I finished my walk in bright sunshine at the Rongo Stone Memorial located on a large grass verge of road connecting the city’s harbour to the Otago Peninsula. The stone named Rongo is from Taranaki which commemorates the Māori prisoners transported to Dunedin between 1869 and 1879.
As I read the inscriptions after visiting the nearby caves, I remember the stories I had heard as a child. Growing up my understanding was that Māori prisoners were held inside at night while building the road to the harbour during the day. This was in fact not true. The caves were used for storage while the groups of men sent down from Taranaki were prisoners who had supported an uprising against the Crown over unjust land confiscation in the 1870’s.
The 74 prisoners were originally sentenced to death for high treason, but had their sentences commuted to imprisonment and hard labour and transported to Dunedin. Over the 25 months they spent in Dunedin, 18 men died, mostly from illness caused by the damp prison conditions and the sleeping arrangements.
Ten years later at Parihaka in the Taranaki, following another confrontation between government officials and local iwi, more arrests were made and a further 200 prisoners were sent to Dunedin, sentenced to hard labour.
The men from Taranaki ended up making significant contributions to Dunedin’s transport network as they cut through stone and hill to make a connection between Maitland Street and Princes Street and built portions of the main road from Dunedin to Port Chalmers. In the sunshine as I reflected on some of the shameful acts in New Zealand’s history, I was glad I knew the truth.