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

Chapter. 21: The Engagement at Mahoetahi

page 193

Chapter. 21: The Engagement at Mahoetahi

THE UPPER WAIKATO contingent had gone home after Puke-ta-kauere to tell of their victory over the pakeha, exhibit their trophies of battle, and plant their crops. The news of their prowess in the field, and the sight of the soldiers' caps and red coats in which some of them paraded, their newly gotten rifles, bayonets, and cartridge-pouches, aroused at once the admiration and the jealousy of their neighbours. Ngati-Maniapoto's exploits fired all the Waikato tribes with ardour for the field. Ngati-Haua's war-fever could no longer be allayed even by the peace-loving Wiremu Tamehana. The stalwart men of Matamata, Tamahere, and Maunga-tautari had reluctantly remained in their kaingas when Potatau forbade Waikato and Ngati-Haua to cross the Puniu River and released only Ngati-Maniapoto for the war on the Waitara. But now the old king was dead, and his runanga at Ngaruawahia had little control over Ngati-Haua of the plains. Why should Ngati-Maniapoto have all the joy and glory of killing the pakeha? Were not Ngati-Haua the kin of the great Waharoa, the most renowned warrior of the Island? So spake Te Wetini Taiporutu and other fiery blades. In vain Wiremu Tamehana urged prudence and foretold disaster. Wetini and his war-party must off to Waitara to kill soldiers themselves. The new season's potatoes planted, the Waikato-Waipa basin and the plains of Matamata were alive with parties of young musketeers marching off for the summer's shooting in Taranaki. Nearly every village from Ngaruawahia southward sent its squad to join the war-parties in reinforcement of Wiremu Kingi. Ngati-Maniapoto provided the larger part of the force; but Ngati Haua sent a company about eighty strong of the finest fighting-men that ever carried tupara and tomahawk. They were the flower of the tribe—tall athletes, fit successors of the invincible warriors whom Waharoa had led against many a stockade. Wetini Taiporutu (“The Surging Sea”) was at their head. The other tribes which swelled the strength of the columns marching southward were Ngati - Raukawa and Ngati - Koroki, and these subtribes of page 194 Waikato: Ngati-Apakura (from Rangiaowhia), Ngati-Ruru (Te Awamutu), Ngati-Koura (Orakau), Ngati-Kahukura, and Ngati-Mahuta. Rewi Maniapoto (or Manga, as he was more usually known by his own people) was the leader of the numberous hapus which mustered at Kihikihi; with him were Epiha Tokohihi, Te Paetai te Mahia, Mokau (of Ngati-Raukawa, at Orakau), and several other chiefs. Rewi was a veteran of the Waitara trail; as a boy of twelve he had marched on his first war expedition in 1832, when a Waikato army made one of its periodical raids on Puke-rangiora. Wetini's war-party marched apart from the others, eager to reach the scene of war and uphold the name of Ngati-Haua. From Mokau Heads they made a forced march along the beach, and, crossing the Waitara, met their allies on the strongly fortified plain at Kairau. Anxious to distinguish themselves in a battle of their own, they stayed not long at the Kairau, where they were joined by other Waikato tribes, but pushed on to Mahoetahi, an old practically unfortified pa on a gentle mound of a hill alongside the Devon Road, two miles and a half from Waitara and seven miles and a half from New Plymouth. Wetini took up this position as a deliberate challenge to the British General. He had sent an invitation to combat quite in the manner of the knights of old. The gage was thrown down in a letter to Mr. Parris, the Assistant Native Secretary in Taranaki: “Come inland and let us meet each other. Fish fight at sea! Come inland and tread on our feet. Make haste! make haste!”

This metaphorical trailing of Ngati-Haua's blanket was taken up by the pakeha with spirited alacrity. It was on the evening of the 5th November that Major-General Pratt was informed that Wetini's contingent had crossed the Waitara, and that possibly next morning they would be in the vicinity of Mahoetahi. It was thought that they were marching on New Plymouth. Their numbers were greatly exaggerated. Pratt immediately issued orders for a British column to march from New Plymouth, and another from Waitara, to meet at Mahoetahi next forenoon, and so take the Maoris between two fires. At dawn of day a young Militia officer, Lieutenant F. Standish, with a friendly Maori chief named Mahau, reconnoitred in the direction of Mahoetahi, and saw the Ngati-Haua and Waikato enter an old village on the hilltop. At 5 o'clock on a beautiful clear morning the General's column left the town. It was composed chiefly of the 65th, 40th, and 12th Regiments, with some Royal Artillery manning two 24-pounder howitzers, a few sappers and miners, and two companies of the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers and Militia, with twenty of the Volunteer cavalry. The total strength of the force was 670; of this force the Volunteers made up about 130. Some friendly Maoris also went out, but took no part in the assault. page 195
The Battlefield at Mahoetahi

The Battlefield at Mahoetahi

Showing site of Maori position stormed by the Imperial and Colonial troops, 6th November, 1860.

