The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)
Chapter 19: The Battle of Waireka
Chapter 19: The Battle of Waireka
THE GULLY-RIVEN littoral of Waireka, five miles south-west of New Plymouth, was the theatre of an engagement (28th March, 1860) which proved the fighting-capacity of Taranaki's newly trained Volunteers and Militia, and saved the town from direct attack by the united strength of the southern tribes. The encounter was doubly memorable because it was the first occasion on which a British Volunteer corps engaged an enemy on the battlefield.
The British move upon the Waitara was quickly followed by the decision of Taranaki, Ngati-Ruanui, and Nga-Rauru, the three principal tribes of the coast curving round from Ngamotu to the Waitotara, to come to Wiremu's Kingi's aid. Ten days after the taking of the L pa five hundred warriors of these people, the best fighting-blood on the whole west coast south of New Plymouth, had arrived within six miles of the town. After ceremonious welcomes at Ratapihipihi and other settlements they gathered in a strongly entrenched and stockaded pa at Kaipopo, the most commanding part of the hills at Waireka. The fortification was alongside the road from Omata, and about a mile and a half south of the stockade commanding that settlement; the surf-beaten shore was less than three-quarters of a mile away. The district was already partially settled by Europeans, and farmhouses were scattered over the much-dissected coastland between the ranges and the sea. Clear streams, rock-bedded, coursed down through the numerous narrow wooded valleys. One of these was the Waireka (“Sweet Water”); it was joined just at the beach by a smaller hill-brook, the Waireka-iti. This broken terrain, with its spurs, knolls, and ravines giving abundance of cover, was an admirable country for the Maori's skirmishing tactics. The natives who composed the fighting force on this side of New Plymouth were chiefly Taranaki, composed of Ngamahanga, Patukai, Ngati-Haumia, Ngarangi, and other hapus, under Kingi Parengarenga (afterwards killed at Sentry Hill), Hori Kingi, the celebrated Wiremu Kingi te Matakaatea (not to be confused with page 172 Wiremu Kingi te Rangitaake, of Waitara), and Arama Karaka. A war-party of Ngati-Ruanui, chiefly the Ngaruahine hapu of the Waimate Plains, arrived just in time for the battle; their principal rangatira was Te Hanataua. The men were armed with double-barrel shot-guns, and were well supplied with powder and lead; several carried rifles.
On the 27th the first blood was shed in the Omata district. Two farmers (S. Shaw and H. Passmore) and a New Plymouth business man (Samuel Ford) were shot and tomahawked by ambush-parties on the roadside near the Primitive Methodist Chapel; next day the bodies of two boys (Pote and Parker), similarly killed, were found. On the morning of the 28th, when New Plymouth was in a state of intense excitement over the news of these murders, the military authorities decided to despatch an expedition to Omata for the purpose of rescuing the Rev. H. H. Brown and his family, and several other settlers who had remained on their farms. The chiefs, however, had made proclamation that Mr. Brown would be protected, and a notice in Maori was posted at Omata declaring that the road to his place and to his neighbours' must not be trodden by war-parties. The minister was tapu because of his sacred office; as for the others enumerated, one settler was Portuguese and one French; the war was only with the British. The force detailed for the expedition consisted of three officers and twenty-five men of the Royal Navy (H.M.S. “Niger”), four officers and eighty-four rank and file of the 65th Regiment, with 103 officers and men of the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers and fifty-six Taranaki Militia. Lieut.-Colonel Murray was in command. Lieutenant Blake was in charge of the bluejackets (who were to be followed, if necessary, by a larger force from the “Niger”). The colonial force was under the command of Captain Charles Brown, who had with him the following officers: Militia—Captain and Adjutant Stapp, Lieutenants McKechney and McKellar, Ensign W. B. Messenger; Volunteers—Captain Harry A. Atkinson, Lieutenants Hirst, Hamerton, Webster, and Jonas.
Sir Harry Atkinson, Major, N.Z.M.
Captain Harry Atkinson commanded No. 2 Company, Taranaki Rifle Volunteers, in the Battle of Waireka. He fought at Mahoetahi and in many other engagements, and commanded a company of Bush Rangers, 1863–64. He was promoted to be Major in 1864. He was Premier of New Zealand, 1876–77, 1883–84, and 1887–91; was knighted in 1888, and was Speaker of the Legislative Council when he died in Wellington in 1892.
