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No. 71 (1973)
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The Tragedy of Whetumatarau

It was a lovely day and we were on holiday. Early in the afternoon, we ambled into Sam's place.

“Well, hollo!” said Sam, looking as though he was just leaving. “How would you like to come with me? I'm just going up the hill at the back of the house to get those wood flowers I promised you.”

“At the back of the house?” I mentally questioned. There was only a steep bluff at the back of Sam's house—he must get to the top another way.

So we went: Sam, Ted, Brian, Ross, myself and the dog.

Out the back door, up through the terraced vegetable garden, through the back fence, and almost immediately, we began to climb—straight up!

I was horrified! I would never make it!

But up we went. Kiri, our huntaway pup, did the trip a dozen times as I struggled upward. True, we followed a ridge. True, there were trees to pull ourselves up by; but it took us about an hour to reach the top of the 1,000 ft bluff, and there, in spite of Ted's help and the frequent stops on the way, I fell into a ditch, utterly exhausted—vowing nothing would ever drag me up to Whetumatarau again.

But… what was a ditch doing on this outback hilltop? As I regained my breath, my eyes followed the ditch round the crest, and further over I noticed another ditch—shallower, but still a ditch. Sam had been pointing out landmarks to Ted and the boys, but when I called him over and asked him about the ditches, he settled himself down, and I knew we were in for one of Sam's interesting local stories.

Up until about 150 years ago, this hilltop called Whetumatarau, was the site of a strongly fortified pa. It belonged to a Ngatiporou sub-tribe and it had never been taken. This invulnerable pa was known far and wide, and because of this, there had been a time of relative peace. The sentries had an easy task. Why, they could see the coastline in both directions for miles. The flat land between the bluff and the sea was almost treeless, and on this the people lived and worked and played. The prestige of Manu, their chief, was high among his own people, and because of the past reputation of his warriors and the position of the pa, his ‘mana’ was great among all the Maoris of the Coast.

But peace had changed this Ngatiporou tribe.

It showed in the complacent attitude of the people. It showed in the young men who should have been training hard to take the place of the aging warriors. Instead, they played half-heartedly at their training games, and thought only of swimming and fishing and eating.

But one day, this peace was shattered!

Three warriors from the other side of the mountains came with the news.

A fleet of war canoes belonging to the great Ngapuhi tribe from up north was on its way, and their chief, Pomare, under the law of ‘utu’ had vowed to wipe out the whole tribe.

The word ‘utu’ echoed round the council. The word was picked up by the waiting women outside, and within minutes, the dread of ‘utu’ could be seen on every face.

Manu questioned the messengers further.

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Of what was his tribe guilty? The men told them the grim story of kidnapping, murder and cannabalism, and the evidence pointed to the Ngatiporou. Immediately, Manu ordered everyone to prepare for battle and a siege. But the older women, overhearing had already sent the mothers for their children, the boys for water and the girls for food. The messengers had said the fleet was due to round the distant Matakaoa Point in about three hours, and there was much to do.

Manu's heart sank as he looked at the general condition of the pa—the unrepaired outer defences, and the overgrown ditches. He inspected the weapons they had, and although they were all well made, they were pitifully few. He set the young men to clear out the ditches and repair the walls. The older men worked desperately at the futile task of making more weapons—weapons that normally took days to make.

Meanwhile, the women and older children struggled to bring the old folk, the sick and the babies into the pa—Whetumatarau had never seemed so steep or so high before. There was not time to collect roots and berries and kumara from the gardens at the other end of the bay. No time to bring in an extra catch of fish. Time only for the boys of the tribe to collect several kits of mussels and pipis; time only to collect the food stored in the village storage pit.

All too soon, the look-out shouted a warning—the Ngapuhi fleet was rounding the Matakaoa Point.

Manu looked around quickly. He was not nearly ready to face this enemy, but his calmness gave his people courage and they worked quickly and without panic in the hour that remained. There was water to last for several weeks; there was firewood in plenty. If there was less food than required, no one commented.

The Ngapuhi arrived just as the sun was setting and they attacked early the next day. They opened fire with strange, terrifying weapons and almost immediately several of the Ngatiporou warriors fell dead. But the pa's position still gave the defenders an advantage, and time and time again, the attackers were pushed back down the bluff. After several days, the Ngapuhi paused in their attacks. In spite of the use of the Pakeha's muskets, their losses had been heavy. If only they could lure the Ngatiporou down from the pa…. And so the fighting stopped, and the Ngapuhi waited—waited for starvation to do its work.

Manu was worried. They had been out of food for some days and the scouts he had sent out to forage for food had either come back wounded with none, or had not come back at all. Days passed. A large number of old folk had already died, as had the sick of the tribe. Some of the children had died, and he heard whispers that they had not died of starvation, but had been killed and eaten. He refused to believe that his easy-going people, who had always loved and prized their children, could stoop to such depravity. But he preferred not to investigate.

The final blow came when it was discovered that very little water remained in the pa. Most of the grourds, unused for so long, had slowly leaked away the precious water, and that day, one of the remaining gourds had burst. For four days, the water was carefully rationed, and with the rationing, hope died in the eyes of the starving people. On the fifth day, they stood round the last empty gourd—gaunt, haggard, wasted-looking and beaten.

Manu turned hopelessly away and slowly walked towards the walls of the pa. He looked down at the Ngapuhi camp, and stared as he saw in the shadows thrown by the setting sun, the canoes being packed and the warriors pushing off and paddling out to sea. Manu called two of his chief men to him, and together they watched the unbelievable—the Ngapuhi had given up—they were going home!

He waited until they had nearly reached Matakaoa Point before telling the tribe, and he ordered the people to stay in the pa while he sent small parties of young men out to fetch food and water. But in their desperation, the people refused to listen. Men, women and children alike clambered out of the pa and down the hillside. Some went down the bay to the kumara gardens, but most were down at the river when the

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Ngapuhi, returning under cover of darkness, descended on them. Few had thought to take weapons with them, and the massacre was so terrible that the river ran red with blood. Apart from a few young women, no one was spared, and those left in the pa were soon overwhelmed. Even those who had gone down the bay to the gardens did not escape to tell the tale.

As Sam finished his story, we looked at the ditches with renewed interest. We looked out across the bay to Matakaoa Point and to the river that had flowed with blood.

“And you know.” said Sam, “the shame of it is that the Ngatiporou hadn't been guilty of the murders—the Ngapuhi had made a mistake.”