By TONY GEE
KERIKERI - A writing slate used by Rongo Hongi, daughter of Ngapuhi leader Hongi Hika and wife of colourful warrior leader Hone Heke, has been found at the Kerikeri Mission Station.
The dark grey slate, 4.5mm thick and measuring 210mm by 153mm, dates from the early 1820s, and is of a type issued to Maori schoolchildren by the Church Missionary Society.
The slate, which has Rongo's name inscribed on it, was found on Wednesday last week under the floor of the Mission House lean-to by Fergus Clunie, heritage adviser to the NZ Historic Places Trust. It was discovered while he was checking the floor support system.
"I doubt we could have come up with a more evocative historical item than [Rongo's] slate had we tried," says Mr Clunie.
"It pinpoints the early connections between missionaries and Maori when Maori learned to read and write."
He says the find is significant because it can be directly linked to a place, time and historically well-known people.
Unusually thick and robust for a writing slate, and never fitted with a wooden frame, it has lined writing spaces down one side.
Under these, scribed in flowing copperplate writing, are the words - Na Rongo Hongi. Underneath is the letter C and the number 16.
Mr Clunie says this translates as "Belonging to Rongo Hongi" with C 16 "probably meaning about 16 years old."
"The writing on the slate itself, existing historic documentation, and the conditions under which the slate was found all point towards Rongo having been taught to write at the Kerikeri Mission Station between 1828 and 1831."
Artist Augustus Earle described Rongo in 1827 as "a very pretty, interesting girl about 15 years of age."
As the only surviving female relative closely enough related to touch Hongi Hika's body, Rongo tended her dying father until his death in March, 1828.
Mr Clunie says that, as the slate confirms, Rongo then attended the school for Maori girls which missionary wife Martha Clarke started at Kerikeri in the late 1820s.
Mrs Clarke lived in the Mission House, teaching in an outbuilding behind it, until she left Kerikeri in 1830.
Rongo's slate was found just outside what was then the back window of the Mission House dining room, a few metres from where the girls took their lessons, where it has clearly been since the lean-to floor was put down 169 years ago.
In March 1837, Rongo - then going by the Christian name Hariata Rongo - married Ngapuhi warrior leader Hone Heke in the Kerikeri Chapel. Hone Heke soon after became famous for his stand against the British authorities.
With a good education from the missionaries, Rongo served as Hone Heke's secretary and scribe and was active throughout the treaty war of 1845, supporting her husband in the field and acting as a conduit between him and his enemy - the pro-British warrior Tamati Waka Nene.
After Hone Heke died from tuberculosis in 1850, she married Arama Karaka Pi, a chief from Waima in the Hokianga.