The great siege of Kaiapoi

I invite the reader to view the island from on high, amid the swiftly moving arc of cloud streaming above.

Like a vaulted wall of impregnable rock, the Southern Alps can be seen running down the entire length of the land, akin to the spine of a giant sleeping creature borne from myth and lore.

The lofty peaks live with ice as a constant companion and their towers shade all below in the deep bush clad ravines and gullies.

Rivers which were once mere trickles of snowmelt, carve their courses ever downwards, always seeking the easiest pathways towards the endless ocean beyond.

Under the green canopy of the forest, tiny occasional streams of another sort make their way slowly towards the western coastline. Travelling on pathways used for centuries, these small parties of men and women brave the hostile land, in the hopes of reaching their destination where the treasure is to be found.

If they manage to survive the long and arduous journey, then their reward is plentiful yet heavy and difficult to carry.

The story passed down from one generation to the next tells of Tamatea and his three wives, who abandoned him on his travels.

Down the eastern lands Tamatea had searched in vain but to no avail, before turning his attention westwards, stopping at every valley and opening he found, cocking his ear to listen for evidence of his family in hiding.

At the mouth of the Arahura River he heard familiar voices, but upon further inspection upstream found nothing but columns of rock standing in the water, not knowing that these were indeed his lost relatives, hiding forever inside the heart of the Greenstone resting there.

Once more we view the high places of the island, where one of the many rivulets of ice begins its long passage to the sea.

As the water descends it quickens, carving out a passage for itself through a gorge, finally becoming braided across the awaiting plain, before emptying itself out into the Pacific Ocean.

On the southern bank of this river, in around the year Seventeen Hundred, Tu Rakau-tahi of the Kai Tahu was to build his mighty fortification, near present day Pegasus, just north of Christchurch.

The name given to this Pa was Kaiapohia, in reference to its purpose of being a depot for the gathering of food and other such resources. It would become more commonly known as Kaiapoi.

The people of Kai Tahu had arrived in these islands at a place now known as Poverty Bay, centuries before onboard the legendary waka called Takitimu.

Moving south in around 1677, they were to call Hataitai home for some years, before making the journey across the strait where they were to displace the Ngati Mamoe, who had, in turn, displaced the original inhabitants in known memory of this land, the Waitaha peoples who had lived there for some two hundred years.

The war of extermination which followed would see the virtual destruction of the Ngati Mamoe, whose last known place of refuge would be found in the carved out valleys of far distant Fiordland.

For over a century the Pa at Kaiapoi would stand, all the while unmolested from envious eyes until the Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha would make his presence felt for the first time in 1829.

The slaying of Te Rauparaha’s uncle and most trusted ally, Te Pehi Kupe, under an understanding of trusted hospitality would prove the kindling for the northern chief’s ire and earnest desire for revenge.

Further salt had been rubbed into this festering wound when word had been heard as to the treatment of Te Pehi’s body. His bones had been fashioned into fish hooks which had then been gifted throughout the lands as far north as present day Nelson.

In the year 1830 Te Rauparaha devised a plan which he envisioned would provide some redress for this most terrible affront to his mana.

He came to an ‘arrangement’ with one Captain John Stewart of the sailing brig Elizabeth, who agreed to transport a small number of heavily armed warriors southwards to Akaroa harbour where it was believed that Te Maiharanui (the one deemed most responsible for the death of Te Pehi) was currently residing.

In exchange for providing Te Rauparaha with this ‘Trojan Horse’ Captain Stewart was to receive a shipment of dressed flax for the homeward leg of his journey.

The arrival of the Elizabeth in Akaroa did not raise many eyebrows, and the customary routine of trade commenced without any undue suspicion.

It was only when Te Maiharanui and his family had been invited on board and overpowered by the awaiting warriors that the ruse was discovered. Hundreds more were killed on land after Te Rauparaha and some of his men had made use of the Elizabeth’s shore boat.

During the return leg to Kapiti Island Te Maiharanui was to strangle his daughter and throw her body overboard, in order for her to avoid the grisly fate which awaited the captives.

The revenge meted out to Te Maiharanui and his wife upon arrival at Kapiti was perhaps a true reflection of the anger felt amongst Ngati Toa over the slaying of Te Pehi the year before.

He was hung upside down and his carotid artery cut, providing vengeful sustenance for the long line of people all queuing up for a taste.

This slow torture went on for some time before culminating in a final act of some significance when Te Pehi Kupe’s widow was to push a red hot poker through his neck.

Afterwards, she was to gouge out the unfortunate victim’s eyes and swallow them whole: in order to prevent these most revered organs from ascending into the heavenly firmament to look down on the lands for all eternity.

Te Rauparaha’s thirst for revenge was unsated however and in the following year, he would lead a massive taua southwards for a final reckoning with Kai Tahu.

 

The events of 1830 had prompted around one thousand Kai Tahu to gather many stores and retreat from the surrounding areas into the safety of Kaiapoi Pa.

The Pa’s enclosure covered approximately five acres and was surrounded on all sides but one by marshy swampland.

To the north, there was access to the Ashley River and the ocean beyond, and to the south the Pa was approached by a small isthmus of dry land.

In addition to these natural barriers, a double row of palisades reaching a height of some fifteen feet was also to be strengthened against the invading northern horde.

Upon arrival in the spring, Te Rauparaha quietly settled down into besieging the Pa, all the while sending out scouting parties into the surrounding area to gather food and hunt down any Kai Tahu who remained there.

