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Closed Encounters

By 3 April 2022July 4th, 2023Backstory, North&South


Photo: King Tāwhiao, wearing one of his signature hats. G M Preston, from Album of Maori photographs. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library.

Closed Encounters

Hard regional borders within New Zealand are novel within living memory — but Covid-19 checkpoints are not the first time some parts of the country have been sealed off from the rest.

By Scott Hamilton

In the Covid era, Aotearoa is a nation of hard borders. Our international borders have been closed for many months. Cities like Auckland and regions like Northland and the Waikato have spent weeks sealed away from the rest of the country by checkpoints. Most are run by the police, at the behest of the government, but some checkpoints set up in Tai Tokerau have been run by local iwi — a move which, it turns out, is not entirely without precedent.

One morning in the autumn of 2020, shortly after the first outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand, I woke up, turned on the radio, and wondered for a moment if I’d fallen through a wormhole into the past. The radio told me that a regional checkpoint had been established just south of Auckland’s Bombay Hills, close to the spot where the Mangatāwhiri Stream flows into the Waikato River. In the early 1860s the Mangatāwhiri was the border between an Auckland controlled by settlers and soldiers and the Waikato realm of King Tāwhiao. Tāwhiao had his own capital at Ngāruawāhia, as well as a newspaper, a network of schools, dozens of flour mills and a fleet of trading vessels. His enemy in Auckland, Governor George Grey, had 6000 British soldiers and thousands more colonial militiamen.

After hearing reports that British soldiers were building a Great South Road from Auckland towards his lands, establishing forts along the way, Tāwhiao declared the Mangatāwhiri an aukati, or boundary, that could not be crossed. If soldiers violated the aukati, Tāwhiao warned, there would be “fire in the fern”.

Tāwhiao’s aukati was not a barrier to all Pākehā; Europeans who acknowledged the king’s authority were welcomed across the Mangatāwhiri. A number of whites became traders or farmers inside the Waikato Kingdom. The anti-British settler John Kilgour, for example, travelled past the border to Kawhia, an ancient stronghold of Tāwhiao’s Tainui people, where he and his wife Ellen opened a shop and enjoyed many friendships.

But on 12 July 1863 the fern caught fire. Thousands of British soldiers floated across the Mangatāwhiri on whaleboats they had dragged across the Bombay Hills from the Manukau Harbour. The invasion of the Waikato had begun.

In late 1864, after Grey had won a series of battles and seized much of the Waikato, Tāwhiao retreated south from the plains to the region of hills and mountains controlled by his relative and ally, Rewi Maniapoto. Many of Tāwhiao’s people followed him into exile. Tāwhiao declared the Pūniu River, which flows just south of towns like Kihikihi and Pirongia towards the Tasman, as his new aukati. The zone south of the Pūniu became known as Te Rohe Pōtae, or the Country of the Hat. A story says that Tāwhiao placed his top hat over a map of the region, and today the towns of Taumarunui and Ōtorohanga display statues of hats, in memory of that gesture. Pākehā called Te Rohe Pōtae the King Country.

Tāwhiao and Rewi Maniapoto were determined to defend their new border. In 1870 a group of Pākehā surveyors crossed the aukati, and began mapping the land on the southern slopes of Mount Pirongia. A Kīngitanga patrol confronted them, and Richard Todd, the leader of the surveyors, was shot through the heart. Todd’s death panicked the Pākehā settlers who had taken over land on the northern side of the Pūniu. They formed a cavalry force, and rode along the river’s edge, looking for signs of an impending invasion. One settler turned an abandoned kūmara pit into a bunker.

Like its predecessor, the Pūniu aukati was not closed to all whites. Michael O’Connor was an Irish miner who dug and sluiced the gold-rich hills and streams of the Coromandel. Like many Irish in 19th-century New Zealand, he despised the British Empire and respected its Māori enemies. O’Connor raised a troop of Irish miners, fashioned a flag with the Irish nationalist colours of gold and green, and in 1869 rode across the aukati to find Tāwhiao. When he was given an audience with the king, O’Connor explained that Irish Fenians (a 19th-century word for Republican) were fighting the British in the northern hemisphere. He proposed a Māori–Irish alliance to banish the Union Jack from Aotearoa. In return for helping Tāwhiao, O’Connor wanted to marry one of the king’s daughters and be granted the right to prospect for gold in Te Rohe Pōtae. Tāwhiao rejected O’Connor’s proposal, but the visiting Fenian and his men were popular in the King Country. Auckland newspapers learned about O’Connor’s adventure, and worried that the Māori “rebels” of Te Rohe Pōtae might also become Fenians.

