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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 11 (February 1, 1935)

The Main Trunk Railway

The Main Trunk Railway.

Had it not been for Wahanui's influence, supported by Rewi Maniapoto and Taonui, the construction of the North Island Main Trunk Railway through the King Country, which was begun in 1885, would have been delayed for many a year. The turning of the first sod of the section south of the boundary river, the Puniu, near Te Awamutu, was a ceremony of uncommon importance and political significance, for it marked the end of the twenty years of implacable opposition to pakeha enterprise and settlement in the King Country. “But the sod was nearly not turned that day,” was Sir Robert Stout's expression when he narrated to me (it was in a conversation in Wellington some twenty years ago) his share in that crowning episode of the long negotiations with the Maori lords of the soil. Sir Robert was Premier of the Colony in 1885, and he and his colleague, Mr. John Ballance, Native Minister, had to tread delicately and tactfully with the very touchy Kingite chiefs. But “Te Taute,” as the Maoris called Stout, was a diplomatist and he made great friends of the Big Three of Ngati-Maniapoto, who were by that time becoming rather weary of the Waikato tribes' occupation of the King Country and the Waikato chiefs' dictation of policy.

At the last moment, when all had been arranged with Wahanui and his fellow-chiefs for the ceremony on the south bank of the Puniu, which was to signal the beginning of the line formation, Waikato endeavoured to stop the sod-turning. Early on the morning of the day fixed for the event, there was a conference at Te Awamutu between the Premier and the leading chiefs. Wahanui, Rewi and Taonui were there. But there also came to the meeting—which was held privately in the hotel in which Sir Robert was staying—two chiefs of Waikato, Major Wiremu te Wheoro, and another. They came from Whatiwhatihoe, on the Waipa, the large village of King Tawhiao and his people; and they protested in the name of the King against the beginning of the railway. Tawhiao and his council of chiefs were opposed to the making of the line, although the King Country was not their territory.

Speeches were made by Te Wheoro and his fellow-chief strongly opposing the arrangement with the Government. One man at the conference remained silent. That was Wahanui. The great chief sat there regarding the Waikatos with intense indignation. He was fuming with anger; his big chest heaved in his efforts to suppress his feelings; for the moment they were too strong for words. At last one of the Waikato chiefs, regardless of the fact that his tribespeople were only in the Rohepotae by sufferance of Ngati-Maniapoto, had the hardihood to declare that the earth would not be turned that day, for the reason that it was page 20 page 21 Waikato's land; it was under the mana of Tawhiao; it was his land.

“Oh, well,” said Stout (he was Mr. Stout then), quietly regarding the deeply incensed Wahanui, “if it is Waikato's land we have come to the wrong place.”

When this was translated to the chiefs by the Government interpreter (Mr. G. T. Wilkinson), Taonui rose and spoke. He was a tall, dignified man, almost as big and commanding a figure as Wahanui. Angrily he declared: “It is our land. The sod shall be turned; it shall be turned to-day.”

And it was done. The Waikato chiefs retired, baffled; literally they had no locus standi in the Rohepotae. The ceremonial turning of the soil for the rail was carried out, as arranged, by the three chiefs of Ngati-Maniapoto. The Premier very tactfully contented himself with wheeling the barrow containing the sods. And the line went forward, the slow but inevitable first stage in the transformation of the great Rohepotae.

It was between Wahanui and his fellow-chiefs and Mr. Stout, too, that the pact was made which has kept the King Country a no-liquor—or at any rate a no-license—district to this day, The Premier was in the first place responsible for this; he privately persuaded Wahanui to insist, in the interest of his people's welfare, that the Puniu should be the liquor frontier as it had been the political border; and the aukati (literally “stop, no further”) against waipiro was always consistently maintained by the high chiefs.