The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)
Chapter 14: The War at Wanganui…
Chapter 14: The War at Wanganui
THE NEW ZEALAND COMPANY'S settlement at Wanganui—or Petre, as it was officially named in compliment to Lord Petre, one of the directors of the Company—was the most unfortunate of all the colonies planted by the Wakefields. The first settlers under the Company took up their land there in 1841, but the natives very soon disputed their title to many of the sections, declaring that they had never sold the land. “Our case is indeed a hard one,” Dr. Wilson, of Wanganui, wrote in his diary in 1846. “Up to the commencement of our present war state we had waited more than six years for the proprietorship of land here which we paid for in London upwards of seven years ago; but that promised land has never yet been delivered up to us.” When some of the unfortunate settlers, despairing of ever being established in secure occupation of their farm sections outside the Town of Wanganui, applied to the Company for land elsewhere in New Zealand they were informed that only in the Wanganui district had they a claim for land. Those who left Wanganui were compelled to purchase afresh elsewhere, and those who remained presently found themselves compelled to arm for defence against the Maoris with whom they had hoped to live in neighbourly peace. The Company blamed the Government for preventing selection according to the conditions of sale, but Governor Hobson declared that nothing contained in the agreement between the Government and the Company had any such reference to their engagements with private parties, and held that the Company was bound to fulfil the conditions it had entered into for the disposal of their lands. Neither Hobson nor Fitzroy, however, was able to improve the unhappy position. Not until a campaign had been fought and Wanganui relieved from a state of siege, and the troubles adjusted by Governor Grey and Mr. (afterwards Sir Donald) McLean, was the peaceful progress of the district assured.
In 1845 there were not many more than two hundred Europeans in Wanganui; there were about sixty houses. This little outpost of colonization was practically surrounded by Maoris. page 136 The native population along the Wanganui River was estimated in 1846 at four thousand, most of whom were on very friendly terms with the settlers themselves, though they had no love for the New Zealand Company. Living was rough and primitive, but food was abundant; the Maoris of the numerous villages from Wanganui Heads inland plied a diligent canoe-paddle, bringing in their cargoes of pigs, potatoes, kumara, vegetable marrows, and pumpkins for sale by barter. Governor Grey in 1846 investigated the condition of the settlement, and made arrangements for the completion of the purchase of 40,000 acres. Major Richmond, the Superintendent of the Southern District, was deputed to settle the details. It was not until 1848, however, that the sale was finally closed. The area of purchase was increased to 80,000 acres, extending to the Kai-iwi River.
In December of 1846 the frigate “Calliope” and the Government brig “Victoria” brought up from Wellington and landed at Wanganui 180 men of the 58th Regiment, under Captain Laye and Lieutenant Balneavis, four Royal Artillery men with two 12-pounder guns, Lieutenant (afterwards Captain) T. B. Collinson, R.E., and Mr. Tyrone Power, D.A.C.G. These troops set about the work of fortifying the town. The warship also brought up the small gunboat which had been used in the Porirua patrols. Lieutenant Holmes, R.N., was detailed to command the gunboat-crew; with him was a young midshipman of the “Calliope.” On the 16th April, 1847, a minor chief of the Wanganui people, by name Ngarangi, went to the midshipman's quarters to receive payment for some work done. The juvenile officer, by way of a joke, presented a pistol at him; the charge exploded, and Ngarangi received a wound in the head. He was well tended, and soon began to recover. He told his people that the wound was accidental; nevertheless a small party determined to exact utu for the blood-letting, and so precipitate war. Six of them attacked the home of Mr. J. A. Gilfillan, in the Mataraua Valley, severely wounded Gilfillan, and killed his wife and three children with the tomahawk; a daughter of sixteen was wounded. Five of the murderers were captured by a party of friendly natives, under Hone Wiremu Hipango, and four of them were court-martialled in Wanganui and hanged on the Rutland Stockade hill.
