Maori History

Maori History – Lake Brunner, West Coast New Zealand

Maori history of the Lake Brunner area is sparse. They certainly inhabited this area long before the first Europeans set foot on the land. Over the past 40 years I’ve seen numerous examples of their presence, and the “Kemp Collection” of adzes in the Hokitika Museum demonstrates what may be found if you are alert to the past, and interested in Maori history.

Evidence exists that there were ancient peoples here perhaps thousands of years BEFORE the Maori, whose occupation is thought to extend back approximately 1200 years. In terms of occupation of New Zealand, there were those known as the “Moa Hunters,” then the Moriori, and then the Maori people. It seems a stone-age people occupied Westland, predating Maori occupation by many centuries. In his book “Old Westland, Mr E Iveagh Lord writes of the careful and scientific description of such a discovery given by Sir Julius von Haast, as follows;

“A partly finished chert adze and its sandstone sharpener were found by a party of goldminers at Bruce Bay, South Westland in 1868. The implements were lying on a floor of pebble-studded clay, with more than 14 ft of strata of humus, sand and shingle had to be cut through before they were reached. Totara trees 3 ft in diameter had to be felled before the surface could be broken, and huge tree trunks prostrate for generations, with moss-grown mould of others, were scattered about. The area was 500 ft above sea level, with the usual 3 belts of  driftwood sand without vegetation, rush & manuka-covered sand, and low scrub. It had clearly passed through these 3 stages, and its foot of humus must have taken centuries of herbage to form before the forest giants could take root in it. The various accumulations and the ancient growth of the forest take us back undoubtedly several thousand years, to a neolithic race who polished their weapons and had spread so far west and south, to the long unihabited sounds.”

The attraction to all occupants of Westland has long been greenstone, or pounamu, a variety of jade. Greenstone wa known to the Moa Hunters, and to the Moriori. The later Maori occupants were attracted and held here because of its value. After hundreds of years of trading greenstone, various Maori tribes engaged in bloody raiding expeditions, and many battles were fought over this prized stone. Legend has it that the captives from one such raiding party were held on the Refuge Islands on Lake Brunner, and then eaten!


Te Kinga Pa

On  a northern headland of Lake Brunner, near the Refuge Islands, lies the site of an ancient Maori Pa, or fortified village.


I believe that a great deal of work was done in working greenstone, along the lake shore. In particular, there are places in the shadow of Mt Te Kinga where I’ve found splinters and shards of greenstone, adjacent to sandstone-type boulders, where the tangata-whenua worked so long ago.

Maori history te kinga lake brunner west coast new zealand

Extract from W.E.Spencer’s thesis “A History of the Buller District.”

In 1846 Thomas Brunner found the Maori at Taramakau using pots and pans for which they had traded greenstone. He wanted them to guide him across the Alps, but they had only recently returned from there… and winter was approaching.

The Maoris who acted as guides for Thomas Brunner during his explorations in 1847 were Ngati Tumatakokiri, by then almost extinct as a tribe. In 1859 James MacKay accompanied by his cousin Alexander MacKay (one time commissioner and Judge of the Native Land Court) again travelled to Westland, their mission being to purchase from the Maoris all the lands comprising about seven and a half million acres between Kahurangi Point and Milford Haven, and extending inland to the watershed of the East and West coasts.

On this occasion MacKay elected to travel by the inland, alpine, route, and when the party reached Lake Sumner they found John Rochfort who had entered into a contract to survey the southern boundary of the province of Nelson and to traverse the Buller and Grey Rivers and a portion of the coastline. The two parties joined forces and travelled together until Rochfort went on to commence his surveying operations, traversing the Taramakau River to the Pakihi Plain, thence to Lake Brunner, and then down the river Arnold to Mawhera Pa (32); and the Mackays proceeded to Mawhera where negotiations were begun for the purchase of lands from the natives, who agreed to take £200 but declined to sell the block of land lying between the Grey and Hokitika Rivers.

The MacKay’s, being thus unable to come to terms with the Maoris decided to return to Nelson by way of the Maruia Plain and the Upper Buller. After a desperate struggle during which they suffered many privations they were forced to return to Mawhera Pa. They turned to follow the coastline route and at the Buller they found Rochfort and the cutter `Supply’, which Rochfort and MacKay had chartered in Nelson to bring provisions to the Grey, but which owing to bad weather had been forced to land her provisions at the Buller (33).

{Bracked numbers are to sources of reference at the bottom of each chapter.} (32) and (33)Rochfort, John. : A Brief Account of an Expedition to the West Coast” Nelson Examiner 20 December 1859.

This is a part of the only record about early Maori occupation of Lake Brunner.

Sample of “A HISTORY OF THE BULLER DISTRICT” by W. E. Spencer. 


When Judge (James) MacKay of the Maori Land Court, and Mr G. J. Roberts, Commissioner of Crown Lands for Westland took notes during the latter years of the nineteenth century, of the history of the Maori occupation of the West Coast, they found that despite the isolation for several hundred years of the Poutini Ngai Tahu Maori, as the Maori living on the West Coast were called, they had the same stories of the coming of the canoes as are common to the Maori people throughout New Zealand.

