.

Tamahae had a purpose in acquiring these skills. He had a great and growing injury to avenge. His grandmother, Kahukurahihiata, had been slain while on a visit to Mahia by the Ngati Rakaipaaka. His uncle Kaimatai had been killed while on a visit to avenge the death of Kahukuramihiata. Tamahae yearned for the day when he would go south and wipe out this insult. But Kaiaio made him wait until he, the elder brother, thought the time was ripe.

“But, Kaiaio,” complained Tamahae, one day, “My skill is becoming blunted for lack of adequate practice.”

“Well,” replied Kaiaio, slyly, “if you have really exhausted the taiaha, you could turn to the mastery of the ko.”

The ko is a digging stick, and Kaiaio was gently hinting that work is always a substitute for boredom. Tamahae pretended to consider this advice seriously.

“Thank you, no,” he said after awhile. “You,” Kaiaio, are so completely the master of that weapon that it would not become me to challenge you.”

TAMAHAE SEEKS REVENGE

As time went by Tamahae's fame increased. His impatience to avenge the death of his grandmother increased with it. Observing this Kaiaio one day said to him.

“I hear that one Kuri Teko of Rongowhakaata is a noted expert of the taiaha. It is said that no man could defeat him.”

“It is wrongly said, then,” replied Tamahae. “I could beat him. Indeed I would have done so long ago, had you not held me back. It is high time that I set out to avenge the death of my grandmother.”

“Remember,” enjoined Kaiaio, “that many warriors have set out on that errand, and have not come back. There was Kaimatai, there was Kurautao and there was Hikawhakama. None of them returned. If however you believe you can do what they left undone, I will no longer hold you.”

Tamahae jumped with joy. He twirled round, whirling his taiaha and making furious passes at an imaginary enemy.

“Give me a supply of those famous kumara you are always talking about,” he said, “and I will go down and settle our score with Ngati Rakaipaaka. And on the way I will call on this Kuri Teko and pin his ears back with his own taiaha.” With this modest statement he gathered a great following and set off down the coast. He made pacts with the tribes of Ngati Porou, whereby they let him pass unchallenged through their territory. Eventually he came to Turanganui (which the pakeha calls Gisborne.) Here he met many chiefs of those parts, though Kuri Teko was not among them.

“So, you are Tamahae?” said an old chief of Aitangaamahaki on whom Tamahae made a call. “Men say you are a mighty toa, a warrior of the highest repute.”

With his customary modesty Tamahae admitted that such reports were but the truth, though there might be, he said, an element of understatement about them.

– 13 –

“Well, well,” said the old man, rubbing his chin reflectively, “I was just another in my day. I might have become even more famous than I am, if that were possible, but I allowed myself to become side-tracked. One of my wives got me interested in growing hue (gourds). Every time I went out on a little fighting expedition I got home to find I had missed the most interesting point in one of my experiments.”

“You don't say?” remarked Tamahae, without much interest. “What was your weapon?”

Patu,” said the old man, shortly. “As I was about to tell you, I got the idea that if I took a bud from a good strain and ….”

“I daresay,” interrupted Tamahae. “What type of patu did you favour?”

“Greenstone,” replied the old man. “But not for its snob value. I found that it kept its edge better than onewa, which is inclined to chip. Whalebone, of course, has its points, but I found it liable to warp when twisted under strain. Now, getting back to those experiments in budding …”

“Why?” persisted Tamahae, “why would you want to twist a patu under strain?”

“Because,” said the old man, who was getting a bit sour at being interrupted in his story of his experiments with the hue, “because, in the days before I discovered what a waste of time all this fighting was, I spent some time to perfecting a thrust to the temple, a little trick of which you may have heard. You strike just above the right ear, with the blade of the patu held parallel to the ground. If you hit at the right place, with the right strength, you can lift the whole top of the skull with a flick of the wrist. Pretty; but only really successful with a greenstone mere. Nowadays, however, I devote my time to more important things. For instance this grafting process …”

“Ah!” Tamahae regarded the old man with increased respect. “You must, indeed, be none other than Te Putangamaiiro. I have indeed heard of that thrust.”

“I am he,” admitted the old chief, “As a result of these grafts I perfected I managed to breed a hue which grows so big that it is the largest obtainable receptacle for the preserving of rats, pigeons or tui. But you must be careful when tying the bud into the graft ….”

“You should speak to my brother, Kaiaio, about these things,” Tamahae told him. “As for me, my only interest in food receptacles is in the emptying of them. If, however, you care to demonstrate your thrust to me, I have a slave or two whom I could easily spare.”

But the old man had lost interest in weapons and warfare and turned to asking Tamahae about the experiments his brother Kaiaio was making with kumara. Tamahae became bored and soon they parted.

