Ngati Maniapoto agreement crucial to North Island Main Trunk completion

The North Island Main Trunk could not have been built on its chosen route without agreement reached between the Crown and the tangata whenua, Ngati Maniapoto.

The North Island land wars of the 1860s was one of the reasons why railways advanced more quickly in the south of New Zealand than in the north.

After the Waikato War, the Kingitanga movement imposed an aukati or boundary which restricted Pakeha entry into the King Country, known as Te Rohe Potae.

The reasoning was as much to prevent the further alienation of Maori land as anything. As a result, the railway line from Auckland reached Te Awamutu in 1880 and stopped there.

However, by 1883, Ngati Maniapoto leader Te Wahanui Huatare had come to the conclusion that holding out indefinitely would be impossible. Five tribes – Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Hikairo, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Whanganui - signed an agreement with the Crown that the North Island Main Trunk could proceed through the King Country.

The concessions the tribes won in return included continued prohibition of alcohol in the area.

The first sod was officially turned on the banks of the Puniu River, about five kilometres south of Te Awamutu, in April 1885. Ngati Maniapoto was represented by three chiefs, Te Wahanui, Rewi Maniapoto and Taonui while Premier Sir Robert Stout and Native Minister John Balance were present to represent the Crown.

Accounts of the ceremony indicate that Wahanui shoveled some earth into a ceremonial barrow and Premier Stout carried it away.

It took more of Sir Robert’s diplomatic skills to resolve a stand-off that threatened to derail the event. Before the ceremonial party had left Te Awamutu, two Waikato chiefs arrived and sought to repudiate the agreement.

Sir Robert is said to have carefully watched the growing anger welling in Te Wahanui.“Oh, well,” he is reported to have said, “if it is Waikato's land we have come to the wrong place.”

When this was translated to the chiefs by the Government interpreter, the third Ngati Maniapoto Chief, Taonui got to his feet. He is described in accounts as commanding a figure. Angrily he declared: “It is our land. The sod shall be turned; it shall be turned to-day.”

The Waikato contingent got the message and lifted their objection.

It was to take a further 23 years for the rail link between Auckland and Wellington to be completed – in part because of the economic recession that slowed railway building in the years before the turn of the century and in part because of the enormity of a project completed by men wielding picks and shovels.