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

Famous New Zealanders — No. 23 — Wahanui, Chief Of Ngati-Maniapoto — A Maori Statesman and Orator

page 17

Famous New Zealanders
No. 23
Wahanui, Chief Of Ngati-Maniapoto
A Maori Statesman and Orator

Wahanui te Huatare, who in his day was the most distinguished and influential chief of the Ngati-Maniapoto tribe, was a commanding figure in the Maori world two generations ago. He was a man who aroused the admiration of pakeha as well as Maori for his splendid presence, his powers of oratory, and his intellectual strength. He was a force with whom one Government after another had to reckon in the efforts made to open the King Country to white settlement. He fought against the British troops in 1863–64, but he was not a warrior by inclination, as Rewi Maniapoto was. He was a statesman of Maoridom, and his great ability was acknowledged by such men as Sir Donald Maclean, Sir George Grey, and Sir Robert Stout, who successively discussed with him the problems of the frontier.

Wahanui, Chief of Ngati-Maniapoto. (From a photograph by Mr. J. C. Blythe, Surveyor, at Otorohanga, 1886.

Wahanui, Chief of Ngati-Maniapoto. (From a photograph by Mr. J. C. Blythe, Surveyor, at Otorohanga, 1886.

Wahanui Te Huatare, of the Rohepotae, came of a family of giant-like men. The name was descriptive of his grandfather, too, according to the tribal traditions. Wahanui the first was a warrior who wielded mere and spear in many battles in the early part of the nineteenth century. The most famous of these pre-musket battles was Hurimoana, which was fought about the year 1812 in the Upper Waipa district, between the Ngati-Maniapoto and their allies of Ngati-Haua, from Matamata, and the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-Whakatere tribes, who held the Wharepuhunga and Maungatautari country. A renowned man among the Ngati-Whakatere was Te Roha, whose prowess with the spear had carried him through many a fray. Hurimoana was his last battle, but it took many men to kill him. Ngati-Maniapoto's champion, Wahanui, and three other chiefs were wounded by him in terrific encounters before he fell. In this melee Wahanui received eight spear wounds from Te Roha and other warriors, but survived. On such family traditions of valour and endurance the grandson was nurtured; he felt that he was no common man, and his attitude, especially to the pakeha, conveyed that impression of superiority over ordinary people.

In His Youth.

Wahanui, then known as Reihana, received some education, religious and secular, from the Wesleyans. He was a pupil of the Rev. Alexander Reid, a missionary whose station was at Te Kopua, on the Waipa River, near the foot of Mount Kakepuku, and he was afterwards at the Three Kings College, Auckland, of which Mr. Reid was the principal after he left Te Kopua. There the Maori boys were instructed in farm work as part of the mission system, and the burly young Reihana could have been seen at the plough-handles breaking up the good volcanic soil for the wheat-sowing and the potato-planting, and in the harvest field and wielding the flail on the tarpaulin threshing floor. When he returned to the Ngati-Maniapoto territory—it was not yet known as the King Country—he was a leader in the wheat-growing and flour-milling activities of his industrious people; there were several mills in the Waipa country driven by water power.

On the War-Path.

Then came the Waikato War, and the Maori prosperity and peace came to ruin. The mill-wheels were idle; young men and old were all off to the Lower Waikato with their double-barrelled guns and their tomahawks. Reihana had a war-party of his own hapu of Ngati-Maniapoto and he was with the Kingite army in the entrenchments at Meremere, near the present township of Mercer, and fell back with his comrades before the slow but irresistible advance of the British forces by river and land, southward to the fringe of the Ngati-Maniapoto country. When General Cameron's troops invaded the heart of the native agricultural district, at beautiful Rangiaowhia, Reihana was one of the warriors who resisted the attack in the second day's hot fighting. That was on the hill of Haerini, where the hard-fighting Maoris were driven back by artillery fire and British bayonet and cavalry charges. Reihana received a bullet wound in the leg. That was the end of his fighting; henceforth his part, when he returned to his home village, was in the political councils of the Kingites.

The Politician.

He developed powers of leadership; his powerful intellect, his mingled shrewdness and firmness in counsel, his desperate hatred of the pakeha Government which confiscated the best part of the Waikato, all went to give him an increasingly important voice in the runanga or council of the Kingite party. The expatriated Waikato tribes made their new home in Wahanui's territory; King Tawhiao and all his chiefs lived south of the Puniu River that before the war was their southern boundary. page 18 Wahanui became one of Tawhiao's counsellors, and in time he was regarded by those pakehas who were acquainted with the progress of Kingite affairs as “the power behind the throne.”

