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New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

page 58-61

THE taiaha, the most shapely and effective wooden weapon of the Maori, is a kind of two-handed sword, with the added advantage that both ends can be used, the tongue-shaped point as well as the broad blade. A tall man with a good long reach was a most formidable taiaha-wielder. The Ngati-Maniapoto people have a story of a renowned giant warrior, Kiharoa, whose pa was one of the Three Sisters hill-cones at Tokanui, just to the south of the Puniu River. With his enormous reach of arm he swept all before him in battle; his weapon was the taiaha; it was so long and heavy that no other man could have used it. But even he was not invincible. Rushing down from his pa against an invading war party, sweeping his huge taiaha about him and felling a foe with every blow, he slipped on some karaka leaves and fell, and before he could rise his opponents swarmed on him, and in a few moments the chief of the attackers was dancing triumphantly, flourishing the giant's head. The expert taiaha-user has been known to defeat a swordsman. This is a story of a combat in the Maori wars which is as worthy of record and fame as any knightly battle of Old World chivalry. A short distance south of the town of Waitara, with the black ironsand beach of the North Taranaki Bight but a little way off, is the battlefield of Puke-takauere, where the British forces suffered a severe cutting up at the hands of the Maoris on June 27, 1860.

The fight was a woeful day for the 40th Regiment; its Grenadier and Light Companies met the heaviest storm of bullets of the day. Thirty officers and men were killed, and 33 were wounded; and of the manner in which one of the “Fighting Fortieth” officers met his end this story from the Maori side will tell. In Wells' “History of Taranaki” it is stated that Lieutenant Brooke, of the 40th Regiment, was “barbarously killed in a swamp after surrendering his sword to the enemy.” That was the report of the commanding officer, Major Nelson. Another Taranaki account said that Brooke defended himself “like a Paladin” with his sword until he was tomahawked from behind. Neither of these versions is correct. The chief Haowhenua was a veteran fighting man of Taranaki and Ngati-Ruanui. His favourite weapon was the taiaha. Unlike Kiharoa the giant of Tokanui, he was not tall, not more than 5ft. 9in. or 10in., but he was lithe and active and exceedingly quick on his feet. He was a thorough master of fence; none was his superior with the taiaha. It was he who slew Lieutenant Brooke, the Queen's soldier, in the swamp that day of 1860, and with no other weapon than his taiaha of akéaké wood. Such is the Maori story, and I think it is perfectly true. “I have heard,” said Haowhenua, in telling the story of Puke-takauere to an old pakeha-Maori acquaintance of mine, who lived with the Taranaki Maoris for fifty years, and who became a thorough native in all his ways, “that the white officer was treacherously slain. Not so, my friend! I killed him in fair and open fight. It was towards the end of the battle of Wai-kotero. We fought the soldiers in the swamp—it was like shooting pigeons! The troops drew off defeated, leaving their dead and wounded lying there—there are bones in that ground to this day. I saw a fine-looking young man, an officer by his uniform and arms, making his way through the marsh. I charged down to meet him, armed with my taiaha, this very weapon which I hold in my hand now. I said to him, ‘Come out, come out!’ “I pointed to his sword, and asked him to give it to me. Now, had he reversed it and handed it to me hilt first, holding it by the point, I would have taken it as a token of surrender; I would not have killed him but permitted him to make his escape. But he held it out to me point first, and that as you know means death. So, seeing in that that the officer did not mean to submit, I attacked him and the fight began. “The Queen's officer—it was long after that battle that I was told it was Lieutenant Brooke—was a good swordsman and a brave man. We fought there in the water and rushes, near the edge of the swamp, with many of my people looking on. Again and again he made a blow at me, but I parried every cut and every thrust, and his steel blade glanced harmlessly off my hardwood weapon. I struck him a blow on the cheek and he staggered, and I cried to him in Maori: ‘Go down on your knees and bid farewell to your God!’ This was to give him a chance to poroporoaki, to say a last dying word or a prayer. Probably he did not understand what I meant; at any rate, he continued to fight with great determination. “At last my pakeha opponent, raising his sword, made a cut at me. He was furious at not being able to get past my guard. I took it on the shaft of my taiaha, and next instant, before he could recover, I struck him with all my force on the temple. It was with the broad end of the taiaha, the blade. The blow stunned him, he fell, and as he fell I quickly reversed my weapon and thrust the point into his throat. I slew him—he fell in the swamp—he died—there in the swamp he died! “And when I stood there, recovering my breath after the fight, and I looked down at my fighting friend, lying there in the rushes, I felt sorrow for him. Yes, I wept tears for him! I tangi'd over the pakeha I had slain. Do not think it strange that I should tangi over my fallen foe. It was but the way warriors should honour each other. And I cried farewell to him as he lay there in the swamp. ‘Haere ki te Po, e hoa!' I said—‘Depart, O friend, to the Night!’ And I stooped and picked up his sword, a chieftain's weapon, as my trophy of the combat, and I have it now. Was it not a fair and open fight? I took no unfair advantage of him. If his spirit were to meet mine in the Reinga, we would greet each other as warriors.”

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