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Taonga to be unveiled at Kemp House

June 20, 2014

Taonga to be unveiled at Kemp House

Three taonga gifted to missionary James Kemp will be unveiled and blessed at a special ceremony at Kemp House at 10am on June 27.

They are believed to have been gifted by Ngapuhi rangatira Hongi Hika, before he left to go to Whangaroa in 1827.

The taonga include two tewhatewha (long-handled fighting staff) and a pouwhenua (long-handled fighting weapon) – all of which were wielded by chiefs alone – and a reminder of the chiefly authority that the early mission operated under.

“The taonga have been in Kemp House since the 1830s, and were cared for by the Kemp family and then the NZ Historic Places Trust – now Heritage New Zealand – when Kemp House and all its contents were gifted to the nation by Ernest Kemp, great grandson of James Kemp, in 1974,” explains Liz Bigwood, Manager of the Kerikeri Mission Station.

“It became apparent that the taonga needed to be more prominently displayed in keeping with their chiefly status, and in order to illustrate the important relationships between the missionaries and the chiefs from this area.”

“We called a meeting with kaumatua and local hapu representatives where we came to a decision on how best to care for and display these taonga for future generations. We agreed to make these taonga as accessible as possible within the rohe, and we’ll be looking at ways we can make that happen. We also worked together to write interpretation information in Te Reo as well as English.”

Hongi Hika was a remarkable rangatira who changed Maori warfare and tribal boundaries forever. Hongi gave protection to the missionaries who were able to establish the Kerikeri Mission Station at the foot of his pa, Kororipo. Kemp House is the sole surviving building of that period in time when Maori and missionaries lived side by side in what was at times an uneasy peace.

“Hongi was a highly skilled military strategist and fearsome warrior who saw trading benefits in having the missionaries living in the shadow of his pa – including access to muskets,” says Liz.

“Missionaries like James Kemp tried to dissuade Hongi from seeking utu through warfare but failed. Over a thousand Ngapuhi warriors gathered at Kororipo with muskets to launch attacks on tribes to the south who were armed only with traditional weapons of wood and stone. Thousands were killed and thousands more enslaved.”

Despite Hongi’s reputation for ferocity in battle he was also known as a gentle family man – and keen to learn more about the missionaries’ world. So much so that he sent his daughter Rongo to live with them at Kemp House to learn their ways.

“Hongi often came to Kemp House to dine here and discuss religion and politics – a reflection on the relationship he had with the missionaries, which endured despite the evidence of violence and warfare that they had frequently witnessed at Kororipo,” says Liz.

“Kemp family history records that Hongi gifted these precious taonga to James Kemp before leaving for Whangaroa in 1827. They remain as a legacy of the earliest partnership between Maori and Pakeha.”

One of the tewhatewha is a particularly striking example. Carved with metal tools – and therefore made after Europeans had arrived in New Zealand – the weapon was used for war, and still bears battle marks on the blade as well as wear on the manaia; the carved bird-like figure on the shaft that acted as a guardian.

“Tewhatewha were often referred to by Maori as the ‘rakau rangatira’ – or chiefly weapon – because they were almost invariably seen in the hands of rangatira,” says Liz.

“The weapon was used to signal warriors during battle, on the marae, or marking time for paddlers in war canoes. People who carried the tewhatewha had considerable mana.”

The raparapa – or striking end of the tewhatewha – has a hole drilled through it so that hawk or pigeon feathers could be attached.

“Experienced warriors often flicked the suspended feathers into their opponent’s eyes and, while their opponents were momentarily distracted, stabbed them with the pointed end of the weapon before reversing arms and striking the head with the straight front surface of the blade,” says Liz.

The pouwhenua is a fine example of its type and obviously created by a master carver. Designed for stabbing, parrying and striking, the rau (blade) clearly shows battle marks – an indicator that this weapon was definitely used in battle.

“The beautiful taonga also includes a manaia carved halfway down its length, and patina on the weapon itself indicated the hand-hold positions,” she says.

“In the right hands, the pouwhenua – like the tewhatewha – could inflict death with a single blow delivered at lightning speed.”

The blessing and unveiling will formally mark the return of the taonga to a place of appropriate prominence in Kemp House.

“We are privileged to have two kaumatua, Papa Nau Epiha and Matua Sid Kingi, leading the blessing and unveiling,” says Liz.

“We’re similarly honoured to have these taonga in our care, and being mindful of their connection to Kemp House, we’re keen to welcome them back to public display in the right way, and encourage all to visit these precious taonga.”


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