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Hongi Hika: NZ’s Biggest Killer, Man-eater and Marsden’s Mate

NZ's Infamous Founding History (Part I)

New Zealand has its noble history – the glossy version which is safe for our children to learn about in school, the version of peace, pasture and parchment. But then there’s the other history of New Zealand, a history in which men like Hongi Hika orchestrated endless warfare, drenching entire generations in blood, just to quell their appetite. Welcome to Part 1 of New Zealand’s Bloody History…

“When Hongi Hika conquered new terrain,” says Professor Paul Moon of AUT University, “he was motivated by utu. Only by utu.” Armed with 15 muskets, clad in steel armour, Hongi didn’t bother holding on to his spoils for more than a month or two.

Things were changing as the 1800s arrived. The Reverend Samuel Marsden was expanding his missionary work from Russell, where Hongi Hika had lent Maori protection to European missionaries in return for trade. Across the North Island, Ngāpuhi’s slaves were growing the first potatoes and wheat, and warfare was all done by club and hatchet. Eating a conquered victim was a controlled and highly ceremonial event.


Hongi Hika was born in Kaikohe in 1772, descended from a long line of Ngāpuhi warriors, whose ferocity and military supremacy is said to have been ordained by the gods. Hongi spent his youth as a warrior-apprentice, and would carry into battle the jawbone of his giant ancestor Māhia. To Maori, war was riddled with rules and customs which had to be studied, including the haka. Hongi’s first few battles were exams, and at age18, Hongi succeeded his dying brother Kaingaroa to become Te Ariki (chief of chiefs) of his hapu. Hongi was becoming a favourite of the gods.

Ngāti Whātua and Te Roroa warred with Ngāpuhi in 1807 at Kaipara Harbour, and during the melee, Chief Taoho hacked Hongi’s uncle Pokaia to death with a mere. Aghast and losing morale, Ngāpuhi began to flee, and Taoho gave chase until he stopped and drew a line on the beach. This Marking of the Sands, beyond which Ngāti Whātua was not to pass, is now commemorated by a memorial at Moremunui, and the event is known by some as Te Kai a te Karoro (The Seagulls' Feast), because the victors could not eat all of the vanquished bodies themselves, and they chose to mount up to 170 Ngāpuhi heads on stakes. It is perhaps not surprising that this sparked vengeance within Hongi. Professor Moon agrees that while Hongi’s head was brave and diplomatic, his heart was only vengeful.


Cannibalism was rife in New Zealand before 1809, and even Europeans, such as the entire crew of the Boyd, had been eaten (as a result of having mistreated Ngāti Pou). Hongi Hika already had a grudge against Ngāti Pou, which was one reason he allied himself with the Reverend Marsden in 1814. “The custom of eating their enemies is universal,” Marsden wrote. “Maori generally speak of it with horror and disgust, yet they expect that this will be their fate in the end as it has been the fate of their forefathers and friends.”

As their allegiance grew, Hongi divulged Maori customs to Marsden’s people. “When the chiefs of the enemy’s party are killed,” Hongi explained, “their bodies are placed on fires and then roasted, none of the common people being allowed to touch them. When the bodies are dressed, the high chiefs take each a piece of flesh… When all the sacred services are completed, all in common feed upon the slain, to display their bitter revenge.”

Hongi also allied himself with resident magistrate Thomas Kendall, which Professor Moon says formed a “political triangle” with Marsden, who saw no harm in supplying muskets to Hongi – after all, he’d been nothing but hospitable to the Europeans. By siding with Hongi, the Bay of Islands missionaries gained protection and land; by siding with the missionaries, Hongi gained trade and political intelligence. However, the missionaries did not quell Hongi’s rising bloodlust, and in February 1818, Hongi joined Ngāti Paoa in a year-long raid as far away as the East Cape, capturing 2000 prisoners. This was Hongi the diplomat.


In 1820, Hongi Hika travelled to England, ostensibly to assist in the study of Te Reo Maori at Cambridge University, but Hongi had really come to procure enough guns to dominate New Zealand. Hongi was allowed to speak in the House of Lords, given access to the Cambridge Library where he gorged himself on data about his idol Napoleon, and then given an audience with King George IV, who greeted him as one king to another. Hongi discussed the king’s topical divorce with him, remarking, “I rule over five wives – why does it take an act of parliament for you to rule over one?” He studied the king’s armoury and highly disciplined troops, and in the Tower of London Hongi was presented with a suit of armour, chainmail and helmet, deepening his belief in his own invincibility. “There is but one king for England,” Hongi told the Reverend Marsden as they departed, “and there shall be but one for New Zealand.”


The gifts Hongi was given in England were traded away during his return trip home. Three hundred muskets, powder and ammunition were picked up in Sydney, with Hongi happily swapping land for weaponry.

Hongi was becoming increasingly duplicitous – noble protector of God’s missionaries to some; man-eating tyrant to others. “He was the last man I should have imagined accustomed to bloodshed and cruelty,” Augustus Earle said of him at the time, “But when in conversation, his eyes sparkled with fire.”

In 1821, Hongi marshalled 50 waka taua (war canoes), 1000 muskets and 2000 men. They poured southwards, slaughtering Ngāti Whātua, attacking two pa at Tamaki, killing 300 at Mokoia Pa, then moving on to massacre 1000 Ngāti Paoa – the very iwi he had collaborated with three years prior.

