Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 9, May 1968
By A. M. ISDALE, B.A.
(During the visit to our district by members of the Whakatane Historical Society, the party was met at Totara, near Kopu, by Mr Isdale who escorted it to the famous plateau known as "Totara Pa", an ancient stronghold of the Maori people. It now presents a scene of great peace and beauty and is a consecrated burial ground for both Maori and Pakeha. There, beside the informative Plaque erected by the Historic Places Trust our party surveyed the magnificent view of the environs of Thames, the Estuary fed by the Waihou, Piako and Kauaeranga Rivers, and the great expanse of the Hauraki Plains lying between this sentinel of the Coromandel Range and the Hapuakohe Range blue on the south-western horizon. Mr. Isdale unfolded the following fascinating story. Ed.)
It is not certain when this site was first occupied by the Maoris. Its use might even have gone back to the earliest inhabitants, the pale-skinned and peaceable Urukehu, who seem to have lived there in the time of the moa. Later arrivals, the Toi people, increased until they became known as "the myriads of Toi" and drove the Urukehu to the ranges and finally to the last "fairy" stronghold on Mount Moehau.
When the Great Migration canoes arrived, the Arawa canoe people became overlords over the Toi people, who still made up the bulk of the population, with Arawa tribe names like Ngati Huarere. Many hillsides along the coast were scarped and terraced by these people, who lived largely on fish and shellfish. The river then ran just under Totara pa, where there was a shelly beach. The pa covered the entrance to the Thames Valley, with a wide view over land and sea, and became very important.
All the extensive trenching and earthworks, and the scarping and terracing of the hillsides, still to be seen, were done by hundreds of Maoris working with their wooden spades or ko and carrying flax kits of earth endlessly. They also carried many kits of shellfish up from the beaches, year after year, and some cuttings made in the shell deposits within the pa showed then to be many feet thick. Later, Tainui canoe people began to come into the district from the Miranda side of the firth and conquered the Ngati Huarere. The people now became known as the Ngati Maru.
After the overthrowing of Arawa suzerainty of the region by people of Tainui stock about 1650, Totara Pa became the principal central stronghold of the Marutuahu domains. Their saying was: "The bow-post of my canoe is Moehau, the stern-post of my canoe is Aroha". If a man died in sight of a high hill behind Totara, overlooking it, called now Gentle Annie, but formerly Puke Oraka it was said: "He has fallen in the centre of the canoe".
When Captain Cook came this way, in late November, 1769, he anchored at Waiomu and went with the tide in a rowing boat, to enter the river, which he named after the Thames. (It was noted by the Maoris as having a double mouth, having at that time an island at its entrance. One branch ran immediately under Totara Pa, which then had a white shelly beach along its foreshore under the heights. Cook went up that branch on the way up, using the other to come down). Most of the people were down at the fishing village on the island just across the way, surrounded by mud as Banks noted. It was a good place to meet the strangers, whom they welcomed "with open arms," having already heard of their sojourn at Mercury Bay. Only a few were left up in the main stronghold. It had several dependencies, like a medieval castle. (This was common practice. When the tide of Tainui conquest reached Coromandel Harbour in the latter 1600s the great stronghold of Arikitahi had a whole complex of villages around it).
The Ngati Maru were frequently raided by the Ngapuhi from the north, but they were never able to take Totara Pa. During one Ngapuhi siege (1819) the defenders ran short of water, and a party of young men, piled with flax cloaks, fought their way into a spring and back again to wring out all their mats into calabashes for the defenders. This was "The Battle of Dripping Garments". By now, with the coming of the white men, the Ngapuhi began to get guns. Their first raid with guns, under the well-known Hongi was against Turua Pa. The defenders, as usual, got up on a staging over-looking the river and ordered Hongi's men to come up. Hongi drew his canoes up at a convenient distance instead and had a shooting match. This was the end of Turua Pa. The Ngati Maru began to try to get guns, and did obtain a few.
Pas along the coastal heights over-looking Turua and Thames appear to have suffered next, but Totara remained untaken, Then, in 1820, Hongi went to England and came back with more muskets than had ever been seen in New Zealand before. When he left there were about 500 muskets in the hands of the Ngapuhi. Now there were 2,000.
In 1821 Hongi came with a great fleet of canoes to Totara. But on three sides the hillsides were steepened so that all there was to shoot at was sky and palisades up above. On the fourth side was a flat neck of land, but that was barred by the deep trench and high earthwork. The gap was made later by white men for a roadway. The defenders, with their few muskets, could reload in safety behind the thick earthwork and look over to take quick shots.
So, after three days ravaging the surrounding countryside, Hongi said he was going away and sent in a party of chiefs for a talk. As the party was leaving, one warned a friend among the Ngati Maru - "Kia tupato" - be on your guard. Soon Hongi's war canoes were seen vanishing around Tararu Point. Doubtless the watchmen looked over the sea carefully that night, in case they came back, Meanwhile, Hongi's men, who had disembarked round the point, were stealing overland in the darkness, and suddenly there was a clamour and shouting as they burst into the Pa.
A survivor later told his son how he, a young boy, was near the palisades by his wounded father (hastily wounded and left for the cannibal feast later) who told the boy to leave him and slip out. He joined other fugutives in the swamp and they fled over the ridges towards Tairua. Looking back, he could see the glare of many fires, and hear the chanting and stamping as the hundreds of Ngapuhi danced war dances while they cooked their victims.
Ngapuhi Driven Out
With their key defence position gone, the Ngati Maru fled to the Waikato, between Matamata and Cambridge, where they made themselves so comfortable that they still stayed after Hongi's death in 1828, though their war parties came up that year and drove the last Ngapuhi raiders off the Coromandel Peninsula. They had to be chased out by the Matamata Maoris after a stiff battle in 1830. Then they came home to Hauraki again, but Totara remained empty, because of the great killing there.
[see Journal 10: Note re Totara Pa - E]