From Waitaha to Ngāi Tahu
Traditionally, the Waitaha people had authority over Murihiku, the southern part of the South Island, and their traditions are included in those of more recent arrivals. Around 250 years ago Ngāti Māmoe, originally from the North Island’s East Coast, became established in Murihiku. They in turn fell under the sway of another tribe from the North Island’s East Coast, Ngāi Tahu.
Traces of human occupation in Murihiku can be dated back to around 1250–1300. The first Polynesian arrivals in New Zealand found their way early to the plains and basins of the eastern and southern South Island, where the flightless moa were found in large numbers.
In the course of hunting, much of inland Otago was burnt, and the forest was replaced by tussock.
Dating of mounds of moa bones reveals none after about 1500 AD, suggesting moa became extinct around then. Murihiku’s ability to sustain a population was much reduced. The climate was too cold to grow kūmara (sweet potato), so there was no horticulture.
Settlement was focused on the coast, where ocean fish, seabirds and seals were plentiful. People journeyed inland to harvest eels, forest birds such as weka and kererū (New Zealand pigeons), and tī kouka (cabbage trees).
They also travelled to sources of highly-valued pounamu (greenstone) in the headwaters of rivers draining into Lakes Wakatipu and Wānaka, and on the South Island’s West Coast.
Sealers, whalers and Māori
European sealers first arrived in Murihiku in the 1790s. They set up camps at various places around the coast, mostly in Fiordland, and introduced the potato. A decade or so later whalers also appeared in southern waters. In the 1830s they established shore stations in sheltered waters from Moeraki to Tautuku and further south.
Leaders such as Tūhawaiki and Taiaroa were adept at warding off incursions by northern Māori and at managing relationships with Pākehā, many of whom became bound to Māori families through marriage.
With the establishment of the shore stations, some Europeans sought to buy Murihiku land, but these dealings were voided by the colonial government which was set up after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840. In June 1840 Major Thomas Bunbury gained the signatures of Ngāi Tahu leaders to the treaty. In 1844 the Ngāi Tahu chiefs Taiaroa and Karetai agreed to the sale of the Otago block, opening the way for Pākehā settlement in Otago.
In the late 1840s the shore whaling stations ran out of whales. The Māori population with whom the whalers had intermarried was much depleted by disease, and within a few years of settlers arriving from Scotland in the late 1840s, whaling was finished and Māori were a small minority of the population. According to one writer, ‘in the new play about to start, the Ngaitahu and the whalers soon found themselves dismissed from centre stage’. 1
However some individuals straddled both worlds. Notably, whaler Johnny Jones moved from Waikouaiti to Dunedin, and was active in commerce and shipping in the new town until his death in 1869.