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The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)

Chapter 15: Taranaki and the Land League

page 145

Chapter 15: Taranaki and the Land League

LAND DISPUTES TROUBLED the Settlement of New Plymouth almost from the day of its foundation. Commissioner Spain, who in 1844 investigated the New Zealand Company's claims, awarded 60,000 acres to the Company on payment of £200; but Governor Fitzroy set aside this award, considering that it would be an injustice to a very large number of Te Atiawa (Ngati-Awa) who were absent at the time their land was said to have been sold. Later, various blocks of land were purchased to satisfy the demands of the settlers. The principal transactions of this nature were carried out by Mr. F. Dillon Bell (afterwards Sir Dillon), who was sent in 1847 from Nelson by the New Zealand Company to supersede Mr. Wicksteed as the Company's agent in New Plymouth. Mr. Dillon Bell had joined the New Zealand Company in England in 1839, and was sent to Nelson in 1843. His excellent work in Nelson led to his selection for the delicate task of satisfying the mutually antagonistic elements in Taranaki. His chief purchases were the Omata Block of 12,000 acres, and the Hua territory, of 1,500 acres (from the Puketapu Tribe), which was named the “Bell Block.” Both these settlement areas were to become famous in after-years, when the settlers built fortifications thereon and prepared by force of arms to maintain their rights to the land upon which they had made their homes. Katatore, a tragic figure in Taranaki history, stoutly opposed the sale of the Bell Block by Rawiri Waiaua and others in 1848, and he had a singular pole carved and erected on the right bank of the Wai-whakaiho River, alongside the track, as a symbol of protest against the encroachment of the pakeha. This post, a puriri spar about 30 feet high, was named by the Maoris “ Poututaki,” and came to be known by the Europeans as the “Fitzroy pole” from its proximity to the Fitzroy Village, now a suburb of New Plymouth. It had two life-sized figures in bold relief, representing the pakeha cowering beneath a Maori warrior; the native figure was intended as a presentment of a chief of Puketapu, one Parata te Huia. The post was intended to mark page 146 the limit of European settlement; no pakeha, according to the Maoris, was to own any land between that spot and the Auckland District. It was 1853 before the natives would permit settlements on the Bell Block. The return to Waitara from Waikanae in 1848 of the greater part of the Atiawa (or Ngati-Awa) Tribe further complicated the progress of the white settlement in Taranaki. These people, sections of whom had sold much of the land about Wellington to the New Zealand Company—they had conquered those lands from the original holders—conceived a desire to return to their ancestral homes on the Waitara, and, in spite of the opposition and even threats of Governor Grey, carried out their undertaking successfully. Grey eventually withdrew his opposition in consideration of the help afforded to the Government by the Atiawa at Waikanae and Wellington in crushing Rangihaeata's rising in 1846. Wiremu Kingi te Rangitaake, the head chief of the Waikanae people, had given valuable protection to the Wellington Settlement at a very critical period. The Governor could not very well ignore this. Crying their farewells to their lands and the few people whom they left at Waikanae and Otaki, the Atiawa emigrants set sail up the coast in April, 1848. The flotilla consisted of forty-four canoes of large size, four open boats, and a small sailing-craft. A few people also travelled overland on horseback. The total number of the Atiawa who thus returned and landed joyfully on the shore of their ancient home-land was 587, consisting of 273 men, 195 women, and 119 children. These were the people who in 1860 came into conflict with the Administration over the purchase of the 600-acre block on which the Town of Waitara now stands.

Wiremu Kingi and his tribe set to work industriously to cultivate their lands on the left (or west) side of the Waitara River mouth, and in a few years had a number of comfortable settlements near the river, with large crops of wheat, maize, and potatoes, and a considerable number of horses and cattle, besides ploughs and other agricultural implements. In 1856 they sent to market about £8,000 worth of produce, and spent the proceeds on goods in New Plymouth. Their desirable lands inevitably excited the envy of the pakeha settlers, who presently moved the authorities to extend their purchases towards the Waitara.

In the meantime the growing native jealousy of the pakeha took formidable form in a combination to prevent further land-sales. This powerful movement, to which was conjoined an effort to found a Maori kingdom, was initiated shortly after New Zealand received its Constitution Act bestowing representative government upon the colony. The connection between these most important political developments may be rather difficult to trace exactly, but the coincidence is certainly remarkable. The Maori page 147 was not to be behind the white in his struggle for national power, and while the settlers had been successful in their agitation for self-determination, he was determined that the newcomers should be restrained in their race for Maori lands.*

The anti-pakeha crusade was given its first expression in a great conference of the west-coast tribes held in 1854 at Manawa-pou, a large settlement of the Ngati-Ruanui, at the mouth of the Ingahape River, on the South Taranaki coast. The site of this celebrated meeting is still plainly to be traced, although it is now part of the farm of a white settler. Manawa-pou is a beautiful terrace overlooking the sea, on the south side of the mouth of the Ingahape River, where the stream comes curving out of a deep grassy valley. On the hill 300 feet above are the earthworks of the Imperial redoubt of Manawa-pou, dating back to General Cameron's campaign. Here in the “fifties” was the home of a section of the Ngati-Ruanui, notable for the large stature of its men. The tribe built an unusually large meeting-house for the gathering; it was 120 feet long and 35 feet wide. “Taiporohenui,” the name given to the assembly-house, was orginally that of a sacred house of instruction in Hawaiki, according to Taranaki tradition. A great patriotic song was chanted by the people at the opening of “Taiporohenui.” It began:—

E kore Taranaki e makere atu!
E kore Taranaki e makere atu!
Kei marea mai—kei marea mai!
Tika tonu mai ki a Piata-kai-manawa,
I Piata-kai-manawa.
Ka turu
Ko te whakamutunga,
E kapa-ti, kapa-ti!

