By the early 1820s Ngāti Toa had been fighting for several years with the inland Waikato tribes for control over Kāwhia Harbour and its rich environs. Te Rauparaha, one of the leading chiefs of Ngāti Toa, urged the people to migrate to the Kāpiti region in the south, where there was an abundance of land and resources, and greater opportunity to trade with Pākehā for guns.
It was not easy to move, as Kāwhia had been the tribal home since the arrival of the Tainui canoe in the 13th century. The decisive event was an overwhelming attack by a combined force of Waikato and Maniapoto tribes. Defeated, Ngāti Toa were forced to retreat to Te Arawī, a coastal stronghold south of Kāwhia. Here they remained under siege for months.
The Tahutahu Ahi migration
Had it not been for the compassion shown by a Ngāti Maniapoto chief who was a kinsman of Te Rauparaha, the tribe might well have been destroyed. Instead, safe passage was negotiated for them to leave Kāwhia. This was the first stage of their migration south. On departing, Te Rauparaha addressed his people, paying tribute to the land of his ancestors. Looking towards Kāwhia, he composed a song lamenting their losses and farewelling their homeland: ‘Tērā ia ngā tai o Honipaka, ka wehe koe i ahau.’ (O ye waters of Honipaka, from you, alas, I now depart.)
Near the Mōkau River further down the coast, Te Rauparaha, accompanied by a small group of mainly women, encountered a war party from Ngāti Maniapoto. Te Rauparaha dressed some of the women as chiefs and told them to stand by several fires, making their enemies think his party was larger than it was. This episode provided the name for this first migration – Te Heke Tahutahuahi (the fire-lighting migration). Ngāti Toa were given sanctuary in Taranaki by relatives, notably their close kin Ngāti Mutunga.
The Tātaramoa migration
Ngāti Toa remained in Taranaki for some months – long enough to cultivate food and gather allies for the next stage of the journey south. Although they were well armed with muskets and numbered a few thousand, among them were many women, children and old people. All were required to walk hundreds of kilometres. Many were too exhausted to carry on, and died along the way.
The journey was arduous. The migrants had to contend with many obstacles, including hostile tribes in southern Taranaki, Whanganui, Manawatū and Horowhenua. Ngāti Toa and their allies eventually reached the Kāpiti region, completing the second stage of the migration. This stage was named Te Heke Tātaramoa (the bramble bush migration), indicating the difficulties they encountered.
Commemorating the migrations
The whole journey was named Te Heke Mai-i-raro (the migration from the north). Many generations later, descendants of the migrating peoples named their meeting house Te Heke Mai Raro, in acknowledgement of the significance of the event in their history. The house was opened in 1997 and stands at Hongoeka marae, Plimmerton, not far from the site of Te Rauparaha’s principal residence at Taupō pā.