Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 23, June 1979

An Episode of the Old Frontier


Our home was built among the peach-groves and almond trees of the old mission days; we lived on the site of a deserted village and wheat-farm and the orchards of the defeated but unconquerable Maori. The first generation of Pakeha settlers on the Upper Waikato frontier knew not barbed-wire. Ditch and bank, or post-and-rail fence, was the rule; and along the bank a hedge of hawthorn or furze was set. So the flowering may perfumed the breeze along the rough country roads, and the border country was sweet as any garden in the spring of the year.

Early impressions are all-powerful through life. The years that pass tend to tinge the first decade and a half with a kind of loving glow, more especially if those early years have been passed in a far-out part of the land, in the midst of scenes of beauty and adventurous romance. Memories of the simple, free and happy life. The sum of such impressions is a profound, abiding affection for the past and the old places and the old home, even though the very hearth-stones have given place to those of the stranger. Wide fields, distant mountains bathed in a fairy blue; farm-houses half hidden in trees; little watercourses coiling through the flax and raupo valleys to the slow river that flowed between green walls of rimu and kahikatea forest.

There was one other feature of the farm-land scene that comes into every mental picture of that early time, and that is the Blockhouse. It stood on the edge of the rise, a quarter of a mile from the homestead, on the famous old battlefield. It was garrisoned by a party of Armed Constabulary under a sergeant. Its overhanging upper storey stood high above the loopholed stockade that surrounded it. A Maori-carved wooden figure of a soldier with rifle at the port stood sentry above the entrance. A tall flagstaff carried the British flag. That blockhouse of stout loop-holed timbers symbolised the condition of standing to arms that prevailed along the frontier. It was one of a chain of block-houses and redoubts that made a belt of protection along the border-land, from Cambridge township on the Waikato River round to Alexandra, on the Waipa.

Peace and rough plenty on those far-out farmsteads; nevertheless there were perilous days and more perilous nights, in the early 'Seventies. There was a time when the farmer took his carbine with him when he went ploughing; the Hauhau' camp-fires burned nightly on the hills, and the volunteer cavalrymen rode patrol along the fern tracks and watched the river fords. Te Kooti was the bogy-man of the frontier; he lived just across the border. But danger suddenly came from another and nearer quarter.

Near Puahue, within ten miles of our Orakau farm, a party of Maoris led by one Mohi Purukutu shot a farm labourer, Timothy Sullivan, employed by the cattle-station firm of Grice and Walker, who had leased a large tract of country of the borderland. The raiders chopped off their victim's head with a tomahawk, cut out his heart, and carried the two trophies through the Rohepatae as a kind of fiery cross. The unfortunate ploughman was not the man they wanted; their grievance was against E.B. Walker, his employer, who had declined to recognise Purukutu's claim for a share in paying for land at the base of Maungatautari range, leased from the Ngati-Raukawa owners. Purukutu probably had a just claim - he had not been consulted when the lease was arranged - but he had a brusque method of asserting it. The savagery of the murder sent a thrill of horror through the country. Everyone thought it was a prelude to another war. Forebodings of raid and massacre were in every mind.

Across the border a day's ride was the headquarters of the Maori King. What attitude would the Kingite Chiefs take? In the meantime the border stood to arms.

At this crisis of the frontier - the period was the end of April 1873 - a bold figure that fitted the rugged times appeared on the Waikato scene. He was James Mackay, who had been pioneering South and North Island ever since he had landed in the country at the age of fourteen. He was now just over forty, a hard-framed, powerful fellow, with a glint of his keen blue eyes that said, "Here's a man who will stand no nonsense". Mackay was already quite a celebrity for his exploring work in South Nelson and Westland, being a masterful ruler as Goldfields Warden in Nelson and on the Thames. His courage and his tenacity of purpose befitted his stalwart Scottish-chieftain frame. He was as perfect a speaker of Maori as he was a bushman and pioneer, and he could use his fists as well as he could rifle or revolver. In the management of Maoris he was as firm and autocratic on occasion, as he was diplomatic when the circumstances called for tactful treatment. He had a Highland temper, but he could keep it under control. This was the man for the hour in Waikato. Sir Donald MacLean, the Native Minister, suddenly confronted with a danger of another terrible war, sent his trusty agent James Mackay to deal with it. He gave him a free hand as Native and Defence Commissioner in Waikato.

