On a winter Sunday afternoon, the children of a remote Māori village in the eastern Bay of Plenty trekked off for another week at school.

Maraenui is about 30km northeast of Opotiki and in 1900 it had no school. The journey of about 5km from Maraenui to the public school at Omaio involved crossing the flooded and swift-flowing Motu River.

The group never arrived, and until the next day no-one had any inkling why.

"... natives arriving at Maraenui from Omaio mentioned that the children had not reached the school there," the Bay of Plenty Times reported.

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A monument at the Maraenui marae in the eastern Bay of Plenty commemorates the deaths of 16 children and two adults after a canoe capsized in the Motu River.
A monument at the Maraenui marae in the eastern Bay of Plenty commemorates the deaths of 16 children and two adults after a canoe capsized in the Motu River.

They had all died - 16 children aged 5 to 13, and two adults. It was presumed they were crossing the river in a canoe and that it capsized and its occupants were drowned in the river or the rough sea at the river mouth.

Today, August 5, marks 118 years since the tragedy.

Three bodies were found on a beach the day after the accident. More turned up in the following days and weeks. Clothes belonging to the woman - one of the adults who had accompanied the group - were found on the river bank. This was thought to indicate she had leapt in to save some of the children and had lost her life.

The bodies of two girls were washed ashore at Torere, more than 13km west of the Motu river mouth. The crew of the paddle-steamer Terranora picked up a body at sea, 64km from the river.

The group were travelling from Maraenui, marked Houpoto on the map, northeast to Omaio. Map / topomap.co.nz
The group were travelling from Maraenui, marked Houpoto on the map, northeast to Omaio. Map / topomap.co.nz

"The beach is being watched day and night by large parties of Māori and the police in the hope of recovering other bodies," the Poverty Bay Herald wrote.

However, some of the victims' bodies were never found.

Some families lost two members in the disaster.

The canoe, which was 7m long and 1m wide, was found at Torere.

A tribal ban was placed on fishing in the area for several years. The outpouring of grief at tangi continued for so long and placed such a strain on the resources of the victims' relatives that a writer in the New Zealand Herald was moved to appeal for contributions of food and other support.

More than three months after the disaster, the newspaper wrote: "... not only a multitude, but continuous relays of multitudes have been and still are visiting the native settlements of Maraenui and Omaio - from the Tauranga district on the north to the Poverty Bay district on the south - to mourn with those who lost their children in the lamentable drowning accident in the Motu River".

In 1905, a marble memorial obelisk naming the 18 dead was unveiled by the Native Affairs Minister, James Carroll, at Maraenui. More than 600 people attended.

"Before the gathering dispersed," the New Zealand Herald noted, "Ngahaka Piripi, a local chief, thanked the visitors for their presence, and formally handed over a number of feather mats as presents, and also a walking stick made from the canoe from which the children were drowned."

The memorial, financed by the Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe and the Government, still stands, at the area's marae. It is supplemented by a brass remembrance plaque at the local school, Te Kura Mana Māori Maraenui.

A teacher at the school, Robin Mohi, said this week that the memory of the tragedy remained alive in the people of the area. While no specific remembrance events are held, it is recalled in whaikōrero (speeches), in traditional songs and in names, and children learn about it at school.

"All the families here are still very familiar with the event because it's kept alive on the marae," said Mohi.

According to the Bay of Plenty Journal of History, it wasn't until 1927 that Maraenui's first school opened.

The official opening for the first road bridge spanning the Motu River near the coast in the eastern Bay of Plenty was in 1929. Photo / Google
The official opening for the first road bridge spanning the Motu River near the coast in the eastern Bay of Plenty was in 1929. Photo / Google

In 1929, the first road bridge over the Motu River from Maraenui, built at a cost of £24,780 (about $2.4 million today), was formally opened. The NZ Herald described it as "one of the greatest events in the history of the East Coast".

"There was a very large crowd of visitors, scores of motor-cars conveying hundreds from as far away as Rotorua and Tauranga, and from the south as far as Cape Runaway."

From an NZ Herald report, November 26, 1929 on the official opening of the Motu River road bridge. Source / National Library
From an NZ Herald report, November 26, 1929 on the official opening of the Motu River road bridge. Source / National Library

Kōpu, a local chief, recalled the calamity of 1900 and said that with the bridge, no such canoe capsizing could occur there again.

Bay of Plenty MP Kenneth Williams "made a presentation of a valuable silver watch to Tohi Kopu, the [river] ferryman, in recognition of the many courtesies and kindnesses shown to travellers.

"Visitors were loud in their praises of the scenery all along the road, which must eventually attract large numbers of motorists."