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Waiata were sung, haka performed and blessings offered during a moving ceremony, attended by 110 visitors from Taranaki and about 20 people from Dunedin, most of them Ngai Tahu, yesterday morning.
Ngapari Nui, chairman of the Ngati Ruanui Runanga, a tribal council based in the Hawera area, south Taranaki, was among those who travelled south to take part in the kohatu ("memorial stone") unveiling.
Seventy-four prisoners, known as the Pakakohe group, were 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.
While in Dunedin, the men worked to build important parts of the city's infrastructure, including University of Otago building foundations and parts of the Andersons Bay causeway. Most later returned home, but 18 died, and were buried in unmarked paupers' graves in the Southern Cemetery.
People who died while working in two other Maori prison groups in the city in the 19th century are already commemorated through memorials in the Northern Cemetery and at Andersons Bay.
Otakou runanga chairman Edward Ellison said yesterday's ceremony had marked a "special" event, which at long last had acknowledged the lives and achievements of those who had been unable to return.
Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said it had been a privilege for the city to have taken care of the people from Taranaki in the past and it would also do so in the future. It had been a "wonderful thing" to learn more about them through the memorial project, and he hoped that, from the wounds of the past, positive links could be developed.
Historian Bill Dacker said the group of men from Taranaki won widespread respect from Dunedin people at the time and a party had been held in their honour before they left.