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James or Hemi

Arrived: 1830's
Country of origin:
Area in New Zealand: Ohinemutu
Source: Paperspast; Evening Post 11 June 1910

Details: Hemi's Powder mine.


LEGENDS OF THE LAKES. (Specially written for the Evening Post.) By J. Cowan. (All Rights Reserved.) No. 111. HEMI'S POWDER-MINE. Away back in the old cannibal Maori days at Rotorua a stray white man "floated" what was no doubt the first "wild-cat." mine in New Zealand. At the south-west side of the Government Reserve on the slopes of Pukeroa Hill — the bill on which the fortified town of the Ngati-Whakaue tribe once stood — and near the residence of Mr. Webber, the Rotorua schoolmaster, there is to be seen a large circular pit, or "rua," now mostly filled in and overgrown with, manuka and other brushwood. This hole would be taken by most observers for an old kumara or potato pit, or something of that kind, but it has a very different origin, and a story there is thereto It was once a gunpowder mine, no less ! Rotorua Hororiri, the old historian and genealogist of the Ngati-Whakaue, tells me the curious story of this rua, which, he says, was called "Te-Rua-o-te- Ranui" ("Ranui's Pit").

Long ago, some time after the capture of Mokoia Island (in 1823), but before To Tumu fight (1836), there was a European trader named Hemi (James) living at Ohinemutu. He picked up some pieces of rock about here which, seemed to him to be gold-bearing stones, and in this particular place where the rua now is, he apparently expected to find a reef of the metal he so much, desired. He began to sink a hole there, but presently he hit upon a scheme which would dig his shaft for him without any labour on his part. The Maoris in those days were anxious above all things to procure guns and gunpowder. They had a few guns, but it was very difficult to procure gunpowder, which was only to be got from the few traders on the coast. Hemi gave out that he had found gunpowder in this rua of his, and he showed the natives a dark red earth which he assured them was the gunpowder of the soil ("te paiira o te whenua"). To show them that it was the real thing, he loaded several muskets with it, and fired them, but the Maoris afterwards came to the conclusion that he had all the time a quantity of real gunpowder in his pockets, and had used this, only throwing in a quantity of one-one-whero (red sand) after the powder charge, to make believe that it was the earth-powder that he was using. For a long time, however, the trick was undiscovered, and there was huge excitement in the pa when this magnificent find of a new powder all ready to hand was reported. A partly of men set to work with furious energy, digging away at the rua, hunting for powder with as much feverish eagerness as was ever displayed by pakeha gold-diggers on a new rush. Hemi was a great man, and the chiefs of the tribe promised him all kinds of Maori ta-onga, or treasure, and an unlimited supply of wives. The news of a rich paura find was noised far and wide, and even reached the ears of Potatau Ter Wherowhero, the great warrior chief of the Waikato. He came down to Rotorua with a large party of his tribe, and connections, the Ngati-Mahuta. His idea was to investigate the reports of a powder mine at Pukeroa, and if possible to seize the place for himself later on. But the Ngati-Whakaue made him virtually a prisoner, and detained him at Rotorua for some time; he and his men were at last allowed by the Rotorua chief Korokai to return to Waikato.

There was huge disappointment amongst the Arawa when it was discovered that the precious rua yielded no more powder, and they ceased their digging in great disgust. What explanation Hemi, the white deceiver, offered is not remembered, but no doubt he had a narrow escape of losing his head when his "tinihanga," as the Maoris phrase it, was discovered. Anyhow, the Ngati- Whakaue Maoris vented their feelings by composing a song about Hemi and his "wild-cat" powder mine, which they chanted as an accompaniment to a haka of derision