Extreme Pa Makeover – the Cultural Contact Editions

[Pre-Contact Pa Forms]precontactpa

The adaptation of the war-fighting pa to account for British tactics was complete by the time of the Land Wars in the 1860s.  Kawiti learnt back in the 1840s that combat in the open was a low-value option, and while pa were part of the action before July 1845, none had reached the heights of design as from then on (though Puketutu came tantalisingly close but for a lack of time).

In terms of architecture, more time and consideration has been placed into understanding how the marae and associated buildings have developed as a result of contact.  The makeover of pa as a result of contact – and the most brutal of contact – is not seen as worthy of architectural study, left to the archaeologists and military historians.  But the adaptation of pa to meet new threats and ways of thinking is a rich area of study that we can mine for lessons for today’s architecture.

[Examples of Post-Contact Pa]


It was at Ohaeawai and Ruapekapeka that the modern war fighting pa came into its own, with the architectural response to the contact between cultures coming to the fore.  Old designs had evolved to face the new threats and to play a new role in cultural engagement.  Necessary alterations in functions were reflected in form, but the changes are also recognisable through the place of pa in overall tactics.  Some examples:

  • A shift towards a more formal shape – gone are the organic forms of earlier times that bent with the land, and in its place came pa that tended toward a rectangular form.
  • Layering of outer palisades with flax matting to absorb the impact of musket shot and lighter cannon fire, protecting both the palisade structure and the defenders inside.
  • Adaptation of the defensive ditch to act more as a trench, allowing ease of movement and communication throughout the pa, with zig-zagging of the trench to avoid any risk of enfilading fire.
  • By not bringing the palisade completely to the ground, Maori were able to fire between the ground and the bottom of palisade, the shooter protected within the trench and leaning against the ditch.  With British defences, soldiers had to fire over the top of the walls from unconcealed positions.
  • Development of anti-artillery bunkers connected by tunnels to the trenches.  The traditional buried and roofed kumara pit was armoured with layers of logs and dirt to produce a defensive position safe from all fire apart from a direct hit from the largest of cannons.

These changes resulted in a complex mix of adaptations from both traditional defensive works and British military architecture.  Architects such as Kawiti recognised that what worked before would not work now, and plucked the best from both worlds to form an architecture that was suitable for the new threats.

But the architectural adaptations are not of solely military interest.  They are a response to cultural contact and the shift in identity that results.  The elements borrowed from the British are not straight adoptions, but altered and played with.  Reflection and mimicry show a clear understanding of the ‘other’, but also a desire to appropriate on their own terms.

When the British viewed the more formal shape with the traditional palisade, they probably saw their own stockades in front of them – however, the fire from below the palisade and the ease of movement within the trenches displayed this was not a carbon copy.  Similarly, unable to see behind the palisade the expectation was probably that there would be light structures behind (like the stockade) which could be pounded into submission by cannon – not the heavily fortified pits that could withstand intensive fire.

As Rangihiroa Panoho notes, ‘seeing is not always understanding’.

rangiriripalisadetrench[From Elsdon Best]


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