Key bits of history
TOMORROW marks the day the first person in New Zealand was legally executed under British rule, 171 years ago.
The face of downtown Auckland was markedly different as about 1000 people gathered to watch the hanging of a son of a Maori chief, an event that would become a turning point in New Zealand’s history.
Maketu Wharetotara was found guilty by the Supreme Court a week earlier for murdering several European settlers and a Maori child on a farm in the Bay of Islands.
On the dawn of March 7, 1842, carpenters worked at the corner of Queen and Victoria streets building the gallows that would be used to hang Maketu.
The 17-year-old prisoner was brought out in front of the crowd of mostly white faces at noon.
As the prison bell tolled he was led to the scaffold and hanged, dying almost instantly.
The event is one of 20 critical junctures in New Zealand’s background identified by historian and AUT lecturer Paul Moon in his latest book Turning Points. Dr Moon makes a case for events that he argues changed the course of the nation’s history in a significant way.
Others include women getting the vote in 1893, the 1981 Springbok tour and the Homosexual Law Reform Act of 1986.
The book is not a definitive list of important events but each listing had to result in consequences for society in order to make the grade, Dr Moon says.
‘‘Hillary’s ascent of Everest, for example, isn’t included.
‘‘It was a hugely spectacular event with lots of international media coverage, but it didn’t really change the country at all.
‘‘So it’s not a turning point as such, but more of a punctuation point in our history.’’
British authority was established in 1840, but before the execution of Maketu there were two separate justice systems in operation.
‘‘It was the first time that British law applied to Maori anywhere in the country,’’ he says.
‘‘That’s the turning point. That’s when British law jumped the fence from only applying to settlers in the country to applying to Maori, but at that stage it was only for major offences like murder.’’
The professor of history at the faculty of Maori development at AUT University has more than 20 books under his belt.
He says Turning Points has been years in the making while he sifted through an immense amount of information.
‘‘You can’t just rely on what other books have.
‘‘You have to go to the original documents and that’s what I’ve tried to do as much as possible for this.’’
Dr Moon dredged up information from the national archives, newspaper articles and pamphlets produced by organisations.
Diaries from people who attended the historical hanging helped him set the scene for Maketu’s execution.
He says many people noted the distinct lack of Maori presence at the execution.
‘‘Some people thought there was going to be a revolution, one of their own group getting killed by the colonists.
‘‘On the day very few Maori turned up. But 1000 settlers did.’’
Historian: Paul Moon’s latest book Turning Points looks at events that changed the course of New Zealand history.
Executed: Maketu Wharetotara, 17, was the first person judicially executed in New Zealand.