There are certain Maori traditions to do with the West Coast that can be noted. On Bishop’s Peninsula in the Nelson Province there is a beach, Mautau-a-Maui, which commemorates the exploits of the hero Maui. According to tradition Kupe and Ngahue circumnavigated the South Island during the ninth century. A Ngai Tahu elaboration of this tradition has it that Ngahue was driven from his home in Hawaiki by a woman and chased across the sea by Poutiri, the sea dragon. As he approached Aotearoa, the mountain Aorangi beckoned to him and instructed him to proceed to the north. He fled on until he arrived at the mouth of the Arahura River which he entered. Poutiri pursued him but failed to negotiate a fearful rapid in the river, and he and his boat sank and were changed into greenstone.

Ngahue settled at Arahura for a time and came to appreciate the valuable qualities of the greenstone. When he was ready to return to Hawaiki he quarried as much of the greenstone as he could conveniently carry in his canoe and took it with him. His people were at war; and he persuaded them to emigrate. With axes made from the green-stone they felled the seven trees from which they made the canoes which carried the people from Hawaiki to Aotearoa in the great migration.

Also during the ninth century, according to tradition Rakaihautu arrived in the Uruao canoe, bringing with him the first of the Waitaha tribe. Rakaihautu decided near Nelson that his son should cruise around the coast line while he traveled south by an overland route. He had occasion to dig some holes on the way and the holes dug by the great ko of Rakaihautu filled with water and became the lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti. The Waitaha people who arrived in New Zealand on the Arawa canoe, and from the Hawea tribe of the Waitaki watershed are descendants, and number Rakaihautu among their ancestors (1).

After the fourteenth century following upon the arrival of the canoes of the ~Great Migration~ (2), the Maoris gradually spread over most of the North Island. Tribal wars drove the weaker tribes south in search of places where they could live in peace. One such tribe was the Ngati Wairangi, Kahungunu people, who arrived in the Nelson district about 1550 under their chief Tawhirikakahu, and who, finding the Waitaha people in occupation there, moved on to Westland where they settled, around Arahura. They were followed in point of time by a tribe named Pohea, from the Wanganui district, who settled near Nelson where they built a large pa, called ~Matangi-awhea~.

The Ngati Tumatokiri were the next to arrive. Judge (James) MacKay reports that they are said to come originally from the Taupo District (3). They occupied the shore of Tasman Bay and Massacre Bay and were generally in possession of the West Coast as far south as the Buller River. It is supposed that it was members of this tribe that attacked Abel Tasman’s sailors on the 18 December 1642 at Massacre Bay.

E. Kehu and E. Pikiwati, the Maoris who acted as guides for Thomas Brunner during his explorations in 1847 were Ngati Tumatakokiri, by then almost extinct as a tribe.

For generations the Ngai Wairangi were isolated and they lived in the peace which they sought when they first migrated from the North Island. They discovered, or re-discovered the greenstone deposits first worked by Ngahue, and became efficient greenstone workers. There was some trade in the greenstone via Karamea and north-west Nelson with the tribes in the Cook Strait area; but there was no communication with the large settlements of Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe on the east coast.

The peace enjoyed by the Ngati Wairangi was broken by contact with the Ngai Tahu. The Ngai Tahu tribe had crossed the Cook Strait because there had been friction with the Ngati Kahungunu of the Wairarapa. The Ngai Tahu tribe had found kindred people in the Waimea district of Nelson and had spread from there to establish themselves in southern Marlborough and Canterbury. Tradition records the first meeting of Ngati Wairangi and Ngai Tahu, about 1700.

A mad woman called Raureka lived among the Ngati Wairangi. One day she left home, wandered up the bed of the Hokitika River and accidentally discovered a pass through the alps, now known as Browning Pass. She continued on until she met a party of Ngai Tahu Maoris shaping a canoe, in the vicinity of Geraldine. She commented on the bluntness of their tools and produced a piece of greenstone for comparison. The Ngai Tahu people were impressed with the superior qualities of the greenstone and persuade Raureka to lead them to her country, which she did. Trading began between the two tribes and greenstone subsequently came into general use throughout the Kaikoura and Canterbury districts in the manufacture of tools and weapons.

Our gratitude for this information goes to Robert Porter, supplied with the greatest courtesy.

(Ex Westport Resident for 27 years who has been given permission to transmit this document freely in any media by the writer.)

NB: Comments since received (26/06/2006) from Irian Scott

Regarding the Maori history section: The Waitaha of Rakaihautu are NOT connected to the Te Arawa waka traditions of Waitaha who was a son of Hei. These people are not the same. Rakaihautu and his son Rakihouia made land-fall at Whakatu circa.850a.d by generation assessments.

The Hawea branch or hapu of Rakaihautu is correct but nothing to do with Ngati Kahungunu or Ngai Tahu, There is however some Kati Mamoe affiliations. Kati Wairaki (`Wairangi) are also NOT from Ngati Kahungunu. Whether these people were actually connected with Lake Hawea is uncertain, but my tipuna resided there until about 1835 and can count Kati Hawea amongst some of their descent lines. The Kati Hawea were considered to be, according to Herries-Beattie, a very aristocratic or rakatira branch of Waitaha later combined with Kati Mamoe.

Your date for Ngai Tahu contact with Kati Wairaki is however approx.correct, circa.1700.

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