On the march out the advance-guard, in extended order, consisted of a company of the 65th Regiment, under Captain Turner, with a company of Volunteers and Militia as a flank guard on the left, and another company of the 65th flanking the advance on the right. The colonial officers who took part in the expedition were Major Herbert (late 58th Regiment), Captain C. Brown, Harry A. Atkinson, and W. S. Atkinson (the last-named in charge of the Maori contingent), Lieutenants Hamerton, Morrison, Webster, and Standish, and Ensign W. B. Messenger. Mr. R. Parris, who page 196 accompanied the force, also had a captain's commission, and later was promoted to major.

Soon after crossing the Mangaoraka the firing commenced, the Maori skirmishers falling back upon the Mahoetahi Hill as the troops advanced. The advance-guard formed a line of skirmishers and moved quickly towards the Maori position, which was visible on the high ground across a narrow swamp directly in front, and just to the left of the main road where it curved inland to avoid the Mahoetahi ridge. Several casualties occurred among the 65th before the swamp was crossed.

The advance-guard halted and lay down on the low ground close to the swamp. “Fix bayonets and prepare to charge” was the next order. Meanwhile the two howitzers, under Captain Strover, R.A., opened fire on the position. The mounted scouts had just reported to the General that the British column from the Waitara was near at hand, moving towards the Maori left rear. The order to cross the swamp was given, and the troops dashed through the muddy water or jumped from tussock to tussock. Re-forming on the other side, they saw before them two low mounds, beyond which was the level top of the Mahoetahi Hill, with no stockade or regular entrenchment showing. The Taranaki Rifles and Militia were to the north-west of the pa (the sea side), with two companies of the 65th, facing the west flank of the hill, and another company continuing the line inland, covering the Maori left front. In the rear of the 65th were the reserves, consisting of the 12th and 40th, under Lieut.-Colonel Carey, Deputy Adjutant-General.

“Charge!” was the next order, and then there was a desperate race for the top of the mound. Volunteers and Militia were determined that no Regulars should deprive them of the honour of being first in the pa. The front line of the 65th received a heavy volley from the hill and was stayed for a moment or two, but the supporting company came up, and the hilltop was gained. The Taranaki men, led on by Major Herbert, sword in hand, were just breasting the upper slope when the Maoris gave them the next volley. But a moment before it was delivered Major Herbert shouted “Down!” and dropped flat on the ground, and every man followed his example on the instant. The bullets went over their heads. Leaping up, the men were into the Maori position, bayonet and bayonet with the big Irishmen of the 65th on their right. No Maori, however brave, could stand in the open before that line of steel. Most of Wetini's men, after the first volley, took cover behind an old parapet, the remains of the ancient fortification which had enclosed the centre of the hilltop, and in a number of excavations, whare sites, besides some dilapidated huts and fern, and masked potato-pits, which made good riflepits. page 197 Having only taken post in the old pa that morning, they had not had time to entrench themselves properly. From such cover as there was Ngati-Haua fired heavily, inflicting several casualties on the 65th and the Volunteers. Charging across the pa, Herbert's settler soldiers received a heavy volley delivered by the Maoris just under the crest on the reverse slope of the hill; but the fire was too high, and there were no casualties. Meanwhile the 65th had cleared the centre of the hill with the bayonet.

The Maoris retreated to the edge of the swamp on the Waitara side, and Regulars and Volunteers and Militia charged down the slope after them. Now came the most desperate work of the day. Ngati-Haua and their kin of Waikato and Maniapoto turned on the troops like lions. When there was no time to reload their tuparas or their rifles they threw down the now-useless weapons and countered bayonet with tomahawk. There were not more than a hundred and fifty Maoris, but, outnumbered as they were, they fought with a splendid heroism. If they were rebels they were glorious rebels. Their one thought now was to hapai-ingoa—to uplift the tribal name and fame.

By this time the column from the Waitara side, commanded by Colonel Mould, R.E., had crossed the Waiongana River, and had deployed into line on the inland side of the pa, and when the Maoris were driven into the swamp they found their right flank assailed by this force. Mould's column consisted of several companies of the 40th under Major Nelson, a company of the 65th, and a party with a 24-pounder howitzer. A few shells were thrown into the Maoris (narrowly missing the troops), and then the Regulars joined in the attack pursuit.

