Kehu - Māori Guide Extraordinaire


Kehu described himself as Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, which was his father Tamane’s tribe, although he was also Ngāti Apa / Ngāi Tahu through his mother Mata Nohinohi.
Tūmatakōkiri dominated the South Island northwest for 200 years. They were finally defeated near the junction of the Grey and Arnold Rivers in about 1810. Tamane was killed there, and Kehu, aged about 12, was enslaved by Ngāi Tahu. When the Tainui Taranaki alliance defeated Ngāi Tahu on the West Coast around 1828-1832, Kehu’s ownership transferred to Ngāti Rarua chiefs, Aperahama Panakenake and Poria Kahuraupo, who settled at Motueka.
On the grass plain below Lake ArthurFox, W. : On the grass plain below Lake Arthur, Alexander Turnbull Library, B-113-014
Click on image to enlarge

Kehu was hired from his chiefs to provide information and act as a guide for New Zealand Company explorers. In 1842 he assisted Thomas Brunner’s survey of Motueka and hinterlands, and later other districts. In February/March 1846 Kehu led Brunner, Charles Heaphy and William Fox through the Rotoiti and Rotoroa districts to the Matakitaki. Heaphy wrote a glowing account of Kehu’s talent as bushman and instinctive navigator, saying he was also:

"A good shot, one who takes care never to miss his bird, a capital manager of a canoe, a sure snarer of wild fowl, and a superb fellow at a ford, is that same E. Kehu; and he is worth his weight in tobacco!" 1

He admired Kehu’s fishing expertise and recounted his methods:

"After supper … he recrossed the river, and, to dispel all feelings of lonesomeness, commenced chanting his Wesleyan missionary service, mixing with the translated version of the ritual special incantations to the taipo of the lake and the river for propitious weather and easy fords, together with request to the eels to bite quickly, and not keep him longer in the cold. Then, as he caught one which would not die quick enough to please him, would he introduce some decidedly uncomplimentary language which he learnt at a whaling station, and again subside into the recitation of his Wesleyan catechism and hymnbook, bringing in our various names in the versification. He did not leave off till long after we were asleep; and in the morning when we awoke, four fine eels were roasting for breakfast, and other four were hanging from an adjacent tree."2

The Mangles grass valley, on the Mangles or Teraumei RiverFox, W. The Mangles grass valley, on the Mangles or Teraumei River, [1846], Alexander Turnbull Library, C-013-006
Click on image to enlarge

Kehu subsequently guided Heaphy and Brunner to identify and map a coastal route from Massacre Bay to the West Coast in 1846. When the party reached Pakawau Pā in western Golden Bay, a further slave was hired from the Te Ātiawa chief, Hemi Kuku Matarua. This slave was Tau of Ngāi Tahu who had killed Kehu’s father more than three decades earlier. Heaphy said “they became merry at the idea of journeying to Kawatiri [Buller] together”.3  The expedition reached the mouth of the Arahura River.

In December 1846 Kehu set out again with Brunner and another Tūmatakōkiri guide, Pikiwati, to follow the Buller to its mouth and explore country to the south; Kehu’s and Pikiwati’s wives accompanied them. The expedition became an epic 18-month struggle of danger, hardship, appalling weather and starvation. When Brunner suffered paralysis on the return journey, Pikiwati and his wife abandoned Brunner, but Kehu and his wife cared for him until he could be moved. The final sentence of Brunner’s journal of the expedition reads:

"… I found my native Ekehu of much use – invaluable indeed, but the other three rather an incumbrance – I could have made better progress without them; but to Kehu I owe my life – he is a faithful and attached servant."4

Kehu’s chiefs granted him a life interest in six acres of their land at Motueka.
Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Heaphy in Nelson Examiner (7.3.1846) ;  Mitchell, H.& J. (2007) Te tau ihu o te waka, volume 2. Wellington, N.Z.: Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatu Incorporation.  p.280
  2. Heaphy in Nelson Examiner  (14.3.1846); Mitchell, p.280
  3. Heaphy, C. (1846) Notes of an expedition to Kawatiri and Araura on the Western Coast of the Middle Island perfomed by Messrs Heaphy and Brunner.  In Nelson Examiner (5.9.1846-17.10.1846); Mitchell, p.281
  4. Brunner, T. (1848, June 15) Journal of an expedition to explore the interior of the Middle Island of New Zealand 1846-1848. In Nelson Examiner ; Mitchell,  p.289

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  • Can anyone tell me the name of Kehu's wife?

    Posted by Kelvin Woodley, 25/09/2020 10:41am (4 years ago)

  • I believe the name Kawatiri ,for the Buller is incorrect ,How do you get the name Kawatiri as a maori word .As there are not many nouns in the Language ,What i see as being correct is that Kahu ,has said Ko Awatiri ,and the Europeans Buller etc have heard it as Kawatiri . . Ed. A number of sources state that the Maori name for the Buller was Kawatiri - meaning deep and swift

    Posted by Neville Reilly, 24/09/2019 1:04pm (5 years ago)

  • Kehu was utterly superb

    Posted by Jakob Poulsen, 26/04/2019 3:53pm (5 years ago)

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