NEW ZEALAND DISASTERS
SUNDAY 5 AUGUST 1900
THE MOTU TRAGEDY by A van der Wouden
From Historical Review - Bay of Plenty Journal of History - Volume 39 Number 1 May 1991
Death by drowning was a risk run by many of the early travellers before relable ferries and bridges became available. In the absence of a bridge, the traveller, often on horseback, forded streams if the water was not too deep, or swam across the deeper rivers. Many Bay of Plenty rivers could not be forded.
In 1900 there was no school at the small settlement of Maraenui (26 miles east of Opotiki). As the people wanted to have their children educated they sent them to the neighbouring settlement of Omaio, where there was a public school. As Omaio was several miles away across the Motu river, the children stayed across the Motu river, the children stayed with relatives and friends during the week and only came home at weekends.
On Sunday 5 August 1900, 16 children accompanied by an adult man and a woman, left Maraenui to go to Omaio, but never arrived there. It was not until the next day, when some people from Omaio called and enquired why the children had not arrived that it was realised that something was wrong (Bay of Plenty Times 8 August 1900).
On going to the Motu river it was found that the canoe which was used to ferry them across the river had capsized and that all the children, aged between 5 and 13, as well as the two adults, had perished. In one terrible accident, all the school age children of Maraenui, as well as the two adults had lost their lives. Some families lost two members.
There were not witnesses to the accident, but as the clothers of the woman were found on the bank from which the canoe had set out, it was assumed that she had not accompanied the party but jumped in when the canoe capsized and was drowned with the others.
The bodies of the victims were swept out to sea, and a month after the tragedy only six had been recovered, and many never were. The funeral rites for the victims were held as the bodies were found, and continued for a long time. This put considereable strain on the resources of the settlement, as up to 300 people per day had to be provided for. Neighbouring settlements helped out with provisions and the Pakeha population of Opotiki showed their sympathy in a practical way by raising money to buy provisions (Bay of Plenty Times 27 August 1900).
It was not until 1927 that Maraenui got its own school. Ironically, the bridge across the Motu river was completed the same year.
A list of victims of the tragedy taken from the booklet Maraenui School Jubilee 1927-1977.
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