Big Man of the Border.

It was in this post-war period of the early Seventies that Reihana adopted his ancestral name Wahanui, a highly befitting name in every sense. Wahanui was a man of fame and weight when I first saw him, in my boyhood on the frontier; that was in 1881, when Tawhiao laid down his guns at Major Mair's feet in Alexandra township, and six hundred of his people marched to Kihikihi and enlivened the township—Rewi's home—with their war-dances of new-made peace and their Hauhau religious chantings. Wahanui and all the Ngati-Maniapoto chiefs were there. And often thereafter we saw the great man; and I call to mind now that the pakehas of the border country appreciated the fitness of the big chief's name and nicknamed an uncommonly strapping lad “Wahanui.” Literally it means “Big Back,” and also “Big Mouth,” hence “Great Voice.” In both respects the name became him, but chiefly it fitted his unusual powers of eloquent speech.

“This ponderous Demosthenes” he was called by an officer who settled in the Waikato. Ponderous he was; he weighed, at one time, twenty-four stone. In his later life sickness reduced his giant proportions; but in the days of the young Eighties when we saw the great mouthpiece of the Kingites striding with that proud, disdainful bearing that was always his characteristic, along the road to the Land Court, he was indeed a man of weight in the world. He invariably wore the rapaki, the Maori kilt, consisting of a shawl or a piece of calico twisted about his magnificent middle. The time came when it was necessary, in the course of political negotiations with the Government, to visit Auckland and Wellington. Dignified Wahanui could not enter the pakeha towns in the simple and free costume of the kainga. But there were no trousers in the stores large enough. Wahanui was an out-size. So the nearest township with a tailor was visited, and the necessary civilised garb for the big chief was procured. It was tolerably certain that the measurements for appropriate trouserings were the largest that that tailor had ever taped.

The Orator.

When Wahanui rose to speak in public all was profound attention. His presence was commanding; his kingly head, covered with thick silvery hair that lay in natural waves, his imperious mouth and white drooping moustache, circled by the blue-lined marks of tattoo on cheeks and chin, his majestic deportment, easy, graceful gestures, compelled the admiration of all who saw and listened, pakeha and Maori alike. When he stood at the bar of the House of Representatives in 1884 and addressed the legislators, his dignified deportment and his speech aroused the surprise and praise of legislators. There was no orator, pakeha or Maori, in the House to compare with him.

Wahanui was at the height of his powers when he was engaged in public debate, whether in a meeting of the
Sir Robert Stout, Premier of New Zealand, 1884–1887.

Sir Robert Stout, Premier of New Zealand, 1884–1887.

tribes or the marae “under the shining sun,” as the Maori has it, or in the house of council. There were many eloquent and forceful speakers among the Maoris of his day. One remembers such a man as Te Ngakau, great of mind and body, who was at one time Tawhiao's secretary and chief orator. But at the gatherings of the clans for political discussion, it was towards Wahanui that all eyes and ears were directed.

The late Major Wilson, of Cambridge, whose wife was a chieftainess of Waikato, once set down his impressions of Wahanui as a speaker. He heard the chief of Ngati-Maniapoto addressing an assemblage of the tribes at Maungatautari. “There was no straining of the ears,” he wrote, “to catch the sonorous sentences as they were poured forth deliberately, distinctly, and with due and marvellous precision and emphasis. Every syllable was clearly enunciated. When the speaker ended, with the words, ‘Ko te ruri, me te reti, me te hoko, me mutu, me mutu, me mutu!’ (The survey, the letting of land and the selling must cease, must cease, must cease!) those listening knew that not only did he mean them to cease, but that they would cease.”

The same listener said that Wahanui's measured sentences and his accompanying gestures electrified even opponents, and drew forth the admiration of Europeans who understood not one word of the language spoken, “even as in Italian opera an English audience will sit spellbound for hours.”

The Closed Frontier.

