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No. 41 (December 1962)
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How Aokapurangi Saved Her People

This story concerns a woman of high rank, Aokapurangi, who belonged to an Arawa sub-tribe which lived on Mokoia Island in the middle of Lake Rotorua.

Around about 1818, when she was a girl, Aokapurangi was on a visit to Maketu when she was taken prisoner by Te Wera, an important chief of Nga Puhi. Te Wera took her north to his home at the Bay of Islands, and made her his wife. He treated her kindly, and as the wife of such an important man, and a woman of great strength of character, she came to have considerable presting among her husband's people, living there happily for several years.

Then, in 1822, trouble arose. Nga Puhi, who had been able to acquire a great many muskets from early settlers in the north, and from their leader Hongi Hika's visit to England, had for some years been sending down war parties which slaughtered great numbers of people in the southern tribes; for very few of these other tribes possessed muskets.

On one of these expeditions a party of Nga Puhi were treacherously killed by the Tuhourangi, a branch of the Arawa people who had been urged to do this by Te Rauparaha. However a few survivors escaped, and returned to the Bay of Islands to tell of this disaster.

When Nga Puhi and their leader Hongi heard the news, they immediately determined upon revenge; they also decided that this would be a useful opportunity to attack the entire Arawa Tribe, who at this time were very numerous, but who possessed almost no muskets. Accordingly a great expedition was planned, and people gathered at the Bay of Islands for this purpose from far and near.

When Aokapurangi heard that her own people on Mokoia Island were to be among those slain, she pleaded with her husband Te Wera to ask Hongi to spare them. Te Wera was very reluctant to do this, but she wept so loudly and urged him so strongly that in the end he conveyed her request to Hongi. Hongi, also, had no wish to allow her people to live, but finally he said grudgingly that he would permit her to save the lives of any of her people who passed between her legs. (This was an ancient ceremony which gave new life to the person concerned—for example, it was sometimes part of the ritual by which a tohunga cleansed someone who had broken the laws of tapu.)

So Hongi and his great fleet of canoes sailed from the Bay of Islands down to Tauranga, and then on to Waihi, the shallow harbour just to the east of Maketu. Here they entered the Pongakawa stream. This stream flows from Lake Rotorua in the Rotorua district, but for some miles of its course it is subterranean, and for much of the distance its valley is very narrow and rugged.

In spite of the very difficult nature of the country, Nga Puhi dragged their canoes right up this valley to the place where the stream emerges from its underground course. Here they cut a track through the dense bush, and with great labour dragged their canoes overland along this route. (This is why the road just south of Lake Rotorua is still known as Hongi's Track).

The Arawa people knew of the approach of the Nga Puhi expedition, but it did not occur to them that Hongi could possibly bring his war canoes with him. They therefore thought that the best thing to do would be to gather on Mokoia Island, taking all their canoes with them and laying in great quantities of food and water, so that they would be able to withstand a siege. So all the time that Hongi and his men were dragging their canoes overland, the Arawa were gathering provisions and making more weapons—spears, taiaha, and other rakau Maori.

Shortly before Nga Puhi arrived, some of Te Arawa wanted to abandon Mokoia, for they had only one musket between them in the whole tribe, and they greatly feared the Nga Puhi guns. Also,

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they knew that if they were defeated there would be little chance of escaping from the island. But most of the people were defiant of Nga Puhi, and it was decided to stay to defend Mokoia, which was very dear to them, being associated with five hundred years of their history.

Then Hongi finally reached Lake Rotoehu, and took the canoes overland again to Lake Rotoiti. From there he travelled up the Ohau stream into Lake Rotorua.

By this time all the Arawa were crowded on to Mokoia, having taken with them a great quantity of provisions, expecting that they would have to withstand a long siege.

Then to their horror, they woke one day to see through the morning mists the shapes of canoes on the opposite shores, and knew that they were at Hongi's mercy.

For two days Nga Puhi did not land on the island, but amused themselves by circling around it, and as they passed the Arawa canoes drawn up on the bank, each chief claimed one of them as his own by calling it after some part of his own body, and thereby rendering it sacred to himself.

On the third day Nga Puhi landed. Hongi led the way, a fearsome figure as he stood upright in the canoe flourishing his mere and chanting a war-song, the sunlight shining on the steel helmet which had been given to him in England by George IV. Behind him was the fleet of war-canoes, bristling with muskets; before him was the great host of Te Arawa, with the one musket amongst them.

Just as his canoe touched the shore, the Arawa warrior who possessed the musket crept behind a flax bush and fired at Hongi. He was hit on the head, and fell down into the canoe—a great cry rose from Te Arawa, but Hongi stood upright again in a moment; he had only been stunned, for his steel helmet had saved him.

But for a short time this happening caused a panic among Nga Puhi, and this panic gave Aokapurangi her opportunity. She had been in Hongi's canoe with her husband, and now she jumped on to the shore. She remembered Hongi's promise, that all who passed between her legs should be saved, and she ran to the great carved meeting-house in the village. She stood on the carving over the door, her legs over the entrance—and she called out to her people, ‘It is Aokapurangi, come back from the north! Come inside your house, you will be saved!’

Te Arawa were fighting bravely, but were defenceless against Hongi's muskets. Very great numbers of them were killed, but many heard Aokapurangi's voice and fled to the house. All day she stood there, with buildings flaming around her, calling to her people, and all day they crowded into the meeting-house; and such was Aokapurangi's mana that those who reached the house were saved, the warriors of Nga Puhi did not venture to attack them.

Some others managed to escape by swimming to the shore. Some of Nga Puhi pursued them in canoes to secure them as slaves, and often they succeeded, though sometimes, when the canoes became full of Arawa captives, they turned on the northern warriors, killing them with the paddles and escaping into the forest with their bodies.

At the end of the day Te Aokapurangi obtained permission from Hongi to go in search of her uncle Hikairo, who was hiding in the forest. She took him to Hongi, and a peace was made; as a token of this peace, Hongi gave Hikairo his steel helmet, which was given to him by George IV and which had just saved his life from the Arawa musket.

Nga Puhi remained at Mokoia for many days, living on the ‘fish of Tu’. Then they returned the way they had come, taking many prisoners with them; some of these later returned, and some became the wives of their captors.

This was the last time that Nga Puhi ever fought with Te Arawa. The name of Aokapurangi, who saved so many of her people from destruction, and was responsible for a lasting peace between the peoples, is still famous; and still, when a meeting-house is crowded full of people, the saying is sometimes heard.

‘Ano ki te whare whawhao a Aokapurangi!
‘This is like the crowded house of Aokapurangi.’

The carved meeting-house in which the people sheltered was called Tamatekapua, after the original ancestor of the Arawa. The big meeting-house which stands at Ohinemutu today, the one where dances are held and in front of which tourists photograph each other, is also called Tamatekapua. Some of the carvings in this house are very old indeed (though some of the old ones are partially obscured now by a dance-band platform), and it is likely that some of them formed part of this older Tamatekapua on Mokoia, 140 years ago.

Mrs Mayla Ngawhika of Rotorua has gained top marks for New Zealand in a theory examination for basketball referees. Mrs Ngawhika, a former Rotorua basketball representatives, has been a member of the Rotorua Referees' Association for four years and is a provincial referee. Her mark, 96 per cent, is particularly outstanding. As the mother of seven children, she has little time to devote to studies.

Another Rotorua referee, Mrs D. Anaru, gained 94 ½ per cent in the same examination.

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Left to right, Mary Aryton, who gained a certificate of merit in the North Island Art Competition, Hera Ripi, who came second, and Raewyn Bedggood, who won first place.