Dunedin Caves

There is controversy over whether the Dunedin Caves were used to house Maori prisoners as Maori supremacists claim – you be the judge.


... according to Dunedin art historian and writer Peter Entwisle, all three doors should be celebrated for their links to the past.

He told the Otago Daily Times the doors opened into caves he believed were built as powder stores for large public works projects in the 1860s-70s.

The caves either side of the Andersons Bay inlet were said to store explosives during the construction of the causeway bridging the inlet in the 1870s, he said.

Mr Entwisle said the cave, after being built to store explosives during the blasting of Bell Hill, was later converted into an air-raid shelter - one of several in the central city - during World War 2.

Along the waterfront from the cave-turned-bomb shelter, the door at Vauxhall opened into a cave also used for storing explosives during the causeway's construction, he said.

Perhaps the best known of the three doors lay on the opposite side of the inlet, leading into the cliff beside Shore St. It, too, opened into a cave, but also reopened a simmering debate between historians - stretching back to the 1980s - over what really took place inside.

That was because of the area's links to Maori prisoners taken from Taranaki and forced to labour in Dunedin between 1869 and 1881.

The Maori prisoners came in waves, with the first group of 74 - known as the Pakakohe group - sent to Dunedin in 1869 after Titokowaru's War, an armed dispute in the mid-to-late 1860s, sparked by land confiscations in south Taranaki.

Historian Bill Dacker, of Dunedin and Beaumont, said it was this first group that was put to work helping build the Andersons Bay causeway and road, with Pakeha convicts also used on the project.

The Maori prisoners also worked on other city projects, including the Dunedin Botanic Garden's stone walls and the city road eventually named after them - Maori Rd.

They were eventually followed by 137 of Te Whiti's "ploughmen", also from Taranaki, who were detained without trial after peacefully resisting European occupation of confiscated land and brought to Dunedin in 1878-79.

The prisoners were held at Dunedin prison and transported to work sites, but 21 died during their time in Dunedin and were buried in unmarked paupers' graves in the Northern Cemetery.

The death toll included 18 of the 74 prisoners put to work at Andersons Bay, which was "a very significant casualty rate in anyone's army", Mr Dacker said.

However, more than a century on from the prisoners' release, Mr Dacker and Otakau runanga chairman Edward Ellison remained at odds with fellow historian Ian Church over the story behind the cave and its door.

Mr Ellison said oral accounts passed down through his family told of the prisoners being "housed from time to time inside that cave". "I don't think it was overnight - we don't know - but it was utilised anyway by those prisoners and the guards. "We believe they might have been put in there in inclement weather, or lunchtime, or whatever ... they weren't just crammed in there and the door shut for two weeks."

However, more extreme stories circulating in Taranaki about the treatment of the prisoners inside the cave in Dunedin had grown over the years to be "bigger than tarzan", he said.

Those stories were "not quite correct", but reflected the "extreme emotion" surrounding the site for descendants. "So there's been efforts to try and modify, or help them understand, what the cave was used for."

It was not clear when the cave fell into disuse, but it had been overgrown and hidden from sight for many years, he said. Mr Dacker, who has written extensively about Maori history in Otago, was among those who helped uncover the cave.

No records had been uncovered showing why the cave was built, but it was believed it had been constructed for storing explosives, he said.

"But what is clear is it did become a cell."

Mr Dacker was among those to have entered it - one of five trips he has made inside. He described a small corridor behind the solid door, leading into the cliff and then opening into a single chamber.

A bench running along one wall had been carved from the stone inside the chamber, as had nooks to hold candles around the room.

A breathing pipe ran under the heavy iron door to the outside world, and a circular cubicle had also been carved into one corner of the chamber.

In the centre of the cubicle was a large iron stake "firmly embedded in the stone". It was, according to Mr Dacker, "like a prison cell inside".

"You go into that places and it sort of breathes. Everything about it says that this is a prison cell," he said.

However, Mr Church said his studies showed the stories of the cave's use by prisoners lacked one thing – EVIDENCE.

Historic accounts showed the prisoners were housed at dunedin prison and transported to and from the site each day, and there was no evidence the cave ever housed prisoners.

The Waitangi Tribunal had also addressed the issue in the past, concluding There was "no evidence either for or against" the use of the cave as a prison, and Mr Ellison's oral history accounts were "hearsay" and "pretty vague".....



