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Story: Mokomoko

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Te Whakatōhea leader

This biography, written by Tairongo Amoamo, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

'Tangohia mai te taura i taku kakī kia waiata au i taku waiata.' (Take the rope from my throat that I may sing my song.) These words were spoken by Mokomoko, a chief of Te Whakatōhea of the eastern Bay of Plenty, as he was about to be hanged at Mount Eden gaol on 17 May 1866. The charge against Mokomoko was that he took part in the execution of the Reverend Carl Sylvius Völkner at Ōpōtiki on 2 March 1865. For their part, the charge that had been levelled by Te Whakatōhea against the missionary was that he was spying, informing the government of their deliberations about coming to the assistance of Waikato in their fight against the Pākehā. He had also failed to condemn the killing of Te Āporotanga, as Te Whakatōhea expected.

On 28 April 1864 Te Whakatōhea, in concert with some Ngāti Porou and other East Coast tribes, had tried to join Waikato, and were repulsed by Te Arawa at the battle of Te Kaokaoroa, near Matatā. In the fighting, Te Āporotanga of Te Whakatōhea, a high chief of note, was captured and later executed by Ngapi, the widow of Tohi Te Ururangi. Among Te Whakatōhea and other Mātaatua tribes his death was considered murder. It caused much resentment against Te Arawa and the government; a scathing waiata, condemning Te Arawa for killing Te Āporotanga, was sung by those tribes in opposition to the government.

The events which led up to the killing of Völkner on 2 March 1865 began when the Pai Mārire prophet Te Ua Haumēne sent Kereopa Te Rau and Pātara Raukatauri to the East Coast as missionaries. They were instructed to proceed peacefully in preaching the new faith. Kereopa disregarded this instruction. At Whakatāne he demanded that Ngāti Awa hand over to him a Catholic priest. They did not do so and after banning shipping from using the harbour the Pai Mārire party left for Ōpōtiki. Mokomoko accompanied them from Whakatāne to Ōpōtiki. The Pai Mārire leaders are reported to have said that when they got to Ōpōtiki they would order Völkner to leave and that if he refused they would kill him. About 800 Māori gathered at Ōpōtiki. Ignoring warnings from Te Whakatōhea to stay away, Völkner arrived on the schooner Eclipse from Auckland on 1 March. He was taken from the ship and imprisoned until his fate was decided. He was then taken to a tree and hanged. Mokomoko denied responsibility for the killing. He claimed that he went away after the decision was made to kill Völkner and was not present at the death. His descendants claim that earlier he had tried to help Völkner escape.

Mokomoko surrendered in October 1865 and was tried in Auckland on 27 March 1866. The evidence against him was the testimony of three witnesses. Joseph Jeans (or Jennings) said Mokomoko had been in the procession that took Völkner to execution and that he had carried the rope. Wiremu Te Paki also said that Mokomoko was with the procession. Wēpiha Te Poono said Mokomoko commanded the armed party that took Völkner to be executed. However, witnesses differed in other details. According to one, Mokomoko was carrying the rope behind the armed men leading Völkner to the tree. Other evidence indicated that he was some distance away. No witness claimed that Mokomoko was one of those most involved in the killing. There was a conflict of evidence over who placed the rope around Völkner's neck; Jeans said it was Wī Hura while other witnesses named Pōkeno Te Awanui. Neither of these men was brought to trial.

According to Te Whakatōhea the rope had belonged to Mokomoko and was taken from him as he was catching his horse. He played no part in Völkner's death but found himself an accessory to the act through ownership of the rope. Subsequently the word taura (rope) entered the vocabulary of his people as a symbol of retributive justice. 'Take the rope from my throat' became the murmured prelude to a waiata, sung by Mokomoko, and later Te Whakatōhea and neighbouring tribes.

Serious consequences for Te Whakatōhea followed the killing of Völkner. The government mounted a punitive expedition in which people were killed defending their lands and homes. Dwellings and granaries were destroyed and shipping, Te Whakatōhea's means of commerce, was burnt at the moorings. In addition, the tribe's arable land, the basis of an effective economy, was confiscated. The years that followed were to be years of subservience to the new masters of the land, decline in tribal numbers and general penury.

Mokomoko had three wives. Two of his wives and six children survived him. After his death he became an effective symbol in the struggle of Te Whakatōhea to address the wrongs inflicted on the tribe. To perpetuate the circumstances of Mokomoko's story his descendants were given the following names: Pūriri, after the tree on which Völkner was hanged; Rīpeka, the cross, symbolising sacrifice; Mautini, a transliteration for Mount Eden gaol; and Tauati, to choke by hanging.

The song of Mokomoko ceased to be sung in the 1940s when government admitted that Te Whakatōhea had suffered more than they deserved and were compensated for excessive confiscation of land. While this was an important event for Te Whakatōhea the memory of Mokomoko's dying words remains. 'E mate hara kore ana ahau. Tēnā koutou Pākehā. Hei aha.' (I die an innocent man. Farewell Pākehā. So be it.)

His words at the scaffold, and his song, are also remembered: 'Tangohia mai te taura i taku kakī kia waiata au i taku waiata.' (Take the rope from my neck that I may sing my song.):

Violent shaking will not rouse me from my sleep
They treat me like a common thief
It is true that I embrace eternal sleep
For that is the lot of a man condemned to die.

Shielded from the harsh light
With narrow eyes I reflect on the retribution taken at Hamukete
Remember how I was taken on board ship (chained)
The memory of it burns me with shame.

Bring me justice from distant lands to break my shackles
Where the sun sets is a government in Europe
It is for them to say that I must hang
Then shut me in my coffin box.

In 1981 Te Whakatōhea pursued the matter of a government pardon for Mokomoko; Ngāti Awa also made a request for all those imprisoned in 1865. In 1987 Mokomoko's family requested permission to exhume his remains from Mount Eden gaol. This request was granted in 1988 and Mokomoko was eventually pardoned in 1992.

How to cite this page:

Tairongo Amoamo. 'Mokomoko', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1m47/mokomoko (accessed 25 July 2024)