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

Chapter 18: The First Taranaki War

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Chapter 18: The First Taranaki War

THE COMPLETION of the Waitara purchase, in spite of Wiremu Kingi's repeated protests, was resolved upon by the Governor in Council at Auckland early in 1860. It was decided to have the block surveyed, and to protect the survey party with an adequate military force if obstruction were offered, and if necessary to call out the Taranaki Militia and Volunteers for active service and proclaim martial law. The Auckland Militia, it was further decided by Governor Gore Browne and his Executive Council (the Stafford Ministry), should be enrolled and armed; all males between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five were liable for service. The fateful decision to proceed with the survey was communicated to Lieut.-Colonel Murray, temporarily commanding in New Plymouth, who immediately had the country between the town and the Waitara reconnoitred for the purpose of selecting suitable places for camps and redoubts on the disputed block and along the road. On the 20th February, 1860, the title to the block was put to the test. Mr. Octavius Carrington, Chief Surveyor, and Mr. Charles Wilson Hursthouse (afterwards District Surveyor and later Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges) and a party of chainmen went to the Waitara to commence the survey of the land. Mr. Parris, the Government's principal instrument in the purchase, accompanied them. The Maoris obstructed the surveyors and prevented them beginning their work. The party returned to New Plymouth. Lieut.-Colonel Murray gave Wiremu Kingi twenty-four hours to apologize and withdraw his opposition. The old chief replied that he did not desire war, that he loved the white people very much, but that he intended to hold the land. Thereupon (22nd February) Murray proclaimed martial law in the Taranaki District. The Militia and the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers were called out for active service, and a small mounted corps was organized and armed with carbines, revolvers, and swords. The country settlers began their migration to the town, abandoning their homes, which presently were to go up in flames.

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Plan of New Plymouth, 1860–61

Plan of New Plymouth, 1860–61

Showing the line of entrenchment surrounding the town, with Marsland Hill as the citadel.

New Plymouth in 1860 had a white population of about two thousand five hundred, of whom between five and six hundred were men and youths of fighting-age. They could have claimed, as Nelson wrote of his “Agamemnons” in 1794, “We are few, but the right sort.” Nearly twenty years of Taranaki life had developed many a settler into an expert bushman, familiar with the forest tracks, and fairly well able to meet the Maori on level terms. Such families as the Atkinsons, the Smiths and Hursthouses, the Bayleys, Messengers, and Northcrofts produced ideal frontiersmen, schooled in the rough work of settlement, trained page 161 to act upon their own initiative, and quick to adapt themselves to the special conditions of Maori warfare in a country admirably fitted for guerilla fighting. From this material was formed, besides a useful body of Militia and a small cavalry corps, a Volunteer rifle force which will live in history as the first British Volunteer corps to engage an enemy in the field. This body, the Taranaki Rifle Volunteer Company, a hundred strong, was formed in New Plymouth towards the end of 1858. The first commander was Captain I. N. Watt; but when the war began the corps was divided into two companies—No. 1 Company under Captain Watt, and No. 2 Company under Captain Harry Atkinson (afterwards Premier of New Zealand). Major C. Herbert was in general command of the Taranaki Volunteers and Militia. The Rifles distinguished themselves at the outset by their gallantry and efficiency in the Battle of Waireka, and a little latter at Mahoetahi. Unfortunately, during the first war they did not always receive due credit for their work from the Imperial officers, who underrated not only the military genius of the Maori but the soldiering capacity of the settler Volunteers. But as the war developed it was found that the quickly trained civilian element was better fitted to deal with certain emergencies in the field than the slow-moving and often badly led Regulars; and Atkinson and his picked men became increasingly useful as scouts and forest rangers.

Shortly after the war began the effective garrison of New Plymouth and its outposts numbered about twelve hundred men, of whom the 65th Regiment made up about half. Marsland Hill, the ancient Maori pa Pukaka, was an excellent headquarters site and place of refuge in case of emergency. It overlooked the town and the country for many miles, and its position just in the rear of the central settlement made it a suitable citadel. As the war went on and the out-settlers were driven in, and New Plymouth was reduced practically to a state of siege, it was deemed necessary to constrict the occupied area and to entrench the town. The accompanying plan shows the line of ditch and parapet, roughly triangular in figure. The sea-beach formed the base, and Marsland Hill citadel the apex; one said of the triangle was along the line of Liardet Street and the other along Queen Street. There were gates on the Devon Road line where this entrenchment intersected it. There were several outposts, some of which were earthwork redoubts, others timber blockhouses. The British warships sent to the aid of Taranaki, besides the “Niger,” were the “Iris,” a 26-gun sailing-frigate, the “Cordelia,” and the “Pelorus,” both steam-corvettes; and later in the year the Victorian Government's fine barque-rigged war-steamer “Victoria” arrived from Melbourne, having generously been lent for the assistance of the colonists.