But Hongi still wasn’t sated, and he moved on to Thames where he sent his chiefs to suggest peace and goodwill to Ngāti Maru, before returning at night to massacre his new 'allies', sparing a couple of thousand Ngāti Maru to use as slaves. Hongi’s men then ate a number of the 1000 Ngāti Maru killed that day.

Because Hongi’s son-in-law was killed at Thames, Hongi brought 3000 warriors and 1500 muskets overland from Waitemata Harbour to Manukau Harbour, leaving his mark on Counties-Manukau as he navigated the Waiuku River, lugging his waka taua overland to the Waikato River – a feat which took his army two months – and stopping only to massacre 1500 trapped people at Pirongia.

Ngāpuhi attempted to invade the Rotorua Lakes soon after, but many were killed by Te Arawa, including fellow chief Te Paeoterangi, as they retreated to Hongi’s corps. When his failed warriors returned and told him what Te Arawa had done, Hongi shouted : “do not let the blood of Te Paeoterangi go cold, let us go now!”


Today Mokoia Island, surrounded by Lake Rotorua, is a sanctuary for native birds, but 190 years ago, it became anything but a sanctuary for natives. By the time Hongi’s war machine set off for Rotorua, he was allegedly treating the missionaries as cogs in his political machine, while his untouchable troops had begun to commodify and exploit the sacred rite of cannibalism. Professor Moon is the author of This Horrid Practice, the definitive source on Maori cannibalism, and he explains that while some of the rudiments of Hongi’s cannibalism may have been traditional, the opportunities he seized for mass killings, and for taking hundreds of prisoners for slavery and food, were made possible only by the musket. Hongi was elevating cannibalism to an industrial level, involving the consumption of human flesh onsite, and turning prisoners into supplies of meat for whole communities.


Entering the Waihi River in 1823, an armada of 1200 men, packed into nearly 100 waka taua, paddled upstream, then hauled their waka overland, not unlike the Spanish invasion of the Aztec capital at Mexico City. The waka scraped through gorges and over hills, all in the name of Te Paeoterangi, and after dozens of kilometres, the waka splashed into the Rotorua Lakes.

Hongi paused only to capture legendary tohunga (priest) Tumakoha Te Whanapipi, to feast on Tumakoha’s brains to inherit his mana . Meanwhile, Te Arawa’s most powerful tohunga tried to stall the invaders by invoking a storm to swamp the invaders’ waka, but Ngāpuhi did exactly the opposite, calling upon the weather gods to calm the lake. Te Arawa lost the supernatural preamble, but a Te Arawa warrior named Te Hihiko shot Hongi in the head, leg and body as Hongi’s forces landed. However, Hongi was wearing his chain armour and helmet, and – apparently invincible – Hongi fought on, his servants carrying 15 loaded muskets for him at any time. As a self-proclaimed man of honour, Hongi promised security to any refugees who hid in the meeting house of Tamatekapua, and hundreds hid indeed; however, the other side of Hongi was encouraging torture. One Te Kuruotemarama, for example, was gruesomely killed over three days by having reeds pushed through the gaps between his ribs. His body was then torn apart and eaten.

After the war, ritual karakia (prayers) finally settled Te Paioterangi’s death. Ngāpuhi remained on the island for a further two weeks, feasting on the dead and enjoying the hot springs which lined the lakes. Up to 3000 Te Arawa had been killed, and hundreds of slaves were led up north, where many of them would later marry missionaries. Hongi and his fellow chiefs kept warring even after they split up, driving the iwi Te Kawerau a Maki to leap off a volcanic cliff at Karekare Beach in 1825 to escape enslavement. Hongi’s people realised that he would never be satisfied.


What Hongi Hika had done to his country was more than just retribution – Don Stafford calls Hongi’s actions “an unprecedented reign of terror.” Mutually-charged duels using hand-to-hand weapons were history: Hongi had led an arms race.

Hongi didn’t let the Musket Wars subside until 1827, when he was shot by arch-enemy Ngāti Pou – the very iwi which had eaten his European friends thirteen years earlier. The gunshot gave him a slow death and Hongi ultimately died in March 1828. It took another 110 years before Ngāpuhi and Te Arawa formally declared peace.


Missionary and Maori culture had become strange bedfellows, and Marsden noted that “the New Zealander feels himself as much bound by his superstition to kill and eat human sacrifices as the Christian does to offer up his sacrifices of prayer and praise to the true God.” Still, Christian transubstantiation (consuming the body of Christ) was beginning to replace cannibalism.

Many still speak of Hongi having slaughtered 60,000, but Professor Moon puts this down to hype surrounding a man whose impact and privilege – not to mention invincibility – are still unparalleled in New Zealand history. “Those victorious in battle would play up the death toll, while those defeated would play it down. Six thousand killed is more likely, but only those taken prisoner would know.”

And yet, the most esteemed British missionaries, agents and royalty knew the other Hongi Hika – a man who spent his last moments requesting that his survivors treat settlers with kindness when he was dead, and on no account cause them to leave these islands.

Marsden ultimately summed up Maori-missionary kinship in an 1823 letter to Hongi. “You were amongst the first of my New Zealand friends, and I hope my friendship for you will continue until one or both of us die.” What could man-eaters and missionaries possibly have had in common? Perhaps Hongi saw God in Marsden; perhaps, to Marsden, the scale of Hongi’s devastation seemed biblical.

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