Piraurau – a most amazing woman


Her name was Piraurau.  She was a remarkable woman born around 1826 (her exact date of birth is not known, but may be as early as 1822) and dying in 1881.  She was my great great great grandmother…her story is one of local legend and I would like to share this story with you.  It will give you some insight into why Maori art and culture is so important to me and why it forms the very essence of Tiki Kiwi.

Piraurau was one of the very first Maori women living on Banks Peninsular in Canterbury to marry a Paheha or white man.  I grew up listening to stories from my grandmother and father about her, and only ever knew her as a Maori Princess.  It seems that there could be some truth to those stories.  Many of the events of her life suggest that she was high born, but perhaps no-one will ever really know.  We do know that her ancestry goes back to the ancestor Rikituawai who was born in approximately 1650.  He had two wives (Hiniari and Urihia) and had eight children.  Their youngest child, Maatua married Rurutu and together they had six children.  Their eldest, a son named Te Haa te Kura was born in approximately 1750 and married Te Wahine.  From these two issued two children, the eldest being a son named Puaka – Puraurau’s father.  Puaka was also remarkable character – but that is another story.  Puaka married Pioio and their youngest was Puraurau born in approximately 1826.

One of the things I find most incredible about this amazing woman, is the distances she covered and the things she is said to have achieved in her short life.  In 1836 (when she was just 10 years old), it has been said she was one of 3 women to guide Te Pouho’s war party across the Haast Pass from West to East – this would be no mean feat today, let alone in 1836 as a 10 year old.  Some suggest that she was travelling with her family back from the West Coast with Pounamu/greenstone when they were set upon by Te Pouho.  All the family were killed but Piraurau was spared and was essentially a spoil of war.  Some say that she was given to Te Pouho as a gift, to be then offered to John Miller the tribe’s favourite Pakeha or Paheha Maori – Pakeha Maori were valuable men to the tribes in the 19th Century because they were the source of many riches including muskets, language skills and for the purpose of trade.  It would have been a considerable honour to be given to this man as the daughter of a Maori chief, which further cements her legendary status as a Maori princess.

Where she was born is up for debate.  Typically she is said to have been born in Pigeon Bay on Banks Peninsular and is of the Irakehu sub tribe of the mighty Ngai Tahu – one of the most influential Maori tribes in New Zealand.  But some say she was born in Otakaro – which was a settlement on the now Avon River in Christchurch/Otautahi (and of the Tuahuriri hapu instead).  Others believe that she had significant family/whanau connections on the west coast because her first son (Taiki) was granted land there and her brother fought in the struggle for the Greenstone/Pounamu trail at Paparoa on the West Coast.

In 1843 the Wairau incident (the massacre of a group of white settlers in Marlborough in retaliation for the death of a local Maori Chief’s wife) lead to a plot by Te Rauparaha to rid the entire country of Paheha/white men.  The plan was spread throughout the Maori tribes and news swiftly made its way to Canterbury where the plan was to kill some of the most famous families in local history.  Kaiapoi Maori were to kill the Deans, Manson and Gebbie families at Riccarton while Peninsular Maori were to exterminate the Sinclair and Hay families.

By this time, Piraurau was living with Tom White, another legendary character, in Pigeon Bay on the Peninsular.  When she heard of the plan to kill the settlers and the whalers she knew she had to do something.  Understand the incredibly difficult position Piraurau found herself in.  By this stage she had at least one child to Tom, and as the “wife” of a Pakeha both she and her children were all likely to be killed as well as the white settlers.  But she was whanau/family of the very chiefs and tribes who were setting out to massacre the settlers.  Her kinship links were very strong as well.  Piraurau, who was most likely to have been bought up a Christian after her father, could not let the killing occur so she warned the settlers who believed her because of her privaliged position within the Maori community.

Well informed, the Pakeha settlers made as if going to bed, but they snuffed the lanterns and then hid outside in the bushes.  The Maori were relying on the element of surprise, and when they arrived and discovered that the Pakeha already knew of their plan to set fire to the houses and then kill the inhabitants as they fled, did not go ahead with the attack.  They knew that their foe was armed with muskets and with considerable courage.  The attack was abandoned and because of Piraurau the two groups eventually gained a healthy respect for each other and no further attacks were attempted.

Piraurau and Tom lived their lives mainly in Port Levy although Tom travelled throughout Canterbury and Otago for work. They had nine children together, their second eldest son Henry, I am directly descended from. Piraurau died at the age of just 59 years in 1881, according to her tombstone in Pigeon Bay. Over a decade later, Tom died and he is buried with her overlooking the bay that they spent the best part of their lives in together.

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