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Note: The following is an abridged version of an article by A. M. Isdale dated 27 October 1962 labelled ‘draft’ and held by Auckland Libraries. A final copy does not appear to have been published.

Totara Pa, immediately south of Thames, has a particular importance as having been a key command defensive position of the Hauraki area for a considerable period.

It commanded the outlet of the Thames or Waihou River, being on a flat-topped elevation immediately above a flat beach where a delta arm of the river came round a low island. This arm was still in existence at the time of Captain Cook’s visit but has since filled in.

In the heyday of Māori settlement northward along the rugged Coromandel Peninsula coastline there were fishing and shellfish gathering sites and their defensive pas, while southward the rolling lands between the eastward mountains and the Waihou River supported a considerable population on moas, fern root, and kumaras, in overlapping order of sequence. Nearly all the remainder of the Thames Valley at that time was a vast swamp, rich in eels and ducks.

It is not clear when the site was first occupied, but there is some record of when it became predominant, comparatively late in pre-European history, which here needs to be only briefly resumed prior to that time.

The Coromandel Peninsula was one of the final refuges of the fair-skinned red haired Urekehu, and last century there were still Māori s who knew the names of their pas. This information does not seem to have been recorded, so it cannot be said whether Totara, under that or another name, was included.

The Hauraki area received population from Kupe’s canoe, some of the people landing at Whitianga. Later the “myriads of Toi” became the principal inhabitants, and the central Coromandel Range received the name of Te Paeroa-o-Toi, the Long Range of Toi. Later these people came under the suzerainty of the Arawas, and adopted their genealogies, soon after the great migration of circa 1350. The ‘captain’ of the Arawa, the gigantic Tamatekapua, was buried on Mount Moehau, at the extremity of the Coromandel Peninsula. This mountain had been the last refuge of all of the fair people.

The principal pa of the Arawaised Toi people was Oruarangi, on low ground near the Waihou River a few miles south of Totara.

At the beginning of the 1600s (17th. century) a strong movement of Tainui people into the Hauraki district began to make itself felt. There were four main tribes, from the sons of one Marutuahu, a direct descendant of Hotonui of the Tainui canoe. This movement was at its height about the middle of the century, in the time of Oliver Cromwell. Oruarangi fell, and at a culminating great battle where 4,000 of the original inhabitants died, the fertile foothill country was conquered. More would have been slain, but the ‘gigantic’ Rau-tao was advised by an older chief to halt the massacre at a stick drawn line. Rau-tao, who owed his ‘gigantic’ size to part Tamatekapua descent, was happy to adopt the suggestion.

After the fall of Oruarangi, Totara became the principal regional fortress. Later campaigns brought the Coromandel Peninsula north of Thames under Marutuahu sway.

‘The headpiece of my canoe is Moehau, the sternpiece of my canoe is Aroha’ was how these Tainui people defined their territory. In the middle was Te Totara. A small river, the Kauaeranga, ran into the Waihou nearby. Just across the Kaueranga, high above Totara Pa, was Puke Oraka, now called Gentle Annie. If a man died in sight of Puke Oraka, of him it was said, ‘He has fallen in the centre of the canoe’. So Te Totara was at the very heart of Hauraki.

In the years before the coming of the white man Totara remained inviolate. There were raiders from the north, the Ngapuhi, but they passed the great fortress by. As the 17th. century was succeeded by the 18th. the threat of Ngapuhi raids receded as the Marutuahu people, under their part-Tainui allies the Ngati Paoa, pushed their own raids further and further northward.

Totara maintained its importance, while the rolling country southward probably increased its population with the kumara growing economy characteristic of the Tainuis. Even at the time of the Tainui conquest there were no less than 16 pas in the 20 miles between present day Thames and Paeroa, and the figure of 40,000 massacred is therefore not likely to have been exaggerated. The Peninsula coastline northward, though it remained much used for fishing and shellfish gathering, with cultivations on the small shoreline flats here and there, with shellfish-eating outlooks and refuge pas on convenient headlands, appears to have declined somewhat in relative importance.

Along said coastline, either the Arawaised Toi people or others before them, had done an extra-ordinary amount of scarping the headlands such as would take much work even with bulldozers. Over the centuries the shell middens had grown to a monumental scale.

During the Tainui period middens continued to grow, including that at Totara on a prominent outlook not far from where the steep tracks ran down to the white strand through the karaka trees on the precipitous face where there are still karaka trees. The shellfish would have been carried up in flax kits.

From this outlook one looked northward across the seashore flats of swamp and lowland ridges where Thames now stands, to where the strand narrowed to a strip, overlooked by rugged heights bearing outlying fortifications like Pukehinau, to where the jutting out of Tararu Point cut off further sight of the coast northwards.

 Inland, outside the great pa were villages and cultivations. Just below are the outlets of the Kauaeranga and the recombined Waihou, the gateway to the rich and populous country southward. Not far south were important weirs, in which people from as far north as Coromandel had their interests and their designated temporary fishing villages. Totara was the hub of a complex and prosperous society.

From its heights, in 1769 the permanent dwellers watched Captain Cook going upriver in a rowboat, along the further side of the delta island. But on his return he came by the branch of the river that ran in front of the pa, and the people came down to run their canoe off the white sand to see and talk and trade.

During the 1790s, Marutuahu and Ngati Paoa raided deep into the Ngapuhi country helping to store up disastrous consequences for themselves. For the Ngapuhi were the first to receive guns from the white man, and even a few could wreak havoc among the unprepared.

