Reflections on Some Great Chiefs


By any standards

Tamaiharanui was a mean man —

meaner even than Te Rauparaha.

He was a chief of soaring rank,

  so wickedly tapu,

he could extinguish lesser lights

merely by his presence.

Such sacredness was hard to bear …

Even a colleague, for a chance offence,

confronted sudden death

  pin-pointed in his pupils.

None had a second chance

   to learn his lesson.



Not all the old chiefs though

  were so punctilious,

Te Wherowhero being a case in point.

After a certain battle,

  greaved with carnage,

he lay down as if for an afternoon nap.

Called for his prisoners, and then

(solicitous for the coveted tattooed heads)

  stove in their proffered skulls.

But in the end he had to admit defeat.

   Tossing aside his mere,

he cried: ‘I am tired …

  Let the rest go free.’

Such lapses would have been inexcusable,

  except in a very great chief.



But Te Rauparaha also had his moments,

none more expressive of his awfulness

than his whispered order in the pulsing dark

when the Mokau stream in tidal flood

  threw up a gleaming road-block,

and the circling Maniapoto

   cut off all retreat.

‘Friend,’ he said to the father

whose whimpering child would have betrayed them.

   ‘Friend — strangle your child.

I am that child …’

Unchristian, but perfectly correct.



But Tamaiharanui, what of him?

Pride has seldom had so far to fall.

  Humbled by Te Rauparaha

for Te Pehi’s murder,

the brig Elizabeth a meat-safe

  stocked with his kinsmen,

his daughter Nga Roimata ear-marked

   for dishonour,

what choice was left him

but to strangle her?

Hooked up by the chin as punishment,

his body swaying with the ship,

  pain was a single fare to Kapiti.

Claimed by Te Pehi’s widow

   as her due,

he became a sexless nothing —

a tailor’s dummy that she titivated

  with her mats and jewellery.

But bored with playing cat-and-mouse,

  his bankruptcy complete,

at last she struck …

The fountain she discovered in his throat

  quenched her fierce thirst

  and cancelled all his debts.


By Alistair Te Ariki Campbell