The pain of the massacre at Rangiaowhia 159 years ago still echoes through the descendants of Ngāti Apakura.
On February 21, 1864, the prosperous lives and hopeful futures of whānau and hapū were destroyed in the space of a day, permanently altering the course of life for generations to follow.
Here, Hazel Coromandel-Wander from Ngāti Apakura shares, with Connie Buchanan, kōrero which has been handed down from her great-grandmother, Te Mamae Pahi.
Te Mamae was a teenager when the Crown invaded Rangiaowhia. The kōrero includes her first-hand account of what happened that day.
In the early 1800s, a Ngāti Apakura pēpi was born into a life that predestined her for health, wealth, and abundance.
The birth of the pēpi was cause for celebration. She was new life gifted from Io and descended to earth in a sacred whakapapa strand that connected her from Ranginui and Papatūānuku to her tūpuna from the waka Tainui.
The pēpi was blessed by kaumātua and kuia with karakia and given her chosen name, Wikitoria. Her whenua was buried in a grove of peach trees at Rangioawhia.
Born of noble heritage under traditional lore, Wikitoria’s connections were a blueprint for success. Both the karakia and her name were important for her intended role as a puhi, or birthing attendant, for her whānau and hapū.
Rangiaowhia was an idyllic place for a child to grow up. Wikitoria was raised by her iwi, hapū and whānau. Her elders were her teachers. It was their role to guide, nurture and help her grow into a strong young woman skilled in birthing and weaving.
Born at a time when tribal philosophies and knowledge still permeated Aotearoa, Wikitoria knew her whakapapa. She understood her relationships with the natural world and phenomena. She was raised in the knowledge of the cosmologies and how to put this into daily practice.
Rangiaowhia at that time was a whenua abundant with kai. Ngāti Apakura never wanted for food. There were huge vegetable gardens and acres of orchards with fruit trees of every kind. They had pā sites with many kāinga, and many whare karakia made from the local raupō rushes.
Huge ovens could bake 400 loaves of bread at a time. They were able to provide enough food for the tribe and also to export supplies to markets in Auckland, Australia and California.
This abundant living was made possible by the efforts of Ngāti Apakura women and men working together with the missionaries. Their efforts benefited the whānau, hapū and iwi, and also provided food for increasing numbers of manuwhiri.
As a young girl, Wikitoria had a clear role in this life. She learned to observe hapū mothers in order to read changes in the body through various stages of pregnancy. It was by observing the hapū mothers that girls learnt about birthing tikanga.
These young girls were dedicated to Hine-te-iwaiwa, the goddess of child birthing, weaving and female arts. Stories about atua wāhine Papatūānuku and Hine-te-iwaiwa provided them with fundamental knowledge about te whare tangata — the womb.
Wikitoria was 12 years old when she received her moko kauae from the tohunga. Her moko kauae represented the dedication of her life to Hine-te-iwaiwa.
But Wikitoria’s promising future was shockingly disrupted on February 21, 1864. That Sunday morning, the Crown’s Imperial troopers stormed Rangiaowhia village and attacked the settlement.
The early morning ambush took Ngāti Apakura by surprise and many were still in their houses. The soldiers went from house to house hunting for people. Some of those who they found were killed.
The alarm was quickly raised in the village. The elderly, along with young mothers and their babies, ran to find refuge in the Anglican church, and also the Rangiaowhia Catholic church, which was held in a whare karakia made of raupō.
When the attack began, Wikitoria and her cousins were down at the river washing and getting ready for church. They took cover under swamp weed as the invasion progressed.
The Crown’s troopers set fire to the Catholic church in the raupō whare karakia. They kept their guns trained on the exits to make sure no one could escape. Our kōrero that has been handed down the generations tells us that all those who sought safe haven in that whare karakia were killed.
Throughout the whole tragedy, Wikitoria and her cousins stayed concealed in the swamp, unable to move for fear of being found. From her hiding place, Wikitoria heard the whistling sound of the gunfire, the crackling of the burning wood, and the anguished cries of her captive aunties and their babies. They were trapped, first by the military and then by fire.
Later that night, under cover of darkness, Wikitoria and her friends were able to escape down the waterways to the safety and care of their whanaunga who lived in the outer regions.
Wikitoria’s was the only member of her immediate whānau from Rangiaowhia who lived to tell her story. Other whānau were not so fortunate — their genealogical lines ended with the deaths of those mothers and babies.
Wikitoria and several other escapees made it to Puketarata, the papakāinga of Te Iti o Apakura. It’s on a land block just north of Ōtorohanga. It was on one of the hills next to an old pā site known as Totorewa that they found refuge.