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From a drawing by W. Strutt, 1858] Marsland Hill, New Plymouth

From a drawing by W. Strutt, 1858]
Marsland Hill, New Plymouth

New Plymouth Town, crowded to excess, was now lively with all the business of preparation for war. Governor Gore Browne came down from Auckland. With him in the “Airedale” came Colonel Gold, who took over the Taranaki command until Major-General Pratt arrived. The garrison was reinforced at the same time by the headquarters and three companies of the 65th, a splendid regiment of stalwart bearded men, mostly Irishmen, young in years, but already veterans in service. H.M.S. “Niger,” a barque-rigged screw-corvette under the command of Captain Cracroft, arrived on the same day (1st March), bringing a very able young Royal Artillery officer, Lieutenant MacNaghten, and some gunners. The “Niger” had a few Auckland lads in her crew; they had joined her in January. Her armament consisted of twelve 32-pounder broadside guns, ten of which were slide-guns with elevating-screws; the two after-guns were the old Nelson type. Mounted forward was a 68-pounder gun (95 cwt.) working on brass slides; it could fire either to port or to starboard, and was a first-class gun for those times. The “Niger” also carried a 12-pounder brass field-piece for Naval Brigade work ashore. page 163
Plan of Marsland Hill, New Plymouth

Plan of Marsland Hill, New Plymouth

Showing British fortifications and barracks, 1860. The hill was formerly a Maori stronghold, called Pukaka.

This gun was landed, and a body of fifty bluejackets and marines entrenched themselves on a hill on the east side of New Plymouth, which became known as “Fort Niger.”

On the 5th March Colonel Gold moved upon the Waitara with a force of four hundred officers and men of the 65th Regiment, some artillery, and the newly formed Mounted Rifles (Captain Des Veaux), and a long baggage-train of wagons and carts. Camp was pitched on the disputed land, on ground overlooking the mouth of the Waitara. Here a large redoubt was built, and it became the main camp for operations which lasted just twelve months.

The Maori forces opposed to the troops were not numerous until the war had been some time in progress, when many fighting-men of Ngati-Maniapoto, Waikato, Ngati-Haua, and the south page 164 Taranaki tribes as far as the Waitotara, with some of the Whanganui, came to Wiremu Kingi's aid. They did not at any time outnumber or even equal the whites under arms, but man for man they were better campaigners so long as they were able to choose the ground of battle. In the bush they were only out-matched, later on, by the picked forest rangers of Atkinson's Volunteers. They were fairly well provided with ammunition when the war began, thanks to a Government Proclamation of 1858 relaxing the restriction on the purchase of guns, powder, lead, and percussion caps, but they had no regular means of renewing their supplies.

The first shot was fired on the 17th March, 1860. Wiremu Kingi and his Atiawa followers, with the fiery chief Hapurona as the war-leader, determined to maintain their right to their tribal lands. They quickly constructed a strongly entrenched and stockaded fort just within the boundary of the disputed block at Te Kohia, close to the Devon Road (seaward side), at about nine miles from New Plymouth and a little under two miles from the Waitara River. (The site is a few chains from the present road, just before the road crosses the railway-line to Waitara.) This pa Te Kohia, more generally known as the L pa from its shape, was 110 feet in length and 33 feet in width on each of its two arms, and within the double row of palisading was a series of rifle trenches and pits, most of which were roofed over with timbers, fern, and earth. The place was well provisioned with potatoes, maize, fish, and fruit. The garrison consisted of about a hundred men of Te Atiawa. Early in the afternoon of the 17th Colonel Gold attacked the pa with a force composed of three companies of the 65th Regiment and a few sailors from H.M.S. “Niger” (which had anchored off the mouth of the river) with a rocket-tube, twenty of the Royal Artillery with a 12-pounder and two 24-pounder field-guns, ten sappers and miners, and twenty of the Volunteer cavalry.

