Last month I wrote about the discovery in my neighbourhood of extensive food storage pits of late 18th century origin that had once belonged to the large pā, or fortified village, above the shore of Ōtūmoetai peninsula in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. The find was an exciting one since there are relatively few material traces of Māori life before European settlement. The dimensions of the storage pits suggested that at least two thousand people were living in and around Ōtūmoetai Pā at the time of James Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand in 1769. In this month’s post, I would like to write a little more about this particular local pā, which was home to the Ngai Tamarawaho hapū (clan) of the Ngāi Te Rangi tribe.
|An impression of the pā at Ōtūmoetai in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Philip Perry.
Ōtūmoetai Pā covered an area of about four acres, centred on an escarpment that looked over Tauranga Harbour and out towards the South Pacific Ocean. The pā was a complex construction encompassing outer barriers of ditches, banks, palisaded ramparts and fighting stages on multiple terraces. These earthworks were arranged around inner fenced compounds where kin-groups lived in groups of timber-framed dwellings with reed walls and thatched roofs. The naturalist Joseph Banks, who had been on board Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand, described Māori dwellings (whare) as ‘mean and low', but conceded that 'they most perfectly resist all inclemencies of the weather.’ The interior of the whare (house) was spare. A fire burned in the centre of the single room upon the floor and the entrance served for a chimney. Tools and weaponry were stored in the house and high-born families kept intricately carved boxes containing feathers and other valuable items for personal adornment, but there was no furniture except for a square of boards joined together for a bed, with a mattress made of a thick layer of grass and dried ferns. Latrines and rubbish heaps for food scraps and waste served each cluster of houses. A typical pā of this time can be seen in the lithograph made by artist John Webber, who accompanied Captain Cook on his third Pacific expedition.
|John Webber. The inside of a hippah in New Zealand, 1784. The lithograph shows a pā (or ‘hippah’) with houses constructed of reeds in the Marlborough Sounds.
The dwellings are similar in a sketch of a pā in Wellington made some sixty years later by Captain William Mein Smith, a surveyor-general engaged by the New Zealand Company in 1839, and in photographs taken by Herbert Deveril later in the 19th century.
|Captain W. Mein Smith. Pipitea marae, Wellington, c.1840.
|Herbert Deveril. Te Rangi Tahau on the porch of his whare, c.1875.
The site of Ōtūmoetai Pā was, and is still, an advantageous one. A tidal estuary, the waters of the large bay, and the ocean beyond provided an abundance of food. Women gathered shellfish and men went out fishing with bone hooks and flax nets weighted with stone sinkers. These accomplished offshore sailors paddled their canoes to outer islands to collect obsidian and immature petrels (muttonbirds) for food, and red ochre for body painting. Mauao, the volcano at the harbour’s entrance, was a useful place marker. A favoured hapuku (groper) fishing spot could be found by lining up Mauao’s western slope with a tall tītoki tree that grew at the rear of the pā. This venerable tree, still extant, is now more than three hundred years old.
|Joseph Jenner Merrett. A Meeting of Visitors, c.1843. View of a pōwhiri (welcome)
between two Māori groups outside Ōtūmoetai Pā with the outline of
Mauao (Mt Maunganui) in the background. Tauranga Libraries.
To the west of the pā, rainforested hills provided berries and bird life, and timber, and eeling places in the rivers that flowed into the sea. In a pattern that continued well into the twentieth century, Tauranga Māori made use of these rich resources by migrating between inland areas and the coast to gather food and tend crops. Excess was preserved – fish were wrapped in fern leaf, shellfish threaded on blades of rushes, birds stored in fat in gourds – and kept in raised storehouses together with large calabashes of water.
Flax and kūmara (sweet potato) were the principal crops and they were treated with reverence. Each flax plant was regarded as a family, the central shoot being the child and the leaves surrounding it the parents. In order to maintain the plant’s vitality, only the outermost leaves – the grandparents – were harvested. Women softened the blades of flax by beating them with stone pounders. They wove the flax into hoop nets and cordage, plaited it into mats and baskets and worked it into a silky fibre for clothing, which was similar in weight and drape to sweat-shirt fabric.
|Gottfried Lindauer. Women Weaving Flax Baskets, 1903. Auckland Art Gallery.
