Mere pounamu are probably one of the more iconic taoka of the Māori world. Designed as a close quarter weapon, there are a number of grisly descriptions in 19th century ethnographic accounts as to how they were used with great effect to dispatch an enemy combatant.
Mere pounamu are associated with rakatirataka and mana – chiefly attributes and status. Many mere pounamu were named and feature prominently in iwi histories; some so well-known and revered that they assumed supernatural powers in the retelling of their exploits. Mere pounamu were handed down from generation to generation, accruing increased mana with each successive owner.
This particular mere pounamu, Kahutai, belonged to the well-known 19th century rakatira (chief) Karetai. Karetai, based at Ōtākou, was a southern chief who possessed all the traditional traits of a rakatira: the right whakapapa, a proven battle record, and solid political nous. Born towards the end of the 18th century, Karetai was one of the principal commanders, along with another great southern rakatira, Tuhawaiki, of the war party known as Taua-iti, which defended Ngāi Tahu’s northern boundaries against Te Rauparaha and Ngāti Toa in the early 1830s. During a battle with Ngāti Toa at Kāpara-te-hau (Lake Grassmere), Karetai was wounded to the extent that he lost an eye and had a permanent limp ever afterwards. However, this only served to increase his mana amongst his people.
Karetai was a leader who bridged worlds – he was born into a world where Europeans were just starting to venture at the end of the 18th century, and died in 1860 after having helped guide his people through a very rapid and tumultuous transition into a new world order. Karetai was at the front of a number of major milestones, not just for his iwi, but for the burgeoning colony of New Zealand. The first of these was the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on the 13 June 1840 at Ōtākou. In addition, he was also one of the principle signatories to most of the major land sales in the south, including the Ōtākou purchase of July 13 1844. With this particular purchase, Karetai originally argued that the whole of the Otago Peninsula should be reserved from the sale, however he eventually agreed to a portion that encompassed Mt Charles to Otago Heads. Just a couple of years before his death, Karetai was one of the signatories of Matiaha Tiramorehu’s 1857 petition to Queen Victoria, asking for the Crown to address its failure to honour the terms of its land purchases from Ngāi Tahu, in particular, the setting aside of sufficient reserves for the iwi to live on.
Kahutai was passed from Karetai to his son Timoti. After Timoti’s accidental death in 1893, it went to his daughter Alice, from which it went to Mori Ellison – Alice’s niece whom she had raised. Mori placed the mere into the small museum at the back of the memorial church at Ōtākou, before the late Magda Wallscott loaned Kahutai to Otago Museum during the 1970s. Whānau kaitiaki continue to guide its care today.
Thanks to Kahutai’s current kaitiaki for permission to feature the mere pounamu.
Image credit: Kahutai. On loan from the Karetai family.