The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)
Chapter 9: The Capture of Rua-Pekapeka
Chapter 9: The Capture of Rua-Pekapeka
FOR THREE MONTHS the sound of the bugle and all the stir of a military camp enlivened the mission station at Waimate. Employment was found for the redcoats in surrounding the buildings with a trench and parapets as a precaution against attack—much to the disgust of the mission people, who lamented to see the neutral station transformed into a fortified encampment. It was not until the middle of October that the troops, after destroying Haratua's pa at Pakaraka, removed to Kororareka, where they awaited the next movement in the campaign.
In October it became known that Lord Stanley, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, had recalled Captain Fitzroy, and that Captain George Grey, then Governor of South Australia, had been appointed as the new Governor of this colony. Captain Grey landed at Auckland from the East India Company's armed ship “Elphinstone” on the 14th November, and a few days later he arrived at Kororareka. He gave the insurgent leaders a final opportunity for acceptance of ex-Governor Fitzroy's terms of peace, which stipulated that the Treaty of Waitangi should be binding, that the British flag should be respected, that plunder taken from the Europeans should be restored, and that certain lands should be given up to the Crown. Old Kawiti had already replied to Fitzroy, refusing the demand for territory: “…You shall not have my land—no, never! Sir, if you are very desirous to get my land, I shall be equally desirous to retain it for myself.” The missionary Burrows was asked to convey Grey's letter to Heke. “Let the Governor and his soldiers return to England to the land that God has given them,” replied Heke, “and leave New Zealand to us, to whom God has given it. No; we will not give up our lands. If the white man wants our country he will have to fight for it, for we will die upon our lands.”
Drawing by A. H. Messenger, after a sketch 1852]
The British Frigate “Castor”
H.M.S. “Castor” was an oak frigate of 1,293 tons, built in 1832. She took part in the Syrian campaign of 1840, and shared in the bombardment of St. Jean d'Acre. After cruising on the coast of Ireland she was sent out to the East Indies Station and New Zealand. Seven of her men were killed in the fighting at Rua-pekapeka pa, 11th January, 1846. H.M.S. “Dido” arrived at Auckland from the East Indies on the 2nd June, 1847, and relieved the “Castor,” which sailed for England three days later. In 1852 the “Castor” was Commodore Wyvill's ship on the Cape Station, and her commander was sent to the scene of the wreck of the transport “Birkenhead” to render help. The frigate remained afloat for seventy years. For many years she was employed at South Shields as drill-ship for the Royal Naval Reserve.
It had been ascertained that the enemy were gathered to the number of several hundreds in the new pa at Rua-pekapeka, which was reported by the friendly Maoris to be stronger even than Ohaeawai. On the 8th December, 1845, the British advance upon Kawiti's bush fortress began with more than 1,100 rank and file under Colonel Despard, besides friendly Maoris. The route of march was over more difficult country than that traversed by the Ohaeawai expedition. The ships sailed up to the entrance of the Kawakawa River, thence transport was by boat for several page 75 miles; from the head of navigation the way lay through fifteen miles of roadless hills, forests, swamps, and streams to Kawiti's mountain fort.
Officers Men Seamen of H.M.S. “Castor,” “North Star,” “Racehorse,” and H.E.I.C. “Elphinstone,” under Captain Graham and Commander Hay, R.N. 33 280 Lieutenant Wilmot, R.A., and Captain Marlow, R.E. 2 Royal Marines (Captain Langford) 4 80 58th Regiment (Lieut.-Colonel Wynward) 20 543 99th Regiment (Captain Reed) 7 150 H.E.I.C. Artillery (Lieutenant Leeds) 1 15 Volunteers from Auckland (Captain Atkyns) 1 42 68 1,100 Native allies under Tamati Waka Nene, Patuone, Tawhai, Repa, and Nopera Pana-kareao 450
Ordnance: Three naval 32-pounders, one 18-pounder, two 12-pounder howitzers, one 6-pounder brass gun, four mortars, and two rocket-tubes.