Mackay checked the defences, had more blockhouses begun, and had the frontier patrolled. A less vigorous man would have been content with that, but Mackay did more. He wished to find out for himself how the Kingite and Hauhau chiefs stood in this crisis, whether they approved of that semipolitical murder of Walker's farm-hand. No one could satisfy him; he must be his own intelligence officer. So one morning early he saddled his horse at Kihikihi township and rode away, alone, into the heart of the Maori country. His revolver and a packet of cartridges were in his coat pocket; his mackintosh and blankets were strapped on the saddle, he had some food in his haversack; that was his preparation for a journey thirty miles into the interior, to Tokangamutu, the headquarters village of Ngati-Maniapoto - now the town of Te Kuiti. A journey of which no one could foresee the end.

Tokangamutu camp went frantic with amazement and excitement when Mackay rode in, in the second day of his journey from the frontier. There were hundreds of people there from all parts of the King Country. Many carried guns. Mackay calmly rode through the large encampments, disregarding the turmoil. He asked for Rewi Maniapoto. He had decided that his best chance of success in his mission was to interview the veteran defender of Orakau and ask him plainly whether he stood for peace or war. There were other chiefs of Ngati-Maniapoto and Waikato, but in Rewi's sound sense he put his trust.

The great war-hawk of the Kingites came out from his whare when the women passed the enquiry on. He looked in wonder on the white man, but before speaking to him he called a boy to take the stranger's horse. Mackay dismounted, glad to reach the end of his journey, a long ride with many river and swamp crossings. The chief hospitably welcomed him, and led him inside. Mackay briefly stated his business. He told Rewi his name. It was "Hemi Maki" in the Maori. (Mackay always pronounced his name as if it were spelled Macky). He was Government Agent for the Waikato with wide powers to treat with the Maoris, and his immediate mission was to request that the murderer Purukutu should be delivered up to him for trial. He would take the man out to Kihikihi himself if Rewi and his fellow-chiefs would consent to the surrender. Moreover, he wished to obtain an assurance from the chiefs that they would remain at peace with their Pakeha neighbours across the Aukati line.

Mackay, having delivered his message, silently regarded the war chief whom he now met for the first time. He saw a small-framed man, almost insignificant of stature, but a strong-featured face, tattooed, though not with the full design of moko, a resolute face, keen, shrewd eyes that he imagined could blaze on the instant with the light of battle. The two strong men of the frontier quietly appraised each other. Both were readers of character. Rewi, for his part, quickly conceived a high respect for "Hemi Maki". He saw a man as resolute and fearless as himself, a down-right man who knew his power and exercised it; a man, too, who knew the Maoris so well that he did not hesitate to place himself in their power, trusting to their chieftain-like generosity and chivalry.

"We do not wish to fight again", said Rewi; after that, long silence. "But we intend to keep our lands free from white trespassers. And I cannot surrender Purukutu. But we shall all consider your request presently in the meeting house". There were two large communal halls of guest-houses and assembly-places in the village. One was quite a new building with a carved front and a roof of nikau fronds. It was not yet open; the ceremony of removing the tapu which attaches to all newly carved houses, had not yet been performed, and until then only the priests and the art craftsmen could enter it. Rewi told his visitor that the taingakawa rites would take place probably next day, the wise man Hopa te Rangianini would recite the ancient prayers. There would be Hauhau rites, too; Te Kooti was there with a band of his followers, and moreover, all the Kingites were Hauhaus now. A party of ninety of the Ngati-Hikairo tribe, with a celebrated Hauhau priestess, had arrived from Kawhia; they were strongly hostile to the white.

That evening, as soon as darkness fell, the people gathered in the older meeting-house, a long whare of raupo thatch. Mackay had had a meal brought to him; Rewi had a tent pitched for him on the Waikato side of the Manga-o-Kewa, the stream that ran through the village and divided the quarters of Rewi and his own clan from the camps of Waikato and Te Kooti, and the newly-come Ngati-Hikairo. The big house was crowded with the Hauhaus of the Rohepotae. Men, women and children sat there wrapped in their blankets and shawls and flax korowai robes. A fire burned in a stone takuahi or fireplace in the middle of the passage-way from the door to the rear-end of the house; the people occupied the mat-covered spaces on each side. Candles from some frontier store gave a light that left most of the interior in darkness. Firelight and candle beams partly illumined the threatening carved and tattooed effigies of deities and ancestors, - slabs that stood around the walls like a company of savage warriors. As Mackay entered, the people were chanting a Hauhau service, the ritual called Tariao, or Morning Star. The light flickered and danced on wild heads of hair and shaggy beards and many a grim tattooed face. Some people swayed to and fro as they sat and chanted to solemn music.