Murray did not meet with any opposition at the “Whalers' Gate,” where there was no trace of Maoris. He moved leisurely along the south road until, near the Omata stockade, the sound of rapid firing about two miles off, near the sea, indicated that the civilian force was hotly engaged. He despatched the naval detachment and some of the 65th, under Lieutenant Urquhart, to Brown's assistance, while he took the main body along the road and down a lane which turned off on the right to the sea. Some distance down the lane he turned into a grass paddock, entrenched his men, and opened fire on the Maori skirmishers at long range. He had a rocket-tube, and fired some rockets into a wooded gully page 174 on his left front, up which some of the Maoris were moving to cut him off from the main road, as he thought. Accordingly he took up a position in the lane so as to secure the main road, and confined himself to firing rockets at the distant pa and any groups of Maoris observed, and rifle-fire on the native skirmishers over the spurs and in the ravines, until he considered it time to sound the “Retire.”
Meanwhile the Volunteers and the Militia were fighting a desperate battle on the slopes above the beach. Captain Brown, who had not had any previous experience of soldiering, had wisely requested his adjutant, Captain Stapp, to take command, and that veteran of the “Black Cuffs” conducted the afternoon's operations with the coolness characteristic of the well-skilled regular soldier. He had an old comrade with him who put good stiffening into the civilian ranks, Colour-Sergeant (afterwards Lieutenant) W. H. Free; both had been corporals in the 58th in Heke's War. The Volunteers were armed with medium Enfield rifles (muzzle-loading), the Militia had the old smooth-bore muskets (percussion cap), such as were first served out in the late “forties.” Of ammunition there were only thirty rounds per man; no reserve supply was brought.
The late Mr. Hursthouse, who was Captain in the New Zealand Militia, carried out pioneer survey-work in Taranaki and the King Country under adventurous conditions. In 1860, at the age of nineteen, he surveyed the disputed Pekapeka Block, Waitara. He served in the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers at Waireka and Mahoetahi and in numerous other engagements and skirmishes, and later was an officer in the Military Settlers Force and Volunteer Militia Scouts. He became Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges for New Zealand.
From a drawing by A. H. Messenger]
The Battle of Waireka
Defence of Jury's Farmhouse by the Taranaki Volunteers and Militia.
Captain (afterwards Colonel) W. B. Messenger, N.Z.M. (Died, 1922)
As Ensign of Militia, William B. Messenger fought at Waireka and Mahoetahi and in other engagements. He became Captain in 1863, and served in the Military Settlers, and later in the Armed Constabulary as Sub-Inspector. For some years he was in command of the frontier redoubt at Pukearuhe, White Cliffs. In 1885 he was appointed to the command of the Permanent Artillery at Wellington, and in 1902 he went to South Africa in command of the 10th New Zealand Contingent. His military service extended over forty-three years.
Murray, oblivious to everything but the duty of obeying his superior officer's order to be back in New Plymouth by dark, page 178 marched his force along the main road homeward, and left the hard-pressed settlers to extricate themselves in the best way they could. It was now nearly dark, and the Maoris were swarming over the broken ground above the positions of the Volunteers and Militia, although many were picked off by Atkinson's company. The little force had suffered several casualties: a sergeant of Militia (Fahey) and a corporal of marines from the “Niger” had been killed and eight men wounded, including Lieutenant Hamerton and Private W. Messenger (father of Ensign Messenger). The latter had his right elbow shattered. Atkinson stood fast in his position, while the rest of the force concentrated on Stapp's post, Jury's farmhouse. Hurriedly they put the place in a state of defence, throwing together a breastwork of all sorts of material—firewood, fence posts and rails, and even sheaves of oats from stacks near the house.
The settlers were in a serious state, for their ammunition was almost done, and they believed that the Maoris would rush them when night fell. The utmost care was exercised in firing, and Ensign Messenger, at Captain Stapp's request, went round and saw that each man had a cartridge for the expected rush; there would then be only the bayonet.
