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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 6 (September 1, 1934)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 18 — The Rev. B. Y. Ashwell — Missionary of Waikato. — The Story of a Peacemaker

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 18
The Rev. B. Y. Ashwell
Missionary of Waikato.
The Story of a Peacemaker.

The subject of this historical sketch cannot, perhaps, be described as famous, strictly speaking. The Rev. Benjamin Yate Ashwell, pioneer of missionary work in the Waikato, was not so well known or so much written about as the great Williams brothers of North New Zealand, and Bishop Selwin and Bishop Pompallier, John Hobbs and James Buller. But his courage and devotion to duty, and his strenuous efforts for peace and civilisation in a savage land entitle him to the remembrance and gratitude of both races in the country he helped to redeem from barbarism. It is appropriate that his life and labours should be recalled just now when the centenary of mission enterprise in the Waipa district is being celebrated. The first missionary visitors established a post on the Waipa in 1834, and Mr. Ashwell founded Te Awamutu station in 1839.

The Rev. B. Y. Ashwell.

The Rev. B. Y. Ashwell.

TRavellers by train through the Waikato country cannot but have admired the beauty of that great sweeping bend of the river at Taupiri, where the ranges on east and west step back steeply to give passage to the noble waterway. The railway line curves along the river-edge on the eastern side, below the sacred burial hill where the bones of the family of Maori kings and their chieftains of the past lie in “the place of a hundred wailings.” Behind this tapu hill rises in graceful lines the mountain of Taupiri, famous in mythology and poetry. On the opposite side of the broad Waikato, brimming to its willow-fringed banks, is a level tract of farming land, a Maori cultivation, and beyond the green range of the Hakarimata goes up in steep slants, ferny on the lower slopes, forested on the summits and in the gullies. Here on the levels once stood the large village, or rather town, called Kaitotehe, which a century ago was the headquarters of old Potatau te Wherowhero and his Waikato tribes, the Ngati-Mahuta and kindred clans. On the gently sloping ground yonder, near the base of the range, is the spot where “Te Ahiwera,” as the Maoris called him, the Rev. B. Y. Ashwell, built his mission house at the beginning of the Forties.

The station, with its boarding-school for Maori boys and girls, has long since disappeared; the Waikato War brought ruin to all this benevolent enterprise; but among the very old people who live on the historic banks of Waikato-taniwharau, the name of “Te Ahiwera” lingers in reverent memory. Here and there survives an ancient of the race who was taught in the mission school by Ashwell and his wife in the days when all this good land of Waikato was purely Maori, and when flotillas of great canoes plied up and down the broad shining river.

From Africa to New Zealand.

Benjamin Yate Ashwell had been a missionary in Sierra Leone before he came to New Zealand for the Church Mission Society. He all but left his bones in that “White Man's Grave;” as it was he returned to England with broken health. Possibly the after-effects of the African coast malaria would have shortened his life had he remained in England, but the Society in 1835 sent him to these then cannibal islands, with the result that he regained his health and lived until 1883. He arrived at the Bay of Islands from London by way of Sydney, on December 23 of 1835, and joined the Mission staff at Paihia. There, and at the other stations in the North, he studied Maori, the first requirement of a missionary, and when he was proficient in the language he was sent out to extend the Church work in the Island.

There was peace in the North, but south of the Waitemata the land was still for the greater part unknown to the missionary bodies and untouched by any Rongo-Pai propaganda. Tapu and the tohunga ruled supreme. There were church stations at a few places—Waikato Heads, Mangapouri, Puriri, Matamata, Tauranga, and Rotorua, but the radius of their influence was very limited in 1835.

One of the stations—Matamata—had to be abandoned, through wars, and the Rotorua establishment, at Te Koutu, was destroyed.