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Te Rohe Pōtae was a refuge for Māori fugitives from colonial law. In 1876 a young man named Taurangaka Winiata was accused of murdering a Pākehā workmate in Auckland. He fled through the Waikato to the safety of the King Country. Enraged colonial police put a bounty of  500 on Winiata’s head. In 1882 a man named Robert Barlow crossed the Pūniu in search of Winiata. Barlow had a Māori mother and a Pākehā father; his brown skin and knowledge of te reo helped him avoid suspicion in Te Rohe Pōtae. Barlow found Winiata in Ōtorohanga, got the fugitive hopelessly drunk on rum, tied him to a horse, and rode back across the border to Kihikihi. Winiata was hanged in Auckland. Barlow got his bounty money, and used it to buy a farm at Māngere. But the bounty hunter soon sickened and died. Both Māori and Pākehā attributed his demise to mākutu.

The prophet and guerrilla warrior Te Kooti was luckier than Winiata. He was given refuge in Te Rohe Pōtae after years of fighting colonial armies in other parts of Te Ika a Māui (the North Island). Te Kooti and his followers established a kāinga at Ōtewā, close to the southern side of the Pūniu. Tāwhiao and Rewi Maniapoto disliked liquor, and had banned its sale in the King Country. But Te Kooti was fond of spirits, and he would sometimes sneak across the aukati to drink at Kihikihi’s Alpha Hotel (its counterpart, the Omega Hotel, sat on the other side of Te Rohe Pōtae in Taranaki). In 2015 the filmmaker Paul Janman and I visited Kihikihi. We were keen to get some images of the interior of the Alpha Hotel, but we were stopped at its front door. The pub had recently been converted to a brothel.

Tāwhiao eventually made peace with the colonial state and returned to the Waikato, opening Te Rohe Pōtae to Pākehā in 1884, when the building of a railway through the territory began. But Tāwhiao insisted that the region should remain dry, and the parliament in Wellington passed a law banning the sale of liquor there. The Pūniu remained a border of sorts. Sly groggers made whiskey and rum in stills on the Waikato side of the river, then smuggled it across the water. Some hid their booze in the carts they pulled across bridges; others built rafts. Sometimes the smugglers were caught. In 1903 Te Awamutu’s court found four men found guilty of bringing booze over the border. Each got a month’s hard labour at Mt Eden prison.

In 1923, newspapers reported a particularly inventive bit of smuggling. A man who lived in the King Country travelled outside its borders, filled a barrel with liquor, put a label with the words “Motor Oil” on the barrel, and sent it into the dry zone by rail. But the barrel was delivered to the wrong person, who didn’t realise the barrel’s true contents. Unwilling to accept the loss of his booze, the smuggler found the address of the farmer who had received the barrel by mistake. When he visited, he found the man’s property deserted. A neighbour informed him that the farmer was away visiting a garage. The farmer’s car had broken down; he had towed it off to be repaired.

Sly groggers made whiskey and rum in stills on the Waikato side of the river, then smuggled it across the water. Some hid their booze in the carts they pulled across bridges; others built rafts.

The Mōkau River, which rises close to Lake Taupō and flows through the Waitomo district into the Tasman, had been the southern aukati of Te Rohe Pōtae. Like their counterparts in the Waikato, the settlers of Taranaki had put on uniforms and patrolled the border, peering anxiously across the water for signs of a Māori army. In 1927 they still feared attack from across the Mōkau — the wide and turbulent river had just been bridged for the first time, and they worried that rabbits might cross the bridge and take up residence on their farms, which had previously been largely free of the pest.

The government responded by placing a gate on the Mōkau bridge. Harold Opie, who had helped build the bridge, was asked to stay behind and maintain the gate, and given a riverside cottage. Opie kept the gate closed from dusk until dawn. During the daytime, travellers had to stop to open and close it. But rabbits found other ways into Taranaki, and in 1947 the gate was dismantled.

During World War II, Auckland got a northern border. Early in 1941 a government report warned that “German raiders” might land on the coast north of the city and march south. Then Japan entered the war and captured the Allied naval base in Singapore, leaving New Zealand exposed to maritime invasion. A second report worried about “forty to fifty thousand” Japanese landing in the north. In 1943 two Japanese float planes, which had been launched from a submarine in the Bay of Plenty, flew over Auckland, surveying the city.

The government tried to protect Auckland by building three intricate and expensive defensive lines. ‘Position X’ ran through the northern foothills of the Brynderwyns; the Dome Line went just south of Wellsford to the Pacific; and the Glorit- Woodcocks Line, which was never finished, connected the Kaipara with Whangaparāoa. The barriers included trenches, machine-gun nests, and huge roadblocks made from tree trunks. Motorists heading to and from Auckland had to wait while the trunks were dragged aside. Possible fragments of the Glorit-Woodcocks line survive at Shakespear Regional Park, at the end of the Whangaparāoa peninsula. Shakespear is home to a series of machine-gun nests, with code names like Milo and Podges, a pillbox and set of gun emplacements, and a deep antitank trench, which is nowadays filled with water and part of a regenerating wetland.

Scott Hamilton is North & South’s history columnist.