“A Place Of The Basket Of Heads”

Today, locals and Christchurch visitors can take the pleasant ride up to the top of Mount Cavendish on the Christchurch Gondola.  The reward is to be able to look out over the patchwork of the greens and browns of the Canterbury Plains and view its capital: Christchurch…New Zealand’s unbreakable garden city.  If you are still in the need to be impressed, the opposite view of Lyttelton Harbour and Banks Peninsula will certainly do the job.  It is a grand reminder that the Canterbury is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.

What most fail to know concerns the bloody history that took place under their very feet around 300 years earlier.  Before the Canterbury Association honoured one of its members – the Hon. Richard Cavendish – with naming the bay of Port Victoria (Port Lyttelton) and its mountain after him in 1848, the bay was known as ‘Whanga-raupo’ and the mountain ‘Oteteupoko’.  Now Whanga-raupo is an innocent enough of a name, meaning ‘bay of raupo reeds’ whereas Oteteupoko means ‘a place of the basket of heads’.

Around 300 years ago, elder Ngai Tahu warrior Te Rangi-whakaputa lead a huge war party against the Ngati Mamoe, the then current iwi of Canterbury.  One by one, they sacked the settlements of Te Pataka o Rakaihautū (Banks Peninsula) and took ownership of the land by the spilling of Ngati Mamoe blood.  As Te Rangi-whakaputa’s war wakas sailed into Whanga-raupo (Port of Lyttelton) they cornered a pocket of the Ngati Mamoe on the beach there.  A bloody battle followed where all the Ngati Mamoe were slaughtered.

To make sure the remaining Ngati Mamoe understood the message that the Ngai Tahu were the new bosses in town, Te Rangi-whakaputa cut off a few of the dead warriors heads and placed them in a flax basket.  He carried them up to the top of Mount Cavendish and placed them on the highest mount.  Here he made them an offering to the Ngai Tahu’s god of war.  As he towered over the bay that would become the port of Lyttelton, he said his offering was ‘he kai mo t era, mo te manu’ – food for the sun and for the birds.

These Maori names and even the term Mount Cavendish seems lost to this current generation.  I was one of them.  I had to ring the Christchurch Gondola to ask the name of the hill that they were on.  When the Gondola first opened in 1992, it was named the Mount Cavendish Gondola but people were so confused by the name that it was renamed to Christchurch Gondola.  It seemed many people had no idea where Mt Cavendish was – a shame really.  The name isn’t even on maps today.

In 1910, the mountain was in the ownership of the Morten family.  They gifted it to the people of Christchurch under the Summit Road Project headed by Harry Ell. To honour this gift, the land was renamed Hill Morten, but the name never stuck…well, not there anyway.  Today, the Morten family is remembered the in the naming of the suburb of Hillmorten and feature in the history of Mt Pleasant also.

*image of Maori Pa courtesy of http://www.treatyofwaitangi.net.nz*
*image of Mt Cavendish courtesy of http://don-donovan.blogspot.co.nz*
*image of Lyttelton Harbour courtesy of http://gringokiwi.blogspot.co.nz/*

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