A pen-portrait of the ex-African missionary has come down from one who knew him in his early active days in the Waikato. He is described as a man of small stature, who usually wore a pith helmet, relic of his days in Sierra Leone. This hat was too large for his head, and as he had a short neck the brim rested on his back and partly hid his face. He was a kindly, emotional man; he had the welfare of his Maori people at heart, and he never spared himself in his efforts to promote peace and right-living among them.

A Lone Hand in Cannibal Land.

“Te Ahiwera” (this Maori version of his name means literally “Hot Fire”) was a man of great and dauntless heart, for all his lack of inches and weight. He went boldly into the heart of a wild land given up to cannibalism and all manner of savagery and cruelty. Waikato from 1835 to 1840 was a land of war-parties, for there was a great and bitter feud with the tribes of Rotorua and the Tauranga and Maketu country. Every few months armies of Ngati-Haua, Ngati-Maniapoto and Waikato tribes, inhabiting the country from Matamata to Kawhia and Mokau, marched off to the Lakes and the coast, armed with muskets and tomahawks, and they often returned with slaves laden with the dismembered bodies of the slain foemen, for cannibal feasts of victory.

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The Rev. B. Y. Ashwell's mission station on the Waikato, opposite Taupiri. (From a drawing by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 65th Regiment, in 1862.)

The Rev. B. Y. Ashwell's mission station on the Waikato, opposite Taupiri. (From a drawing by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 65th Regiment, in 1862.)

It was in February, 1839, that Ashwell made his first visit to the Waikato and Waipa Rivers, on his way overland to Tauranga, a long and toilsome journey. He found a large population on the fertile banks of those rivers. At Waikato Heads, where his canoe voyage began, there were the Ngati-Tipa, with their old cannibal chief Kukutai. At Tarahanga, four miles below Rangiriri, were the Ngati-Pou, the most numerous tribe on the river. The Ngati-Mahuta lived at Taupiri and adjacent parts, and also at Waahi, the present home of Potatau's direct descendants. There was a large area of kumara cultivations at Taupiri, on both sides of the river. Ngaruawahia was not then occupied. Further up, on the banks of the Waikato or Horotiu, where Hamilton, Tamahere and Cambridge now are, there were the powerful Ngati-Haua and Ngati-Koroki tribes; and in the Waipa country there were many large villages, particularly Whata-whata, Te Rore, Kopua, Otawhao (near the present railway station at Te Awa-mutu), Rangiaowhia, and Kihikihi. The Otawhao-Te Awamutu district was populated by the Ngati-Ruru tribe, whose principal chief was an old warrior named Mokorou; he was busily engaged in waging war against the tribes of Rotorua and Tauranga. Kihikihi was the northernmost village of the Ngati-Mania-poto tribe, who held all the country southward as far as the mouth of the Mokau. Such was South Auckland before Auckland was.

Ashwell visited all the kaingas he could find, and preached the Rongo-Pai—the “Good News,” the glad tidings of the pakeha. He found that it was not quite unknown to the people, for Maori converts taught by the missionaries at the Waikato Heads and Mangapouri told them about it. It is not likely that they understood much of the theology propounded in this way; still they grasped the main point which was peace, peace and goodwill towards all men. By this time most of the Maoris were becoming weary of war; they had had several years of almost continuous strife, and only the influence of the fierce old warriors such as Te Waharoa and Mokorou kept them on the fighting path. At Matamata, Ashwell met the afterwards celebrated Wiremu Tamehana, the Maori Kingmaker; he was then called Tarapipipi. He became a strong advocate of peace, and declined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Te Waharoa.

A Canoeing Adventure.

The missionary had a narrow escape from a Maori musketeer on the Waipa, when he returned to that river from his Tauranga journey. He and his companions, four young men who had accompanied him all the way from Waikato Heads, found that their canoe had been taken away. He discovered it on the bank below Te Rore; the men who had commandeered it had gone on shore to eat a meal. Ashwell paddled off, leaving the annoyed “converters” of the canoe on the bank. One of them loaded his musket and sent a bullet after the missionary. It whizzed close to his head. The gunman loaded again and fired; that ball also narrowly missed its reverend target. The paddlers by this time were going for their lives, they were out of range by the time the man had reloaded and fired after them.

