Story: Wellington region

Page 5. Early Māori history

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Traditional stories: Kupe’s legacy

Kupe, the great Polynesian explorer, named the islands in Wellington Harbour after his daughters, Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island). After travelling down the east coast of Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island), he and his companions rested at the harbour. At Seatoun, a distinctive rock was named Te Aroaro-o-Kupe (‘the presence of Kupe’) in his honour.

Kupe then left to explore the other side of Te Moana-a-Raukawa (Cook Strait), but was away so long that his people became worried. In despair, one of his daughters threw herself from the cliff tops at the southern coast onto the rocks below, which were stained with her blood. This area, with its rust-coloured stones, is known as Pari-whero (Red Rocks).

Eventually Kupe rejoined his people and they returned to Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland. According to tradition, as they began their journey along the west coast of Te Ika-a-Māui, Kupe made the islands of Kapiti and Mana by slicing them from the mainland with a mighty blow of his patu (club).

Te Whanganui-a-Tara

The people of the chief Tara, who was descended from the ancestor Whātonga, settled around the great harbour, which his wife named after him. The Muaūpoko and Rangitāne tribes, who are also descended from Whātonga, settled in Horowhenua and Wairarapa.

Around the 17th century Tara’s descendants, the Ngāi Tara people, were joined by the Ngāti Ira tribe from Hawke’s Bay. At times, other tribes including Rangitāne, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu also occupied parts of the Wellington region, often before moving on to Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island).

Conquest and displacement

The introduction of European muskets to New Zealand caused massive unrest. During 1819–20 a war party of more than 1,000, including the chief Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa, swept south through the North Island, besieging villages and killing the local tribes with muskets. When the raiders reached the shores of Cook Strait they saw several sailing ships – probably those of the Russian explorer Bellingshausen. Te Rauparaha saw the strait as a point of contact with Europeans. On his return to the Waikato, he persuaded his people to migrate to the region.

Dwelling on the past

In 2005, archaeologists working on a site for an apartment project unearthed the remains of three whare (huts). They were believed to be part of Te Aro (fortified village), built by the Ngāti Mutunga people in the 1820s and later occupied by other iwi. It was the first such find in Wellington and will be preserved within the Taranaki Street complex.

The great migrations

As the Ngāti Toa tribe journeyed south they were joined by allies from Taranaki. Later, Ngāti Raukawa from the Waikato also came south, and the Manawatū and Horowhenua regions were given to them. The Te Āti Awa people occupied the Kapiti coast, while Ngāti Toa kept Kapiti and Mana islands as well as the Porirua district.

During the mid-1820s, tension between these tribes caused further upheaval. Taranaki tribes (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga) moved south, and became Wellington’s tangata whenua (people of the land). Today, a large sculpture of Mt Taranaki forms an archway over the entrance to Wellington’s Westpac stadium – a symbol of this link with the tribes of the north.

How to cite this page:

Chris Maclean, 'Wellington region - Early Māori history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/wellington-region/page-5 (accessed 23 November 2017)

Story by Chris Maclean, published 9 Jul 2007, updated 1 Aug 2015