Suddenly, just at dusk, the distant sound of firing and then loud cheering was heard from the direction of Kaipopo pa. What did it mean? Had Murray returned and attacked the pa after all? Some of the Volunteers went up the spur to see what it was, and found the natives falling back in great haste upon their fort. It was not considered wise, however, to march the force up towards the pa, ammunition being so short, and the wounded needing removal to Omata. The moon was near its setting, and as soon as it was down Captain Stapp gave the order to march, and the little force commenced its return over the hills and gullies, Atkinson's men forming the rearguard with the eight soldiers of the 65th who had remained with the settlers. Bearing their dead and wounded, the two companies retired on the Omata stockade, and half an hour after midnight reached the town, escorted in the last stage of the tramp by a body of soldiers and Volunteers who had gone out to look for them.
Turn now to the Kaipopo pa. The shouting and firing which had puzzled the beleagued force at the Waireka, and the sudden withdrawal of the Maoris, were explained when the Omata stockade was reached. The diversion that saved the settlers from a rush and perhaps annihilation was due to the energy and courage of Captain Peter Cracroft, the commander of H.M.S. “Niger.” At the sound of alarm guns from Marsland Hill, fired early in the afternoon to warn the women and children to take refuge in the fort, Cracroft landed a party of bluejackets and marines with their page 179 officers, numbering sixty in all. Colonel Gold had heard that the town was to be attacked by the Atiawa from the north, aided by some Waikato and other natives, hence his signal for another landing-party. With the reluctant consent of Colonel Gold, who was nervous for the safety of the town, the naval column set out for the Waireka. The sound of heavy firing was plainly heard in New Plymouth. Cracroft was guided out by a young mounted Volunteer Frank Mace (afterwards Captain and a New Zealand Cross hero), who had ridden from the battlefield with a message for assistance, and narrowly escaped being shot by some Maoris whose intended ambush he had detected, and who fired on him as he was cutting across some paddocks to avoid them. At the Omata stockade two more young Volunteers, C. and E. Messenger, joined as guides, and led the “Nigers” by the nearest road to the Maori pa. Cracroft communicated with Murray, who was on his right and just about to fall back, and, regardless of messages to retire, he proceeded in his direct sailor fashion to attack. It was now about half past five, and nearly dark. After sending some rockets into the Maori position at a range of 700 yards, he rapidly led his men against the pa, turning its right flank, and stormed it most gallantly. The bluejackets did their work in the traditional Navy manner, mostly with the cutlass. Charging up the hill and making little account of the fire from the rifle-pits, they dashed at the stockade with a tremendous cheer. Three flags bearing Maori war-devices were seen waving above the smoke-hazed palisades. “Ten pounds to the man who pulls down those flags!” shouted Cracroft. Yelling, shooting, and slashing, the Navy lads were over the stockade in a few moments, “like a pack of schoolboys,” in the phrase of a survivor of Waireka. The first man in was William Odgers, the Captain's coxswain. He charged through to the flagstaff and hauled down the Maori ensigns. One was a flag with the patriotic emblems of Mount Egmont rising above the blue, the Sugarloaf Island (Ngamotu), and a bleeding heart. For this exploit Odgers received the first V.C. awarded in the New Zealand Wars.
“We made good quick work of it,” says a veteran of the “Niger” party (Mr. R. B. Craven, of Parakai, Helensville). “Our loss was light, but we laid out about a hundred of the page 180 Maoris. They slashed at us with their long-handled tomahawks from their fire-trenches inside, and a few of our boys were cut about the legs in this way, but we soon disposed of all opposition.”
Cracroft attributed his small casualties (four men wounded) to the rapidity of the attack and to the semi-darkness, which favoured the small party and spoiled the aim of the pa defenders. Sixteen Maoris were killed in the trenches and several others outside. The majority of the garrison made a quick retreat into the cover of the bush and the ravines below. Such was the dashing Royal Navy way. It might not have been so successful earlier in the day, and it could not have been carried out effectively in the darkness. The attack came just at the right moment, and in the right manner to divert the natives' attention from the settlers' force and upset the usual Maori tactics.