When Wikitoria told her kuia and kaumātua there about the massacre, they changed her name to Te Mamae. It translates to wounded, sorrow and pain.
The changing of a name is an old tradition in oral societies to indicate that something has been damaged and destroyed. The name change was necessary for Wikitoria now that the blood of the babies she had delivered had been spilt on the land. The spilling of innocent blood invoked the law of tapu because mauri had been destroyed.
It is from the silencing of Wikitoria, and the emerging voice of Te Mamae, that our kōrero tuku iho has been handed down over 150 years by the women in my whānau.
My motivation to talk about Te Mamae comes from the need to bring the Ngāti Apakura voice out of obscurity.
Otherwise, the public mainly have access to the soldiers’ and the Christian view of what happened in Rangioawhia. But the living histories of our wāhine enable us to refute the stigma of being recorded as insurgents or rebels.
There were a few of the group who were orphaned that day and they took up residence in the valley. With its two lagoons, it was a rich source of tuna, kōura, whitebait and freshwater mussels.
On the surface, it seemed like a good life. But, without the much deeper economic prosperity they once had at Rangiaowhia, things were difficult.
As a puhi, or midwife, Te Mamae knew her kaupapa in this new life was to strengthen the iwi ties and to rebirth the uri of Ngāti Apakura. She became betrothed to Whakamau Te Wirihana and they went on to have a family of 11 children.
Te Mamae knew that, if the whānau was to rise from the embers, then the birthing traditions of Ngāti Apakura would be imperative for reclaiming and rebuilding the iwi.
So Te Mamae gave each of her children a name and narrative based on the tragic events in the burning. Each name provided a description of what she experienced and heard from the swamp at Rangiaowhia.
Her first born, Te Wera, was named in memory of the fierce heat that her people felt that day from the church burning. Te Pupuhi was named for the memory of the sound of shrapnel from the bullets whistling all around, while knowing her people were unarmed.
Maringi was named for the spilling of tears over the blood on the land. Te Rātapu was named Sunday, for the day the whānau were burned in a Pākehā church.
The choosing of names for her tamariki in this way was crucial to mark in history the point in time that her life changed, how it changed, and who was responsible for the change.
In these chosen names, there were also metaphors and the symbolism used to maintain the collective memory, and to lead on to the survival and wellbeing of her eventual mokopuna.
Naming her tamariki in this way meant that the price for life and country would not be forgotten. It was her way of letting her uri know of the despicable acts committed by Cameron and his troopers in the name of the Queen of England.
Despite all the chaos created by the terror that day, Te Mamae did not just sit and mourn her life away.
She composed an oriori for all her children to inform them of their role in the hapū. Sung to each of her babies in turn, it explained their heritage and the privileges that were their birthright. Teaching the children their whakapapa in this way was imperative for the surviving remnants of a scattered tribe.
The oriori also put restrictions on their movements and activities. The children were instructed, for example, that they were not to marry “a common person”. Given the crisis for the hapū, all the children had their future mapped out to help ensure the survival of the whānau and hapū.
Maringi was the fifth child of Te Mamae and Whakamau, born at Taupiri in about 1880. She was born and raised in a raupō whare, with an earthen floor and roof of wiwi grass, without windows. The dirt floor was a naked reminder of their simple lifestyle, their ties to the whenua, and the disappearance of the soil that had been stolen through colonial acts.
Maringi was one of many of our generations born away from Rangiaowhia, but we were far from the only family in that situation.
Almost the whole of Waikato Māori were affected by the invasion and war. Many families had stories about being banished from their lands. Whānau were mourning their children, women were mourning the loss of husbands, and there was no trace of some families who had been scattered.
Maringi was the generation born after the land confiscations and the tragedy was not hidden from her. The history was in her name, the evidence was visible in her daily life, and the expectations and obligation “to not forget” were always before her.
As a 12-year-old, Maringi found herself in a position to declare her cultural heritage in a more conspicuous and permanent way by having a moko kauae.
The chance arose when a tohunga visited the village at Taupiri and offered to tā moko young girls in the village. Although she was not the tuakana, Maringi was the one chosen by Te Mamae.
Maringi was not allowed to look into a mirror until the scabs came away from her chin weeks later. This was a mark of the tapu nature of the tattooing process, and she was told that her moko kauae would not appear if she did not do these things.
The markings of her moko kauae were not those of the modern electric chisels, they were deeply etched markings that drew blood at every point, and the fact that she endured them without crying was a credit to her courage and bravery.
