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‘The tī was coffee’: Mangaia relives its café past

Tuesday 25 June 2024 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Memory Lane, Weekend


‘The tī was coffee’: Mangaia relives its café past
T’s coffee ‘are, opened recently in Oneroa, Mangaia, recalling the tī shops of earlier times. SUPPLIED/24062102

If you think sipping lattes is a sign of Ponsonby-style modernity – think again. Mangaia was doing it a century ago, writes Rod Dixon.

From the late 19th century, through to the 1940s, every Mangaian village had their own tī-house – only the tī was coffee. 

As author Edwin Gold, who was a trader on Mangaia and a frequent contributor to the Pacific Islands Monthly in the 1940s and 1950s, explains, “Mangaians had only one word for any kind of hot drink. The tī-house coffee was locally grown and processed. Oddly they called it kāōpe on the tree; it didn’t become tī until it was brewed ... There was nothing under three pence. But look what you got for 3d. A half pint bowl of fragrant local Java sweetened with sugar almost to syrup, the way Mangaians like it. With it came a six-ounce roll of quite good bread. This bread differed not at all from the fluffy rolls of Rarotonga. It was made from imported flour. The light rolls came from the beehive-shaped oven in “pans” of four, the baking pans made from the sides of biscuit tins. A whole “pan” cost a shilling, four rolls in a block.” 

The beehive ovens or umu varāoa were built of corallite or coral cement, and “the bread bakes upon an upper shelf within the hive, with the fire of orange-tree wood in its base. The aperture, after a baking has been introduced with a long ‘peel’ has to be sealed with damp sacks”. The “peel” is the long wooden tool used by bakers to slide bread in and out of the oven. On Mangaia, a canoe paddle substituted.

A beehive oven in Pukumaru, Tava'enga Mangaian formerly Tareke's bakery. 24062502

“In amazingly rapid time, the steaming bread is being ‘peeled’ out again, to make room for the next batch. Bread, white, light and crumbly, from a beehive five feet high ...” And when the bread was ready, generally around 4am in the morning, it was announced from the village tī-shops by the sounding of the pū or great conch shell. “Mangaia’s bread is ready.” 

Back in the tī-shop, “You got a jugful of ‘tī’ then. All you had to do was find the jug! If none, a two-pound bully beef can deputise quite well.”

The coffee was decanted into real china bowls from China. “Such items came from Tahiti to the Group … Butter was the acme of mainland luxury, available only in cans, and only sometimes, (and) at a high price … The communal spoon went the rounds, sugar was shoveled into bowls from a communal supply (contained in a washbowl).”

Meanwhile, “the very latest from the Coconut Radio passed from browsing and sluicing mouth to mouth, unimpeded by coffee and bread.”

In those days, there were no daily newspapers. Instead, there were “ill typed quarto sheets, in English and Māori pasted on the aitikara, an official noticeboard at the beachside Post Office, by the Makoni” – “Makoni” (or Marconi) being the generic name for wireless operators. News was then recycled by word of mouth as it is in coffee shops around the world. In the process, tī-shop owners, like barmen and taxi drivers, became knowledgeable about everyone and everything.

Mangaian baristas (left) Faith and (right) Tuaine Papatua. SUPPLIED/24062103

Gold recalled one Te Makatea village tī-shop owner, named Kake, who, when the local pastor called in for coffee, “was able to assert that there were no Christians in the pastor’s flock. The pastor was shocked. ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’ quoth the pastor. Kake uttered a bitter chuckle. ‘Oh, Orometua,’ he said. ‘When you keep a tī-shop, you don’t have to judge. You know for sure!’”

Mangaian café society was in full swing at a time when few people in New Zealand ever saw coffee, except as a soluble coffee powder known as Strang’s Coffee (New Zealand claims to have invented “instant coffee” in 1899) or the sweetened bottled chicory essence sold throughout the British Empire, known as Camp Coffee (mō‘ina kāōpe). In fact, coffee culture came late to New Zealand – in the 1940s under the influence of American servicemen – whereas Mangaia by the late 19th century, was already a large consumer and exporter of Java, considered the best in the Group.

Tī-shops, however, were not established just to meet the coffee and sugar cravings of Mangaians. They were set up as a form of indigenous resistance to the growing numbers of European trading stores on the island. These stores built up kaio‘u or debt among the islanders, and forced them to repay by supplying coffee beans at reduced prices. In economic terms, Europeans traders were price-setters and the Mangaians were reluctant price-takers.

To reverse this, Mangaians established the tī-shops as co-operative ventures, owned by a ‘kumpani’ of shareholders. As well as providing coffee and fresh bread, the tī-shops sold matches, soap, fishhooks and tinned goods which they traded in kind for coffee and copra. The price of coffee was set by the Mangaian aronga mana (as in the old market house days) and reinforced by the imposition of a ra’ui on coffee harvesting. In this way, the harvesting and sale of coffee was banned until European traders were willing to pay the price set for coffee by the chiefs.

Needless to say, European traders didn’t like the arrangement and protested to colonial authorities – “What a dreadful and un-British affair this power of ra’ui is,” they complained. They were, they said, “tyrannised over by a tea-shop … which has forbidden (ra’ui-ed) anyone, under a money penalty of £5, from selling any coffee to any store under 30 cents per pound … Business has been at a standstill for several weeks. The people have plenty of coffee to pay their debts, and are willing and anxious to do so, as those debts were given to them out of pity … But the Mangaian governors will not allow them to either sell or pay their debts, as they want the produce to go through their own hands”.

A prosperous Oneroa tī-shop manager - Ngatama Numangatini, brother of the ariki John Trego and his wife, Raimate Porotata in 1901. SUPPLIED/24062104

The tī-shop in question was the Mangaian Co-operative, a kumpani of 68 Oneroa shareholders managed by Ngatama Numangatini, brother of John Trego Ariki.

An official investigation confirmed that the ra’ui “had been imposed for the purpose of obtaining an impossible price (30 cents per pound of coffee).” Accordingly, the colonial authorities ruled that “Ra’uis should not be allowed for … any stated price per pound.” Subsequently, the power to declare a ra’ui was removed from traditional leaders and given to Island Councils.

Mangaians simply ignored the colonial law and continued with the traditional ra’ui, now modified to regulate the growing cash economy. New Zealand colonial authorities then contrived to close the tī-shops, as Edwin Gold reported, by imposing “a five-pound license for such little shops, the same license the Trading Act imposed on the CITC with a million pounds in capital.” The tī-shops responded by introducing new lines of goods that rivalled the European stores in local trading. Their economic power was augmented by the formation of village boat kumpanis which set the price for transporting goods over the reef, redistributing their profit among shareholders (the village).

Today, remnants of Mangaia’s coffee industry can be found in the coffee bushes growing wild across the island, providing beans for a small number of enthusiasts willing to search out the plants, shell the coffee cherry – a laborious task – and roast the beans. But for the busy Mangaian, T’s recently opened coffee ‘are, located in the heart of Tava’enga village, equipped with gleaming Breville coffee makers, provides a more convenient way to get that daily caffeine hit.