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Paul Verdon

Official author of All Blacks’ haka was a mass-murderer 

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Could there be a less befitting symbol of New Zealand nationalism and the All Blacks’ pride of performance?

The special clause to protect the Ka Mate haka of Te Rauparaha – that was included in last month’s New Zealand-United Kingdom free-trade agreement – should make thinking New Zealanders shake with derision.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and this country’s equivalent, Jacinda Ardern, agreed terms on a deal designed to boost trade and relations. The agreement, said to be worth $1 billion to New Zealand’s GDP, will eliminate all tariffs on New Zealand exports to Britain eventually.

But somewhat mysteriously, the agreement also commits Britain to “co-operate with New Zealand to identify appropriate ways to advance recognition and protection of the haka, Ka Mate“.

Meanwhile, the All Blacks, after a busy year of tests, have completed their Northern Hemisphere tour with losses to Ireland and France  – and before virtually all these matches they have performed the Te Rauparaha haka, Ka Mate

So while some critics have described the All Blacks record in 2021 as the worst in many years and have called for the head of coach Ian Foster to ‘roll,’ surely, when all the facts are examined, it is also timely to examine the fitness of Ka Mate – because it is hard to imagine a worse symbol of the world’s greatest rugby team, historically speaking!

It is likely that, in future years, the great majority of New Zealanders will look back on the Ka Mate haka with a good deal of embarrassment at the naivety and sheer historical ignorance displayed by their government, sports officials and the game’s participants.

Te Rauparaha has been described by some as legendary. The dictionary synonyms of the word include ‘heroic, celebrated, exalted and illustrious.’ So, from whose perspective could he be ‘legendary’? It is one thing to humour a Maori tribe’s sentiments. But most human beings would consider the man was a monster.

You would also imagine that international companies such as the All Blacks’ major sponsors, – normally so mindful of their public relations responsibilities – would be aghast if they actually knew what the ‘real’ Te Rauparaha had done.

But who could blame them for some confusion – because it’s all official? What has changed since the All Blacks began performing this haka many years ago is that, in 2014, the New Zealand Government officially recognised Te Rauparaha as the author of the haka and gave copyright to his tribe, Ngati Toa Rangatira. The law also set out a schedule of the history of Te Rauparaha and the ‘life and death’ circumstances in which he is supposed to have composed his haka. The Haka Ka Mate Attribution Bill was passed through Parliament without dissent.

However, some of us know that – in fact, not fiction – Te Rauparaha was responsible for massive Maori depopulation in the decades just before the British organised the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maoris in 1840. Such was the loss of life caused by him in New Zealand, but in the South Island in particular, wiping out near-entire tribal groups in many raids, that the British declared sovereignty of that island by right of discovery rather than cession later in 1840.

Some estimates claim New Zealand’s Maori population fell from 200,000 in 1800 to fewer than 100,000 by 1840, for example.

So, proportionally, in world terms of human life lost by one man’s actions, that puts Te Rauparaha on a par with the likes of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Ghengis Khan and the other better-known scourges of Mankind through history.

So, regardless of tribal sentiment, I fail to see what makes the actions of a pathological monster acceptable in decent, modern New Zealand society – and now acceptable to Britain, whose 1840 Treaty of Waitangi halted most of the death, destruction, enslavement and cannibalism that had consumed Maori for many decades before.

After all, it was just a few years before the Treaty was signed that Te Rauparaha first appeared in the nightmares of southern Maoridom. After participation in the ‘Musket Wars’ in the north, he had taken Kapiti Island (offshore of the lower North Island’s Paraparaumu Beach) as his base and now looked towards the South Island.

His annual journies of conquest make for remarkable but sickening reading. Intriguing too how the South Island’s Maori perspective is so different from that of his tribe. To quote S. Gerard’s history, Strait of Adventure, “He carried fire and desolation and terminated his butcheries in horrid cannibal feasts, and left behind him a bloody, smoking trail of misery and tragedy.” His muskets were too powerful for the primitive weapons he encountered from tribes yet to acquire guns.

So let us revisit some of those atrocities:

  • In 1826-27, Te Rauparaha attacked and annihilated the tribes of Nelson and northern Marlborough
  • In 1828, he sacked the Ngati Kura pa at Kaikoura, killing 1000 and enslaving hundreds; then destroying the Omihi pa further south
  • In 1829, using subterfuge, he attacked Ngai Tahu’s Kaiapoi pa (just north of present-day Christchurch) but was eventually beaten off
  • He was back in November, 1830, secreting his men aboard the vessel Elizabeth under the connivance of Captain John Stewart at Akaroa
  • In 1831, he returned to the Kaiapoi pa with 800 men and laid siege for several months before it fell
  • Next was the the pa on Onawe Peninsula, which Te Rauparaha overwhelmed with another ploy
  • But the tide was turning. The southern tribes at Otakou (Otago) and Murihiku (Southland) had acquired muskets. Te Rauparaha narrowly escaped capture at Lake Grassmere (Marlborough) in 1833. He was chased to the Marlborough Sounds and retreated across Cook Strait. In 1834, another attempt was made by Ngati Toa and they retreated again.

As a South Islander, and having wandered over places (eg. Onawe Peninsula, Akaroa) where the annihilation occurred, I know that Te Rauparaha’s name is greatly despised.

Surely therefore, the New Zealand Government, government departments, the NZRU and multinational companies need to do their homework. Te Rauparaha’s haka – displayed and performed as it is today as an example of national pride – could not be more unsuitable for a multi-racial society such as New Zealand’s in the 21st century!

Meanwhile, for entirely different reasons, others are unimpressed by the Ka Mate haka’s new protections. The conservative English newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, has called for it to be axed.

“The haka’s link to rugby is nebulous (at best) and is almost certainly borne out of imperialism and colonialism. The best way for rugby as a sport to buy into the sentiment expressed in the trade deal, to bestow as much respect as possible on the haka, would be to abolish it,” the Telegraph wrote.

Treating the haka as a “bargaining chip at the poker table of trade” raised questions for opposition rugby teams. Why should teams respect it any more than they respect other commercially valuable aspects of the New Zealand rugby team: the adidas kit sponsors, for example?” it said.

Others have long sought for the haka to be scrapped. Stephen Jones, a Welsh columnist who writes for another English daily, The Times, and ‘renowned’ for his criticisms of the All Blacks, despises the haka.

“It is now interminable; it takes up ages with the other team freezing. It is now a means of rank bullying on and off the field, and has become a posing strut rather than a tribute to the Māori heritage in New Zealand.”

And back in 2008, before the test against England, Guardian reporter Frank Keating said New Zealand’s “charmless eye-rolling, tongue squirming dance” should be abandoned.

FOOTNOTE: The All Blacks perform two hakas – Te Rauparaha’s  ‘Ka Mate’ version and another, called ‘Kapa O Pango,’ which was created only in recent years but has seldom been witnessed this year.