The modern road from the Township of Kawakawa to Ruapekapeka runs closely parallel to Despard's line of march; in fact, the two routes are identical as the site of Kawiti's stronghold is approached. At the head of boat-navigation on the Kawakawa River a fortified camp was established in the pa of a friendly chief, Tamati Pukututu. Here troops, guns, and stores were landed, and Commander Johnson, of the “North Star,” was given charge of the post with seventy men. Captain Graham, of the frigate “Castor,” was senior naval officer at the seat of war, and his bluejackets and those of the “North Star,” “Racehorse,” and “Elphinstone” were useful in the heavy work of transporting the artillery. The march of the combined naval and military force was a fine feat of pioneering, for it was necessary to make roads, fell bush, roughly bridge streams, and to use block and tackle in hauling the guns over rough ground and up steep hills. The men were compelled to carry, in addition to their arms and equipment, boxes each containing a 24 lb. or 32 lb. shell. The way in places led over fern hills and ridges; in places it plunged into patches of heavy timber.page 76
Before narrating the events of that midsummer of 1845–46, let us view “The Cave of the Bats” as it exists to-day, and observe how the soldierly genius of Ngapuhi selected and fortified a position of strategic value—commanding, remote, and difficult of approach.
From sketches by J. Cowan, 18th March, 1919]
Remains of palisade and well, south side of fortification Sections of Rua-pekapeka Pa.
At the rear (the east end) of the pa is another lichen-crusted stockade-post, standing on the edge of the track which trends out through the olden gateway. At another part of the outer entrenchment we find a squared post, mossy with age, lying on the ground; it is between 4 feet and 5 feet in length; its butt is sharpened to a point in order to enable it to be driven into the ground—one of the line of smaller stakes between the whole-tree himu.page 79
The pa slopes to the west and north, inclined towards the ridge by which the troops advanced, and therefore its interior lay exposed to artillery fire from the far side of the little valley intervening between the batteries and the range-face; but the system of shot-proof and bomb-proof ruas, or underground shelters, protected the garrison from the guns of those days. We descend into one of these ruas near the centre of the pa. Its mossy floor is 6 feet below the surface of the ground; it has a narrow entrance or shaft, and then it opens out fanwise underneath into a comparatively wide chamber. The interior is partly blocked up with the fallen debris of seventy-six years, but sufficient of its original shape and dimensions remain to convince us of its convenience and safety in the siege-days, when its top was roofed over with logs and earth, and when subterranean ways connected it with the neighbouring ruasand the main trench. The whole place is pitted with these burrow-like ruas. The parapets and trenches are in the most perfect state of preservation on the western and south-western aspects. Here the trench is 5 feet deep, and from the ditch-bottom to the top of the parapet the height is 8 or 10 feet. The trench system would still conceal a little army.
A broken 12-pounder lying in rear of Rua-pekapeka pa, 18th March, 1919.
Due north, blue-shimmering in the haze, is Russell Bay, with the islands of the outer bay sleeping on its breast; beyond again, the ocean. The Maoris from here could see the ships lying at anchor twenty miles away, could mark every daylight movement in their direction, and could even see the flagstaff hill, the root of all these troubles.
The pa was about 100 yards in length and 70 yards in width, with flanking bastions of earthwork and palisade. A plan drawn by the master of H.M.S. “Racehorse” shows that in the small bastion on the east face, the highest part of the pa, a double ditch and an earthed-over bell-shaped shelter separated the two outer rows of palisade (the pekerangi and kiri-tangata) from a high inner stockade. To-day there are indications that on a portion at least of the west end also a row of palisades stood on the inner side of the ditch. The work was much broken into flanks for enfilading-fire, and the trench was cut with traverses protecting the musketeers against a raking fire or a ricochet from a cannon-shot.
