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With the Lost Legion in New Zealand

Chapter II — Te Kooti

page 276

Chapter II
Te Kooti

And now I must tell you something about that bounder, Te Kooti.

Every country in the world has at some time or other produced diabolically cruel villains who, under one cloak or another, religion for choice, have perpetrated horrible excesses and gratified their love for blood. Yet very often these men have been great and brainy ones. Europe has produced Tilly, Alva, Torquemada, Cæsar Borgia, and many others. England has produced Cromwell and Judge Jeffreys; India, Nana Sahib; and New Zealand in like manner produced Te Kooti. Some o these men were of aristocratic birth, but others, such as Tilly, Cromwell and Te Kooti, springing from the lower middle class, had first to make their names before they could perpetrate the crimes their souls lusted for.

A number of Maori prisoners had been taken in the successful action at Waerenga-a-Hika, which followed upon the atrocious murder of the Rev. Mr Volkner by the Hau Haus.

Now these prisoners should either have been killed or, at all events, should have been well taken care of, as on two previous occasions Maori prisoners had successfully made daring escapes, one of which is worth recording.

About one hundred and fifty Maoris, prisoners of page 277war, among whom were a few women and children, had been confined on board an old timber ship anchored far out in Wellington Harbour. They were well fed, kindly treated, and seemed well satisfied with their lot, being allowed access to the upper deck during the day, where they talked and laughed with their guard, a detachment of the 50th Regiment, while during the night they had comfortable quarters on the lower deck, all the hatchways being shut up and strictly guarded.

The old bow-port of the ship, however, had been forgotten or overlooked, and one very dark, stormy night the Maoris, who had discovered it, forced it open, when every man, woman and child slid noiselessly into the rough, shark-infested water, and swam for the shore, nearly two miles distant, where most of them landed in safety and disappeared into the bush, nor was their escape found out till next morning when the hatches were opened to serve out breakfast.

The New Zealand Government therefore determined to place the prisoners taken at Waerenga-a-Hika in a place from which they could not swim ashore, and so deported two hundred of them to the Chatham Islands, but, being of a frugal mind, they committed these two hundred fanatical, ferocious and able-bodied warriors to the care of a worn-out old officer and fifteen decrepit invalided veterans, nor did they consider it worth the expense to arm the white settlers on the island. Verily the Government were wanting in commonsense, though their cheese-paring parsimony might be worthy of a present-date Radical.

page 278

Now during the siege of Waerenga-a-Hika a native belonging to the native contingent, named Te Kooti, had been charged by a sub-chief with holding treasonable intercourse with the enemy. He had been made a prisoner, but as there was no evidence against him he was shortly afterwards released. Subsequent to the surrender of the pah, Te Kooti was again charged, this time by a white settler, with communicating with the enemy, but again there was not sufficient evidence to bring him to a trial.

The great fighting chief Rapata had, however, a private grievance against him, and wished to kill him out of hand, but this the Government would not allow, an act of very short-sighted policy, as it turned out to be on their part. They, however, feared to offend Rapata, so they transported Te Kooti to the Chatham Islands with the two hundred Hau Hau prisoners. Now this was a piece of gross injustice. There had not been sufficient evidence to try him on any charge, and most certainly the Government had no right to transport a man, serving as a soldier, who had never even been tried, much less convicted.

Te Kooti was at this time a strong, daring fellow, some thirty years old, who had, fighting against the Hau Haus, acquired a small reputation for courage, but he was much disliked by the white settlers, who knew him to be a thief; nor was he respected by his own people, who regarded him as a quarrelsome mauvais sujet whose room was more valuable than his company. He was a man of no rank by birth, nor had he exhibited page 279any signs of intellect likely to raise him out of the ruck of his fellows. As to whether or not he deserved punishment may be open to argument, but there is no doubt that all the atrocities committed by himself, or by his orders, were dictated by a desire of obtaining utu on those responsible for his deportation. Well, this fellow was deported with the other prisoners and landed in the Chatham Islands. Here Te Kooti took up the somewhat dangerous rôle of a prophet, and so worked on the superstitions of his fanatical companions that they rendered him unquestioned obedience.