On the fern flat below the swamp many of the Maoris took cover in old potato-pits and fired upon their foes on the other side. But the weight of the combined advance was irresistible. Fighting yard by yard the gallant Ngati-Haua were forced back. At last they turned and fled, leaving more than a score lying dead among the tufts of tussocks and flax and in the reddened pools of water. Rifles, double-barrel guns, and cartridge-belts strewed the ground of the retreat. With the bursting shells of the howitzers and six hundred Enfields and bayonets compelling their flight, they retreated across the Waiongana towards Huirangi. Wetini Taiporutu himself was killed early in the retreat. His chivalrous challenge won him undying fame, but cost Ngati-Haua two score men. The chase across the Waiongana was carried as far as Ngatai-pari-rua and Puke-ta-kauere; thence the pursuers returned to the captured hill and marched back to quarters. Colonel Mould was left at Mahoetahi with a force to hold the hill. The friendly Maoris searched the swamp and the hillside for the slain, and collected thirty-seven slain Maoris, most of whom were buried in page 198 a large grave dug on the western slope of Mahoetahi. The bodies of Wetini Taiporutu and two other chiefs, identified by the captured Maoris, were taken into New Plymouth and buried in St. Mary's Churchyard. More bodies were discovered on the line of retreat, and the total loss of the Maoris was estimated at about fifty killed and as many more wounded, out of not more than a hundred and fifty engaged. In spite of shell and bullet, they carried away many of their wounded to Huirangi.

The British casualties were four killed and seventeen wounded. The Rifle Volunteers, who shared the honours of the day with the Regulars, divided with them the losses; two of their number were killed (Privates F. Brown and H. Edgecombe), and four were wounded.

New Plymouth rang with stories of the combat in the swamp. An Irish private of the 65th, the moment after shooting a Maori, brained another with the butt of his rifle. “There was some good bayonet-work at Mahoetahi,” said a veteran of the Taranaki Rifles, Sergeant W. H. Free (ex 58th), to the writer. “One of our men, W. Marshall, had an encounter in the swamp with a powerful Maori, who tried to wrest his rifle from him. Marshall at last got his arms free, and sent his bayonet clean through his opponent's body up to the locking-ring.” A Maori got a soldier of the 65th face downwards in the muddy swamp-water, and would have drowned him but for a bullet from a fellow-soldier which stretched the Ngati-Haua dead. A soldier of the same regiment bayoneted a Maori through the chest, but the amazing warrior gripped the barrel of the rifle with his left hand and tomahawked his opponent on the arm before he fell.

Wiremu Kingi and his Atiawa held aloof from their brave allies on the battle-day, although they could have altered the fortunes of the day in some degree by coming up in the rear and checking the British attack. But Wetini and his men were afire with a desire to fight for their own hands that day, and the Atiawa contented themselves with the part of distant spectators.

Many a village of the Waipa and the Matamata plains resounded with the tangi of grief for the men when the wounded remnant of Wetini's contingent made their painful way home. There were some ghastly wounds among the warriors. The venerable half-caste chief Pou-patate Huihi, of Te Kopua, who fought at Mahoetahi and saw Wetini Taiporutu shot, says, “One of our men, Te Whitu, had his lower jaw carried away by a bullet. We bound it up with a cloth round his head, and he came home with us, recovered, and lived for many years afterwards.” Besides Wetini, a number of chiefs of importance fell at Mahoetahi. The principal man of Ngati-Maniapoto killed was Te Paetai te Mahia, from Kihikihi. Ngati-Ruru (Te Awamutu) lost Hakopa, page 199 and Ngati-Raukawa the chief Mokau te Matapuna, of Orakau. “When the survivors returned to the Waikato,” says Te Huia Raureti, of Ngati-Maniapoto, “the grief of our people at this disaster was intense, and it was felt that the defeat could never be avenged in full.” The survivors did not return, however, without an effort to obtain utu for the loss of so many comrades. It was not many weeks after Mahoetahi before Ngati-Maniapoto and Waikato made a most determined attack upon No. 3 Redoubt at Huirangi, and only drew off after losing more than fifty men. The cumulative effect of these disasters was to heighten the war feeling throughout the Waikato and hasten the outbreak in the Auckland Province.

To this day a song of lamentation, composed by a woman named Hokepera for those killed at Mahoetahi, is heard among the people of Ngati-Maniapoto. This waiata (chanted to the writer by the two old comrades Te Huia Raureti and Pou-patate) is as follows:—

Kaore taku huhi, taku raru, ki a koutou,
E pa ma, e haupu mai ra!
Ka hua hoki au ki a Epiha ma e hui nei ki te runanga,
He kawe pai i te tika.
Kaore he mahi nui i nga maunga a Whiro kua wareware.