Māori wore a diversity of garments – cloaks, aprons or kilts or a ‘girdle of many platted strings made of leaves’, and various closely woven mats worn next to the skin. Both men and women bored holes in their ears, which were kept extended by plugs of feathers, bones or wood. Sometimes women wore bracelets or anklets made of shells or small bones, while the men hung greenstone tiki around their necks or the tooth of a shark or a whale. Women sometimes wore their hair short, cut with sharpened shells, or tied it behind the head, or wore it at shoulder length. On occasion, women cropped their hair as a mourning gesture.
|A woman photographed by the Foy Brothers, late 19th century,
with cropped hair decorated with huia feathers.
Sydney Parkinson, the botanical artist on the Endeavour in 1769, recorded that men on the east coast of the North Island '... had their hair most curiously brought up to their crowns, rolled round, and knotted.' Parkinson’s portrait of a chief shows an example of the style. Long hair was oiled and bound it in various ways with flax and adorned with combs, carved from wood or whale, bird and human bone, and feathers.
|Sydney Parkinson. Portrait of a New Zeland Man, from a sketch made in 1769.
Many men and some women wore facial moko (tattooes) to varying degrees.
Kūmara tubers were planted in spring with some ceremony in scattered communal gardens. Everybody worked in the gardens, including rangatira (chiefs) – but they were exempt from carrying the small gravel, obtained from the bottom of streams, which was brought in baskets during the winter by women to prepare the planting ground.
|Kūmara tubers. Before the planting began, prayers were offered to Rongomātāne,
the god of kūmara, and other cultivated plants, to secure goodwill with regard
to the harvest.
The tubers were planted in mounds in soil that has been amended with wood ash and were considered tapu until they were ready for harvest. Low fences served as breaks against the prevailing westerly wind at Ōtūmoetai, which can be gusty in early summer with a tendency to dry out the soil.
|The mauri (life force) of the kūmara, and hence the fertility of the crop,
were protected by carved, wooden atua kiato (god sticks)
fixed around the perimeter of the gardens.
After harvesting in autumn, the kūmara was steamed and dried before being stacked on the sand-strewn floors of underground pits over winter. The pits at Ōtūmoetai had the capacity to hold up to a tonne of tubers.
Once the kūmara had been harvested and placed in storage, the people could lead a more itinerant lifestyle, trading, or gathering other foodstuffs needed for winter. They might wander the beach or the banks of streams looking for good water-smoothed cobbles that could be used to crush the red ochre brought back from Motiti Island, or for heating the earth ovens in which food was cooked. Joseph Banks described the ovens as ‘holes in the ground filled with provision and hot stones and covered over with leaves and earth’. Small fish and birds were generally roasted over an open fire on a skewer. Kūmara, taro, large fish and dogs were cooked in the ovens.
|William Hodges. Sketch of a Māori woman carrying a child, 1773.
Children were treated with indulgence, Joseph Banks observed.
For forty or fifty years after the first contact with Europeans, Māori at Ōtūmoetai continued to flourish. The lack of accessible timber at Tauranga – the result of previous land clearance by Māori for pā and for crop cultivation – meant that the area held little interest for early Europeans looking for opportunities to exploit New Zealand's hardwood forests – and shore whaling efforts and sealing were centred elsewhere in the country. The large Māori population at the Bay of Plenty eventually attracted missionaries and traders, but this occurred later than in some other coastal areas of New Zealand. Flax was a resource where the Bay of Plenty had an advantage, and this eventually featured in later Māori and European industry.
Ōtūmoetai Pā had the distinction of never being conquered by enemies, but the eventual military defeat of Tauranga Māori in the New Zealand Wars of the mid-19th century led to the confiscation of their land by the Crown. The people at Ōtūmoetai were forced to leave their ancestral home and the land was allocated to soldier settlers.
|Tori Tupaea, the last great Ngaio Te Rangi chief of Ōtūmoetai Pā.
Image Mike Dottridge.