Whangārei Museum is kaitiaki (guardian) for a wide range of natural and social history items in addition to a large collection of Northland taonga, many of which have been found locally.

The taonga collection is representative of utilitarian objects such as adzes, fern root beaters and wooden agricultural implements often used on a daily basis in addition to some very distinctive and exceptional pieces of Māori craftsmanship not likely to be found elsewhere in the world.

One unique artefact, purportedly crafted by an important Ngāpuhi chief using a combination of Maori and European cultures, has a significant history dating back almost 200 years.

Originally catalogued as a fire horn, this remarkable example of early horn carving could also be described as a powder horn made for carrying black powder used for lighting fire and the firing muskets during the 19th century.

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The principal reason behind the voyage was the compilation of a Māori grammar and assembling a Māori dictionary. Photo/Supplied
The principal reason behind the voyage was the compilation of a Māori grammar and assembling a Māori dictionary. Photo/Supplied

The bullock horn, fashioned from European materials with Māori design, was made by Waikato, chief of the Te Hikutū hapu of Ngāpuhi, in 1820.

Waikato, baptised in later years as Josiah Pratt (or Hōhaia Parata), was born c1790 and was an important chief of Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands where he came into contact with early missionaries including Thomas Kendall. Worldly adventures narrated by these preachers and other chiefs, some closely related to Waikato, kindled in him the desire to also travel the world.

The opportunity arose early in 1820 when Waikato accompanied his relation Hongi Hika and Thomas Kendall, sailing for England on board the whaling ship New Zealander.

The principal reason behind this voyage, which was sponsored by the Church Missionary Society, was to assist Kendall in working on the compilation of Māori grammar and assembling a Māori dictionary.

The two chiefs remained in England for several months, during which time Waikato demonstrated a desire to learn extensively about agriculture and received many implements and seeds as gifts. After nearly six months, which incorporated meetings with dignitaries and royalty, Waikato returned from England with Hongi Hika and Kendall.
It was during this return voyage that the young chief Waikato fashioned and carved the powder horn while on board ship, which he retained throughout his life.

Following their homecoming in 1821, Waikato was somewhat reluctant to be involved in further warfare and appeared more inclined on cultivating the land for the welfare of his people. He continued to devote his energies to agricultural pursuits and was keen to reproduce and share new ideas learnt overseas with those around him.

Waikato died at the Bay of Islands in 1877 and on his death the horn relic carved as a young man was left to his only son Mokaraka. And on the death of this chief, it passed to Mokaraka's three sons, Kauaua, Harawe and Tamati.

They were the last descendants of Waikato's to retain the carved fire horn before it was gifted by Tamati to William McKenzie Fraser in 1925.

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This rare taonga, which now forms part of the Fraser Collection housed and cared for by Whangārei Museum, is an excellent example of the interaction between two cultures that developed as whaling stations and trading posts became established in Northland more then two centuries ago.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.