In July of 1839, Ashwell again visited the Waipa country. In the meantime the outpost station of the Church Mission at Moeatoa, on Manukau Harbour, had been removed to Maraetai, at Waikato Heads; Ashwell's fellow-worker there was the Rev. R. Maunsell—“Te Manihera” of the Maoris. The Maraetai station flourished; there were congregations of three to four hundred every Sunday. Christianity was becoming popular; the freedom and security of life it offered was a novelty appreciated by the war-ridden tapu-ridden Maori.

The Founding of Te Awamutu Station.

At Otawhao Village the missionary beheld the most ferociously savage and horrifying spectacle that had ever met his eyes. The Ngati-Ruru war-party, under the chiefs Mokorou and Puata, had just returned from a victorious expedition to the Rotorua country, and had brought with them many bodies of the slain foe-men to cook and eat. Quite sixty back-loads of human flesh, packed in flax baskets, were brought into the pa to eat.

Next day—July 30, 1839—there was a great cannibal feast, in which the people of the surrounding villages shared. The missionary quitted the fortified pa of the man-eaters in disgust, and set about removing from the scene of savagery those natives disposed to become members of the Christian Church. He assembled those people, who were termed the Whare-Kura, that is, the “house of instruction”—and proposed that they should leave Otawhao and select a site for a Christian village.

More than two hundred of the Ngati-Ruru and related tribes joined him and left the cannibal pa. A site was chosen at Te Awamutu, beside the Manga-o-Hoi stream (which flows from the Maungatautari Ranges and joins the Mangapiko, a tributary of the Waipa). That is where the historic church and old mission buildings stand to-day. There a new pa was built; it was fortified for defence if necessary, though the occupants wished for peace. At the Whare-Kura's request, Mr. Ashwell drew up laws and regulations for them; and daily worship, school instruction and Sunday services were established. So was founded Te Awamutu, the lone oasis of peace and beginnings of civilisation in a pagan region. Before Ashwell left the place to return to Waikato Heads he visited all the principal chiefs in the neighbouring settlements, including Rangiaowhia, and obtained their promise that the Whare-Kura disciples should not be molested. Indeed, that was not likely for all these people in the various villages around Te Awamutu were related to the Rongo-Pai converts.

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The Reformed Cannibal.

Fierce old Mokorou, a few months later, tried to recruit another taua or war party to march against the Arawas of Rotorua. But the Rongo-Pai leaven was working; no column could be raised; the people were beginning to appreciate the blessings of peace. Three years later even Mokorou himself found the old ways intolerable, and he became one of “Te Ahiwera's” disciples, took the Bible name Riwai (Levi), and built a church at Whatawhata. The missionary, of course, hailed this as a sign of a complete change of heart and so forth; a cynic might suggest that Mokorou eschewed cannibalism because, like Rauparaha, he lost his teeth. At any rate he had had his day. At the same time, at the parson's request, he parted with seven out of his eight wives.

The Long Trail.

Our dogged little missionary, strong in his faith, made some long and difficult journeys. In 1840, after a few weeks at the home station, Waikato Heads, he set out on an expedition to the villages around Lake Taupo, two hundred miles away, by canoe and foot. He had a most hospitable welcome from the great Heuheu, at Te Rapa; the grand old chief was overwhelmed with fifty of his people in the landslip at that pa in 1846. Te Heuheu listened to the missionary's exhortations, but preferred his own ancient religion; he however said to his visitor in a most courteous way, “I shall consider what you have been saying.”

In 1841 Ashwell visited Wellington in a schooner which happened to call in at Waikato Heads. He walked home all the way, a journey of about four hundred miles, which occupied three weeks. He visited thirty-two villages on his great tramp, and he recorded that everywhere he received a hearty welcome excepting at Rangitikei.

