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.

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