Figuring out when a non-invasion happened

I don’t often discuss some of my historical work on this blog – that’s what my books are for.

But today I thought I’d share a snippet – the arrival of Ngati Kahungunu in Hawke’s Bay. A story usually typified by their arrival at the strongest defensive point in the district, the massive double pa Otatara-Hikurangi.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.
Close-up of the interpretative palisades at Otatara-Hikurangi, above Taradale.

A pa (pronounced ‘paa’ with a long ‘a’, which should be shown with a macron, except the symbol set on this font doesn’t have one) is a protected structure. Over 6000 have been identified from when the age of pa building began around 1500, to its end with the ‘rifle pa’ of the 1860s. They range from look-out posts to large fortresses enclosing villages. Technically, all are field fortifications – wood and earth structures, and Otatara-Hikurangi was a classic ditch-and-bank structure built on a discontinuous scarp.

The pa at Otatara-Hikurangi (pronounced ‘Oh-taa-ta-ra’) was one of the biggest in the Ahuriri district, likely built in the late sixteenth century, sited on the hill above Ahuriri harbour for a reason. You can see everything coming.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.
Otatara-Hikurangi pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. This is the upper pa, Hikurangi; the adjacent Otatara pa was quarried out of existence from 1925. Click to enlarge.

The oral record tells of an ‘invasion’ of Hawke’s Bay by Ngati Kahungunu, who had been living at Mahia, a peninsula 100 km distant. They arrived under their rangitira (chief) Taraia to settle. Although portrayed as an ‘invasion’ by settler-era ethnographers, it was more a process of heke (migration) followed by settlement and intermarriage with Ngati Mamoe and other inhabitants of Ahuriri and neighbouring Heretaunga.

The thing is, nobody knows when this happened. Maori oral tradition is geared to preserve – accurately – details important to Maori. From it they can determine the relationships required to identify land right and status, among other things.

That did not suit scholars of western tradition,who were looking for dates. Such as when Taraia arrived. That was one thing the tradition did not supply, and early western guesses – based in part on genealogies – put the ‘invasion’ anywhere from 1570 to 1650.

View from Otatara looking northeast. Now Napier city.
View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking northeast. Now Napier city.

Archaeological work has helped, and although little has been done directly on Otara-Hikurangi, other areas have been examined. But even then, carbon dating carries built-in uncertainty which doesn’t much narrow the date of Taraia’s arrival. But I think it’s possible to get a more precise figure – deductively at this stage. I think it’s likely to have been around 1600-1603. Without detailing the calculations I made, the logic runs:

View from Otatara looking southeast - now a wine growing region.
View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking southeast – now a wine growing region. Click to enlarge.

1. My calculations from the genealogical record (using multiple lines) put the heke at 1600-1610.
2. Oral tradition makes clear Ngati Kahungunu moved for resource reasons; they were jammed into the Mahia region after moving from East Cape.
3. Those resources were constrained in 1601 by a double whammy; an earthquake dislocated local mussel beds, and fallout from a well documented volcanic eruption in Chile that year disrupted the growing season.
4. These pressures likely prompted the disputes over resources, documented in the oral record, that prompted the move to Ahuriri. Exactly when is unclear, but my estimate is that it must have been within a year or two.

The knock-on effects were significant – as I explained in my book Old South (Penguin 2009)the intrusion by Ngati Kahungunu pushed Rangitane south, with knock-on results that rippled through New Zealand into the South Island. The echoes helped push southern Maori together, a process still under way in the mid-eighteenth century when James Cook turned up and New Zealand’s history changed forever.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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2 thoughts on “Figuring out when a non-invasion happened

  1. So interesting. I like your logic in determining the dates of the move. Am I wrong in presuming Maori tribes didn’t usually move from their lands? It seems like there had to be the loss of a significant resource (mussel beds) before they would move at all. Was there any effort by a single leader to ‘unify’ all the tribes?

    1. There was a surprising amount of movement at times, often involving relationships between kin groups. British settlement in the nineteenth century acted to both snap freeze the structures, esentially as they were then, and to push unity in the face of the colonisers. The big problem just then was that British technology preceded large scale settlement by a generation, provoking disclocation that was expressed as large scale warfare circa 1810-1845 and migrations on what amounted to turbo speed and mega scale by earlier standards. When the British began buying land a few years later it was often purchased from newcomers who had no customary rights to the area. The mess can be imagined and still intrudes today. I wrote a book on that period of warfare a few years ago. Now out of print alas.

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