Bill Dacker (historian) says as follows:

....Again I would like the following facts to be clearly stated: There were four groups of Maori political prisoners held in Dunedin in the 19th century.

They were all held mostly in the Dunedin prison of the day, which was brutal in the sense that all 19th century prisons were brutal.

The first group arrived in 1869 and left in 1872.

These were the men of Pakakohe, a hapu of Ngati Ruanui of South Taranaki, the district of present day Patea.

Their stay was the longest and their suffering the greatest, as 18 died. These were the prisoners who built at least half of the Andersons Bay causeway and who were associated with the caves there.

They worked on roads and other infrastructure projects in the city itself.

They were held in the Dunedin Prison when not working; the caves probably only used as a sort of worksite office/prison during the building of the causeway.

The second, a group of four, were from the east coast of the North Island. Little is known about them except they were held here between the times of the larger Taranaki groups.

They were all released.

The third were the Parihaka ploughmen, followers of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi of Parihaka. They were a part of an attempt, which began at Opunake, to resist the unjust confiscations of land through civil disobedience.

The first arrived in 1879 and the last left in 1881.

These men were also mostly held in the prison though some spent periods in a prison hulk (a boat converted into a floating prison) when they worked on the walls retaining roads around the harbour.

Three of these men died.

For at least one of these prisoners, and most likely as many as three or four, this was their second period of unjust incarceration in Dunedin, for many Maori from South Taranaki were drawn to Parihaka to support the efforts of Te Whiti and Tohu.

Finally, there was Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi themselves.

In the winter of 1882, they were held for a couple of weeks in the Universal Hotel in Central Dunedin during their banishment in the South as the Government persisted in trying to crush their movement of passive resistance.



The Dunedin Gaol was only 2km away from the caves..so they housed exactly NOBODY.

The caves were built by maori prisoners from Tikowaru's war in 1871-2 and also Pakeha prisoners. They were used to store blasting powder for the construction of the Andersons Bay causway, and the road to Portobello. (in the absence of diggers in 1871 they used to blow shit up)...

But ..heres the thing about logic. If the road and causeway were built in 1871-2 why would they house Parihaka prisoners there to work on it?? When Parihaka didn't occur until 10 years later (Nov 5th 1881).

Now, here's what Adam Scott the warder at the Dunedin Gaol used to say to the Parihaka prisoners (who worked on the Dunedin Botanic gardens and also removing part of a hill near the octagon. "if you are not back at the gaol by 6pm then you will all be locked OUT"...they were never late for their hot meal and dry bed.(REF: The Travesty of Waitangi.Stuart C Scott 1995.)
By D J



Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull paid almost $4000 of ratepayer money on a set of supposedly historic legirons, which it now appears were used to shackle camels.

Cull brokered the withdrawal of the hand-forged leg-irons from a public auction in the city earlier this year. It followed a public outcry over the auction as it was believed the shackles may have been used on Maori political prisoners brought to Dunedin to do hard labour in the late 1800s.

Vendor Steve McCormack told auctioneer Kevin Hayward of Hayward’s Auction House that in the 1970s he and his brother hacksawed the shackles out of a harbourside cave on Portobello Rd.

The cave was believed to be one of several used to shelter Maori political prisoners from Taranaki’s Parihaka village and surrounding villages sentenced to hard labour on the construction of Dunedin’s Portobello Rd in the 19th century.

But further investigations suggest the leg-irons most likely shackled camels in the Middle East in the 20th century and could have been brought back to Dunedin by a returning serviceman.

A report by Toitu Otago Settlers Museum has concluded McCormack’s recollections of where, when and how he removed the leg-irons from the caves ‘‘do not stack up’’ against historical records, and were ‘‘increasingly doubtful’’.

Findings from interviews carried out during the investigation showed the leg-irons were made in the early20th century and that the cave where McCormack said he found them was used as a powder magazine storage facility and then for other types of storage, the report said.

The cave never housed the Maori prisoners, it said.

‘‘Simply put [McCormack’s] account is not credible,’’ wrote Sean Brosnahan, one of the museum’s curators who carried out the research....



Parihaka spokesperson Ruakere Hond says while analysis of the manacles showed they were made later and probably to restrain camels, the incident did focus attention on events that are still remembered in Taranaki and Otepoti.....