It must not be imagined that the prisoners were shut up in jail or confined in any way; they were made comfortable and lived in huts. The burlesque guard during the night inhabited a tiny, toy sand fort in which the arms and ammunition were kept, but during the day the fort was left in charge of one of their number, the remainder being scattered over the place, employed as ration issuers, clerks, etc.

The prisoners had been landed on the Chatham Island in December 1865, and from the day of their landing till the 4th of July 1868 their conduct had been exemplary, though there can be no doubt that during all this time Te Kooti was forming his plans, and with infinite patience was awaiting a suitable opportunity for a successful attempt to escape.

On the 3rd of July 1868 the three-masted schooner, Rifleman, was sighted making for the island, loaded with stores for the use of the convicts, a boat-load of whom pulled off and assisted the crew page 280of the vessel to bring her to her anchorage, also volunteering to help discharging cargo. Captain Thomas, the officer in charge of the prisoners, had been previously warned that there was mischief brewing, but the dear old soul did not believe it, or at all events took no steps to prevent the rising, which took place after this fashion.

In accordance with custom one of the old images who composed the guard was on duty in the toy fort, the remainder being scattered apart at their usual occupations, and as he pottered about he saw a strong body of the prisoners approaching him and at once demanded their business. They replied that they wanted the arms and ammunition which were stored in the fort. He answered they should not get them. They rushed him. He was a good old soldier though past work, and, promptly shooting one, tried to use his bayonet, but was immediately knocked down, his rifle wrenched out of his hand, and he finished his service by being run through and killed with his own bayonet. Truly the brave old fellow deserved a better fate.

Te Kooti, however, must not be blamed for his death, as he had given strict orders no one was to be hurt, and this was the only blood spilt during the whole affair. The Maoris also behaved with the greatest courtesy to the white settlers, depriving them of nothing except such guns and weapons as they had in their possession. No sooner had the prisoners received the arms than a boatload of them pulled off to the Rifleman, boarded her, and drove the mate and crew (the captain was ashore) down below, threatening to kill anyone who page break
Te Kooti.

Te Kooti.

page 281resisted. They also boarded the ketch, Florence, which chanced to be lying at anchor, sent her crew ashore, and then, cutting the cable, sent their vessel after them so as to prevent her being used in any way against them.

Te Kooti had now full possession of the island, but he did not linger, as he at once embarked all the prisoners, he being the last man to leave the shore. Directly he put foot on board he summoned the crew on deck and gave them the option of either working the schooner to Poverty Bay, where he promised to hand her back to them, or to be immediately killed. They chose the former alternative and at once made sail, but a strong wind from the west prevented them from beating out, so they had to return to their former anchorage. Te Kooti took no chances, for as soon as the sails were furled he again confined the crew below, nor would he allow them to cook the food either then or on any other occasion during the voyage.

Next day they again made sail and got away from the island, but being delayed by foul winds Te Kooti ordered all the greenstone ornaments on board to be thrown into the sea as a propitiatory sacrifice to Tangaroa (the Maori Neptune), and as this had no beneficial result Te Kooti ordered an old man, a relation of his own, to be cast into the drink, and this, notwithstanding the old fellow's objections, was done, no one supporting nor even seconding his amendment, as it had been given out he was the delinquent who had warned Captain Thomas of the projected rising. Whether the victim was a Jonah or not, who can say, but it page 282is certain that no sooner had the poor old sinner been launched over the lee-rail than the wind changed, so, easing sheets, they made a good landfall at Whare-onga-onga, about fifteen miles south of the Poverty Bay settlement.

