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A Dark Chapter from New Zealand History

Chapter IX

Chapter IX.

Ngatapa—Description—Garrison—at The Crow's Nest—Rapata's Advance—in the Trenches—an old Acquaintance—"See the Conquering Hero Comes."

Ngatapa, to which Te Kooti retired after his severe defeat at Makeretu, is about 45 miles from Turanganui. It is a wooded mountain, whose summit is about 2500 feet above the level of the sea. The pa derived its name from the mountain on which it stood, and crowned its crest, which is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs of great altitude. On the side looking towards Poverty Bay the ground sloped away on this the only approach to page 32Ngatapa. The pa covered an area of about an acre and a quarter, and occupied the site of an ancient hill fort. The mountain is wooded to within 150 yards of the ruined pa.

The existence of Ngatapa was not suspected until discovered by Rapata in his pursuit of Te Kooti. It was then found that by strongly fortifying its only assailable side, Te Kooti had created a fortress which is believed by all who saw it to have been the strongest in New Zealand. Works of great magnitude protected the vulnerable side; they comprised three great earth-banks, running from side to side of the hill, powerful palisades, and deep trenches parallel with the earth-banks, which were about 15 feet in height, and placed one behind the other. There were also underground passages to facilitate communication between the trenches. The interior of the pa was a maze of rifle-pits, so arranged that a heavy fire could be concentrated upon any one pit, in the event of an attempt being made to storm the pa. Outside the pa, a space had been cleared for some distance in front by cutting down timber. The tree stumps had been left standing for three feet above ground, and the branches strewed between. The object was to prevent a night rush upon Ngatapa.

The mountain is surrounded in almost every direction by forest extending to an illimitable distance, and the entire district for many miles around is cut up by precipitous mountain ranges and profound ravines. Ngatapa mountain rears itself unconnected with neighbouring hills, from which it is separated by chasm-like gullies. No drawing can convey an idea of its tremendous strength, because a complete view of Ngatapa cannot be obtained from its base.

Events will prove Te Kooti retired to Ngatapa with not less than 400 men. He had forwarded on the women and children, amounting to 200, some days before his defeat at Makeretu. The women and children were set to work to strengthen the fortifications of Ngatapa, and to dig fern root to increase the supply of provisions, of which at this time the garrison were by no means deficient.

The distance to Ngatapa is six miles from Makeretu, through a very difficult country; the last two and a half miles are the worst. About half a mile from the pa, at a point termed the Crows' Nest, the ground improves, until emerging from the bush at 200 yards' distance from Ngatapa pa. At this point the ruins of the pa may page 33be seen situated upon a lofty mound. Between the Crows' Nest and the pa the track is traversed by consecutive lines of rifle-pits.

On the 3rd December, Rapata and 70 of his men reached the Crows' Nest, and by sundown had fought his way through the intervening rifle-pits to within a few hundred yards of Ngatapa. That night Rapata stormed the two lower trenches, and despatched a messenger for reinforcements. By some mistake, they did not arrive; and after retaining the important position he had so bravely won until noon of the 4th, Rapata was constrained to withdraw; but the enemy stood in such awe of him and his men, that they made no effort to bar his retreat.

There had been a slight misunderstanding between the Ngatiporou and Ngatikahungunu tribes, which may have affected Rapata'a arrangements. It was about to be rectified—indeed, both tribes were about to make a combined attack on Ngatapa, when the arrival of Colonel Whitmore rendered Rapata's plans nugatory. The natives, almost to a man, disliked Whitmore's domineering disposition. However, they subsequently served with him; but they fought under and received orders from their chiefs, who mainly arranged the plan of the seige and effected the capture of Ngatapa.

Whitmore assumed command of Poverty Bay district on 4th December. Of his reception in the district he had so greatly injured, the less said the better. This much, however, may be observed: he had been forced upon the district much against its will. His credentials had not improved since his first visit, but were much the worse for wear. He had in the interim been invariably defeated on the West Coast, and had retired with overwhelming forces before a despicable foe, leaving a wealthy, extensive district to be ravaged by Titokowaru. It was felt he had been despatched to reap laurels he knew not how to win, and by so doing prove that ministers had wisely selected their man; for if the current opinion could be diverted from its true course, ministers might hope the colony would endorse their pitiful policy.

On the 5th December Whitmore marched to the front; by the 9th he bad returned. In the interval he had marched over a few miles of fine, easy country, chiefly level. Beyond this promenade, he made no attempt to find the enemy. Scouts who had been out reported fires in the direction of Ngatapa, and Whitmore gave out the enemy had retired to the interior. On the 10th the Constabulary were stationed at Makaraka, three miles from Turanganui; page 34the natives were paid off, and half the whites. Whitmore had brought 400 men from Wanganui: since their arrival they had not fired a shot. And now the expedition was at an end.

It has been shewn [sic] how the Poverty Bay land question remained unsettled. Here was a chance for ministers. Te Kooti had been beaten by Whitmore—no, not by him, by Rapata, but it was all the same; a great many of the native owners had been killed by Te Kooti; he himself had disappeared. Natives likely to be troublesome had been sent away, and Whitmore was present with 400 men to overawe dissentients. Operations accordingly commenced. At this time Te Kooti's fires were seen not far distant; however, the land settlement was proceeded with until the arrival of a newspaper which commented severely upon the proceedings. By this time it had been decided to embark the Constabulary once more for the West Coast. The settlers now became alarmed at the state of affairs, and a deputation waited on Whitmore on the 12th, to learn if they were to be entirely abandoned. After much demur, it was agreed to leave 50 of the Constabulary. On the same day most of the European forces concentrated at Turanganui for shipment, and the first batch embarked on board the Sturt. In leaving the river the steamer sprung a leak, and bad to put back. In the evening of that day too, some settlers struck off the militia roll departed for their former homes. At sundown a deserter from Te Kooti arrived and reported Te Kooti, at the head of 250 men or more, was in Poverty Bay.

The following morning, just before mid-day, a native arrived with news that one European and three boys had been murdered and horribly mutilated at Pipiwhakau, about four miles from Whitmore's camp at Makaraka, on the open plain. The intelligence was, alas! too true.

Whilst 400 men had been kept inactive, the enemy had boldly come down and murdered the unfortunate victims in sight of Makaraka. About this time, Richmond telegraphed to Wellington, saying it would be "time enough to strike a blow on the East Coast five or six months hence." As a commentary on this valuable telegram, on the 13th, or day of the Pipiwhakau murders, a party of the enemy attacked and put to flight about 20 of our scouts, despatched the evening before to scour the Patutahi track. Had Te Kooti remained quiet for a few days, until the steamers departed with the forces, he might have slain every soul in Poverty page 35Bay. The providential accident that delayed the Sturt alone prevented such a dreadful catastrophe.

The Pipiwhakau business effectually cleared the mist from the eyes of Messrs. Richmond and Whitmore, and from this date we may trace the real pursuit of Te Kooti. It required four more victims before it was set about, but it was initiated at last. The Constabulary were ordered to Patutahi, the Militia were reenrolled, and the natives recalled. Rapata was once more in requisition, and, though severely ill, came forward at the call of duty. He became the life and soul of the later expedition, and brought it to a successful issue.

Much valuable time was lost by Colonel Whitmore, but by the 28th December the force, amounting to about 800 Europeans and natives, was concentrated at Ngatapa. Light cohorns were carried to the front, as were large supplies of ammunition and provisions. The enemy was known to be deficient of both.