On his way down the coast from his home at Te Kaha Tamahae had passed unmolested through the territory of Ngati Porou, having concluded non-aggression pacts with Rerekohu of Waiapa and with Konohe of Uawa. His initial friendly relations with some of the chiefs of Turanga led him to expect that he would be given free passage through the territory of Rongo Whakaata and Aitangaamahaki tribes, so that he was somewhat surprised when, on the morning following his discussions with Te Putangamaiiro, he found his progress blocked by a large force of warriors of the Ngai Tawhiri, a sub-tribe of Rongo Whakaata.

THE UNKNOWN GIANT

When I say he was surprised, you must not understand that he was taken unawares. Any Maori or party of Maoris travelling through the territory of another tribe had constantly to be on the alert for hostility. Tamahae, on this occasion however, appears to have been taken somewhat less prepared than his usual wont. The Ngai Tawhiri attacked from ambush and the Whanau Apanui contingent were put to it to hold their own. The main brunt of the Ngai Tawhiri attack seemed to centre round a gigantic man easily picked out, not only from his size and his adept use of his taiaha, but also from the fact that he was extremely light in colour, so as to be almost an albino. This huge warrior carried all before him and one after another of Tamahae's stalwarts went down before the deadly stroke of his

– 14 –

Picture icon

GENEALOGY OF TAMAHAE, HIS FRIENDS AND HIS ENEMIES

weapon. Fearing that this man's prowess might dismay that wing of his own force which was sustaining his attack, Tamahae forced his way through the melee in order to match himself with the giant.

As they matched weapons Tamahae realized he had met a master of the weapon and no doubt he “felt that stern joy which warriors feel in foemen worthy of their steel”. If he did, however it was not in Maori tradition to show it, for his was a punitive expedition and on such occasions the victory was not complete with the mere taking of an enemy's life, but only with the destruction of his mana as well. So when, after a keen bout, Tamahae succeeded in disarming his enemy he laid aside his taiaha and drew his greenstone mere to administer the death-blow.

“What a pity,” he said in an insulting tone, “that I must sully so noble a weapon with the blood of a low born slave.”

The fallen warrior drew himself up, proudly though with difficulty, on his elbow. “Who says that Kuri Teko is of low degree?” he demanded. “I am of the same blood as you. In all the many generations of my whakapapa there is not one ancestor who was not bred on the chevroned mat of chieftainship.”

“Ah!” said Tamahae. “So you are the famed Kuri Teko. Well, if it is any satisfaction to you, I will concede that you are a passable performer on the taiaha. Under other circumstances I might have spared you, but I took a great oath on Mount Maramaramaterangi that I would spare none of my enemies.” Whereupon he slew Kuri Teko.

The loss of their chieftain disheartened the Ngai Tawhiri and they fled. Among those who lived to fly was a great chief of Ngati Rakaipaakka named Te Huke, the same Te Huke of whom it was later said that his relationship to so many chiefs of exalted rank was as the posts upholding the net of mana over the East Coast.

DEATH OF TE HUKE

Te Huke was overtaken and slain at the crossing of the Te Arai river at a point near to where the Manutuke Bridge now spans the main highway between Gisborne and Wairoa. Te Huke's head they cut off, and left it on a pole at te Karaka. The spot is still known as te upoko o te Huke, and is just north of Te Karaka, on the Otoko road, at a spot where rail and road converge.

They took with them back to Te Kaha te Huke's famous greenstone toko-pou-tangata which bore the name of Te Waiwharangi. It was deposited in a secret cave, and for all I have been able to learn to the contrary it may be there still. So great a warrior was Te Huke and so high stood he in the aristocracy of Ngati Kahungunu that

– 15 –

his death was accepted as sufficient utu for the murder of Kahukuramihiata and for the loss of those other chiefs who fell while trying to avenge her death.

Tamahae is still remembered in the Turanga district by the saying “Ka hika putanga, ka kumara Kaiaio, ka rehu Tamahae”, which might broadly be translated as meaning that the skill of Putanga in the short jab of the mere and the great strength contained in the kumara of Kaiaio, both contributed to the famous sweeping blow of his taiaha which enabled Tamahae to win so many victories.

It was the memory of Kaiaio, and especially of the tasty kumara which came from his gardens which finally set Tamahae's feet on the homeward journey. He did not reach home, however, without further adventures.

At Tatapouri, some miles north of Turanga he met a nameless chief who aspired to gain renown by impeding the progress of the famed Tamahae. The nameless one proved unequal to his ambition and achieved only a new understanding of the full name of his locality, Ta-ta-po-uri-taanga, or the place where darkness falls quickly. Darkness fell quickly indeed on that luckless chief and it remained over him eternally as Tamahae proceeded victoriously and joyously on his way.