The spilling of her blood for the survival of the culture, and to reinforce the tradition, was symbolic of the commitment that thousands of tūpuna had made fighting for their homes and land as a legacy for their mokopuna.
Her moko kauae was identical to her mother’s to represent the dedication to Hine-te-iwa-iwa handed down through the matriarchal line from tūpuna to mokopuna.
Her story in her moko kauae was personal to her and her role as whare tangata. Maringi was later betrothed to her husband Te Kaahuitara Taratu, and they went on to have 15 children.
Maringi was determined in her pursuit of wellbeing for her whānau and wider community. She was active in supporting the funding efforts to build Te Puea Marae, and to resource Te Iti o Apakura (the humble house of Apakura) and Kahotea Marae, her home marae.
Maringi was a beautiful kuia to her mokopuna, who admired and respected her as an inspiring leader. Tragically, she died in a bus crash in February 1964, while returning from Waitangi Day celebrations.
The accident occurred 100 years after the Rangiaowhia tragedy in February 1864 and was a poignant reminder of the many social, political, and cultural losses that Maringi, named for the spilling of tears, had been born into.
Maringi’s life and voice was vital to progressing from the dark days to finding pathways to survive. Her whānau, who revered her leadership, were devastated at her untimely death.
She was the last woman in our whānau to receive a moko kauae associated with birthing.
My mother, Marama, was born in 1912 on the Mangaora land block at Kāwhia where only reo Māori was spoken. Her father delivered her, and her whenua was buried under the peach tree at Mangaora.
She was raised to speak te reo. While she spoke very good English, she did not learn how to read English.
Her early years were spent on the Mangaora farm block at Kāwhia. But at the age of 12, the whole family moved from Kāwhia to the Puketarata land block in Ōtorohanga. It was a 55-kilometre walk over many hills and gullies for my mother. When the whānau arrived there, Marama went to live with Te Mamae, who was by then over 60 years old.
For Te Mamae, having her mokopuna in her house was a gift in her old age. She taught my mother about te whare tangata and birthing traditions.
Marama also saw Te Mamae observe the laws of tapu in the home. She kept the cooking and preparation of food separate from sleeping areas, and all food equipment — the dishes, tea towels and tablecloths — separate from personal belongings such as clothing and bedding.
It was while Marama was staying with Te Mamae that she was told about the tragic burning at Rangiaowhia.
Te Mamae said some of the girls in the swamp were chased and raped by the soldiers. Fifty years after the burning, and two generations later, Te Mamae was still very, very angry. She mourned for the life she led at Rangiaowhia before the fire.
The whānau struggled to make a living on the small piece of land at Puketarata land block. The land was swampland, and although it was useful for birding and fishing, it was also prone to flooding.
My mother Marama worked in the huge vegetable garden with all the whānau. The produce sustained them, but they weren’t able to make a prosperous living from their vegetables and fruit trees.
Although there were many kuia and koroua who lived at Te Iti o Apakura papakāinga in the 1920s, many of them moved away because the land would flood in the winter and their houses were regularly swept away into the river.
After Marama married my father, they lived for a few years on the papakāinga at Puketarata. Most of my older siblings were born at home with my father, aunty, or koro as the midwives. In those days, the whenua was buried under a fruit tree or a rock on the papakāinga.
Later, my parents moved on to a dairy farm on Whangamatā road in Waihi. My mother became president of the Waihi branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League under the national organisation which was chaired by Whina Cooper, the first elected president.
Their branch helped families with health and education for children. They did sewing, knitting and crocheting. It was the beginning of pan-tribalism and providing support for Māori whānau who’d made the rural-urban shift.
In the 1970s, the image of Whina Cooper and her young moko walking together on a metal road to Parliament under the slogan “not one more acre of Māori land to be taken” became the visual statement to mobilise people to fight against injustice.
My parents were in Tāmaki when the marchers walked over the Auckland Harbour Bridge with Joe Hawke carrying the pou. Both my mother and father went to Tūrangawaewae to meet up with the marchers, and they followed them through the Rohe Pōtae district.
When Joe Hawke and his whānau occupied Bastion Point, my parents, who were living in Te Kūiti by then, quickly joined in support of the cause.
They believed wholeheartedly in the cause for justice, and on the day of eviction, they both stood strong and firm to support Joe and his whānau, who were branded by the government of the day as communists and radicals.
I was born in 1948, the eleventh of their 20 children at the Ōtorohanga Maternity Annex, on the tribal lands of my people, Ngāti Apakura. My memory of living on the Puketarata land block is rather sketchy now, but the emotions and feelings for the people we lived with, and those who cared for us and worked the land, have left their wairua footprints in my heart.