The artillery and the rocket-tube first opened fire at a range of 750 yards, and later were moved to within 400 yards of the pa. The guns made better practice at the reduced range, and many shells burst in the fortification. As the artillery range was shortened the hidden Maori musketeers opened a sharp fire, which was replied to by the infantry skirmishers. The Maori fire presently ceasing, some of the Volunteer cavalry rode up very close to the pa and fired their revolvers off, and two of them seized and carried away the war-flag (a red colour, bearing the name “Waitaha”); the staff had broken and was hanging down outside the stockade. A sudden volley from the pa mortally wounded a young cavalryman named J. Sarten, and he dropped from his horse, the first man to fall in the Taranaki War. A sailor of the page 165
The Bell Block Stockade, Taranaki

The Bell Block Stockade, Taranaki

From drawings by Frank Arden, 1863] Blockhouse and Towers, Bell Block Stockade

From drawings by Frank Arden, 1863]
Blockhouse and Towers, Bell Block Stockade

page 166 “Niger” and a private of the 65th Regiment gallantly carried Sarten off under fire.

The troops spent the night entrenched behind a low breastwork in the form of a half-moon, with the guns and wagons in the rear. A fire was kept up by the Maoris for some time after dark. Their palisading had been battered considerably by the shells and solid shot, and, recognizing that they could not hope to hold the position much longer, they prudently evacuated it before daylight on the morning of the 13th.

At dawn the guns moved up close and again opened fire, and a breach was made at the south end of the stockade, through which Lieutenant MacNaghten, R.A., and some of his gunners and a portion of the 65th rushed, only to find the place empty. It is said that MacNaghten had informed Gold on the previous evening that a practicable breach had been made, but although the 65th soldiers were greatly excited and eager to rush the pa the cautious commander would not give the word to assault. The British casualties were slight; besides Sarten, a soldier of the 65th was mortally wounded, and a cavalryman and an infantryman were each wounded, but not severely. The Maori losses were about the same as those of the attackers.

The next encounter was a much sharper affair—the engagement at Waireka, in which for the first time in New Zealand Volunteers bore the most conspicuous part. By this time the stout-hearted settlers of Omata and the Bell Block had constructed substantial little forts on commanding hills in their districts, and these two outposts, one on either side of New Plymouth, were held continuously throughout the war, even when New Plymouth was closely hemmed in by the Maoris. They were not of the uniform type: each owed its design to the sound sense and native military instinct of the local farmers.

The Bell Block stockade was built on a grassy hill, flat on top, with a rather steep face towards the principal part of the settlement. Traces of the olden trenches are still to be seen on this hill, which is close to the seaward side of the Devon Line, as the main road to Waitara is known, four miles and a half from New Plymouth. Below, on the flat near where the dairy factory now stands, is the spot where Katatore, the leader of the anti-land-sellers, was ambushed and shot in 1857. The settlers of the district, numbering about seventy men, held a meeting, when martial law was proclaimed, and appointed a committee to design a suitable place of defence to enable them to hold fast to their lands. Every able-bodied man was speedily at work felling, splitting, and carting timber, and soon a hundred bullock-cart loads of timber were on the spot selected for the post. The Imperial military authorities in New Plymouth, with an ineptitude unfortunately page 167 characteristic of headquarters in the first Taranaki War, stopped the work for a time, but after the Militia and Volunteers were called out it was resumed. The buildings and entrenchments were completed by Ensign (afterwards Colonel) W. B. Messenger, a member of one of the pioneer families of Omata, and a party of Militia. It consisted of a strong blockhouse, 62 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 11 feet high, with two flanking towers each 22 feet high at the diagonally opposite angles, all loopholed, with a surrounding ditch enfiladed by the towers. Later, the position was enlarged by the construction of a timber stockade and a trench close to the blockhouse, and enclosing a considerable space, which was for some time occupied by a hundred and fifty Imperial troops with a couple of field-guns. In the fort there was a flagstaff for semaphore communications with Marsland Hill in New Plymouth, and when Mata-rikoriko and other stockades were erected near the Waitara it was doubly useful as a half-way post for signalling with the town. In those days a column of two hundred or two hundred and fifty men, with a howitzer (drawn by bullocks), was required to escort the provision-carts from New Plymouth to the Bell Block.

