The ‘Gift’ of the Potato
If there’s something Mercury Bay really ought to be famous for, it’s the humble potato.
Why? Because it was here that James Cook first introduced the potato to NZ - at Ngati Hei’s Wharetaewa pa.
It was November 12, 1769 and Ngati Hei’s great chief Toawaka was honouring Cook and his men with a powhiri – the traditional Maori welcome for manuhiri, or ‘strangers’, coming in peace - and a very significant event in itself. Part of the ceremony was an exchange of gifts.
Cook already knew how important the kumara was here and that Ngati Hei were expert growers of the kumara. They had been growing them in Mercury Bay since the time of the Great Migration in the 13th century, when their own ancestors planted the very first kumara here on Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island).
So when Cook was thinking of a gift - what could be better than a new food like the potato - – a versatile root crop, nutritious, easier-to-grow, more easily preserved and - importantly for Maori at the time - more ‘portable’ because it didn’t deteriorate as quickly.
Cook handed over two handfuls of seed potatoes that day at Wharekaho - one to Toawaka and another to the chief’s Ngati Whanaunga allies. They immediately recognised their significance and value - planting and guarding them jealously for the next couple of years until a workable crop was ready.
Ngati Hei’s potato became like gold all over New Zealand. Other tribes found they could travel and fight much further from home with this new food. Potatoes became the new ‘must have’ item.
In the north, Ngapuhi’s famous fighting chief Hongi Hika, a few years later, grew huge plantations of potatoes – seizing the opportunity to trade them with the Europeans for guns - 150 baskets of potatoes for one musket! With this powerful new weapon, bought largely with potatoes, Hika began NZ’s most devastating Musket Wars, taking revenge on Maori enemies throughout the north island – and killing thousands - including Ngati Hei! But that’s another story….
Neither Cook nor Ngati Hei were to know at the time, but Cook’s gift of potatoes that day in 1769, proved to be both a blessing and a curse.