Most of the Kai Tahu within the Pa were either too young or too old to provide any meaningful resistance, as a large number of the men of fighting age had departed some days before Te Rauparaha’s arrival under the command of Taiaroa who, upon hearing of the coming battle decided to return in order to hopefully relieve the besieged.

Taiaroa’s small army approached the Pa under cover of darkness and proceeded to make their way towards the eastern palisade wall through the marshy swamp using the reeds and sedge as camouflage.

One of the warriors, Te Ata o Tu, was carrying his infant son on his back. He was urged to smother the baby for fear of it making a noise and alerting the sentries interspersed throughout the approaches, but Te Ata refused and instead rolled his sleeping kin up in a thick mat, managing to muffle its cries until entry was gained into the Pa.

The arrival of Taiaroa and his warriors was a welcome relief to the Pa’s occupants whose confidence was raised in spite of the awaiting menace surrounding them.

As the weeks turned into months the Pa’s inhabitants began to slowly starve, all the while watching on as a series of saps were progressively dug towards the walls of the Pa near its southern entrance.

The heads of these trenches were filled with Manuka brush and other such vegetation, with the express purpose of eventually setting the palisade alight and burning down this supposedly impregnable wall of looming Totara.

An attempt was made by Taiaroa to burn Te Rauparaha’s fleet of waka which were drawn up near the mouth of the nearby Ashley River, however, this sortie which was made outside of the protective enclosure was not successful due to heavy rain which began to fall, rendering the attempts made to fire the vessels impossible.

Some superficial damage was made with the use of hatchets, however, the integrity of Te Rauparaha’s fleet was largely unaffected.

Another notable raid outside of the perimeter was made by the aforementioned Te Ata o Tu when he led a small party of warriors out of the southern entrance to attack the creeping entrenchments one night.

During this sortie, Te Ata was to capture and kill Pehi Tahau, a notable chief and close ally of Te Rauparaha. Tahau was armed with a musket, however, he was overpowered by Te Ata who was to use a more traditional weapon which was duly embedded in the former’s throat.

As the spring turned into a burning hot summer the siege would continue, turning into an ordeal of some anguish for those inside of the Pa.

Added to the constant companion of hunger and fatigue was the daily sound of their approaching doom: called out through the chorus of voices whose cries for the killing to commence were punctuated by the steady rhythmic stamping upon the earth, sending vibrations of terror throughout the Pa and into the hearts and minds of those within.

Murmurings of escape began to be openly discussed and it was at this point that Taiaroa made the decision to take his men away.

As he left, he assured the Pa’s occupants that he would create a diversion for the rest to flee by attacking Te Rauparaha’s camp. This however never eventuated and all who remained consigned themselves to their fate and awaited the inevitable.

As the dried Manuka brushwood began to reach higher against the southern palisade, a last desperate attempt to subvert this growing threat was made one evening in a favourable north westerly wind, in the hopes of using the enemies’ devices against him.

The brush was lit by the Pa’s defenders and initially the flames worked in their favour, blowing the fires back down the three sap-lines towards the attacking forces camp.

However, the prevailing mood of the weather was to once more swing back against the protective palisades which began to burn, signalling the end of waiting and the commencement of the inevitable slaughter to follow.

It is unknown exactly how many people were slain at the falling of Kaiapoi Pa. Some were able to make their way through the surrounding swamp, eventually reaching safety further south.

Most, however, would be cut down amongst this water filled bloody morass as they vainly attempted to seek shelter from the coming storm. Among those killed amongst the Raupo reeds would be Te Ata o Tu’s wife and their baby infant son.

As for Te Ata o Tu himself?

He would be spared in a rare scene of mercy displayed by Te Rauparaha, being so impressed by the bravery shown in the slaying of Pehi Tahau in the weeks before.

Te Rauparaha was also to spare a young boy by the name of Pura whom he had taken quite a liking to. Tying a stout chord around the boy’s body, Te Rauparaha took him back to his whare, where once the bloodthirsty chief had fallen asleep Pura was able to pry himself loose from his bond and then tying it to a peg in the ground.

It was in the dead of night when he escaped and he was unable to distinguish much in the dim light. He fell into a pit filled with brushwood causing much noise and stirring the camp into much activity, still tense from the preceding days fighting.

After lying under cover for some time, Pura was able to make his way south eventually meeting up with other fleeing fugitives seeking refuge.

Once the sacking of Kaiapoi had ceased and his waka had been repaired for further travel, Te Rauparaha was to make one last stop at Onawe Pa on Bank’s Peninsula which was also overcome, culminating in further killing and enslavement.

This was to be the nadir for Kai Tahu, as from this time of grief and loss they would build again, continuing the struggle against their northern enemy in the years to follow, eventually defeating the invading aggressors and winning back their traditional lands.

As for Te Rauparaha?

Never again would he command such forces in the field of battle. Upon returning to his island fortress of Kapiti, his confederation of northern alliances would crumble all about him, sparking off a series of internal tensions which would ultimately break out into full-scale civil war which would be fought amongst the rolling hills and meadows of the Haowhenua.

But for now Te Rauparaha was conqueror of all before him. His dream of holding claim to the source of Greenstone had finally been realised.

Te Wahi-Pounamu was his.

 

Sources:

‘Kaiapohia: The Story of a Siege’, by The Reverend J.W. Stack, 1893


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