The Great Toawaka
When James Cook sailed into Te Whanganui o Hei – November 1769 - he had two things on his mind - find a good , safe spot to observe the Transit of Mercury and make another concerted effort to get alongside local Maori after the disaster in Gisborne.
Once safely moored off Purangi , among the first he welcomed aboard Endeavour was Ngati Hei chief , Toawaka - who’d been watching a short distance away in his small waka, as the ship’s cannon thundered out over the bay and his warriors threw spears and performed their traditional wero, or challenge.
The huge ship with billowing white sails and smoking cannon, and pale, strangely dressed men seemed like an omen to Toawaka, says Ngati Hei’s Joe Davis - a signal of great change. For years, Toawaka had been acutely conscious of the great stress his people had always been under, from invasion by rival tribes wanting their food resources or to settle scores. If tribes wanted to keep their land they had no choice but to fight, says Davis and Ngati Hei had never been driven away. If they’d been totally passive and not adopted the warrior values themselves, they’d never have survived.
So when Toawaka cautiously climbed aboard Endeavour, he was looking to talk – and learn. When Cook took some charcoal, pointed to the shore and drew lines on the deck, Toawaka realised he was after a map and drew an outline of the north island showing where they were and marking Te Reinga, while feigning death to explain this was where Maori spirits departed from. Then says Davis, the pair shared a drink from the same cup, which Toawaka carefully destroyed so no-one could take their mana, or power.
Endeavour’s arrival almost certainly coincided with Toawaka’s search for a more peaceful and settled way of life for Ngati Hei. Cook’s own conduct must have encouraged him to think that these powerful new strangers might be able to help.
Endeavour’s stay in Mercury Bay has never been seen by Ngati Hei as an “invasion” therefore, but as a first friendly encounter between two different civilisations and peoples - a decisive first step towards all new beginnings.