It was in the year 1869 that Wahanui created some alarm in the pakeha settlements by raising an armed party with the avowed intention of clearing the white people out of the Upper Waikato. This was shortly after the White Cliffs massacre, the killing of the Gascoigne family and the missionary Whiteley at Pukearuhe, on the southern coast boundary of the King Country. But he and his men from the Mokau abandoned their warlike intentions when they reached Te Kuiti, and he remained there as one of King Tawhiao's advisers, eventually to become, in effect, his Prime Minister. At that period there was no more stubborn opponent of pakeha intrusion than Wahanui. Not even the fiery Rewi surpassed him in haughty antipathy to the British flag and all it signified. They bitterly assailed the pakeha for his “muruwhenua,” the forcible appropriation of land, and had their military resources been equal to their resolution there would have been a series of swift raids across the border and attacks on the farms and townships. The period 1869–75 was indeed an anxious era along the frontier. But fortunately for the peace of the Waikato the Kingites realised the ultimate hopelessness of any attempt to renew the war.

Wahanui played a friendly part in 1873 when Mr. James Mackay, the Government Civil Commissioner in the Upper Waikato, was murderously attacked in his tent at Te Kuiti, where he was pluckily negotiating with the chiefs for the surrender of the killers of Timothy Sullivan, one of Grice and Walker's employees, on the disputed border land near Puahue.

After Rewi Maniapoto had rescued Mackay from the fanatic Hauhaus who sought his death, he sent the Commissioner with an armed escort of twenty-five mounted men to Te Uira, Wahanui's home on the hills above Te Kuiti. Wahanui received Mackay cordially, had a tent pitched for him, and set an armed guard of nine men to patrol around the kainga all night. Te Kooti went up to Te Uira too, and insisted on adding three of his own men to the guard.

Such incidents show that Wahanui and the other leading men disapproved of the frontier murder, and of treacherous attacks on Europeans who trusted to their spirit of chivalry and fair play. While page 19 they were determined to maintain their independence and their isolation from the pakeha, they countenanced only such methods as were determined upon by the council of the leading men of Ngati-Maniapoto and Waikato.

“No Trespassing.”

The killing of the white man, William Moffatt, in 1880, was an incident of a different character.

This episode is described in one of the frontier stories in “Tales of the Maori Bush.” Moffatt's expedition, his return to Taumarunui after repeated warnings to keep out, was a deliberate infringement of the Kingites' announced policy of an inviolate frontier against white interlopers. The Rohepotae was forbidden land to such adventurers as Moffatt; the aukati of protection extended from the Puniu River on the north to Utapu, on the Upper Wanganui River, the southern boundary, and from Lake Taupo westward to the coast. Wahanui, Taonui and Rewi Maniapoto sent forth the instructions, in accordance with the principles of the Maori national party. There is a long and curious history in the story of the sacred taiaha, the ancestral weapon called Matua-kore, which Wahanui and his fellow-chiefs sent to Ngatai at Taumarunui as a symbol of execution of the Kingite sentence upon white trespassers; but that tale may be narrated another time.

The Pakeha Wedge.

Not until the year 1883 did Wahanui relax his strong anti-pakeha policy. It was in this year that he consented to the Native Minister's request that Government surveyors should be permitted to enter the King Country and make reconnaissance expeditions along likely road and railway routes. When the pioneer surveyor, C. W. Hursthouse, and his assistant, Newsham, were captured and ill-treated by the fanatic Hauhau prophet, Te Mahuki Manukura, at Te Kumi, near Te Kuiti, in 1883, it was Wahanui's men, with some of Te Kooti's, who released the pakehas from the whare in which they had been chained up. Mahuki's point of view was that pakeha surveyors were the first wedge to split the log of Maori independence.

From that time onward Wahanui supported the Government, or at any rate his antagonism ceased. But it was observed that he did not modify his anti-pakeha policy until the Government of the day had discreetly recognised his position and dignity by building him a large house at Alexandra and offering him a pension. At the same time—it was in Mr. John Bryce's period of office as Native Minister—Rewi Maniapoto was presented with a house at Kihikihi. It could not fairly be said that these gifts of the Government were bribes. They were rather expressions in a tangible form of the Government's recognition of the chiefs' mana, and of the newly-come permanent peace. Rewi certainly was only receiving a small measure of what was due to him from the white people; the fine pakeha house built for him was close to the site of his old home and the council-house “Hui-te-Rangiora” which the British soldiers burned when they invaded Kihikihi village in 1864.

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.

The First Land Court.