The advance from Kororareka occupied the troops from the 8th until the 31st December, by which time the column pitched the last camp and threw up field-works on the level space page 80 described. Mohi Tawhai with his Mahurehure friendlies had pushed on ahead and quickly constructed a stockade on this small plateau 600 to 700 yards from the pa. The guns were brought up by horses and bullock teams, with the assistance of man-power at many a hill and watercourse. It was the 1st January, 1846, before Kawiti's garrison made any attempt to bar the slow but certain progress of the British troops towards their mountain fort. On that day a small party of the pa defenders made a sortie from the pa and engaged a number of the friendly Maoris in the bush. The chief Wi Repa, one of the best fighters in the native auxiliary force, was severely wounded. The enemy cut off and killed one white man, a volunteer Pioneer from Auckland. On the same day Colonel Despard sent a strong body of infantry into the forest on the narrow plateau that separated him from his antagonists, and this force took up a position on a partly cleared space within a quarter of a mile of the stockade. Here, under cover of the timber which screened the troops from the view of the Maoris, a palisade and earthwork were commenced, and by nightfall the position was ready for a battery. A large body of Maoris sallied out from the pa and made an attempt to turn the flank of the advanced party. They were engaged by Tamati Waka and his brother Wi Waka Turau, Nopera Pana-kareao, and Mohi Tawhai with two hundred men. It was a tree-to-tree fight in which only Maoris could well be engaged. Kawiti's men were driven back with a loss of several men killed and nearly a score wounded. On the Government side five Maoris were wounded.
Another stockade was built considerably in advance and more to the right, facing the south-western angle of the pa. This position was not more than 160 yards from the front of Kawiti's position. An 18-pounder and a 12-pounder howitzer were mounted here. In the larger stockade, about 350 yards from the pa, there were mounted two 32-pounders and four mortars. Despard's main camp on the 5th January was about 750 yards from the pa. Mounted in front of this position, with thick woods in the front and rear, were three guns—a 32-pounder, a 12-pounder howitzer, and a light 6-pounder, besides rocket-tubes.
The Pioneer axemen attacked the heavy timber immediately in front of the advanced gun-positions, and the greater part of the Maori stockade soon lay exposed to cannon-fire. The small battery in the valley below the pa commanded a range along both west and south flanks, and concentrated its fire on the south-west angle.
The storm of shot and shell, kept up with little intermission all day, soon began to make impression on Kawiti's puriri war-fence. Some of the palisade-posts, nearly 20 feet high and more than 1 foot in thickness, were battered to pieces by the impact of the 32 lb. and 18lb. balls, and some of the less deeply set were knocked out of the ground. By the afternoon a breach had been made in the stockade at the north-western bastion, and at a point midway between that salient and the south-west angle. This face was the lower end of the pa, and the efforts of the artillerists were centred on demolishing the palisade here and widening the breaches sufficiently for a general assault, for which the impatient Despard longed. The Colonel had, indeed, intended launching a storming-party against the pa when the first breach was made, but the Governor, Captain Grey, vetoed the proposal, which would simply have resulted in another Ohaeawai. Mohi Tawhai, too, had entered a protest immediately upon learning of Despard's intention.
Governor Grey was an eye-witness of the whole of the operations; indeed, he was more than a mere spectator, for he sighted one of the guns, and he had reconnoitred the pa under fire more than once. Sergeant Jesse Sage (58th) recounted that the young Governor frequently walked through the bush to a position well within musket-range from the pa; he would take a sergeant or corporal of an advanced picket with him, and, bidding the non-commissioned officer take cover, would stand with his telescope examining the stockade, shots flying around him—“fearlessly doing his duty,” said Sage, “as brave a man as ever walked.”
From a water-colour drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge (58th Regt.)]
