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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Katete's Strange Fate

Katete's Strange Fate

The only pakeha who, according to the natives, lost his life on the East Coast on account of committing a breach of tapu (native sacred law) lived at Omaru-iti (Hicks Bay). As he was a flax-buyer, he must have resided there in the 1830's. Potene Tuhiwai, of Hicks Bay, told the writer that this pakeha was known as “Katete.” It was believed that he was an American and that he a had landed from a wreck. Katete, he added, had walked upon a tapu spot known to the natives as “The Unquenchable Fire,” and, after a lingering illness, he had died from “the effects of burns.”

Dr. Wi Repa informed the writer that the story of Katete's fate was well-known in the Hicks Bay district. He was uncertain as to which English name “Katete” represented. It might, he said, have been Cassidy, or Castles, or Cadex or even Goddard. In a Hokianga old land claim (Turton's Maori Deeds, pp. 268–9) there is mention of one Tamati Katete, which name is translated as “Thomas Cassidy.” A trader named Castles, who lived at Omaewa in the 1840's, was known as “Katete.”

“In almost all Maori villages,” Dr. Wi Repa said, “there were sacred places upon which nobody was permitted to set foot. Such places were called ‘ahi taitai’; ‘umu pururangi’; and ‘kurepe.’ ‘Ahi taitai’ was the special prestige earned by a spot on which the navel cord or placenta of an ariki or other important personage had been buried. If anybody trespassed on it, he or she would become afflicted with a complaint not unlike an abscess caused by germ infection. ‘Umu pururangi’ was the umu (oven) where a tohunga had performed some purification rite, or had steamed the boil of some individual of noble lineage. Trespass on such a spot would lead to the offender's mara (cultivation) being visited by a plague of giant caterpillars. The ‘kurepe’ was much the same as the ‘umu pururangi’.”

According to Dr. Wi Repa, Katete must have been warned against walking upon one of these places, probably an “ahi taitai.” His act of defiance had occasioned an incurable infection (not burns) and he had died, to the satisfaction of his hosts, as their belief had been duly vindicated!

“The story,” Dr. Wi Repa added, “need not be true and, no doubt, it was a fabrication. But it has fixed the victim's place in the annals of the East Coast. Whenever anybody defied, or even disputed or page 120 doubted, the mana of such places to cause death, the fate of Katete was invoked to prove the efficiency of such spots as death-dealing factors. Katete did not leave any descendants on the East Coast.”