New Plymouth was frantic with mingled excitement and alarm that 28th March. The women and children hurrying to Marsland Hill citadel at the sound of the guns, awaited in intense anxiety the news from the scene of battle, where the settlers and townspeople, young and old, were fighting on the Waireka banks. Like the Maoris, fathers and sons and brothers and cousins fought together that day. Four of the Messengers were on the field, and several Bayleys, and members of many other pioneer Taranaki families. When Lieut.-Colonel Murray returned after nightfall, and it became known that he had left the civilian force fighting against heavy odds, indignation ran high; and on the arrival later of Cracroft's force, with the bluejackets displaying the captured flags but unaccompanied by the Volunteers and Militia, the tension and fears increased. At last, at 11 o'clock at night, a relief force of soldiers and citizens marched out to the rescue under Major Herbert, but they had not gone far down the south road before they met Brown's weary force tramping in. The scenes of rejoicing in the town must have gladdened the hearts of Cracroft and his sailor lads, but for whom it would indeed have been a disastrous night for the settler families of Taranaki.
The European casualties totalled only fourteen killed and wounded. The Maoris lost heavily through the accurate fire of Stapp's and Atkinson's men and the quick attack of Cracroft. Their killed amounted probably to fifty, with as many wounded.
The tribes concerned dispersed southward, removing their casualties in bullock-carts, and the combined movement on New Plymouth was abandoned. The Rev. H. H. Brown and his family and several other settlers came into town safely the day after the fight under Volunteer escort.
The popular opinion of Colonel Gold's methods of command and the failure of Lieut.-Colonel Murray to temper his rigid obedience to orders with some intelligence or initiative was page 181 expressed in strongly condemnatory terms. A Court of inquiry sat to consider Murray's conduct; the president was Colonel Chute (afterwards General), of the 70th Regiment; the evidence was sent to England. Captain Charles Brown and Captain Stapp were promoted Majors for their efficient work at Waireka. Captain Harry Atkinson received his majority in 1864.*
On the day after Waireka the “Niger” flew the three captured Maori flags at her mainmast-head. Next day she steamed down the coast and anchored off the reef-fringed shore at Warea, where there was a large Maori pa occupied by several hundred Maoris. The ship opened fire with shells and rockets, but owing to the long range not much damage was done.
In April considerable British reinforcements and large supplies of warlike stores arrived at New Plymouth from Australia. H.M. steam-corvettes “Cordelia” and “Pelorus,” and the steamers “City of Sydney,” “City of Hobart,” and “Wongawonga,” brought several hundred men of the 13th and 40th Regiments and some Royal Artillery. The warships landed some parties of sailors and marines, and there was now a Naval Brigade of about three hundred men on shore, under command of Commodore Beauchamp-Seymour (afterwards Lord Alcester), of the “Pelorus.” The first Australian warship, the “Victoria,” a beautiful auxiliary-screw barque, lent by the Government of Victoria, arrived soon afterwards and landed sixty men, who helped to garrison Fort Niger, the sailors' redoubt, on a hill which is now a recreation reserve, on the eastern side of the town. Others garrisoned a redoubt erected on the small hill called Mount Eliot, close to the beach and adjoining the signal-staff and surf-boats.
The War-steamer “Victoria”
The steam-corvette “Victoria,” which was sent to the New Zealand Government by the authorities of Victoria for use in the Maori War in 1860, was the first ship-of-war built for an Australasian colony. She was launched at Limehouse Dockyard, London, in 1855, from the yards of Messrs. Young, Son, and Magnay. She was a beautifully modelled screw-steamer of 580 tons, built of mahogany, and was barque-rigged to royals. Her armament, supplied from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, consisted of one long 32-pounder swivel gun (56 cwt.) and six medium 32-pounder (25 cwt.) broadside guns. Her engines gave her a speed of twelve knots.
“When Colonel Chute came to hold an inquiry into Lieut.-Colonel Murray's action he visited Waireka and stood on the hill studying the lay of the battlefield. I was sent for to give information about the engagement. Chute asked me, ‘Do I understand that that gully down there on your right and that one on your left were filled with Maoris, and that the troops under Colonel Murray were up there on the north side above the Maoris?’
“‘Yes, sir,’ I said, ‘that is so.’
“‘Then,’ said the Colonel, ‘you’ [meaning the troops] ‘ought to have killed every damned one of them!’
“‘That is what I thought, sir,’ I replied.
“The Colonel waved me away, saying, ‘That will do, sir.’”