Story: Mokomoko

Page 1: Biography



Te Whakatohea leader

This biography, written by Tairongo Amoamo, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

'Tangohia mai te taura i taku kaki 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 Whakatohea 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 Opotiki on 2 March 1865. For their part, the charge that had been levelled by Te Whakatohea 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 Pakeha. He had also failed to condemn the killing of Te Aporotanga, as Te Whakatohea expected.

On 28 April 1864 Te Whakatohea, in concert with some Ngati Porou and other East Coast tribes, had tried to join Waikato, and were repulsed by Te Arawa at the battle of Te Kaokaoroa, near Matata. In the fighting, Te Aporotanga of Te Whakatohea, a high chief of note, was captured and later executed by Ngapi, the widow of Tohi Te Ururangi. Among Te Whakatohea and other Mataatua 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 Aporotanga, 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 Marire prophet Te Ua Haumene sent Kereopa Te Rau and Patara Raukatauri to the East Coast as missionaries. They were instructed to proceed peacefully in preaching the new faith. Kereopa disregarded this instruction. At Whakatane he demanded that Ngati Awa hand over to him a Catholic priest. They did not do so and after banning shipping from using the harbour the Pai Marire party left for Opotiki. Mokomoko accompanied them from Whakatane to Opotiki. The Pai Marire leaders are reported to have said that when they got to Opotiki they would order Völkner to leave and that if he refused they would kill him. About 800 Maori gathered at Opotiki. Ignoring warnings from Te Whakatohea 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. Wepiha 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 Wi Hura while other witnesses named Pokeno Te Awanui. Neither of these men was brought to trial.

According to Te Whakatohea 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 Whakatohea and neighbouring tribes.

Serious consequences for Te Whakatohea 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 Whakatohea'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 Whakatohea to address the wrongs inflicted on the tribe. To perpetuate the circumstances of Mokomoko's story his descendants were given the following names: Puriri, after the tree on which Völkner was hanged; Ripeka, 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 Whakatohea had suffered more than they deserved and were compensated for excessive confiscation of land. While this was an important event for Te Whakatohea the memory of Mokomoko's dying words remains. 'E mate hara kore ana ahau. Tena koutou Pakeha. Hei aha.' (I die an innocent man. Farewell Pakeha. So be it.)

His words at the scaffold, and his song, are also remembered: 'Tangohia mai te taura i taku kaki 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 Whakatohea pursued the matter of a government pardon for Mokomoko; Ngati 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, (accessed 27 February 2020)