For centuries before Europeans arrived, Māori had experienced rū whenua, which means ‘the shaking of the land’.
According to Māori tradition, earthquakes are caused by the god Rūaumoko (or Rūamoko), the son of Ranginui (the Sky) and his wife Papatūānuku (the Earth). Rangi had been separated from Papa, and his tears had flooded the land. Their sons resolved to turn their mother face downwards, so that she and Rangi should not constantly see one another’s sorrow and grieve more. When Papatūānuku was turned over, Rūaumoko was still at her breast, and was carried to the world below. To keep him warm there he was given fire. He is the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, and the rumblings that disturb the land are made by him as he walks about.
The wrath of the taniwha
In Māori tradition some earthquakes were attributed to taniwha, dragon-like monsters. For example, it was said that a taniwha travelled north from Porirua, near Wellington, to Te Aute in Hawke’s Bay, and left a trail of destruction. At Te Aute it battled with the god Tāne, the thrashing of its tail creating a sandbank island in Lake Roto-a-Tara. Although this small lake is now drained, the sandbank remains. The Te Aute area also has two other lakes dammed by earthquakes – Poukawa and Hātuma.
Māori accounts of earthquakes
Several accounts of earthquakes experienced by Māori were recorded by European writers. In his book Old Whanganui (1915), T. W. Downes noted that Māori said that earthquakes were less frequent and less violent before Europeans arrived. However, they described two severe earthquakes, at Taupō and Rotorua. It was said that at Rotorua a pā with about 1,000 people was swallowed up, and the area became a lake.
Māori also spoke of two earthquakes along the Whanganui River. In 1838 there were huge falls of earth on both sides of the river, causing a backwash that left canoes stranded high up on the cliffs. The earthquake also caused the earth to open in parallel fissures above the pā at Utapu. The next year a violent agitation took place in the river below the pā, and large masses of rock were lifted up in the riverbed; they later disappeared.
Māori witnessed major changes in the landscape of the Wellington region. In the early 1900s the ethnologist Elsdon Best was told that Wellington’s harbour, Port Nicholson, originally had two entrances. One was the current entrance at Pencarrow, and the other was through the low sandy area now occupied by the suburb of Rongotai and Wellington’s airport. The nearby suburb of Miramar was then an island – Motukairangi.
According to Māori tradition, some 18 generations earlier there was a great earthquake, known as Haowhenua (land swallower or destroyer). Elsdon Best estimated that it had occurred about 1460 CE. The channel between Motukairangi and the mainland became shallow enough to wade across, and soon filled with sediment, converting the island to the present-day Miramar Peninsula.
By the time James Cook explored the area in 1773 there was only one harbour entrance. Studies of the sediment in the isthmus indicate that the area was once below sea level, and it has been suggested that uplift may have occurred along a fault through Miramar.