For a time it had seemed as if Hauraki would be the centre for white contact. In 1795 the Fancy took kauri from Coromandel Harbour, which was then called Brampton Harbour, and the old chief Matene or Martin spoke of how others had come at that time. In 1801 a big ship anchored out in the Firth, and the watchers up on Totara saw the boats pulling up river to low-lying Turua just a few miles upstream, where the big white pine forest began. Mistaking these trees for kauri they towed out great rafts of logs which almost ruined the timber trade. But in 1802 Captain Wilson arrived in the Prince Regent and with help from Ngati Paoa extracted kauri from the western foothills of the range in the vicinity of Hikutaia.

A few years later whalers and missionaries came to the Bay of Islands. The missionaries spoke of the Ngapuhi coming back in 1815 from their first gun raid into the Thames (then a very wide and vague term). Marsden lamented the fair promise of harvest he had seen on his first visit to the Firth of Thames in the summer of 1814-15 so soon blasted by war.

According to William Mortimer Baines the first place to fall was Turua, a Waihou River pa on the flood plain where the white pines began. On a staging built out over the water the proud Tainui warriors defiantly welcomed the now under-estimated Ngapuhi with a great haka. Hongi drew up his canoes and, ‘as cooly as a battue’, the guns commenced the slaughter.

But Totara was a different proposition and survived a strong direct attack in 1819. It is not hard to see why on examining the place. Three sides are so steep that an enemy with guns below would be shooting at the sky. The neck of flat land on the fourth side has across it a deep trench with the soil thrown up on the inner side to form a great mound, completely masking the interior of the pa from any gunfire short of say modern howitzers up on Puke Oraka. That is, any high ground looking into the pa was far beyond musket range.

The most noteworthy incident of this attack in 1819 was ‘the battle of the dripping garments’. The Ngapuhui had pressed hard for some time, water was running short. A group of chosen young warriors wrapped themselves in many mats, bullet-proof against the smooth bore muskets of the time. They rushed out in a compact group to a spring some chains away, leapt into the water, and fought their way back again, the mats being then wrung out into calabashes.

Come 1820 and Hongi, after his visit to England, was bringing back overwhelming armaments. Before he left on his fateful voyage there were already 500 muskets in Māori hands in New Zealand, and Hongi had a considerable part of these. Hongi brought back a further 800, thus in one stroke giving the Ngapuhi an absolutely preponderance. A powerful expedition was mounted in 1821.

Northward Hinaki’s great pa (near modern day Panmure) fell, the stronghold of Ngati Paoa. Then into the Firth of Thames came 50 canoes and 2,000 warriors bound for Totara. Even with those who fled to its shelter from the surrounding countryside the great pa had only 300 defenders. They upheld well the honour of Ngati Maru, the people of Marutuahu. For three days Totara was wreathed in gunsmoke, but Hongi could not take the bullet-proof fortress. So Hongi sent in emissaries to make the usual face-saving speeches and exchange gifts before his withdrawal. One of these emissaries had a relative in the pa, and as the delegation went out again he hissed to his kinsman “Kia taupata” – be on your guard.

After which it appears, possibly after some speechifying and celebration, the defenders went to sleep for the night very soundly after all the noise and disturbance. They had watched Hongi’s fleet paddle out of sight northwards past Tararu Point, out of sight of even the Thames outlooks like Pukehinau – if still occupied – round to where only the dead scarps of the great earthworks of bygone days could witness the Ngapuhi disembarkation.

Through the darkness the Ngapuhi musketeers went barefoot across country, along bush-clad ridges by old trails, across deep valleys. They would have to come to the pa by the landward side, where there were only the ditch and the mound, with their palisadings.

Totara awoke to the crashing volleys of the Ngapuhi inside the fortification . In the darkness few escaped. One boy, whose father lay dying with his stomach ripped open as a quick way of preventing his escape till the Ngapuhi were ready to begin their cannibal feast, managed to crawl away. He was joined by others who had managed to escape, and, reaching a high ridge and looking back saw the glow of the fires and heard the chanting of the Ngapuhi as they danced in unison, celebrating their victory while awaiting the cooking of their cannibal feast.

The fugitives continued on through the night unmolested and after reaching the central range descended by a well known route to the other coast where they were expected. Some Ngapuhi canoes had landed their men who duly took them prisoner and to the Bay of Islands as slaves.

Around the fires men were brought before Hongi to die. Two young chiefs, courageously singing their defiant death songs, brought murmurs of sympathy from the people. But Hongi had suffered personal loss. So he killed them savagely. Important chiefs looked on the deed with horror.

The consequences were momentous, as befitted a pa of such great mana. Hongi lost influential support. The chain of consequences can even be traced to the local quarrels which resulted in his death 7 years later in 1828.

Because of the massacre Totara became a tapu site, shunned when the Ngati Maru were chased back home again in 1830 by Te Waharoa of Matamata. They had been making too much of a nuisance of themselves by raiding from their places of refuge near Matamata and Cambridge. New pas were established near Totara on low ground, as became customary with the coming of guns.

Te Totara has now become the official cemetery of Thames. More and more headstones rise on the wide rolling area inland of the old pa site, but there are still sometimes burials within when an old chief dies.

Nga mihi,

N.B. Images used in this article are not part of the original transcript—Sincerest
thanks to Don for transcribing this material. Ed