Hei - the great navigator
Te Whanganui a Hei translates as the great bay of Hei. Hei was the Maori navigator aboard the Te Arawa canoe, and the local tribe, or iwi Ngāti Hei, are descendants of Hei of the Arawa canoe.
Whitianga and the wider Mercury Bay have drawn navigators for over a thousand years. The name Whitianga is short for Te Whitianga-Nui-a-Kupe (Kupe’s Big Crossing) in memory of the legendary navigator Kupe and his arrival here around 950AD from Raiatea, originally called Hawaiki Nui, in Tahiti. Kupe returned to Raiatea and from this time on, founding canoes including the Te Arawa courageously journeyed across wide seas to Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, that we now call New Zealand.
Hei was the ‘tauira’ or sailing master of the Te Arawa canoe. He was among the master Polynesian sailors who perfected navigation around the Pacific using natural phenomena like bird migration pathways, ocean currents, stellar positions and movement, and the colours of the sea and sky - especially how clouds would cluster at the locations of some islands.
In November of 1769 at Purangi Pt on The Coromandel, Cook raised the English flag and, without consultation with Ngati Hei, claimed “this land for King and Country”. This was Ngati Hei’s first misunderstood encounter with Pakeha over sovereignty.
But with a courageous opening of hearts, Ngati Hei performed the first sanctioned powhiri (welcome ceremony) between Pakeha and Maori at Wharekaho north of Whitianga. There was also the first recorded wero (challenge ritual) and demonstration of the tribe’s traditional weapons in close quarter warfare. It was here on The Coromandel that European and Maori made the first official exchanges of gifts - notably the introduction of the potato, hence the name of Ngati Hei’s sacred Pa and urupa Wharetaewa or “house of the potato”.
The first map of Aotearoa was drawn on the deck of the Endeavour ship by Ngati Hei’s ancestor Toawaka in his effort to describe to Cook and his officers – ‘you are here ’. These events were astutely recorded in Cook’s logs and thus began the written geographical history of New Zealand.
Ngati Hei impressed Captain Cook and his crew with their technically and tactically advanced fortified pa, their culture and their courageous opening of hearts to a strange race with customs and technologies unlike anything that they had ever known.
The impressions of Cook that were left upon Ngati Hei is reflected in the comments of Te Horeta, also known as Te Taniwha. He was a 12-year-old boy when he came into contact with the Endeavour and its crew during Cook’s first voyage. He recalled the sight of the longboat and pinnace coming to shore, with its rowers pulling their oars with their backs to the land. “Yes it is so; these people are goblins; their eyes are at the back of their heads; they pull on shore with backs to the land to which they are going.”
He wrote of Cook as a “supreme man in that ship”: “We knew he was lord of the whole by is perfect gentlemanly and noble demeanour. He seldom spoke, but some of the goblins spoke much. But this man did not utter many words, all that he did was to handle our mats and hold our mere, spears and wahaika and touch the hair of our heads.”