TAMAHAE AND KONOHE

Toward twilight Tamahae came to the creek called Pouawa from the circumstance that a post, or pole, had been erected in the bed of the creek. It was the custom of travellers camping there for the night to hang their kits of food on this pole in order to keep them above the reach of rat or dog. Here he encountered that famous chief of Whangara-mai-tawhiti named Konohe. To him Tamahae related the story of his epic contest with the forces of Kuri Teko and gave a demonstration of the famous rehu or sweeping blow with which he had demolished their chieftain.

“It is, indeed, a shrewd blow,” admitted Konohe, “but it is one I could counter, I think, though I prefer the shorter weapon to your taiaha.” Where-upon he threw himself into a posture of defence and soon they were at it. Practice play warmed into real conflict and in the heat of the contest each set himself out to destroy the other. It was indeed a contest of giants, but so expert were they both that neither could prevail. In the end they broke off the affair by mutual consent. It is said by some that it was on this occasion that they made their famous pact, which was framed by Konohe in the following saying:

“Ka tu te kohatu ki Wahakino

Ka tu te kohatu ki Takore.”

which means.

My stone stands steadfast at Wahakino

Your stone stands steadfast at Takore.

On up the coast journeyed Tamahae, seeking fresh adventures to beguile his homeward journey.

He and his men came at dusk to a small village where they became embroiled in a fracas with the local inhabitants. Hine Tapora, wife of Rangikaputua, chieftain of Whanau Umuariki, and herself a woman of great rank, came amongst them commanding that they desist. It is said that Tamahae, in the confusion of the melee and in the gathering of the dusk, mistook her for a man. In any case he slew her. Discovering who she was he took her body and hid it in a disused storage pit which appears to have been under the care of a slave named Torea. For ever after that village bore the name of Rua-a-toria, or the Pit of Torea. The name endures to this day and no doubt will endure long after the circumstances of its naming have been forgotten.

Following this incident Tamahae moved on again. At Waiomatatini he crossed taiaha with one Makahuri in an epic contest of many bouts At Tikitiki he had words with a small man named Hikitai, who was moved to anger and flung a spear at Tamahae, but missed him. Tamahae taunted him with his small stature, but Hikitai reminded him that even a small axe could fell a large tree if the axe were of greenstone. And from that reply has come down the saying, “He iti ra; he iti mapihi pounamu”. Tamahae

– 16 –

accepted this as a fair reply and they parted on amiable terms.

At Rangitukia he encountered a man named Putanga who was noted for his lack of beauty. Tamahae made some disparaging remark about Putanga's ugliness whereupon that worthy replied that though he might lack in good looks he belonged to the deep pool below the rapids, where only the largest eels are found. Hence another Ngati Porou saying, “He kino ra, he kino no tau o te wai”.

Tamahae had not long been back with his own tribe when they were attacked by Ngati Porou in retaliation for the killing of Hine Tapora, the Queen of the Waiapu. In this attack Ngati Porou had enlisted the aid of Ngati Konohe, and this aid was given in spite of Konohe's pact with Tamahae. This occasioned Tamahae's famous parody of Konohe's saying earlier mentioned. Tamahae remarked, “Ka taka te kowhatu i Wahakino, Ka tu te toka i Takore.” Wahakino is a rock at Whangara which symbolises Konohe, and Takore is a rock at Te Kaha symbolizing Tamahae. The saying implies that Konohe's rock shifted from its pledged purpose but Tamahae's remained steadfast to his promise.

As far as I can ascertain, Tamahae, in spite of being so fond of fighting and of knight-erranting, died peacefully in his bed of a great old age. His fame has come down through the centuries in far more glowing terms that of his brother Kaiaio, though both were famous men in their own right. But though Tamahae's fame as a warrior appears to have exceeded that of Kaiaio's as an agriculturist, I am assured that Tamahae laid aside his beloved taiaha long before he lost his fondness for Kaiaio's kumara.

And of all my Maori friends I know not one who can claim to be as skilled with the talaha as Tamahae, but I know quite as many who can do full justice to the onslaught on the kumara of Kaiaio.

In any case, on all their bones be peace.

Some time ago, when I was journeying in a bus I met a very, very old kuia. Our talk touched on many things, including the story of Tamahae. She told me, and I was glad to learn, that the variety of kumara perfected by Kaiaio was a white kumara and was known as uti-uti.

This then is the story of the knight-errantry of Tamahae as I have been able to piece it together from the fragments gathered from many Maori friends. I shall not mention their names for fear I should leave someone out, and indeed, I am not sure I can remember them all. I know that there are as many versions of this story as there are people who tell it. If my version does not appear equal in all things to yours, all I can say is, “Pardon the poor pakeha”.