The natives attached to the Europeans by ties of friendship or by the teachings of their missionary, Richard Taylor, agreed that the execution of the tomahawk-party was a proper punishment. By far the greater number of the Wanganui warriors, however, resolved to take up arms to avenge the deaths of the four. The execution of Whare-aitu by the military at Paremata in the previous year was also a provocative factor.page 137
The fortification which came to be called the Rutland Stockade was constructed on a sandy hill about 70 feet above the level of the river, near the northern end of the then small settlement of Wanganui. This height, the most commanding ground in the town, was known to the Maoris as Puke-namu (Sandfly Hill). It was the terminal of a gentle ridge which extended westward to the long hill whose forested slopes were given the name of St. John's Wood. The space enclosed by the stockade on the level summit of the hill measured 60 yards by 30 yards. The palisading consisted of rough timbers and whole trees, 9 inches or more in thickness, set closely together, sunk 3 or 4 feet in the sandy soil, and standing 8 feet high above ground. The tops of the logs were pointed; this shed the water off and prevented decay. These uprights were braced by two inner horizontal rails, and loopholes for musket-fire were cut in the stockade all round. The two 12-pounder guns landed by the “Calliope” were mounted in the stockade, one at each end. Within the enclosure were built two strong wooden blockhouses, the first blockhouses with overhanging upper storeys built in the North Island. Upon the plan of these structures were modelled most of the frontier page 138 blockhouses built during the wars of the “sixties.” The larger of the two, designed for the accommodation of eighty soldiers, consisted of two buildings, one 60 feet by 20 feet, on the ground-floor plan, and one, at right angles to it, measuring 20 feet by 20 feet. The smaller blockhouse, with a ground floor of 40 feet by 20 feet, was occupied by twenty soldiers. These blockhouses were of two storeys, the upper floor projecting 3 feet over the lower building. The lower storey was 10 feet high and the upper one 8 feet. The lower walls were built of heavy and thick timbers, proof against all projectiles likely to be used by the Maoris. The main uprights, 6 feet apart, were 12 inches square; the intervening spaces were filled in with horizontal pieces 6 inches square, and the whole was lined inside with 1-inch boards. Smaller scantlings, bullet-proof, were used in the upper storey. The flooring of the upper storey was 2½ inches thick. The projecting part of the upper floor could be raised on hinges between each girder, for musketry fire. Both storeys were loopholed with horizontal slits, 4 feet in length and 6 inches in width, filled in with glass and shuttered outside.
This well-planned and solidly constructed fort, frowning over the little town and inspiring confidence in the settlers, cost between £3,000 and £4,000. For many a year it stood there on Puke-namu Hill, garrisoned by Imperial soldiers until well on toward the end of the “sixties,” and was afterwards used by the Armed Constabulary. When the 57th Regiment arrived the original palisading was replaced by sawn timbers. So well-built were the stockade and the blockhouses that they would have stood to this day, a memorial to the troubled days of Wanganui's infancy, had not an unsentimental municipality demolished them in the “eighties,” greatly to the disgust of patriotic colonists.
On a smaller mound, Patu-puhou (or Patu-puwhao), south-ward of Puke-namu, the military erected another fortification, a stout stockade enclosing barracks. This post was named the York Stockade. The business heart of modern Wanganui occupies the space between these two fortress hills, now converted into public parks.
In May H.M.S. “Inflexible,” a paddle-steamer like the “Driver,” landed at Wanganui the Grenadier Company of the 65th Regiment, a hundred strong, from Auckland. This reinforcement brought the garrison up to a strength sufficient to hold their positions, but insufficient to make any active aggressive move.
This old warrior was prominent in the fighting at the Hutt (1846) and Wanganui (1847). He was the principal chief of the Ngati-Haua-te-Rangi Tribe, of the Upper Wanganui. One of his honorific names was “Te Ika nui o roto o te Kupenga” (“The Great Fish in the Net”). A celebrated tribal proverbial saying in reference to Te Mamaku was: Ka unuunu te puru o Tuhua, ka maringiringi te wai o puta,” meaning, “If you withdraw the plug of Tuhua you will be overwhelmed by the flooding hordes of the north,” in allusion to this chieftain's strategic position, holding the passage of the Upper Wanganui. Te Mamaku died at Tawhata in 1887.
Captain Laye, fearing a night attack on the town, advised all the residents to leave their homes each night and spend the hours of darkness in the partly fortified houses of three of the principal settlers, named Rees, Nixon, and Smith. This practice was observed throughout the investment of the town by the natives.
Next day (19th May) an attack in some force was delivered against the town. The armed Maoris first appeared from the seaward and western sides of the town, and as there were others on the north the settlement was practically invested on all sides but the river. The besiegers were extended in parties along the sandhills, and a large number took up a position on the southern side of Patu-puhou Hill. When the action began a party of fifteen armed civilians held the crown of this hill, but they were soon ordered to retire, and the enemy, sheltered by the ridge from the fire of the Puke-namu stockade, plundered the houses of several residents in the southern part of the town. The houses raided and sacked were those of Messrs. Allison, Campbell, Churton, Deighton, Day, Small, and Wilson. Some of these dwellings, near the riverside, were within short musket-range of the lower stockade (which enclosed the Commercial Hotel on the flat), and the troops in that post, numbering about sixty, opened fire on the raiders. The soldiers were not permitted to leave either of the stockades. Lieutenant Holmes brought his gunboat down the river from her usual anchorage under Shakespeare Cliff and fired several rounds of canister from the bow gun. The chief Maketu—he who had headed the reinforcements for Rangihaeata in the previous year—was mortally wounded, and Tatua, of Ngati-Rangatahi, also fell.
Some arrangements were made by Captain Laye and Lieutenant Holmes for the better defence of the place; a small howitzer was brought down from the Rutland Stockade to the lower fortified post, and the carronade mounted in the gunboat was hoisted on to the deck of the topsail schooner “Governor Grey,” where it would be of greater use, and would enable the naval officer in command to protect vessels and troops arriving.
