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Missionaries and muskets at Kerikeri - roadside stories

In the 1820s the Kerikeri mission station was under the protection of Hongi Hika and the Ngāpuhi tribe. Hongi had encouraged the establishment of the mission – largely because he wanted access to muskets, which gave Ngāpuhi a great military advantage over other tribes. Today the 1822 mission house is New Zealand’s oldest European building.


Archival audio: After an introduction, Ernest Kemp talks about Kemp House.

English missionary (actor): This day Shungi and his people with some other tribes arrived here from the fight with the dead bodies of Titi and Arpu. The widow of Titi and other women rushed down upon the beach in a frenzy of rage, and beat into pieces the carved work at the head of the canoes with a pole. Then they got into a canoe and pulled out several prisoners of war into the water and beat them to death.

Narrator: During the 1820s, members of the Church Missionary Society regularly witnessed gruesome scenes at Kerikeri as returning warriors from the Ngāpuhi tribe handed over captives to the widows of their comrades slain in battle. The missionaries could only look on as these women took revenge on the prisoners, who then became a part of the cannibal feasts that followed.

The missionaries did not understand that the Ngāpuhi custom of eating slain enemies restored the mana, or prestige, of the warriors killed in battle. Defenceless in an unfamiliar landscape, the missionaries were entirely dependent on the protection of Hongi Hika and his Ngāpuhi tribe.

The Church Missonary Society’s interest in the area followed a visit to Sydney in 1814 by Hongi Hika, who wanted to encourage a mission in his tribal area. Ngāpuhi cared little for Christianity, but Hongi Hika understood that a mission would attract traders and allow his tribe to acquire muskets, which were the key to Ngāpuhi’s remarkable military successes in the 1820s.

In 1814, a mission, led by the Reverend Samuel Marsden, was established at Rangihoua Bay, near the mouth of the Kerikeri Inlet. Despite [the original Rangihoua mission] being a total failure, Marsden tried again in 1820. This time he located the mission station beside Kororipo Pā, a fortified village at the head of the Kerikeri Inlet. It was the centre of Ngāpuhi’s extensive empire and where Hongi Hika based his war canoes.

Muskets gave Ngāpuhi a great military advantage, and Hongi Hika successfully used them to invade the Bay of Plenty and Waikato. Hongi Hika was wounded in 1827 at the battle of Mangamuka.* He died from his wounds the following year.

While Ngāpuhi extended its tribal empire, the Church Missionary Society consolidated its foothold at Kerikeri. In 1822, an English-style mission house was built for John Butler, the first missionary. Butler did not have the opportunity to enjoy his new dwelling for long, as a dispute with Marsden led to his dismissal a year later.

A succession of missionaries then occupied the house until James Kemp took up residence in 1832. By then Hongi Hika had died, European diseases had decimated Ngāpuhi, and Kerikeri had lost its strategic importance. The mission house was lived in by Kemp and his descendants until 1974, when it was donated to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Kemp House, as it is known today, is the country’s oldest building, and is little changed from its 1822 structure.

Nearby stands the stone store. It was built in 1832 by an ex-convict stonemason and intended as a storehouse. However, by the time it was completed, Kerikeri’s strategic importance had diminished, so it was unnecessary. It has since been used as a library, ammunition magazine, kauri gum trading post and general store. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust purchased it in 1974.

A nearby path leads to the remains of Kororipo Pā, where some of the old earthworks are still evident. On the [opposite] riverbank is a reconstruction of a Māori village.

*The audio suggests that Hongi Hika was wearing his chain mail suit at the battle of Mangamuka, but this is not correct. This is an error which came to light after the video was made. Other corrections and clarifications to the text have been made inside square brackets.


Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number T906).

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