One party of worshippers would recite in unison, a passage of the incantation, half Scripture, half some tohunga's own composition; then from a distant dark corner of the house would come the high response. It was a strange, wild, yet reverential service, one calculated to create a superstitious awe among a primitive and essentially religious people. A fanatic priest could electrify such a congregation to any pitch of fiery action. Mackay felt the tension of the moment; he had heard many a Hauhau service but never one quite like this.

The orators of the Rohepotae took the matted floor when the lone Pakeha had set forth the objects of his mission to Tokangamutu, Rewi, Wahanui, Taonui, Hauauru, and other great men of the Rohepotae spoke. They were calm but determined. The man who slew the Pakeha would not be surrendered. He was acting in vindication of his rights. They said he was whakamomori, that is, desperate, driven to a reckless deed by his wrongs. They disapproved of the murder. They condemned his savage act of decapitating the white man and offering his heart to Uenuku the god of war. That was the customs and would never return to them. But let it end there; there would be no more of it.

So spoke the grave chieftains of Ngati-Maniapoto; so, too, spoke certain high chiefs of Waikato. Te Kooti was there, the man of many battles. He sat wrapped in his blanket, and said not a word. But there were fierce, hostile speeches from the Kawhia party. They breathed defiance and hate. The most hostile of all was the priestess of Ngati-Hikairo. She was one of the women who had accompanied the war-parties of a few years before: she prophesied and read the omens, stirring up the embers of dying feuds. Her blazing eyes glittered in the firelight: her hair was decked with albatross feathers; she brandished a plumed taiaha to give emphasis to her speech.

Mackay left the meeting with Rewi, who saw him to his tent. "We shall meet in the morning" the chief said, "you shall hear what we have to say again, after a night's rest and thought. But we shall not change our minds, Sleep soundly, Maki".

But Hemi Maki's sleep was restless, and it would have been more restless still had he heard and seen the priestess and her disciples when they took charge of the meeting-house. He had scarcely retired from the scene with Rewi - who was followed by the other high chiefs - when the sibyl of Kawhia demanded the death of the white man.

"We have come for the opening of the new carved house", she began. "It was usual to make a sacrifice to the gods, in the days of our fathers. We must have a sacrifice to-morrow, a sacred offering. What shall our patunga-tapu be? Answer me" she demanded of the people. "And tell me what we shall have for our killing to-morrow?"

One man answered, half-joking, "A piece of beef?" Another, in the same vein: "A fish, or a pig perhaps".

The prophetess paced up and down, dandling her taiaha and chanting in a curious kind of rhythm, to which she kept time with the weapon, very strange and almost mesmeric to watch. She turned to those who had given her answers to her questions, and cried:

"Fools! Is there nothing better than that? Yes, there is - and that is a man! And that man is a Pakeha! He is here, the upper and the lower jaw will close on him. He shall be our patunga-tapu! Who will bring him to me?"

"Yes" , was the voice of the Kawhia men. "Let us have the Pakeha for our meal!" (They did not mean by this that there should be a cannibal feast. It was a figure of speech. The Pakeha was to be a flesh offering to the gods; his head would crown the front gable of the carved house on the morrow).

A man leaped up; a lean, gaunt fellow with a partly-tattooed face and a sparse black beard. His eyes gleamed, with a hard surface glitter, from behind that curving mask of moko.

"I shall bring you the Pakeha" he said. "Before the first call of the birds are heard I shall bring you the offering!'

This man's name was Te Ruru. It fitted the occasion, for it meant "The Owl", the night prowler who hunted when others slept.

"Take this weapon" said the priestess. She gave Te Ruru the taiaha. Probably he would have preferred his belt-tomahawk; but the priestess's taiaha - charmed and sanctified; a weapon that had been used as a magic pointer in the choosing of war-parties.

James Mackay was one of those men who slept with one ear alert to unusual sounds. Instinctively he stirred just when the first grey dawn was stealing over the hills and through the foggy valley. Half-waking he thought he heard someone at the flaps of his tent. He sat up in his blankets, fully awake in a moment, and asked who was there. No reply came, but a dark figure rushed at him through the tent opening, and struck at him with terrific force. That blow would have silenced the Pakeha for ever had he not thrown up one arm to ward it off. The arm and blanket partly diverted the attacker's aim, but the weapon - it was the blade end of the taiaha - struck a glancing blow and cut his cheek open.