On the following day, the 10th of July, and during the whole of that night, the Maoris working like beavers, they landed some forty tons of stores, about fifty rifles and a number of other weapons, then releasing the crew Te Kooti told them to upsail and hook it. This they did, but the mate perpetrated a gross act of folly. The Port of Napier was close to him, but instead of making for it he set his course for Wellington, and thereby lost ten days in giving the alarm.

In the meantime Te Kooti had taken up a strong position near where he had landed, and sent messengers to the adjoining tribe to come and tangi with him. These messages fell into the hands of Major Biggs, who could not at first believe the news, but on its confirmation mustered a force of one hundred badly armed white settlers and friendly natives, and marched against the escaped convicts. He found them strongly posted, but as the friendlies refused to attack he could do nothing. He therefore attempted to parley, trying to persuade the defiant natives to lay down their arms, but this they refused to do, and retreated inland, carrying their plunder with them to one of the most broken patches of country in New Zealand.

Now during the Year of the Lamb 1867 the infatuated New Zealand Government, longing for peace, had made up their minds they had obtained it, and, being crazy for retrenchment, had not only page 283disbanded the Defence Force but, so as to save the expense of having a man to look after them, had removed the bulk of the arms and ammunition from the district. Major Biggs was therefore severely handicapped as the only men he had to depend upon were badly armed settlers and untrustworthy semi-friendly natives.

Owing to these circumstances Te Kooti got the best of it in the desultory fighting that took place, defeating the white men and their allies at Paparatu, while he shortly afterwards forced another column to fall back through their running out of ammunition and the desertion of the friendlies, so that his name spread through the country as a chief with a most powerful mana.

Colonel Whitmore, who in the meantime hurried up from Napier, followed up Te Kooti, but with his usual want of tact so disgusted the Poverty Bay volunteers that they refused to leave their own district, and Te Kooti continued to make headway, beating back an attack made on his position at Te Konaki, and also getting much the best of it in a stiff fight at Ruaki Ture. In September Colonel Whitmore left for the west coast, where he was beaten, as I have previously described, by Titokowaru at Moturoa, and Te Kooti, on the 9th of November, surprised and sacked the white settlement of Poverty Bay, where he murdered in a most atrocious manner every woman and child he could lay his hands on. Loaded with plunder he left the devastated settlement on the 14th, and retired slowly to his lair, his rear-guard being overtaken and attacked at Makaretu on the 25th, but the Hau Haus made a good stand, and although they page 284lost heavily they held their ground, Te Kooti at the same time by a smart bit of generalship capturing an important convoy of ammunition and stores.

But a change was to come over the scene, for Rapata, with a party of Ngatiporou, arrived at Makaretu, and on 3rd December he, with his men, by a rattling charge carried two of the enemy's outworks, driving them back to their last line of trenches, which they deemed impregnable, but the gallant chief proved it otherwise, for he at once rushed them, and with the assistance of the other friendlies, who on this occasion fought bravely, drove out the Hau Haus with great slaughter, killing several of Te Kooti's best fighting chiefs; and they also captured the infernal villain Nama, who had been most active in torturing women and children at the late massacre. Well they got this fellow alive, and so as to try to even things up a bit the Ngatiporou roasted him alive, and "sarve him right" was the verdict given by the colonial troops, for after the Poverty Bay massacre the gloves came off and it was war to the knife.

Te Kooti now fell back, having only escaped by the skin of his teeth, to his famous stronghold Ngatapa, and Rapata moved forward to attack him, but unfortunately a quarrel about some prisoners with his allies hampered him sorely, and although he attacked with the Ngatiporou he had to fall back for want of ammunition, his allies rendering him no service whatever; he therefore, furious and disgusted, retired towards Tauranga.

page 285

I think I have now given you some vague idea of what had happened on the east coast previous to our accompanying Colonel Whitmore there, although I have not mentioned scores of skirmishes that had taken place with the various tribes during the last four years up and down the coast.