Puanga leads the celestial signs to herald the Māori New Year, according to some iwi. Airana Ngarewa (Ngāti Ruanui) remembers his great-great-grandfather, Hohepa, a teenage survivor of tragic events that occurred at this time in Taranaki 153 years ago.
In the time of Puanga, 153 years ago in Taranaki, every Māori male between Tangahoe and the Whenuakura river capable of carrying a gun was arrested. The youngest was 13 and the oldest in his 70s. It is the only time in the long history of Aotearoa New Zealand that a whole tribe has been captured and imprisoned by the Crown.
The tribe, Te Pakakohi, were charged with high treason and accused of supporting the prophet Titokowaru in the war that wears his name. Ninety-six of them in total were loaded on a steamship and sent from Taranaki to Wellington, where they were transferred to another ship, The City of Newcastle, and held for nearly four months. One of the chiefs, Ngawaka Taurua, a man of extraordinary mana, would later describe how sick with sores and boils they would all grow as they awaited their fate. Two - Tamarawhero and my own ancestor, Hekaiaha - would pass away before they ever saw a courtroom.
My whānau have resided in Taranaki for as long as the land here has existed, hunting and fishing and caring for this whenua. When Pākehā arrived and much of the motu grew hot for their pūtea (resources), settlers claiming to have bought more than even existed, my whānau held tight to their land – as did so many Taranaki Māori. So determined were mana whenua, they held a hui at Taiporohenua Marae and passed around a hatchet, reciting the words – the oath – he tangata tō mua, he whenua tō muri. People first and the land after. Such was their attachment to this rohe, their commitment to retain it even if it cost them their lives.
As the trials played out, 18 of the 96 men were released, the rest found guilty on contentious evidence and shipped to Otago on the S.S. Rangatira. For 18 of those remaining, this was as good as a death sentence.
The first of them died in the first five minutes upon landing on the South Island. A man by the name of Waiata. The rest had their hair cut and were made to wear prisoners' clothes, for many the first they had ever worn. From there, they were locked in what an observer described as rabbit warrens. They were prison cells; cold, damp, lightless and cramped – there barely being enough room for the prisoners to squeeze in. One of the warrens contained 40 prisoners alone; it was packed to the brim with three generations of whānau. Grandparents, parents and sons.
A few days after arriving, the hard labour began, those who were not bedridden being put to work. One rōpū was sent to mahi on the Dunedin Botanical Gardens, now Otago University, and another on the Dunedin Boys' High School, now Otago Girls'. Their hard labour would begin every morning at 7am and conclude late in the afternoon, the Otago Daily Times reporting on their work as they went, covering not only what they had done but every death that occurred along the way.
The long-lasting effects of their stay on the ships, the terrible conditions of the warrens they were kept in, the physical toll of their labour (which had them sometimes up to their armpits in water) and the mental anguish of being separated from their whānau and their whenua wreaked havoc on the men.
In this instance, they were working on jetties at Black Jack's Point and Pelichet Bay. Other mahi included taking rocks from Anderson's bay, breaking them, loading them on to trams and dumping them back into the bay to create a causeway. Similar mahi which had them working in mud and water.
Following Waiata, the next man to pass was Waati Tumeorangi, who was only in his 30s. Timoti Tupikowai passed soon after. Both men appeared to die from tuberculosis, each refusing to be sent to a hospital, unwilling to be separated from their tribe.
The fourth man to die was another ancestor of mine, Iraia Tumahuki, chief of Manutahi Pā. He is recorded as dying of general debility and is the first of the men to die in a hospital. While there is much contention about who and who did not support Titokowaru, about who and who should not have been found guilty – ignoring the legitimacy of charging anyone for defending their loved ones and their land – there was no doubt about my whanaunga. He most definitely fought alongside the prophet.
The men were imprisoned for nearly three years. Another 14 men died during their time in Otago, the last being only 17 years old when he passed. His name was Netana and he too died of tuberculosis, the final testament to the cruelty of their labour and the inhumanity of the warrens they were kept in, sometimes locked in those prison cells for up to 13 hours, the only bathroom a pail beneath their bunks.
My own great-great-grandfather, Hohepa, only 14 at the time he was incarcerated, was my only ancestor to survive this time in Otago and to return to Taranaki, to his whenua, to his whānau. The others died, including Kereona, the paramount chief of Te Pakakohi, and were buried in unmarked graves. When Hohepa and the others returned, none of them spoke of their time in Otago so great was their mamae and whakamā. It was only after more than 100 years had passed did this history begin to be shared. And only with this piece, thanks to over 30 years of my own father's research, has the story of Te Pakakohi been shared widely.
With Puanga we remember them. We reflect on their trials and tribulations and their enduring commitment to the land. With Puanga we also let them go, like their ancestors before them, to become stars in the night sky. Kua wheturangitia ngā tāne.
Airana Ngarewa is a teacher and writer based in Taranaki.