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

The Ambush at Wairau

The Ambush at Wairau

The first shot in the second Taranaki campaign was fired on the 4th May, 1863. The Taranaki and Ngati-Ruanui planned ambuscades to cut off communications between Tataraimaka and New Plymouth, and warnings of these intended ambush tactics had been sent to the authorities in New Plymouth by friendly natives, but were lightly regarded. Sir George Grey was in the habit of riding out to the military post at Tataraimaka (fifteen miles from New Plymouth), and on the morning of the 4th May a party of thirty or forty young warriors lay in ambush waiting for the Governor and his party, who were expected to pass along the beach road that day. Among the ambush-party was the young half-caste Hori Teira, already mentioned as one of the keepers of the Maori toll-gate. His father was a ship's carpenter, and his birthplace Kororareka, Bay of Islands. Hori was a lad of eighteen. He had been educated at the mission school, and had been brought down to Taranaki by his mother's people just before the war began.

The ambuscade was laid on the coast just beyond the Oakura, at a place where two small streams, the Waimouku and the Wairau, flow down to the shingly beach. (The spot is on the farm of Captain Frank Mace.) Low but thick bush and brushwood grew close to the beach here, and in its cover between the mouths of the two streams, which are not more than 100 yards apart, the page 223 Maoris awaited their unsuspecting enemy. The Governor did not pass that day, but a small military party did. This was an escort of the 57th taking a prisoner of the regiment into New Plymouth from Tataraimaka. There were six soldiers, under Colour-Sergeant Ellers and Sergeant S. Hill. With them also were travelling two officers, Lieutenant Tragett and Assistant - Surgeon Hope, who were mounted. The officers were riding along the beach a little ahead of the soldiers. Young Hori and his companions lying in ambush let the mounted men pass by, and then fired a volley into the detachment of soldiers at a range of a few yards. Hori, relating the story, said that to his astonishment the British officers, instead of making their escape as they could easily have done, turned their horses and joined the soldiers, and so they, too, were shot down. Nine were killed, and the only man who escaped was Private Florence Kelly. A Maori named Tukino fired at one of the officers, Dr. Hope, and shot him in the face. Tukino immediately raised a yell of “Mate rawa!” (“He is killed!”) but the officer rose and confronted his enemies again. Thereupon Hori Teira and some of his comrades fired and shot him dead. The young half-caste rushed out to plunder the dead officer—his first blood, or mataika. It was the first man he had helped to slay. He took a watch and chain and a ring from Dr. Hope's body, and two rifles from the dead soldiers.

It was a war custom among the Taranaki Maoris that any plunder or trophies taken from a foe whom a warrior had killed in his first battle—the “first fish”—should not be retained by the slayer, but should be given away to some other person in order to avert ill luck. It was inviting an aitua (a serious misfortune, even death) to keep the first spoils of war. So, on returning to the Maori headquarters, Hori was advised by the chiefs and elders to give away his war-trophies, and so placate the war-god. Hori insisted on wearing the watch and ring, declaring that they were too valuable and fine to be given away because of an old-fashioned superstition.

The ill-gotten ring brought its aitua. Three weeks after the ambuscade at the Wairau a small party of young warriors, of whom Hori Teira was one, laid another ambuscade near the Poutoko Redoubt, about eight miles from New Plymouth. They attacked a mounted officer, Lieutenant Waller, of the 57th. His horse was hit, and both fell. Hori, imagining that the officer was mortally wounded, and yelling “Ki au te tupapaku!” (“Mine is the dead man!”) rushed out, dropping his rifle, and snatched out his short-handled tomahawk to deliver the finishing blow. But the officer was by no means a dead man. Jumping to his feet, he drew his revolver and fired several shots at Hori. One struck the young half-caste in the side. He was not seriously page 224 wounded, but he could not retreat, as his comrades did when a force sallied out from the redoubt. Hori was captured and identified as one of the Maoris who had ambushed Dr. Hope and his party. The fatal ring was on his finger, the watch was in his pocket, and one of the rifles was identified as Dr. Hope's. He was charged with murder—although in Maori eyes this ambush was thoroughly in accordance with the rules of war—was tried and found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. He was taken to Auckland for execution, but his sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life. In prison a white man came to see him. This was Mr. Robert Graham, Superintendent of the Province of Auckland, the “Lord Worsley” passenger whom Hori had befriended on the Taranaki coast the previous year. Hori had cast his bread upon the waters. Mr. Graham rejoiced in the opportunity of repaying the kindness. He persuaded the Governor to reduce the sentence. Hori was released after serving four years, and he went no more upon the war-path.*

The war renewed, troops were again moved to Taranaki. The Militia and the Volunteers were once more required for guard and patrol duty around New Plymouth.

At the beginning of June more effective methods of frontier warfare were introduced by the formation of settler and Volunteer corps for the special purpose of following the Maoris into the bush and clearing the country surrounding the town of hostile bands. page 225
The Battlefield of Katikara (1863)

The Battlefield of Katikara (1863)

The soul of these free-roving tactics was Captain Harry Atkinson. His party of fifty men of No. 2 Company, Taranaki Rifles, was the first corps of forest rangers to take the field in New Zealand. The force, as the war went on, was increased to two companies, and was styled the Taranaki Bush Rangers. Day after day Atkinson led out his war-party of practised bushmen-settlers and scoured the forest and the native tracks, and soon had the country free from hostiles for a radius of many a mile from New Plymouth. The Bush Rangers were armed with Terry breech-loading carbines and revolvers. Atkinson's principal fellow-officers in this highly useful commission were Captain F. Webster and Lieutenants Brown, Jones, McKellar, and Messenger.