The Omata stockade, three miles and a half south of New Plymouth, was built early in 1860 entirely by the settlers of the district without any assistance from the Imperial troops. Travelling along the south road through a beautiful and closely settled farming district, with Taranaki's snow peak soaring aloft on the left and the green valleys dipping to the blue ocean on the right, we pass on the inland side, just above the road, a symmetrical grassy mound, about 60 feet high, and perfectly rounded as though artificially formed, with a ring of trench indenting its summit. This is the Omata fort hill, once known among the Maoris as Ngaturi. It was the site of an ancient pa. The entrenched crown of the mound measures 25 paces by 13 paces; the ditch which encloses it is about 10 feet wide, and 12 feet deep from the top of the parapet. The stockade which surmounted the hill—all traces of the timber-work have long since disappeared—owed its construction in the first place to two settlers of the district, Mr. T. Good and Mr. G. R. Burton, both of whom received commissions in the Militia. Mr. Good, the first planner of the stockade, was often seen working alone upon the fortification before others took up the task, but sixty or seventy settlers, the pioneers of Omata, joined in and toiled vigorously to provide themselves with a place of refuge and a fort to command the settlements.

This Omata post was so skilfully designed, so serviceable, and withal so picturesque a little fort, set sentrywise there on its round hill, that it is worthy of a detailed description. The figure of the post was oblong. The stockade was constructed of page 168
Drawn by Major-General Sir James E. Alexander, 1861] Ground Plan The Omata Stockade, Taranaki

Drawn by Major-General Sir James E. Alexander, 1861]
Ground Plan
The Omata Stockade, Taranaki

heavy timbers, some of which were as large as could be hauled up by a team of bullocks. They were either whole trunks of small trees or split parts of large ones, and were sunk 3 feet to 4 feet in the ground all round. The height of the solid timber wall so formed was 10 feet. The timbers were roughly trimmed with the axe to bring them as close together as possible and to page 169 remove any knots outside which might assist an enemy to scale the stockade. The small spaces left between the logs were covered inside with an upright row of thick slabs. The tops of the timbers were sawn off straight, and sawn battens, 6 inches broad by 3 inches thick, were laid along the top and fastened to the stockade with 7-inch spike nails. The average thickness of the heavy timbers was about 12 inches, and the whole was proof against musket-balls, and against rifle-balls except at very close range. A row of loopholes was cut all round about 5 feet above the inside floor, and there was a double row in the two small flanking bastions. These bastions were of two storeys each loopholed on all four sides. The lower part was a sleeping-apartment; the upper was a post for sentries at night and in bad weather. The roof of each bastion was clear of the wall-plate, and was made to project about a foot beyond the wall of the building. This arrangement admitted of the sentries keeping a good lookout all round, and at the same time protected them from the weather. It also allowed of firing through the spaces between the roof and the wall-plate when more convenient to do so (as was often the case at long range) than through the loopholes. The roof of the sides and end of the main building within the walls projected about a foot beyond the stockade so as to make it practically impossible to scale. The deep and wide ditch was crossed by a drawbridge which had a span of 10 feet and worked on strong hinges; by ropes fastened to its front edge and running through blocks on top of the inner posts it was lifted up perpendicularly at night. The entrance-gate was made of two thicknesses of timber, each 2½ inches thick, the outer timbers running up and down, the inner diagonally, and strongly fastened with spike nails riveted. This formed a solid door 5 inches thick. Around the inner walls were built the garrison's quarters, leaving an open courtyard in the middle of the stockade. The loopholes were cut at such an elevation as enabled the men to use their rifles clear of the roof, and also to cover any object down to the bottom of the ditch, as well as from the outer edge of the ditch down the glacis, and everywhere around the stockade. There was no “dead ground” around the little fort; and, whatever the weather, the men were firing under cover. Outside, on the inner edge of the trench, stood the signal-staff, worked from within the building. It was a single tree, 60 feet long, sunk 6 feet in the ground, and secured by stays and guys.

Mr. G. R. Burton, who designed the interior arrangements, was Captain in the Militia, and he received high praise for his amateur military engineering-work from so competent an authority as Colonel (afterwards Major-General) Sir James E. Alexander, 14th Regiment, who wrote in 1860 a report on the Omata stockade for the technical papers of the Royal Engineers' Institute, England.

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Proclamations under Martial Law, New Plymouth