Early on in my schooling, we were sent to the Native school in Mataora Bay. People there were poor and isolated from shops, jobs, and doctors — and many of them eventually moved off the land and into the cities.
We had to walk or go to school on horseback because there were no roads suitable for cars. Native schools had been built under the Native Schools Act 1867. The policy of “No land, No School” forced Māori to gift land if they wanted a school built. These schools were then run under the authority of the education department.
What I know now is that the Native school policies were intended to assimilate us to become “brown Pākehā” and manual labourers. Our teachers were not supposed to be taking us down to the sea and talking about the Māori history of the area and teaching us about Tangaroa, but they did that anyway.
I’m certain my identity as Māori was firmly established in that Native school where we “fitted” with our teachers. We thrived in the wonderful one-room open plan school environment with no dividing walls or school gates.
But Mataora native school was eventually closed down. It was common knowledge that when any government department closed a school, they on-sold the land to another government department instead of returning it to Māori, its rightful owners, and so that land was taken too.
When we moved to the Pākehā school I was confused about why we had to have our hair, teeth and body checked. I remember as part of the delousing we had trimort, a toxic insecticide, put in our hair. It smelt vile and burnt our scalp.
I didn’t really know what a Pākehā was until we went to that school and were told we were Māori. I remember feeling ashamed and uncomfortable when the teacher taught us that Māori were cannibals and that the missionaries saved us from ourselves by civilising us.
When I relayed the story to my parents, my mother was furious. She had strong views against many of the things we were taught at school. I know now that the dominant beliefs about schooling for Māori children at that time were to train us for domestic or manual work. The reputation of Māori children in the lower streams was that they were violent and dumb. The Māori boys in those classes were forever cleaning up the school grounds or setting sports equipment up, but they never seemed to be allowed to actually play the sports like cricket and tennis.
My mother wanted to teach us te reo Māori but my father wanted us to learn English so we could get jobs. My mother was very sad about us children not knowing our language and it’s something that pained both my parents. It was only later when I went to university that I learned that it was the government’s agenda for Māori to be assimilated as “one people” under Pākehā culture.
My schooling never provided me with any understanding of the history of Aotearoa. That is something my whānau, and especially my mother, taught me.
I was 12 when I first heard the shocking and sad story about what happened to the Ngāti Apakura pā and kāinga at Rangiaowhia.
My father was dictating whakapapa, and my mother was explaining it, as I wrote it down for them. When she relayed the story of Te Mamae, I was stunned and didn’t know whether or not to believe it.
I realised then what a deep injustice had been done to Ngāti Apakura. We were robbed of our history and our place in the world.
My early introduction to writing our whakapapa and histories opened my eyes to who we were and to our connections to the land. It gave me a love and respect for those who had gone before us.
In our whānau, it was the mauri of Wikitoria that was damaged at Rangiaowhia. It was her that was the witness, not Te Mamae. The act of changing a name is one of the methods that Māori use to transform trauma. But changing a name cannot erase all the hurt and pain.
When my mother stayed with Te Mamae, she observed that, even at the age of 60-plus years, Te Mamae still carried a lot of that grief and pain.
Ngāti Apakura continue to live as a scattered people. The “burning” continues in our hearts and minds.
It was clear that Te Mamae lived in hope for justice. She lived in hope that one day in the future her voice would count. So, it feels good to bring the voice of our kuia out of obscurity. A kneejerk reaction might have been to say: “Let’s forget about Rangiahowhia — it’s just too painful to remember.”
But the handing down of this knowledge to the whānau is a taonga for our hapū and iwi. It helps shelter us from the chill of losing every inch of our land.
My great-grandmother Te Mamae Pahi had the courage and determination to live. I am telling her story so that her legacy of being fearless in the face of oppression lives on.
Her story is just one from the pool of dispossessed people. There are many, many more stories to be told.
We who remain still fight to keep the mana of the tribe intact. Four generations of women in our whānau have kept the flame of justice alive and burning. We still hope for the recognition of tino rangatiratanga, our Indigenous sovereignty, that was guaranteed to us in the Treaty of Waitangi.
It’s now 159 years since the burning at Rangiaowhia — since that terrible Sunday morning in February. The question of the whereabouts of the remains of the burned Ngāti Apakura elderly, and the mothers and their babies, is unanswered.
Their blood still cries from the land for justice.
Ka hoki ngā mahara ki ngā mareikura, tēnei poutokomanawa — ko koe ka noho ki te tihi o te whakaaronui.
This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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