A story of a siege – and why it’s still relevant today

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How many of us have a good knowledge of our history here in Aoteraoa New Zealand?

November 2015 commemorated 150 years since the siege of a Maori village called Waerenga-a-Hika near Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island. In the six-day siege, 71 Māori villagers and 20 colonial soldiers were killed. Its aftermath included imprisonments without trial, land confiscations, counter attacks, executions and the appropriation of the sacred meeting house that currently sits in our National Museum.

I knew almost nothing about this ugly piece of our history until Robyn Rauna kindly gave me a history lesson. I am passing on what I learned because the Waerenga-a-Hika story is important – and all of us who have visited the beautiful carved meeting house at New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa have been touched by it.

In brief, the 1860s were a difficult period in Aotearoa New Zealand’s history, particularly for Māori, who had lost much of their land to the colonial settlers. It also wasn’t easy for Māori to choose the best response to the increasingly numerous settlers and their well-armed militia, and reactions included armed resistance, passive resistance and ongoing, often futile attempts at negotiation. Some Māori, for a variety of reasons, even joined forces and fought with the colonial forces.

At the armed resistance end of the spectrum were some of the more fanatical members of the Pai Mārire religion. Following the killing of a German missionary by extremist Pai Mārire followers, the colonial government vowed to “resist and suppress” the entire religion. This was the pretext for the attack on the East Coast village of Waerenga-a-Hika, where several hundred men, women and children, many of whom were Pai Mārire followers, were living.  The Waitangi Tribunal later found the attack unlawful, as “Maori were not engaging in an attempt to overthrow the sovereign, nor was there evidence upon which the Crown could reasonably have concluded that this was the case.” (See the pleasingly easy-to-read Waitangi Tribunal findings on p118).

But the attack and siege went ahead and six days later 91 people were dead. The following year, 300 men, women and children, including a large number who had surrendered at Waerenga-a-Hika were incarcerated without trial on the Chatham Islands.

Then, in 1867, the carved meeting house which now sits at our National Museum was confiscated, taken apart and transported to Wellington.  In Māori culture, a house is a being with its own soul and its own name, and the name of this elaborately and beautifully carved meeting house, is Te Hau ki Turanga. “Turanga” is the original Māori name for Gisborne, and “hau” is breath, vitality or vital essence – in other words, the meeting house epitomised the vitality or essence of the region. Its confiscation was therefore hugely significant for Māori, was deeply mourned, and, as the Crown has acknowledged, was a breach of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

For almost 150 years, Te Hau ki Turanga has been far from home in Wellington, much of that time on display at Te Papa.  It is the oldest known Māori meeting house and considered one of the most significant. And, as waves of visitors came to see it, it has become, perhaps, a reluctant but dignified cross-cultural ambassador; a window into Māori culture generally and East Coast Māori culture in particular.

Now, at last, the time is approaching for Te Hau ki Turanga to return home, as part of the settlement agreed in 2011 with Rongowhakaata (one of several tribes in the Gisborne area).

It will take time and significant fundraising to restore the meeting house to its original condition, to find the right site in Gisborne and to ensure its ongoing preservation. The hope is that Te Hau ki Turanga’s role as a source of cross-cultural learning will continue – on the land to which it belongs.  Then, perhaps, the events set in motion by the siege of Waerenga-a-Hika in 1865 will reach some conclusion.

Hearing this story and doing some additional research in order to write this blog has helped me to learn a little more about who we are as a nation and where we have come from.   Aotearoa New Zealand has a rich but sometimes painful history, and acknowledging this is a first step to putting things right and ensuring we learn from past mistakes.

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1 Comment

  1. Kia ora

    Great article.

    2016 marks the 175th Battle of Omarunui in Ahuriri.

    Next year will be National Symposium for this kaupapa to mark this battle and others around the country to learn from the narratives of the past and how these experiences have shaped our society as a whole.

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