Mackay was up next instant, grappling with his murderous assailant. In the struggle, he gripped the taiaha to prevent another blow. The pair rolled out of the tent into the grassy square. Mackay's Highland blood was up; he exerted all his strength; he got his opponent under him. He would have shot him had he had time to get his revolver. He tugged at the taiaha; that would give the despatch to his treacherous foe. He called for assistance as he wrestled there, and now he was determined to hold his man down until help came, then he could discover who his enemy was.

The camp by this time was aroused, and Mackay was in greater danger than ever, for some of the Ngati-Hikairo were rushing out of the big guest-house. But Rewi himself came dashing to the rescue. The chief had perhaps some premonition of evel [evil – E] himself; he knew his guest was in danger, though he had not anticipated so desperate an attack, and so soon. He was quite near, though the creek separated his kainga from Mackay's tent. He rushed across the log footbridge, he called on his tribe, Ngati-Maniapoto, to follow him. Two or three of his men were up and out of their blankets almost as soon as he. They ran to the front of Mackay's tent, where the white man was now sitting across his opponent's body, threatening to kill him if he moved. They dragged the Maori away; they saw it was Te Ruru.

Rewi ordered the ruffian off to the Kawhia quarters, but by this time a crowd of Ngati-Hikairo surrounded the chief and his Pakeha and weapons were raised and there was a hubbub of angry shouts.

"Come!" cried Rewi, and he rushed Mackey off across the creek. He shouted to his people:

"Ko Maki taku ingoa! Ko Maki hoki ta koutou ingoa!" ("My name is Mackay! All of you are named Mackay!")

By that call, the chief metaphorically threw his protective mana around the Pakeha. If anyone attacked Mackay they attacked him, too, they attacked all Ngati-Maniapoto. The cry meant also that Mackay being now a member of the tribe, all Ngati-Maniapoto were bound to guard him against the other Hauhaus, even though they might previously have been unfriendly towards him.

The angry men of Kawhia followed in a body, threatening battle and death. They were frantic at the unexpected frustration of their priestess's plot and the foiling of Te Ruru. The woman ran to and fro inciting them to attack Rewi and capture Mackay for slaughter. They demanded that the Pakeha should be delivered up to them.

Rewi's reply was to wave the Hauhaus off with the taiaha that Mackay had taken from his foe. He drew a line along the ground between the two parties. "The first man of you that sets foot over that line", he cried, "will be shot!" He called his men about him, bidding them load their guns, and be ready to shoot when he gave the word.

"I am Mackay!" he said again. "This Pakeha is our visitor. He has come alone and trusting to our hospitality and good faith. It would be treachery to touch him. I have fought the Pakeha soldiers, but I will not allow anyone to kill him. Back to your house, Ngati-Hikairo!"

Now Te Kooti came on the scene. The old rebel took Rewi's part. He had had enough of fighting; he wanted no more trouble with the Government. Here was an opportunity to exhibit his desire for peace. He bade some of his armed men stand by to help defend Mackay.

The furious Kawhia men, shouting threats, withdrew across the Manga-o-Kewa. Their ferocious prophetess, with the contemptuous Rebel-aisian gestures that women warriors are privileged to make in Maoridom, was the last to leave, nakedly flouncing her disgust at the failure of her scheme. Rewi sent his men across the river for the tent he had given Mackay, and the white man's gear. He had the tent pitched alongside his own house, and he set an armed guard about it. Mackay went to the creek to wash off the blood that had flowed from his wound. "Sleep in peace now, Maki," said the chief, "and presently we shall eat together, and we shall see you safely back to the Puniu River when you wish to return to Waikato".

Mackay was the hero of the frontier that winter of 'Seventy-three. His immediate mission into the Hauhau country was fruitless - it was a hopelessly rash demand, but he knew the tactical value of his enterprise.

"As for tight corners," he said in after years, "that wasn't the first. I once had the pleasure of sitting for ten minutes while the Maoris debated whether they would shoot me or not". That was in the Upper Thames country. Now the settlements breathed freely again. Tension relaxed; the night patrols were needed no more. But the Border owed as much to old patriot Rewi as it did to the bold Pakeha pioneer. "My name is Mackay - all the tribe are Mackays!" is a call of chivalry I like to fancy still rings along the Manga-o-Kewa, despite the modern town on the banks. It should no more be forgotten than the defiant heart cry of Rewi's garrison in Orakau Pa.