A Dark Chapter from New Zealand History
Before Ngatapa—-Who Took up Position—Nil Desperandum—who Stormed the Trenches—"Oh! my Unlucky Star"—as Usual—Whitmore Looks on while the Hero Pursues—Results—"Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat."
Rapata was absent on Whitmore's arrival before Ngatapa, and Whitmore could do nothing unless Rapata was present, and waited accordingly. That chief had been sick, and was slowly recovering. On his appearance at the front, Rapata at once led the way, by advancing gallantly within 50 yards of Ngatapa, unperceived by the garrison. He immediately seized the advantage, and entrenched a part of his men to the right of the pa by its only approach; then hurrying to the left of Ngatapa, prepared in like manner to fortify himself, when he was discovered by the enemy, who rushed from the pa pell-mell to drive him off, falling over each other in their eagerness. Extending his men in a line, he page 36advanced at their head with a steadiness and courage which elicited a burst of admiration from the European force, that, by orders from Whitmore watched the advance from a safe distance. The enemy were at length forced to retreat into Ngatapa, and opened a heavy fire from the triple tier of trenches. This affair occurred towards night, and is said to have been an interesting and beautiful sight.
The siege continued until January 5th. The garrison became nearly starved, and were driven to such desperation that some of them leaped from the cliffs, preferring death to being taken alive. The pa was at one time completely invested, and not a man could have escaped if proper precautions had been taken. On the 3rd, the water supply was cut off. Several desperate attempts had been made to break through the encircling lines, in one or two instances with partial success, proving that the pa was thoroughly surrounded, and that a strict watch only was required to starve the enemy into a surrender. So well were the garrison aware of this that they repeatedly urged our native allies to depart, saying it ought not to be a fight between Maoris, and that they could easily beat Whitmore if Rapata would go away.
At noon on the 4th, Rapata stormed the lower trench without European assistance, except a covering fire, and Whitmore looking on at some distance. That night, Colonel Whitmore was warned that the enemy would escape. He appears to have lost his senses, repeatedly starting up with apostrophes to his "unlucky star." It had been arranged that Ngatapa should be stormed on the following morning at daylight. Just before dawn of the 5th, a woman cried from the pa that the garrison were escaping. The pa was rushed, but the Hauhaus were gone. 200 women and children and 7 men were taken. The men were shot. 57 dead bodies were found. It was likewise found the enemy had escaped at the exact spot to which Whitmore's attention had been drawn.
Unaccompanied by Whitmore or any of the Europeans, Rapata started in pursuit of the flying Hauhaus. For a week he chased the enemy through one of the wildest regions in New Zealand. He overtook and killed 80 men, and captured 50 prisoners. 150 fighting men or more must have got away with Te Kooti, half of whom were perhaps Chatham Island prisoners.page 37
By the end of January, 1869, Whitmore and his men had left Poverty Bay. Before their departure a meeting of Poverty Bay settlers was held, to consider once more the state of affairs. At this time, January 9, Te Kooti's fires were visible by night on the inland Opotiki track, and Te Waru was known to be not far from Puketapu. At the meeting Mr. Richmond informed his audience that it was perfectly safe for them to return to their estates; but the statement, like his Pipiwhakau telegram, has not been verified by subsequent events. On the 18th a New Zealand Gazette appeared, with a list of promotions for Ngatapa. Every one looked for the name of Rapata, and found instead that of a needy relative of Whitmore. Nothing was done for Mr. Edward Hamlin, a gentleman who, besides laboring very hard at his avocation as an interpreter, had worked like a cart-horse to expedite the transit of ammunition and stores to Ngatapa; but others were mentioned who did little worth speaking of. Previous to leaving Poverty Bay, Colonel Whitmore sold a number of horses—the Government property—to a gentleman to whom he was indebted, for a nominal sum (£l per head), when those horses might have realised £7 or £8 if offered for public competition. It is but fair to say, however, that Mr. G. Smith, the purchaser of those horses, was unaware that the transaction was at all irregular.
Thus ended Whitmore's East Coast campaign of 1868-9. During its progress a great deal of public money had been squandered, and it appropriately ended with a sacrifice of the public property by the commanding officer. Whitmore's despatches, as usual, claimed the chief merit of the success for himself, though the success was unquestionably due to Mr. M'Lean, in the first place, and in the next to Rapata. By Mr. M'Lean the native force was organised, and the campaign initiated; by him Rapata's sterling qualities were discovered and utilised for the colony.
But for Rapata, Ngatapa would never have been taken. He discovered the pa and its intricate approaches; he took up position; chiefly arranged the plan for cutting off the retreat of its garrison; stormed the trenches; and but for Whitmore's incompetence, would have captured every soul in Ngatapa. Of 230 Hauhaus killed in this campaign, 180 were slain by Rapata and his men, assisted by half a dozen Europeans; half the remaining 50, it may be fairly page 38assumed, were destroyed by Rapata and his people, leaving 25 as Whitmore's share. All the prisoners were captured by Rapata.
To the fall of Ngatapa we may ascribe that improvement in the morale of the Constabulary which has been visible ever since that pa was captured. Whitmore's interminable failures, unredeemed by even a partial gleam of success, had taught his men to look forward to defeat as an inevitable consequence of his tactics, if they may be termed such. It was a familiar saying amongst the men after Ngatapa, that "they would follow Rapata anywhere." They had been accustomed to retire before a contemptible foe, and Rapata had shewn them how to reverse the practice.
Injudicious friends of Colonel Whitmore have praised him for qualities he can never possess. The best friend of that officer is he who points out those defects which mar his efforts to serve the colony. He has been praised for the state of efficiency to which he is said to have brought the troops; but, notwithstanding a saying to the contrary, it is possible to have "too much of a good thing." On some occasions, it is well known, the men have been so worn out by the unmerciful exactions to which they have been subjected by Whitmore's ideas of discipline, that they were utterly unfit to take the field. They dare not complain; for should one of them presume to write to a newspaper on the subject, and the name of the writer be known to Whitmore, expulsion from the Constabulary as a "dirty bird" would be the probable consequence. There is no doubt the colony has lost the services of good men in this way, and no one seems inclined to put a stop to such a state of affairs.
It must be confessed the colony has not gained much by retaining Colonel Whitmore in command. It is said he supplanted Colonel M'Donnell at the very time he was writing to the newspapers in M'Donnell's defence. It is further stated that documents exist to prove the fact, and, looking at the close connection that exists between the Defence Minister and Colonel Whitmore, it is not unlikely. Yet Colonel M'Donnell did much good service for the colony. He never allowed Titokowaru to ruin an extensive district, and drive the European force before him like a flock of sheep; nor is it probable M'Donnell would have permitted the page 39fiend-like cannibal to escape with impunity had he been in command of Whitmore's large force.