The Capture of Rua-pekapeka. (11th January, 1846)
It was discovered afterwards that the shelling had effectually swept the pa, so much so that some of the projectiles had gone right through several stockade-lines; holes were found ripped in the rear palisades. “We were safe underground when the big guns began to hurl their mata-purepo at us,” says old Rihara Kou, of Kaikohe. “What had we to fear there?” But the persistent showering of cannon-balls by night as well as day made life in the pa so uncomfortable that the garrison now began to fear that the place could not be defended much longer.
Hone Heke, recovered from his wound, had only arrived in the pa on the night before the bombardment, with a body of his tribesmen from Tautoro and Kaikohe. His contingent brought the forces in the Rua-pekapeka up to about five hundred men. That day under the artillery fire convinced him that the pa must be evacuated, and he counselled Kawiti to take to the forest and fight the soldiers there, where they could not haul their heavy guns. But Kawiti determined to fight his fort to the end.
The following morning, 11th January, was Sunday. The artillery fire was continued from all the batteries. There was no answering fire of musketry from the pa loopholes. A dozen Maori scouts, under Wi Waka Turau, worked up to the stockade near the south-west angle and crept in through one of the breaches made by the guns. Wi Waka signalled to his brother, Tamati Waka, who was with Captain Denny and a hundred men of the 58th awaiting the result of the reconnaissance. The troops came up with a rush and were inside the double palisade and trench, and pushing up over the hut-and-fence-cumbered ground towards the higher end, before their presence was detected and the yell of alarm raised, “The soldiers are in the pa.”
The garrison had nearly all left the pa by the hidden ways that morning, and were sheltering behind the rear earthworks and stockade in a dip of the ground—some for sleep undisturbed by rockets and shells, some to cook food, the majority for religious worship. Kawiti himself, sturdy old pagan, remained in his trenched shelter with some of his immediate followers.
The alarm given, the astonished Kawiti and his Maoris gave the troops a volley. Running out to the east end, they joined Heke and his men. A determined effort was made to regain the stronghold, but the stockade now became the troops' defence. Meanwhile Colonel Despard had rushed up strong reinforcements, and presently hundreds of soldiers were within the pa, pouring page 85 a heavy fire from the east and south-east faces upon the Maoris, who took cover behind trees and breastworks of logs, and maintained a fire upon the pa. A crowd of soldiers and sailors rushed out through the rear gateway and attacked the Maoris on the edge of the bush. A number of the “Castor's” bluejackets dashed into the bush and became easy targets for Kawiti's musketeers, who shot several of them dead. The 58th and 99th, more seasoned to native tactics, took advantage of all the cover that offered, and killed and wounded a number of their foes. The skirmish developed into an ambush, skilfully laid by Kawiti, who directed Ruatara Tauramoko to feign a retreat with a party of men in order to draw the soldiers and sailors into the forest, while he lay in wait on either side behind the logs and trees. This piece of Maori strategy proved successful. Surprise volleys were delivered from cover, and a number of whites fell; the others discreetly retreated, taking advantage of the plentiful cover. In this bush battle some hundreds of men were engaged, and Kawiti certainly made a stout fight to retrieve his fallen fortunes. Every tree concealed a Maori sniper; every mass of fallen logs was a bush redoubt. Corporal Free saw a Maori shot in a puriri. “He had been potting away at us from the branches,” said the veteran, “and shot two or three of our men. At last we noticed the bullets striking the ground and raising little showers of dust and twigs, and looking up we discovered the sniper. Several of us had a shot; one of my comrades got him, and he came tumbling to the ground, crashing through the branches and turning round and round as he fell.”
(Uri-Taniwha hapu, Ngapuhi Tribe.)
The forest engagement lasted until 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Before that time Kawiti and Heke had determined to withdraw all their people to the inaccessible back country; the fight in the rear of the pa was prolonged in order to give time for the wounded to be carried off. As in old Maori warfare, the picked men, the young toas, such as Ruatara, fought a hard page 86 rearguard action, then vanished into the bush to rejoin the main body. They lost heavily; behind one log where the troops had been held up for more than half an hour Mr. George Clarke found nine stalwart young men lying side by side.
