How a stolen taonga with a big story came home

22 June 2017
Associate Professor Deidre Brown, Architecture and Planning, Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries.
Associate Professor Deidre Brown

After 200 years, the Te Pahi Medal – a tiny object that tells a big story about Māori sovereignty and cultural respect – made its way back to Aotearoa. 

A small, handcrafted silver object engraved with the details of its presentation in the cursive handwriting of the Georgian age, the taonga has gone on display at Te Papa following its long absence.

Its year-long exhibition gives us another opportunity to share these stories with other New Zealanders and international visitors to our country.

The first story is about Te Pahi himself, my ancestor and a Māori chief who negotiated two worlds on behalf of his people. He was a rangatira of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Awa descent from the North Eastern Bay of Islands.

Te Pahi cultivated powerful connections. One of these was to the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, who gifted the medal to Te Pahi to commemorate the chief’s three-month visit to Sydney in 1805-1806. It was the first official state gift given to a Māori chief. It showed the esteem Governor King had for Te Pahi as a trading partner and the mutually beneficial relationship the two men wanted to continue.

Governor King also presented him with a prefabricated brick house, which Te Pahi built on a prominent site at the top of his island pa, Motu Apo, the first permanent ‘European’ house to be built in New Zealand. Tragically, in 1810, whalers attacked Te Pahi’s island, murdering his people and ransacking, looting and burning many of their houses. Te Pahi himself died of his injuries and the medal disappeared, stolen along with other gifts given to the chief by Europeans. 

And so the medal remained lost until 2014 when it was offered for sale by Sotheby’s auction house in Sydney. With my relative and friend, the Ngāti Torehina kaumatua Hugh Rihari, I approached Te Papa to ask if they would consider purchasing the medal for their collections, as the medal’s estimated value of $AUS300,000 put it beyond the reach of our community. Australian-based Māori also protested the sale, and legal documents were prepared to halt it.

The sale went ahead, and the medal was purchased with a joint bid from Te Papa and Auckland War Memorial Museum, the first time both museums had collaborated on an acquisition.

The Te Pahi Medal’s story is about the early partnerships between Māori and Pākehā and the recognition of Māori sovereignty by the Crown before treaty.

It speaks of the strong relationship between two very important leaders based on mutual respect – a relationship of understanding and recognition of each other’s sovereignty of the kind we are still striving toward today.

 

Associate Professor Deidre Brown (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) is based in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries.

How a stolen taonga with a big story came home was published on June 22 2017 on the Newsroom website and is reproduced here with permission.