Governor Grey landed from H.M.S. “Inflexible” on the 24th May; with him came the old hero of the northern war, Tamati page 141 Waka Nene, the Waikato chief Potatau te Wherowhero (afterwards the first Maori King), and several other chiefs from Auckland. The rangatiras accompanied Captain Grey to the friendlies' village at Putiki, where Waka endeavoured to stimulate the missionary party to a decided course of action against the hostiles. Next day the Governor, with over three hundred soldiers (58th and 65th) and a number of armed settlers, made a reconnaissance in force of the ground occupied by the enemy; the limit of the march was a point about three miles above the town. Simultaneously the gun-schooner and two armed boats went up the river covering the military's right flank. A few rockets were thrown in among distant groups of Maoris.
June of 1847 was a month of harassing blockade for the whites cooped up in the narrow limits of Wanganui Town, unable to venture in safety beyond musket-shot of the stockades. One or two skirmishes enlivened the futile weeks. Reinforcements under Lieut.-Colonel McCleverty having arrived from Wellington by the war-steamer “Inflexible” and the frigate “Calliope,” further reconnaissances in force were made up the valley of the Wanganui. The natives' position was six or seven miles above the town; they had fortified temporary pas, and immediately in their rear was the forest, where they could not be followed with any chance of success for British arms. The extremely cautious tactics of the British commander excited the impatience of the civilians, who candidly criticized the careful defensive attitude maintained by the troops. There were between five and six hundred soldiers in the garrison, now outnumbering the Maoris, but their commander, McCleverty, had no intention of attempting any bold movement. The only enterprise displayed was on the part of the armed settlers, who now and then scouted out in small parties to the abandoned farms and drove in such cattle as had not been killed by the raiders.
Even the enemy by this time had been dissatisfied with this inconclusive kind of warfare. The soldiers would not come out and attack them on the ground that suited the native manner of fighting, and they could not touch the soldiers in the stockades. The potato-planting season was approaching, and it would soon be necessary for the warriors to return to their homes up the river and attend to their crops. Before they took to their canoes, however, they resolved to make an attack upon the town with their full force and endeavour to draw the troops out from the forts. This decision produced the most important action in the tedious campaign.
From a sketch by Lieutenant G. H. Page (58th Regt.), 1847]
The Skirmish at St. John's Wood, Wanganui
The first parties were soon in action, and reinforcements were despatched from the stockades, until at last four hundred soldiers were engaged in the skirmishing. In the meantime Lieutenant Holmes and Midshipman Carnegie, of the “Calliope,” manned the river gunboat, and with the 12-pounder carronade and muskets checked a party of Maoris advancing along the right bank of the Wanganui. The Royal Artillery detachment, under Captain Henderson, advanced towards the edge of the swamp with two field-guns, a brass 3-pounder and a 45⅖-inch howitzer, and opened fire. The Colonel now shifted his guns with a view to drawing the enemy down into the open, and the troops in the advance began to retire across the swamp. The Maoris leaped from their cover and followed closely on the troops, some firing, some dashing in with their long-handled tomahawks. The line of withdrawal was along the natural causeway through the swamp. The little rearguard faced about when the foremost of the enemy were within about 15 yards and charged. Several Maoris were bayoneted in the mêlée. Other detachments coming to the help of the rearguard, the further advance of the Maoris was stopped, and the main body of the enemy reoccupied the trenches and breastworks and the slopes of the hill south of the gully. From these positions they continued to fire on the troops so long as the latter were within range. So indecisively ended the day's engagement. The Maoris held their position under musketry and field-gun fire, but they had had a taste of the British bayonet. Two British soldiers were killed, and one died of his wounds. Ten soldiers and one Ngati-Toa Maori were wounded. Of the enemy three were killed and ten or a dozen wounded. The natives carried off and buried the body of one of the soldiers—Private Weller, of the 58th—who was killed in the bayonet charge.
The scene of this action, known in local history as the Battle of St. John's Wood, has been transformed completely. The olden lagoons and rushy swamps have long been drained, ploughed, and planted; part of the battle-ground is now occupied by the buildings of the Wanganui Collegiate School and beautiful homes and gardens. But the contour of the ridge is unaltered, and the gap separating the southernmost hill from the once-wooded land to the right, as one views it from the College grounds, is easily recognized to-day as the pass each side of which was trenched and rifle-pitted.
The 23rd July saw the Maoris' final appearance in force before the town. Some occupied the heights above St. John's Bush and page 144 the fortified hill commanding the pass from the swamp; on this knoll they planted a red flag. From these positions small parties skirmished out on the hills toward Puke-namu stockade and were saluted with a few rounds of shot and shell. Next day there was a general retirement up-river.
Early in 1848 the Governor concluded an amicable arrangement with the lately hostile chiefs. Their rebellion was condoned on condition that the stock driven off from the settlers' farms was restored. A few cattle were returned; the rest had gone into the rebels' stomachs. The settlers whose cattle had disappeared were ordered — with an unconscious humour which did not appeal to the unfortunate farmers—to pay 1s. 6d. per head to the natives who drove back any of their stock and delivered them in the town. The peace now established on the Wanganui River remained unbroken until the first Hauhau War 1864–65.