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First Taranaki War

The Taranaki War

March 1860 - March 1861

Taranaki Province[?] is a large peninsula[?] on the west coast of the North Island on New Zealand, closer to Wellington than it is to Auckland. At the time of the conflict the main settlement was a New Plymouth and much of the fighting took place within 25km of the town.

The immediate and most obvious cause of the war was the disputed sale of some 600 acres, 250 hectares, of land at Waitara[?]. A minor chief of the Te Atiaswa Tribe[?] offered to sell the land to the British. However the sale was vetoed by the paramount chief of the tribe, Wiremu Kingi[?]. Despite knowing this Governor of the Colony, Thomas Gore Browne[?], accepted the purchase and tried to occupy the land.

The real issue was sovereignty. The Treaty of Waitangi had given the Maori Chiefs and the British Government equal sovereignty over the land of New Zealand. By 1860 it was tacitly recognized that British Law prevailed in the settlements and Maori Custom elsewhere. The British had accepted this situation for twenty years but were finding it increasingly irksome. The European settlers now outnumbered the Maori whose population was declining due to disease and low birth rates. They were convinced that the British system represented the best that civilization had to offer and saw it as both their duty and their right to impose it on other peoples.

However in the twenty years since the signing of the Treaty the Maori had made significant political advances. They had moved from being a collection of independent tribes to an effective confederation. This was called the King Movement[?] and was largely centred on the Waikato region but had influence over large areas of the North Island. One of the uniting principles of the King Movement was their opposition to the sale Maori land and the concomitant spread of British sovereignty.

In March, 1860 Governor Browne ordered the militia commanded by Colonel Gold to occupy the disputed block of land at Waitara. In response Wiremu Kingi with about eighty men hastily built a Pa or defensive strong point on the land and refused to evacuate it.

The resulting action in many ways illustrates the military distance between the two sides. The British had nearly 500 men who were able to approach very close to the Pa and fire freely. They also had two 24-pound howitzers that between them fired 200 shells into the Pa. Despite all this firepower the Maoris suffered no casualties and abandoned the Pa that night leaving the British with nothing.

The Pa was small, it had been built by eighty men in an single night, but its dug out bunkers and covered trenches had protected the occupants from the heavy fire of the British troops. It was situated so that it was difficult to surround completely, it was easily made, very effective and completely expendable. With pa like this the Maori were able to neutralize the military superiority of the British and they were used effectively throughout the campaign.

At Waitara the British knew they had been defeated or at least thwarted. Their objective had been a decisive battle that would destroy the opposition and this had been denied them. It is perhaps an indication of the quality of the British leadership that Colonel Gold was unable to recognize the bunkers as bomb-proof shelters. He described the interior of the pa as "curiously hollowed out" Within a few days Maori war parties began plundering the farms south of New Plymouth, killing a few of the settlers who had not taken refuge in the town. Fearing an attack on New Plymouth was imminent the British withdrew from Waitara and concentrated around the town.

The Battle of Waireka, March 28th, 1860.

Hearing that some settlers were trapped by the rebellious Maori at Omata, south of New Plymouth, a British force of some 300 men set off in two columns to rescue them, one inland and the other along the beach.

What actually happened during that day depends upon the historian you read. It appears that the larger, inland party which consisted mainly of professional soldiers encountered heavy sniping from the bush surrounding them. They were effectively pinned down all day and retired to New Plymouth at dusk. As they returned they encountered a party of sailors who pushed on to a nearby Pa which they promptly stormed. Since they suffered only four casualties it seems probable that the Pa was largely undefended. However they returned to New Plymouth claiming a great victory. Meanwhile the column marching up the beach, composed largely of inexperienced settlers were in trouble. Trapped by the rising tide, surrounded by actively hostile Maori and running short of ammunition; the militia had been issued with only 18 rounds to last all day, and then they realised they had been abandoned by the professional soldiers. The retreated to a farmhouse and were preparing for hand to hand fighting, a last stand scenario, when the shooting of the sailors storming the Pa was heard. The attacking Maori immediately broke off the fight, the tide went down and the militia, no doubt greatly relieved, went home.

The action that day created heroes, villains and cowards in abundance. The settlers in New Plymouth felt besieged and they needed a victory. So it was reported in the press as a victory, the estimates of the number of Maori killed ranged from two to one hundred and fifty; the phrase "cart loads of bodies" was widely used. The Army were condemned as cowards for abandoning the smaller column. The Sailors were seen as the heroes of the day and their part was written up large. The men of the Settlers column were told that their dangers had been imaginary. And so on, truth was not in the picture. All that can be said with certainty is that several hundred men spent an afternoon shooting at each other, a few were killed and some wounded.

One of the combatants was Harry Atkinson[?] who went on to become Prime Minister of New Zealand.

The King Movement Intervenes.

The British Settlers saw the King Movement as a direct challenge to the Queen, Victoria, and themselves. In a way they were right although they perceived the Movement as being far more aggressively anti-British than it probably was, as a direct affront to colonial authority. because they were confident of victory in Taranaki they were hoping that the Kingites would become involved and thereby learn the futility of resisting the British. The Governor on the other hand feared that if the Kingites did get into the war their first move would be to attack Auckland.

After Waireka hostilities were suspended for two months while both sides approached King Potatou in the Waikato. he appears to have come down on the side of the Taranaki Maori but stopped short of a total commitment. When Wiremu Kingi returned to Taranaki he was accompanied by a Kingite war party. Kingi was too astute a strategist to let such an opportunity pass. Be wanted a battle with the British but he wanted it on his terms; he knew he was still outnumbered and out-gunned.

