Story: Wairarapa places

Page 7. Papawai marae

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Papawai is one of the most important marae in New Zealand. In the late 19th century it was the focus of Kotahitanga, the Māori parliament movement. Papawai was established in the 1850s when the government set aside land for a Māori settlement near Greytown. It built a flour mill and the Anglican church opened a (short-lived) school, St Thomas’s.

The dominant leader at Papawai was Te Mānihera Te Rangi-taka-i-waho of Ngāti Kahungunu. He supported pastoral leases and engagement with Europeans. Te Mānihera was succeeded in the 1880s by Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku.


Under Mahupuku, Papawai experienced a growth spurt. Hikurangi meeting house was opened in 1888. A large T-shaped structure (the Aotea meeting house and another building, Te Waipounamu) was built for the Kotahitanga or Māori parliament, which sat at Papawai for sessions in 1897 and 1898. It passed a resolution to end Māori land sales and was visited by Lord Ranfurly, the governor, and by Premier Richard Seddon.

In 1898 Papawai hosted a large hui (meeting) to discuss government plans to administer Māori land. Mahupuku believed this would give Māori a degree of independence. He sided with the government, and split the Kotahitanga movement.

Mahupuku also began the newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi. Published intermittently until 1913,thist was a mouthpiece for the Kotahitanga and a valuable record of tribal tradition and whakapapa (genealogy).

A symbol of unity

In 1911 the government erected a marble memorial to Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku at Papawai, for his role in bringing Māori and Pākehā together. The unveiling by acting prime minister James Carroll attracted up to 4,000 Māori and 2,000 Pākehā. The accompanying banquet included 275 sheep, 20 bullocks, 45 suckling pigs, 48 tons of potatoes and several dozen geese and turkeys.

A palisade

Just before Mahupuku died in 1904, he built a palisade around the marae. This was later enhanced by 18 tōtara whakairo (carved figures). The male and female figures represented famous individuals, including the leader Nukupewapewa and the local Pākehā settler, William Mein Smith. Unusually, they faced inwards to represent peace between Māori and Pākehā, rather than looking outwards to confront enemies.

Fall and rise

From the 1910s Papawai declined. Gales in 1934 damaged the Aotea and Te Waipounamu complex. The marae fell into disrepair. Despite calls by Apirana Ngata in 1946 to preserve it, little was done until the 1960s, when conservation work began on the whakairo figures. In the late 1980s these were fully restored. Hikurangi was moved to become the new meeting house, behind a restored gateway. Today, the marae is a vital part of local life, with new buildings including apartments for elders. It offers courses, including t'ai chi and line dancing.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Wairarapa places - Papawai marae', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 29 Mar 2007, updated 11 Jun 2015