When the Ngati-Maniapoto and associated tribes consented to the first Land Court to investigate the various tribal titles to the great King Country block in 1886, Wahanui insisted that it should not be held in any of the pakeha townships. His anxiety was the wellbeing of his people; he had seen only too often the demoralising effects of holding such courts in places where there were public-houses. He wished his people to be kept away from the temptations of the bar-room. So the Government sent Major William Mair to hold the Court in Otorohanga, where the Maoris had built a large hall for the purpose, and for three months the Court sat there, settling in that time the rights of ownership of more than a million and a half acres, the great Rohepotae. The wisdom of Wahanui's policy—which was supported by all his fellow-chiefs—was very apparent to all who knew the Maoris and had witnessed the scenes of rowdy drunkenness in the border townships when Land Courts were held there. I happened to ride into Otorohanga in that winter of 1886 when the Court was sitting, and saw the large and orderly assemblage of Maoris there, their excellent arrangements for camping and for provisioning the gathering. Otorohanga was a purely Maori village then, a thatched kainga all of the olden time. There I saw the grand old men of many tribes, such splendid patriarchal chiefs as Hauauru (“The West Wind”), Te Rangituataka, the tohunga Hopa te Rangianini, and many another tattooed warrior and clan-leader.

Wahanui the giant had shrunk to almost a shadow of his former self when he died in 1899. When I last saw him, in Otorohanga a few years before his death, long illness had reduced his great body until his clothes hung grotesquely on him. He survived most of his fellow-chiefs of the national party—Tawhiao, Rewi, Hauauru, Taonui, Tamati Ngapora—all had passed on to the Reinga before him. Of the prominent Kingites of the old generation only Te Rangituataka, of Ngati-Maniapoto, and Patara te Tuhi, of Waikato, were left.

To sum up Wahanui's character in a few words, it may accurately be said that he was the most intellectual and the most forceful man in the Maori nationalist party in the Seventies and Eighties. But he was not so indifferent to selfish considerations as old Tawhiao was. Tawhiao was never a self-seeker; he repeatedly refused Government concessions, even the tempting offers made by Sir George Grey and Sir Donald Maclean of a virtual province of his own. Nor was Wahanui so fine a character as fiery and sword-like Rewi. He was not revered as Tawhiao was, nor was he regarded with the worshipful affection which chivalrous Rewi inspired. Like Sir George Grey in his later political days, he could not endure opposition or accept advice, and he alienated many of his own followers by his attitude of proud aloofness.

The Status of The Steam Locomotive.

When anyone of long experience and occupying the position of chief mechanical engineer to a leading railway company stands up at a meeting attended by numerous locomotive men and other railway officers and expresses confidence in the ability of the steam locomotive to maintain its position as the chief power unit operating on our railways, it may be taken as reasonably certain that, in the absence of some epoch making development of which we at present have no knowledge, the process of generating steam in locomotive boilers for the purpose of railway transport will continue for an indefinite period (states the “Railway Gazette”). Mr. Gresley voiced that belief in his presidential address recently delivered at a meeting of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers with, however, one important qualification, viz., that the locomotive shall be of greatly improved efficiency as the result of the establishment of a locomotive experimental station. This apart, there can be no doubt as to the general attitude of mind among railway mechanical engineers and others concerned as to the general status of the steam locomotive in its present stage of development. Confidence in it is not based on failure to appreciate the claims of alternative forms of traction, but because it provides a relatively economical, reliable and effective means of hauling trains at good average speeds day in and day out under widely divergent conditions, calling for an elasticity of service which steam as a motive force is adequately suited to fulfil.

An old-time King Country village, Te Kumi, near Te Kuiti. The Maori in the centre of the foreground is Mahuki, the fanatic prophet, who imprisoned Mr. Hursthouse, the Surveyor, in Te Kumi, in 1883, and was afterwards captured when he raided Alexandra township, and was sent to gaol for a year. Wahanui and his people went to Hursthouse's assistance. This photo was taken by Muir and Moodie about 1885.

An old-time King Country village, Te Kumi, near Te Kuiti. The Maori in the centre of the foreground is Mahuki, the fanatic prophet, who imprisoned Mr. Hursthouse, the Surveyor, in Te Kumi, in 1883, and was afterwards captured when he raided Alexandra township, and was sent to gaol for a year. Wahanui and his people went to Hursthouse's assistance. This photo was taken by Muir and Moodie about 1885.