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Bush Fighting. Illustrated by remarkable actions and incidents of the Maori war in New Zealand.

V. — Account of the Escape of Fifty Prisoners in Wellington Harbour, New Zealand

page 317

Account of the Escape of Fifty Prisoners in Wellington Harbour, New Zealand.

The escape of fifty Maori prisoners, on the 20th January, 1866, confined in a vessel in Wellington Harbour, may be here related as a very peculiar "incident" of the Maori war, and as it showed great daring and astuteness.

They had been taken at the time the Wereroa pah fell, and were placed on board a timber ship called the Manukau. The vessel had large bow ports, as is usual with timber ships, by which to pass in their freight. The ports had not been used for some time, and were supposed to be securely fastened.

By order of the Governor, the escort (50th Regiment) placed the prisoners on board the Manukau, and remained to guard them; but the vessel did not seem to be in a very fit state for the reception of the prisoners; the deck was lumbered with miscellaneous articles, as pieces of iron, marling-spikes, &c., some of which were thrown into the hold where the prisoners were located, immediately over a quantity of stone ballast, &c. The prisoners were always kept below at night, a sentry being on deck over the hatch.

There was a report some months before the escape that the prisoners meditated an attempt by the bow ports, but the mate of the ship, who lived on board, and the officer in command at the time, did not think that they could possibly effect it.

On the 20th of January, when it was blowing a gale of wind, a heavy sea running, and the night pitch dark, the page 318Maoris managed, with the assistance of a screw-key, which they got hold of among the things in the hold, to open one of the bow ports, and before daylight the following morning all but three had gone.

The darkness of the night, and the noise of the wind and sea, prevented the sentry on deck observing or hearing anything; and so cunningly did they effect their object that while the whole arrangement was going on below a single Maori occasionally came up during the night (as they were permitted to do, "to go to the head") to divert the sentry's attention.

Three or four were drowned in trying to swim ashore, about three-fourths of a mile; two or three, when pressed by hunger, came back; one or two were shot by parties sent out in pursuit; but the great majority were not again seen.

A court of inquiry assembled to investigate the case, and the Major-General (Chute) was satisfied that no blame rested on the detachment, as the escape was made under circumstances beyond their control.

The officer was unfortunately on shore at the time, and proved that he tried to get off, but no boatman would take him. He was censured, however, for not going off earlier, when indications of boisterous weather first appeared.

The escape of the Maori leader, Te Kooti, banished with 300 others to the Chatham Islands, their seizing a schooner, and return to New Zealand, and the harassing pursuits after him, was also a remarkable event in the history of this intelligent race.