Haere ra, e Tima, i te riri kaihoro a Ngati-Haua;
Kaore i whakaaro ko te kupu pai a Haapurona.
Ko te aha, e Rau (Raureti), e Rewi, ma korua nei?
Heoi ano ra ma koutou he kawe tangata ki te Po,
Aue i te mamae ra—i!

Anea kau ana te whenua, tangi kotokoto ai te tai o Puniu.
E whakahakiri ana nga tohu o te rangi, e—e.
Kanapa kau ana te uira i runga o 'Tautari, te hiwi ki Rangitoto;
Ko te tohu o te mate ra—i!

Ka riro Paetai, Mokau, Tainui, Te Arawa, Raukawa, Motai—i!
E koa ra e rau tangata ka takoto kau to moni!
Tenei taku poho e tuwhera kau nei, he wai kokiringa mo
Kiri-kumara, te tangata whakanoho i te riri.
Te kino, e—e—i!


Alas! my grief, my woe! Alas, for you, my chieftains, lying in heaps on yonder mound of death! Ah! once I listened to Epiha and his chiefs in council; then I thought their words were laden with goodness and with truth. On the dark hills of Death their plans were brought to naught.

Farewell O Tima, overwhelmed in the flood of battle. 'Twas the fatal deed of Ngati-Haua, they who heeded not the wise counsel of Hapurona. What of your words, O Raureti, O Rewi? 'Tis enough that you have borne warriors down to the black night of Death. Ah me! the sorrow of it!

The land is swept by war's red tide. Mournfully roll the waters of Puniu; the waters sob as they flow. I heard the thunder's distant mutter, page 200 the rumbling omen of the sky. I saw the lightning's downward flash, the fire of portent, on Tautari's peak, on Rangitoto's mountain height—the finger of Death to the tribes!

Thou'rt gone, O Paetai! Thou'rt gone, O Mokau! Swept away are the heroes of Tainui, Te Arawa, Raukawa, Motai. Our foes in multitudes rejoice; the treasure is laid bare and desolate. See now my unprotected breast, naked to the spear of Kiri-kumara. 'Twas he who raised this storm of war. Alas! the evil of it!

The composer of this song of lamentation over the dead refers to the Maori belief that the passing of the spirits of chieftains was accompanied by thunder and lightning, and that the rumble of thunder along certain mountain-peaks was a portent of disaster or death to the people. The downward play of lightning upon sacred mountains was regarded as a sign that death would strike or had stricken members of the tribe. Thus Maunga-tautari was a maunga-hikonga-uria (lightning peak) of the Ngati-Raukawa Tribe; Rangitoto was the lightning mountain of the Ngati-Maniapoto.

Major-General Sir James Alexander narrates this story of Mokau te Matapuna's end: “Mokau, retreating, saw at the edge of it [the swamp] a friend lying mortally wounded. He stopped, and, though the avengers were close behind, he seized the hand of the dying man and stooped to say farewell and to press noses in the native fashion. Raising himself up, he himself was shot through the heart, and fell across the body of his friend. His noble act of friendship had thus a fatal result.”

The site of the Battle of Mahoetahi is easily identified to-day. The main road (Devon Road) from New Plymouth to Waitara cuts through the inland (south-east) end of the pa hill at seven miles and a half from New Plymouth. On the seaward end of the hill, which is about 60 feet high, trending at right angles to the road, there is a wire-fenced enclosure, with numerous large boulders scattered about, and the turf is uneven with the remains of olden trenches, rifle-pits, and sites of dug-in whares. This was the position stormed by the troops. On the slope of the hill facing New Plymouth is a smaller enclosure, with a large timber cross, lichencrusted. This is the sacred spot where nearly forty of the Maori defenders were buried. The inscription on the cross reads:—

He whakamaharatanga i nga Rangatira toa o Waikato a Wetini Taiporutu ma, i hinga ki konei tata i te Parekura i turia i te 6th Nowema, 1860.

The meaning of this legend is:—

“In remembrance of the brave chiefs of Waikato, of Wetini Taiporutu and his comrades, who fell close to this spot in the battle fought on the 6th November, 1860.”

On the reverse side of the hill, which presents a steeper slope than the western side, the ground falls to a narrow swamp, the place where so many of the Ngati-Haua made their last stand. The Devon Road intersects this part of the battlefield, and passes on the right the ancient settlement Nga-puke-tu-rua, with its two tree-grown mounds, on one of which a British stockade was built shortly after the engagement at Mahoetahi.