Civilising the Waikato.

In 1843 the missionary folk settled themselves permanently in the Waikato and Waipa country. The Rev. John Morgan took up his quarters at Te Awamutu, and that place and the surrounding villages soon took on a civilised face under his zealous preaching and teaching and technical instructions. Through his efforts wheat was grown, flour-mills were built (driven by water-power), roads and bridges were made. In less than ten years after that last great cannibal feast in Otawhao pa the people were all busily engaged in agriculture after the pakeha manner, and had several hundred acres of land under wheat. They took wheat and flour all the way to Auckland for sale; they had procured horses and carts and ploughs, some by gift from Governor Grey, some by purchase with the proceeds of their food-growing. John Morgan was a practical benefactor. He attended to their material welfare as well as their spiritual side; he introduced the peach trees that in a few years were growing luxuriantly and bearing huge crops all over the Waipa country, and he brought in other pakeha fruit trees. Those Maori peach groves of Orakau and Kihikihi and Rangiaowhia and a score of other places, how the pakeha soldiers and settlers revelled in them long after John Morgan's day! We of a later generation, too, who lived on the old battlefields had reason to thank “Te Mokena” and his peach-planters; the richly laden groves of delicious honey-peaches—the korako peach as the Maoris called them, because of their whiteness—were everywhere on the good Waipa lands.

The Taupiri Station.

In September of 1843, Mr. Ashwell established himself permanently at the spot described at the beginning of this article, the great Taupiri bend, where the Waikato sweeps through the Taupiri gorge-like valley cut through the ranges. Soon after he made his home there his wife gave birth to a daughter. The husband and wife were alone in their house; their nearest English friends were sixty miles away.

Twenty years later that Waikato-born girl was assisting John Gorst at Te Awamutu by translating into Maori the articles for Gorst's Government newspaper, the “Pihoihoi Mokemoke,” a print which gave such offence to the Maori King's party that Rewi Mania-poto raided Te Awamutu with a war party, seized the press and type, impounded all the papers, and sent Gorst packing.

Gradually the new religion spread. ‘Christianity,” Mr. Ashwell wrote in 1843, had “softened and improved the native character in a most astonishing manner.” The principal difficulties were in connection with the law of tapu and the general belief in witchcraft and fear of the tohungas who remained to uphold the old regime. Sometimes there were inter-tribal quarrels, particularly over eel fisheries in the Waikato lakes, and on such occasions the missionary father’ of the people considered it his duty to act the part of referee and peacemaker. He knew what it was, more than once, to stand between angry men while bullets of challenge sang over his head.

Between Two War Parties at Whangape.

The shore of the large lake Whangape, on the western side of the Waikato River, was the scene of one thrilling episode in which “Te Ahiwera” displayed his diplomatic skill and his fearlessness. This was in March, 1843. A quarrel respecting the ownership of a pa-tuna or eel-weir called Kororipo threatened to involve the whole of Waikato in a war. This pa (also called Rauwiri) was a great V-shaped structure
The historic English mission church at Rangiaowhia, built for the Maoris eighty years ago. This church, which is of the same architecture and age as the mission church of St. John's, at Te Awamutu, was the place of worship of the Ngati-Apakura tribe before the Waikato War.

The historic English mission church at Rangiaowhia, built for the Maoris eighty years ago. This church, which is of the same architecture and age as the mission church of St. John's, at Te Awamutu, was the place of worship of the Ngati-Apakura tribe before the Waikato War.

page 20 page 21 extending nearly across the lake, near the place where a stream flowed from Whangape to the Waikato River. At the apex of the work, the hinaki or eel-traps, woven of mangémangé creepers, were set.

