Ngāi Tahu’s tribal domain was seriously threatened from the late 1820s to the mid-1830s by a relatively small tribe, Ngāti Toa, who had been cast out from their homeland of Kāwhia in the North Island. Under the courageous leadership of Te Rauparaha, Ngāti Toa armed themselves with muskets and waged war against the tribes in the lower end of the North Island. When Ngāti Toa reached the South Island, a new era of Ngāi Tahu history began as the tribes became embroiled in conflict.
The first battles
The first attack made against Ngāi Tahu was at Kaikōura during 1827–28. Ngāi Tahu records state that the Ngāti Kurī people of Kaikōura came down to the beach to welcome their kinsmen, the sub-tribe of Tū-te-pākihi-rangi of Ngāti Kahungunu, whom they were expecting as visitors. Instead, they found the fleet of canoes belonging to Ngāti Toa who, armed with muskets, attacked and killed them. Only those who fled to the hills survived. The battle was named Niho Maaka.
A battle over an insult
After the battle of Waiorua, which secured Te Rauparaha’s position on Kapiti Island, he threatened to crush all the South Island tribes. In response, one of the leading chiefs of Kaikōura, Rerewaka, said he would slit Te Rauparaha’s belly open with a shark’s tooth (niho maaka) if he came south. When Te Rauparaha heard of the insulting threat his determination to conquer Ngāi Tahu was only strengthened. After winning the battle he gave it the name Niho Maaka.
Te Rauparaha and his tribes then visited Ngāi Tahu of Kaiapoi to trade muskets for greenstone. The Kaiapoi people soon learned of the attacks on their kin at Kaikōura. A Ngāpuhi warrior staying with Ngāi Tahu at Kaiapoi pā overheard the Ngāti Toa leader planning how they would attack the following morning. The Kaiapoi Ngāi Tahu countered the Ngāti Toa attack the following day, killing the leading Ngāti Toa chiefs, including Te Pēhi Kupe. The only prominent Ngāti Toa leader not slain was Te Rauparaha.
Ngāti Toa’s revenge
The killing of Ngāti Toa’s leaders was a significant blow, but the fact that Te Rauparaha remained alive would eventually be the downfall of the Canterbury Ngāi Tahu. Te Rauparaha returned to Kapiti Island to plan his revenge. In early November 1830, he persuaded Captain John Stewart of the brig Elizabeth to hide him and his warriors on board. They then visited the Ngāi Tahu people of Akaroa under the ruse of trading for flax. Captain Stewart persuaded Ngāi Tahu’s leading chief, Te Maiharanui (Tama-i-hara-nui), to board the brig. Once Te Maiharanui was below deck, Te Rauparaha and his men took the chief, his wife and his daughter prisoner. Te Rauparaha’s men then surged ashore to sack Te Maiharanui’s settlement, Takapuneke. The brig returned to Kapiti with Te Maiharanui and his family held captive.
It is said that rather than see his daughter enslaved, Te Maiharanui strangled her and threw her overboard. Te Rauparaha then gave Te Maiharanui to the wife of the Ngāti Toa chief Te Peehi, who killed Te Maiharanui by slow torture. His wife suffered the same fate. The involvement of an English captain in this matter became a serious concern for Governor Darling of New South Wales, who was responsible for Britons in New Zealand at the time. Stewart was placed on trial in Sydney as an accomplice to murder, but because the Ngāi Tahu witnesses were considered heathens, they were not allowed to take the oath and were therefore ‘incompetent’ to act as witnesses. Stewart and his crew escaped punishment.
Capture of Kaiapoi and Ōnawe
Te Rauparaha then mounted a major expedition against Kaiapoi Ngāi Tahu in the summer of 1831–32. Ngāi Tahu, lacking muskets to repel the armed Ngāti Toa, took a defensive strategy and hoped that Ngāti Toa would not be able to penetrate the wooden palisades surrounding the pā. The ensuing siege lasted for three months. However, during a skirmish between the two tribes, a shelter caught fire. Fanned by the nor’wester, the palisades quickly ignited, allowing Ngāti Toa warriors to enter the village, capture its leaders and kill the people.
Ngāti Toa then attacked the Banks Peninsula tribes, taking the principal fort at Ōnawe, in Akaroa Harbour. It is likely that Te Rauparaha would have gone further south, but Ngāi Tahu of Te Muka had gathered with their Ōtākou kin and the survivors of Kaiapoi to meet with Te Rauparaha. Te Rauparaha and his people returned to the North Island.