Early in June, 1860 he began building a Pa which was only a mile away from the British base at Waitara. This was both a military threat and was seen as extreme provocation. The British forces had been severely criticised for their inaction, the press and the settlers had come to realize that the Battle of Waireka had not in any way been the substantiative British victory it was claimed to be. The appearance of a hostile Pa so close to their own base could not be ignored.

Then on June 23rd a British patrol was fired upon from the Pa. Colonel Gold immediately authorized and attack and on JUne 27th the garrison marched out, 350 elite troops and two howitzers. They were opposed by less than two hundred Maori.

The Maori had occupied two small hills lying between some swampy ground. Only one of the hills, Onekukaitara appeared to be fortified. The other hill, Puketakuere, which eventually gave its name to the battle appeared to be unoccupied and completely undefended. The British divided their forces into three groups and planned to surround the two hills. A group of 125 men commanded by Captain Messenger had the hardest task, to march around the back of the Maori and occupy Puketakauere in order to cut off the Maori retreat. they had a difficult march and were exhausted when they got into position, just as the action was beginning.

The howitzers began their bombardment and soon made a breach in the stockade on Onekukaitara Hill. The British commander ordered an immediate attack.

And the whole plan went disastrously wrong. There were very few Maori inside the Pa. Most of them were in deep trenches and rifle pits in front of it. When the British advanced on the stockade they entered the killing ground and faced " a most destructive fire" There was a pause while the British went to ground during which the remainder of the Maori emerged from the Pa and joined the battle. The British could make no progress, even holding their position was costing them casualties. Soon they were in danger of being out flanked. They began to retreat and continued retreating until they were all the way back in their base at Waitara. What was particularly shameful about this retreat was that the wounded were abandoned.

Meanwhile Captain Messenger was attempting to approach the battle from the rear over Puketakauere Hill. Contrary to appearances the hill was heavily trenched and the Maori were waiting for them. What happened subsequently is unclear but fully a third of the men died before they reached Camp Waitara.

The abandoned wounded were all killed by the Maori; altogether the British lost over a hundred men killed. They claimed to have themselves killed between 130 and 150 of the enemy but within a few days it became clear that the Maori had lost only five dead. The Battle of Puketakauere ranks with the Battle of Ohaeawai, First Maori War as one of the worst defeats suffered by the British troops in New Zealand.

What happened? What went wrong?

Basically the Maori out-thought, out-planned and then out-fought the British. The British were over-confident but given their superior numbers, about two to one and their heavy guns they had every reason to be confident. Given also what they could see of the battlefield their plan was good one. But a good British commander was opposed by a brilliant Maori tactician. The Pa was an obvious target, the British could not afford to ignore it. But it was a cruel hoax. The real battle for them only began when they thought they had already won and merely had to mop up the demoralized defenders. Instead they died in large numbers.

The consequences of the defeat at Puketakauere were predictable. An attack on New Plymouth was feared or even a general Maori uprising. Incredibly the politicians instructions to military command remained unchanged—to bring the rebellious Maori to bay and force them into a decisive battle. They were confident that this was all that was needed to teach them the futility of opposing the British Army and spread of European settlers across the land. The Maori on the other hand, also knew that they would be no match for the British in open battle and they had no intention of allowing it to happen.

The next few months were very difficult for the British. New Plymouth was grossly over crowded with refugee settlers and disease was spreading. The military were being abused for their inaction and they couldn't find any Maoris to kill. It was planting season. Unlike their enemies the Maoris were only part time warriors; after a few weeks in the field, many of them necessarily had to return to their home base and attend to the business of living, matters like planting food crops.

There were a couple of small skirmishes in September and October which did nothing to change the situation. Then in early November the British surprised and drove off a small force of Maori who were in the process of building a Pa. Even this small victory did nothing to change the stalemate. The military were beginning to realise that their objective was unobtainable; the Maori were never going to face them across an open battlefield. The British had discovered to their cost the folly of attacking a strongly defended Pa. Weaker Pa were abandoned as soon as they were seriously threatened. But in order to credible each threat involved mounting a major expedition .

New tactics were required. The British response was sapping, a technique as old as siege warfare. It meant starting from a safe distance and digging a trench towards the Pa in such a manner that the sappers were protected from enemy fire. As a technique it worked. The Maori were forced to abandon two strongly held Pa without a costly frontal assault. On the other hand it took an enormous effort on the British part.

In fact at one stage the Maori were provoked into making a frontal assault on one of the British redoubts protecting the trench lines. They were repulsed with heavy losses. It seems that they felt they had a choice of dying from bullets or dying from boredom.

In mid February, 1861, the British began operations against a major Maori defensive line at Te Arei. They were making slow progress but could see the Maori building further defences behind the ones under attack. Then Wiremu Tamehana arrived on the scene. He was one of the architects of the King Movement and had enormous mana or prestige. He tried to persuade both sides to accept a cease fire based on the status quo. The combatant Maori chiefs were willing but the British military, feeling that they had a winning strategy rejected the terms. After a brief cease fire fighting resumed. Then Governor Browne intervened and the cease fire came fully into effect on March 18th.

This was the end of the Taranaki War but it only postponed the confrontation between the British and the Maori King Movement.

The original cause of the war, the sale of the Waitara Block was to be investigated, by now many of the British had their doubts about the legality of the sale. Furthermore the Maori seized a block of 4000 acres, 1600 hectares, which they held hostage for several years. Eventually the Waitara Block was handed back to the Maori.

Overall the Taranaki War was a Maori success. They demonstrated to the British they they did not, yet, have the military strength to impose their will on the Maori and that they could not impose British Law beyond the recognized boundaries.

On the other hand the economic and social costs of the wear had been very hard on both sides. The settlers had the population and the economic base from which to begin their recovery almost immediately. The Maori population no longer had that resilience.

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