Thus fell Rua-pekapeka. The British loss was twelve killed—seven of whom were “Castor” men—and thirty wounded, including Mr. Murray, a midshipman of the “North Star.”
Colonel Despard, who had by this time come to admit the Maori's originality and skill in fort-building, declared in his despatches that “the extraordinary strength of this place, particularly in the interior defence, far exceeded any idea that could have been formed of it.” Every hut, he found, was a little fortress in itself, strongly stockaded all round with heavy timbers sunk deeply in the ground and placed close to each other, with a strong earthwork thrown up behind them.
It was apparent that the garrison had been in straits for food-supplies. Little was found in the pa except fern-root.
The troops set fire to the huts and stockading, but the earthworks, and the trench system were of such dimensions that Despard decided to leave them undemolished and march his troops back to the Bay of Islands.
Maihi Paraone Kawiti
(Son of Kawiti, the defender of Rua-pekapeka.)
This success ended the Northern War.
Brave old Kawiti, while candidly confessing at a meeting at Pomare's pa that he had had enough of war as waged by his “fighting friends” the British, consoled himself with the knowledge of having acted a valiant part: “Peace, peace—that is all I have to say. I did not commence the war, but I have had the whole brunt of the fighting. Recollect, it is not from fear, for I did not feel fear when the shot and shell were flying around me in the pa.” And there was a very proper warrior pride in Kawiti's declaration to a chief after the meeting: “I am satisfied; I intend making peace, but not from fear. Whatever happens to me hereafter, I have one consolation—I am not in irons, nor am I in Auckland page 87 Gaol. I have stood five successive engagements with the soldiers belonging to the greatest white nation in the world, the soldiers that we have been told would fight until every man was killed. But I am now perfectly satisfied they are men, not gods [atua], and had they nothing but muskets, the same as ourselves, I should be in my pa at the present time.”
At this meeting it was stated by Heke's and Kawiti's Maoris that the casualties on their side since the taking of Kororareka were sixty killed and about eighty wounded.
A Proclamation by the Governor permitting those who had been concerned in the war to return peacefully to their homes was received with relief by Ngapuhi and their allies. Proclamations raised the blockade of the east coast from Whangarei to Mangonui and Doubtless Bay, and also relieved the Bay of Islands district within a circle of sixty miles in any direction from Russell from the operation of martial law, which had existed since the 26th April, 1845. So peace came, a peace unembittered by confiscation of land or by vendettas provocative of future wars.
Heke lost the war, but carried his point. In 1848 he declared that the tupapaku (the corpse) of the flagstaff at Kororareka should not be roused to life, because those who had died in cutting it down could not be restored to the land of the living. This attitude he maintained to the day of his death (1850). While he lived, and while Kawiti lived, the signal-mast was not re-erected on Maiki Hill. This was the chief point in dispute, and tactfully the new Governor did not insist upon the restoration of tupapaku. The Port of Russell carried on without a shipping signal-station until 1853, when Maihi Paraone Kawiti—son of Heke's ally—and his kinsmen set up a new mast in token of the friendship between the two races. Governor Grey's wisdom in refraining from confiscation of land was justified by results, for Ngapuhi have ever since 1846 been loyal friends of the whites. The forfeiture of lands would have bred not only intertribal feuds but long resentment against the Government. That Ngapuhi were given no opportunity of cherishing such memories is something for which we have reason to be thankful to-day, for it was this tribe and its neighbours, with the loyal Ngati-Porou of the East Coast, that made the strongest contribution to the Maori battalion in the Great War. Ngapuhi, Te Rarawa, and kindred tribes of the north of Auckland sent over six hundred of their young men to join the contingent which fought so well on Gallipoli in 1915, and later did good work as Pioneers in France.