In this chant the spirit of determination to hold fast to the ancestral land was made manifest—“Taranaki shall not be lost, shall not be abandoned to the stranger.” The conference page 148 of the tribes determined that no more land should be sold to the Europeans without the general consent of the federation, and that Maori disputes should not be submitted to European jurisdiction but should be settled by tribal runanga (councils). At this meeting, too, the idea of a Maori king for the Maori people was discussed and fervently approved.

The differences between the adherents of the Land League and those who wished to sell developed into murderous intertribal feuds. On the 3rd August, 1854, Rawiri Waiaua, who offered the Government a disputed area at Taruru-tangi, in the Puketapu Block, was fatally shot, with several of his followers, by Katatore and a party of twenty-eight men representing the non-sellers. The Government professed itself powerless to interfere. The quarrelling factions fortified themselves in their pas, and an intermittent skirmishing warfare prevailed for many months. The rival parties often selected the vicinity of the white settlements for their guerilla warfare. The Administration was appealed to for troops for the protection of New Plymouth, and on the 19th August, 1855, the first British garrison of the province arrived. This was a portion of the 58th Regiment, numbering about 270 men and officers, under Captain Seymour, with some Royal Artillery men and several field-guns, and some sappers and miners. In September the force was increased by the arrival from Wellington of some two hundred of the 65th Regiment.

The native-land vendetta was resumed in August, 1857, when Ihaia te Kiri-kumara, who was very friendly to the Government and had sold some land, laid and ambush for his enemy Katatore on the road through the Bell Block Settlement. The settlers heard the firing in the morning early as Katatore was shot down. In the intertribal war thus renewed Katatore's slayer was driven out of his pa, which was sacked and burned. All north Taranaki, or at any rate the native portion of the population, was almost continually under arms.

The period 1858–59 was one of continual internecine strife in the district between the Bell Block and the Waitara. Ihaia's pa, Ika-moana, near Puketapu, was evacuated and destroyed in February, 1858. Ihaia and his party, the land-sellers, were then besieged at the Karaka, on the Waitara. On the 10th March, 1858, Mr. S. Percy Smith (afterwards Surveyor-General) rode down to the Waitara with Mr. Parris, Civil Commissioner, who was in charge of native affairs in Taranaki, and made sketches under fire of the pas occupied by Ihaia and Wiremu Kingi. “Plenty of bullets flying over my head while sketching,” wrote Mr. Smith in his diary.

The following description of the fighting at the Bell Block arising out of the Puketapu feud over the sale of lands to the page 149 Government is from the pen of Mr. A. H. Messenger, son of the late Colonel W. B. Messenger, of New Plymouth:—

“Some curious incidents occurred in the native war waged over the newly made farms of the settlers from Devon and Cornwall. As a boy living in one of the Taranaki frontier posts, I heard the story of those stirring times recounted by my father. The opposing tribes fought back and forth with varying fortune over the undulating country of the Waiwhakaiho River, and out on to what was later known as the Bell Block. The settlers in 1857–58 were witnesses of many thrilling incidents, and it was a frequent occurrence to have to stop work in the middle of a fencing or ploughing job and retire to the security of the farmhouse while a fierce skirmish took place in which numerous casualties occurred on both sides. Though bullets were flying in all directions, the white settlers were never molested, and their stock also was under strict tapu, and was not interfered with. An episode typical of those thrilling days was described by a Devonshire settler who in the midst of ploughing operations suddenly found himself in a Maori battle. The opposing war-parties had skirmished up towards one another through the high fern surrounding the little farm, and finished up with a charge and close hand-to-hand fighting with tomahawk and mere over the newly ploughed ground. For a moment the settler thought that his end had come, but the brown warriors took no notice of his presence, and as the battle passed on he found himself still standing, hand on plough, gazing in bewilderment at several stark figures that lay sprawled in the attitude of sudden death amid the newly turned furrows. As night fell groups of warriors, many of whom bore fresh wounds from musket-ball or blow of tomahawk, gathered round the nearest farmhouse and deposited their guns with the white settlers, telling them that they would call for them on the morrow, when fighting was resumed in the same manner.

“In another case a settler received a message from each of the opposing forces to the effect that a fight would take place on his farm in the morning, and that it would be well for him to remain in his house until the tide of war had passed by. Taking due heed of this warning, the settler was witness on the following morning of a battle in his pastures. Many bullets struck the house, and one random shot killed a sheep; otherwise no damage was done to his property. The nervous tension brought on by these conditions of life proved too much for several of the settlers, who finally left the district in search of more peaceful surroundings.”

* “If Englishmen could occasionally be brought to face the fact that since the institution of their nationality and language no permanent English community has ever passed under a foreign yoke, they would be better able to understand how impossible it is for a dominant race to do complete justice to a subject people, and how hollow is the pretence that impartial justice is rendered to such people. The strong natural sense of justice which animates Englishmen, and their intense respect for the rights of property, have doubtless helped to a vast degree to counteract the evils of domination and disparity; but if we could view the question from a national Maori point of view we should find much to approve of in the principle of the League.”—Mr. Justice Chapman, in his “History of New Zealand” (Dunedin).