Te Aitu-o-te-Rangi

In: Stories, Traditional stories

Source: The Princess & the Come-ashore Whaler - A legend from the 1830s by Frank Fyfe

Te Aitu-o-te-Rangi was born about 1820 and was the daughter of a chief – Te Whatahoronui. Her people were of Ngati Moe at Papawai, in the Wairarapa – a hapu (sub tribe) of Rangitāne and Ngati Kahungunu. Her parents and grandfather, Muretu, lived at Te Ureta, Waka-a-paua and Wharehanga – areas situated on the western side of the Ruamahanga River near present day Martinborough.

Te Aitu-o-te-Rangi means “misfortune of the sky”. It has been told that the day she was born the sky was red/orange in colour.

When Te Aitu was about 14 years old the mighty warlord Te Rauparaha led an invasion on the Wairarapa and killed the chief, Te Whatahoronui. Te Aitu and a cousin, Wi Kingi Tu-te-pakihi-Rangi, were captured and taken as slaves on Kapiti Island . Being of high born status Te Aitu was forced to become one of Te Rauparaha’s slave wives.

Two years had passed and a European named John Milsome Jury came across a chance meeting with Te Aitu while whaling in NZ. He was immediately spell-bound by the now beautiful 16 year old slave princess. The feeling was mutual and the couple concocted a plan to escape from Kapiti Island and flee to Te Aitu’s ancestral homelands.

One night when is was very dark John Jury stole a small whaleboat from the ship he had sailed in on and rowed to a pre-arranged meeting place to collect Te Aitu. Both of them manned the oars, and together they pointed the boat across Cook Straight towards Palliser Bay.

All night they rowed determind to reach their destination. At last the wind changed to the south and John was able to hoist a makeshift sail. Into the big southern bay they sailed, with Te Aitu pointing the way towards the Lake Onoke bar.

To young John it seemed like they were headed for certain disaster, but as they neared the coast, sure enough the bar was open and in they sailed through. To John Jury’s further surprise the little lake gave way to the huge, shallow expanse of the shimmering Lake Wairarapa. Te Aitu urged her whaler on until at last they came to the entrance to the Ruamahanga River.

Meanwhile, back at Kapiti Island an enraged Te Rauparaha had awakened to find his beautiful captive missing. He immediately assumed she had escaped and her intentions would be to head towards her homeland. The warlord summoned 60 of his most ferocious warriors, launched his big war canoe and …. seating himself in the stern, pointed his big canoe towards Cape Turakirae . The 60 paddles dipped in accelerating unison and were gaining on the little whaleboat. However, they were unlucky on approach to the Onoke bar, for the turbulence threw many warriors overboard and they were drowned. But despite this Te Rauparaha commanded his warriors to continue the persuit.

The lovers and their whaleboat had scarcely reached the comparative safety of the Ruamahanga River when they were terrified to hear across the still waters of Lake Wairarapa the triumphant paddling song of the Ngati Toa – Te Rauparaha’s war canoe.

In desperation, Te Aitu directed John to leave the main channel and pull into a quiet backwater behind a little totara-clad island. The boat was beached, screened by a tangle of fallen trees, and the occupants quickly hid in the thick bush at the waters edge.

Nearer came the throbbing chant as the warriors drove the big canoe on. Breathlessly the pair waited amongst the trees – wondering if their pursuers would take the channel.

Trembling, Te Aitu clung to her whaler as Te Rauparaha and his war canoe sped past their island refuge and on up the river.

For three days they dared not light a fire, nor even scarcely move lest their wily enemy was lying in wait for them.

Then, to their immense relief, they spied the big canoe drifting silently down river. In the stern sat a sullen Te Rauparaha looking neither to the left nor right, as empty handed he made his way back to Kapiti Island.

With the danger past Te Aitu showed John the way up the Ruamahanga and into the Waiohine River. Coming ashore at the Kuratawhiti clearing. At last they were at their destination – Te Aitu’s ancestral homelands. She gestured to the land around them and explained to John that what was hers was his and she offered this for their future home.

Te Aitu then went to an aged totara stump and took from it a flax kete (woven basket) containing a greenstone hoe which her people had hurriedly placed there before fleeing from Te Rauparaha’s invasion. This was a tangible symbol of family ownership.

John Jury and Te Aitu-o-te-Rangi married and had four children. The first was Hoani Te Whatahoro, who recorded many tribal traditions, laments and songs. A daughter, Annie Eliza Te Haereaute, who married Joseph Oates, was born in 1846, and another son, Charles Joseph Te Rongotumamao, in 1850. A male child, born in 1854, did not survive.

Te Aitu died in the 1850s, probably in 1854. There are several different accounts of her death. The most likely one suggests that she caught measles during the epidemic which swept through the east coast districts of the North Island towards the end of April 1854. Charles Bidwill made her coffin and she was buried either at Ngapuke or Waitapu, old villages near Martinborough.

John Jury farmed and continued to farm Waka-a-paua after Te Aitu died by right of his wife’s claim to her ancestral land. John Jury died on 6 August 1902 at his daughter’s house at Taumata.