The valuable eelery was claimed by the Ngati-Pou, who lived near the spot, with their chief Uira. Their claim was disputed by Ngati-Mahuta, whose head was Kepa, brother of the great Te Wherowhero. In the missionary's opinion Ngati-Pou had the best right to the pa-tuna and its takings of the teeming eels. Ngati-Pou built a fortified pa opposite the disputed spot; it was on a narrow neck of land between lake and swamp. Kepa arrived with three hundred men armed with muskets. Uira, the chief of the residents, a good old man, anxious for peace, asked the missionary to go to the hostile camp and persuade Ngati-Mahuta to sit there quietly.

Ashwell went to and fro, trying to avert fighting. Ngati-Pou loaded their guns and prepared for battle. Ashwell ran towards them and begged them to sit down and wait. He returned to the Ngati-Pou, who by this time were in a frenzy of excitement and were about to dance their war dance. He tried to dissuade them from it, but they said “No; we will draw a boundary line and you shall stand on it, and we will not pass you.” Ashwell hurried back to the Ngati-Mahuta, and they agreed, too, not to pass the boundary.

Now, picture that little missionary, a puny but heroic figure, standing his ground between the two fierce war-parties who a few years before had been ferocious cannibals. The two columns leaped up, each man with his loaded musket ready, and tomahawk in belt. They came charging down towards each other. “I thought,” Ashwell wrote in his reminiscences, “they would have swept me away, they came running with such force.” Both parties, as soon as they approached within a few yards of the boundary line, stopped dead. Each man dropped on one knee, he held his musket across his body, at the ready.

For about a quarter of an hour they remained there, each band glaring fiercely at the other, the missionary standing patiently between. Then one of the mission adherents stood up and repeated a passage from a psalm; dead silence; then one of the others responded with the next verse, until the whole psalm had been repeated, and then, as the missionary related, the Gloria Patri was recited. The tenseness relaxed, anger died, the warriors sat down and peaceful speech-making began. Presently all were feasting together in the Ngati-Pou pa, on potatoes and those Whangape eels.

No more was said about the disputed fishery. Both parties worked amicably at the eel-taking, and the exact ownership of the pa-tuna was never disputed or settled; it was held in common. But had it not been for the missionary's valiant efforts to stay the warriors' hands there would have been a desperate battle on the lake shore that day.

The Church Mission people were not always so successful in their appeals for peace. Three years after that episode at Lake Whangape there was a dispute between the Ngati-Pou and Ngati-Tipa tribes over a piece of land called Ihu-taroa, on the Lower Waikato. Dr. Maunsell and Mr. Ashwell had persuaded the rival tribes to agree to an aukati or boundary line, but a young chief of Ngati-Tipa crossed it, out of bravado. A chief of the other side engaged him in a wrestling bout, an unfortunate blow drew blood, and soon both war-parties were into the fray. Thirty-two men were killed in the battle. That was the last fight of tribe against tribe on the Waikato.

The Final Tragedy of War.

Peace, civilisation and prosperity came to Waikato under the benevolent rule of the missionaries and the chiefs. Ashwell's Taupiri school establishment was the centre of religion and secular learning on the mid-Waikato. The plough was at work on the rich soil of the station. Mr. Ashwell had an excellent assistant, a young chief named Heta Tarawhiti, of Taupiri. He became an ordained minister, and in his old age we used to see him in Auckland, a remarkable figure, a fine old man with a tattooed face which contrasted curiously with his clerical garb. Everywhere there was peace and progress, until the curse of war with the pakeha—first the Taranaki war of 1860 and then the Waikato war in 1863—violently disturbed the good work and blasted all the missionaries' hopes.

In 1874, Mr. Ashwell wrote some of his recollections of missionary adventure and labour, and these were published in a small pamphlet, printed for private circulation. I am indebted to Mr. Horace Fildes, of Wellington, for the use of the information contained in this now rare publication; Mr. Fildes also kindly contributed some personal data from his notes. The picture of the old mission station on the Waikato River at Taupiri is from a water colour drawing by a Government intelligence officer of the early Sixties, Lieut. H. S. Bates (afterwards Colonel) of the 65th Regiment. He made several canoe voyages up the Waikato River before the war.