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Papawai, the Māori capital - roadside stories

In the late 19th century Papawai marae, outside Greytown, was the focus of the Kotahitanga – the Māori parliament movement, which sought to unify Māori tribes. With 3000 residents, Papawai was known as ‘the Māori capital’.


Narrator: The small settlement of Greytown was once Wairarapa’s main centre. Its Papawai Marae was the site of an early Maori parliament.

A marae is a Māori meeting place, and Papawai is a very important one. In the late 19th century, Papawai, which means ‘the tears of mother earth’, was the focus of Kotahitanga, which means ‘unity’ in Maori, which was the Māori parliament movement.

Papawai was established in the 1850s when the government set aside land for a Māori settlement near Greytown. Māori land was acquired in the Wairarapa in the 1850s and 1860s after the colonial government made Māori leases illegal. Until then, Wairarapa tribes had charged settlers rentals, while retaining their land. Once denied the right to lease their land, Maori had to sell if they wanted money. Even so, they refused to sell Lake Wairarapa.

The Crown relentlessly campaigned to buy the lake, assuring local tribes that they could still harvest it after its sale. In 1896, local chiefs reluctantly gave in. In return, they received £3000 and some land in Mangakino, in the central North Island. Soon afterwards, drainage of wetlands for pasture destroyed the network of waterways around the lake as well as eel and fish breeding habitats.

Near the meeting house at Papawai is a funeral monument that resembles half a canoe hull. This is a memorial to the loss of Lake Wairarapa. The carvings depict the eels and flounder which were once plentiful in the area. 

In the 1880s, Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku became the leader of Papawai. Under Mahupuku, the marae experienced rapid growth. The Hikurangi meeting house was opened in 1888, and a large T-shaped structure was built for the Māori parliament.

The Kotahitanga movement sought to unify Māori tribes. The first Māori parliament met in 1892 in Hawke's Bay. Each year it convened in a different place to spread the concept of Kotahitanga throughout the North Island, where most Māori lived.

An exception occurred in 1897 and 1898 when the parliament met at Papawai Marae for two years in a row. At the time, Papawai was known as the ‘Māori capital’, with 3000 Māori residents.

In 1898 Papawai hosted a large meeting to discuss government plans to administer Māori land. Mahupuku believed this would give Māori a degree of independence. He sided with the government, which split the Kotahitanga movement. The Māori parliament met for the last time in 1902.   

Though the Maori parliament passed a resolution to end Māori land sales, for Wairarapa Māori the call came too late. By the end of the 19th century, the region had largely been acquired by Europeans.

Just before Mahupuku died in 1904, he built a palisade around the marae. It was later enhanced by 18 carved figures, which represented famous individuals from the area, including some Europeans. But rather than facing outward to protect the marae, as they do traditionally, the figures face inward. This is said to indicate a desire by Māori to live alongside the European settlers peacefully, as well as a willingness for Māori to look inward to find solutions to the challenges facing them. 

In 1911 the government erected a marble memorial to Mahupuku at Papawai, for his role in bringing Māori and Europeans together. During this time Papawai declined and eventually the marae fell into disrepair until the 1960s, when conservation work began on the carved figures. By the end of the 1980s they were fully restored.

Today, the marae is a vital part of local life, with new buildings including apartments for elders. It offers courses, including tai chi and line dancing.

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Papawai, the Māori capital - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated