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

Chapter 6: The Fighting at Omapere

page 39

Chapter 6: The Fighting at Omapere

“No one knew, though there were many who were wise after the event, that these tribesmen (the Mamunds) were as well armed as the troops, or that they were the brave and formidable enemies they proved themselves to be. ‘Never despise your enemies,’ is an old lesson, but it has to be learnt afresh, year after year, by every nation that is warlike and brave.”—“The Story of the Malakand Field Force,” by Winston Churchill.

“WE EXPECTED TO make short work of Johnny Heke,” said an old soldier of the 58th describing to me his march to Lake Omapere. But the difficulties of the undertaking so confidently essayed increased as the objective was approached and the military character of the Maori loomed formidably in the British warrior's vision. The unpropitious season heightened the troubles of the commander, whose deficiencies in artillery and commissariat were fatal to any chances of success. The greatest blunder of all, the failure to bring even the lightest of ship's guns, although there was a cart-road for the greater part of the way from Kerikeri to the lake, condemned the expedition to failure. This became fully apparent to the sanguine Hulme on the second day after his arrival on the terrain which Heke had selected as the battle-ground.

The country in which the rival armed bands of Heke and Waka Nene had pitched their fortified camps was an ideal region for military operations. Towards Lake Omapere the land was a gently undulating plain covered with manuka shrubbery, fern, flax, and tutu bushes, and adorned with numerous groves of the hardwood puriri, oak-like in the spread of its branches. To the east lay the plains and hills of Taiamai, the delectable land of the central Ngapuhi tribes. What swamps there existed were not large and could readily be avoided; streams were numerous but small. Many of these little rivers issued from fissures in the volcanic hillside, welling down cold and crystal-clear through the Maori cultivations that alternated with the wilderness of fern and tutu. The landscape was diversified with many a bold volcanic cone. Most conspicuous of these was Te Ahuahu (“Heaped Up”), otherwise known as Puke-nui (“Big Hill”), a long-extinct page 40
Scenes of Engagements, Bay of Islands District, 1845–46

Scenes of Engagements, Bay of Islands District, 1845–46

volcano now grassed to its saucer-shaped summit. It rises from the levels near the northern shore of the lake; its height is over 1,200 feet. In the fighting which immediately preceded the arrival of the troops in May, 1845, Tamati Waka Nene fortified a position on this hill. To the west lay Okaihau, with its dense woods of puriri; to the south-west the Utakura Stream, issuing from the lake, coursed swiftly down to the harbour of Hokianga. Tamati Waka's first palisaded pa, before he shifted to the Ahuahu Hill, was built near Okaihau Forest, in order to check Heke's progress westward to the Hokianga headwaters.

There had been considerable fighting in the month of April between Heke's warriors and the hapus friendly to the whites, extending over this open country between Okaihau and Te Ahuahu. Heke's force numbered about three hundred men; his ally Kawiti joined in with another hundred and fifty towards the end of April. To these combined war-parties were opposed about four hundred men under Tamati Waka, Mohi Tawhai and Arama Karaka Pi, from Hokianga; Taonui, Nopera, Pana-kareao, and other chiefs loyal to the Treaty. Besides Waka's fortified camp, two stockades were built by Taonui and his tribe from Utakura, Hokianga, and by Mohi Tawhai and his Mahurehure hapu from Waima. All these three forts were close together for mutual support. Two or three white men joined Waka Nene in the field as volunteers. One of these was the afterwards celebrated Judge F. E. Maning, the author of “Old New Zealand.” He was page 41 a tall athletic man, whom nothing delighted so much as this opportunity of free-lance fighting. A comrade of Maning's was John Webster, of Opononi, Hokianga—a settler who had already seen much of wild life in Australia, where he fought the blacks and drove cattle on long overland journeys; in after-years he cruised with Ben Boyd in the schooner-yacht “Wanderer.” Webster brought to Waka's help a rifle (a novel weapon in those days) and two hundred home-made cartridges; and when shooting began he took his place in the rifle-pits with the warriors of Hokianga. In the fighting at Ohaeawai a little later both he and Maning shared. And another white warrior came in with his gun. This was Jackey Marmon, a wild figure, and the chief actor in many a bloody episode of old New Zealand. He was an ex-convict from the chain gangs of Sydney; he had settled among the Maoris in the days when New Zealand was a “No Man's Land,” fought in their wars, and even shared in their cannibal feasts; his fondness for human flesh was notorious among both Maori and pakeha in the “thirties” and early “forties.” In his war-paint of red ochre, with bare chest and arms tattooed, his shaggy head decked out with feathers, musket slung across his back, cartouche-box belts buckled around him, a long-handled tomahawk in his hand, he looked the perfect picture of a savage warrior.

The intertribal skirmishing went on until the arrival of the troops on the evening of the 6th May. Heke's pa, Puketutu (sometimes spoken of as “Te Mawhe,” although the hill of that name is some distance to the north-east), was now the immediate objective of attack; hitherto the fighting had been in open country between the opposing camps.

Very little remains to-day to mark Puketutu pa, the scene of the first British attack upon an inland Maori fort; the scene, too, of the first regular British charge with the bayonet against a Maori foe. The main road from the Bay of Islands, via Ohaeawai, to Te Horeke, Hokianga, cuts through the site of the northern part of Heke's pa, about three miles before Okaihau Township is reached. The fortification measured about 120 yards each way; it was a rectangle, with several salients or flanking bastions, of varied outline; from these each side of the pa could be completely enfiladed. There appear to have been three lines of palisading along part of the defences. The stockades were constructed of stout puriri trunks and saplings; the outer posts were from 5 inches to 10 inches in diameter, and carefully loopholed. A high breastwork was thrown up inside the inner fence; the trench from which the earth was dug was about 5 feet in depth; it separated the inner and middle lines of palisade. The foot of the pekerangi, about 15 feet high, was strengthened with a facing of rocks and page 42 stones gathered from the volcanic-lava debris which lay thickly around; this was a variation from the usual Maori method of leaving the foot of the pekerangi open for the garrison's fire. Another innovation—used at Ohaeawai also—was the coating of the outer wall with green flax. A large portion of the face of the palisade was reinforced in this way: large quantities of the native harakeke, or flax, were cut and tied in bundles; these bundles were closely and tightly lashed along the face of the timbers just above the roughly piled stone buttress. Thus fastened, the flax formed a padding or fender more than man-high along the stockade, and the smooth, thick leaves so tightly packed prevented any bullets from entering through crevices in the war-fence. The pa, however, was not quite finished when it was attacked, and had it been reconnoitred carefully it would probably have been found comparatively vulnerable in the rear and on the eastern flank.

On the morning of the 8th May Lieut.-Colonel Hulme advanced his force. By 9 a.m. he had placed his redcoat reserve behind a low ridge within 300 yards of Heke's pa, and ordered three parties of assault to take up their positions. The first of these parties consisted of the seamen of the frigates “Hazard” and “North Star,” under the command of Acting-Commander George Johnson, formerly of the “North Star” and at this time in temporary command of the “Hazard” (in place of Captain Robertson, disabled at Kororareka). The second party was the Light Company of the 58th Regiment, under Captain Denny; the third was composed of a detachment of Royal Marines and some men of the 96th Regiment, under Lieutenant and Adjutant McLerie (58th Regiment).

As the troops moved forward with fixed bayonets fire was opened upon them from two faces of the pa. One party, taking the pa in rear, marched between it and the lake, and reached a gentle rise within 200 yards of the fort and just above the lake. The rocket-tube from which so much was expected was now placed in position on the north-west side of the pa, at a distance of about 150 yards. Twelve rockets were fired by Lieutenant Egerton (“North Star”) and his bluejackets without any effect.

Kawiti, who had hastened to Heke's aid with a body of about three hundred men, had halted less than a quarter of a mile from the eastern side of the pa, where he lay in ambush under the brow of a low undulation. An advanced party of his men held a small breastwork. The troops on the hill advanced their right flank and drove the Maoris from the shelter, which was then manned by a detachment of soldiers. About noon Hone Ropiha (John Hobbs, named after the Wesleyan missionary at Hokianga), a friendly scout and guide, who had led the 58th and the sailors round the page 43
From a drawing by Sergeant J. Williams (58th Regt.)] The Battle of Puketutu (8th May, 1845)

From a drawing by Sergeant J. Williams (58th Regt.)] The Battle of Puketutu (8th May, 1845)

page 44 edge of the lake in rear of the pa to the small hill overlooking Omapere, detected Kawiti's war-party lying in ambush within 50 yards of the troops. The soldiers turned and fired a volley, and then charged with the bayonet, inflicting severe loss on Ngati-Hine.

A British ensign was hoisted on a tall flagstaff in the stockade, then up went Heke's red fighting-flag. This colour was hoisted and hauled down several times, evidently as a signal to Kawiti outside the pa.

The meaning was soon made clear. The chorus of a war-song came across the battlefield, accompanied by the clash of firearms and the thud of hundreds of feet. Heke's warriors were stimulating themselves for the charge by a preliminary tutu-ngarahu. Forming up within the walls, unseen by their foes, they leaped into the action of the dance, led by Heke himself, and this was the chant they yelled (as given by the old man Rawiri te Ruru, of Te Ahuahu):—

Ka eke i te wiwi;
Ka eke i te wawa;
Ka eke i te papara hu-ai;
Rangi-tumu huia.
A ha—ha!

This song was used in ancient days before charging up to the assault of an enemy's fortification. Its meaning was: “We'll reach the outer palisade; we'll storm the inner defence; then we'll storm the citadel; ah! then the chiefs will fall before us!”

The war-song was repeated with enormous vigour: “E—e! Ka eke i te wiwi!” Then the warriors chanted all together as they leaped this way and that, with upthrust guns, this centuries-old battle-song:—

U-uhi mai te waero,
Ko roto ki taku puta.
He puta nui te puta,
He puta roa te puta,
U—u! Weku, weku!
Weku mai te hiore!

And out through an opening in the rear of the stockade charged a hundred and fifty Ngapuhi with double-barrel guns and long-handled tomahawks. Their leader was Haratua, of Pakaraka. Kawiti was ready, and with his whole body, numbering probably three hundred, he joined Heke in an assault upon the British.

Captain Denny, commanding the Light Company of the 58th, who were in skirmishing order on the south-east of the pa and were now cut off from the main body by Heke's kokiri, gave the order to his men to close on the centre; then, “Fix bayonets—Charge!” The British dash was irresistible; the Maoris were page 45
From a portrait at Kaikohe by S. Stuart]Riwhitete Pokai

From a portrait at Kaikohe by S. Stuart]
Riwhitete Pokai

forced back to the cover in the low bush. The force in reserve fired on Heke's men as they advanced to take the troops in the rear, and checked their rush towards the rise above the lake; those who reached that spot were shot or bayoneted. Brave old Kawiti, charging at the head of his warriors, striving to drive the troops into the lake, was forced back with heavy loss; one of his sons was killed (one had fallen at Kororareka); many other men were killed or wounded. Kawiti himself was slightly wounded, was run over by the soldiers, and narrowly missed death. Nor did the troops escape; several were killed and many wounded. Kawiti's men tomahawked some of the wounded. The British, on their side, gave no quarter.

The “Retire” was sounded. Kawiti once more came to the page 46 charge, dashing upon the troops with desperate courage, Heke in the meantime had withdrawn his men to the pa. It could end only in one way when the British got to work with the bayonet in the open field. But even now, though repeatedly driven back, the warriors outside the pa did not entirely relinquish the battle. They skirmished from cover until the soldiers were at last withdrawn by sound of bugle.

It was now 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The skirmishing, alternating with heavy bayonet fighting, had lasted for more than four hours. Firing was maintained from the pa, and replied to by the troops on the western and north-west sides, till about sunset.

In the British retirement to the camp at Tamati Waka's pa the killed were left behind. Heavy rain came on; it was nearly dark by the time the fight ended. The bodies of thirteen soldiers and sailors strewed the ferny levels about the pa and the slopes above the lake; another man, a seaman of the “Hazard,” died later from his wounds. The wounded numbered forty-four; they were carried off by their comrades along the edge of the lake through heavy fire.

Night was now approaching, and when the fatigued, wet, and famishing troops left the field their foes were already at their evening prayers; and the last sound the soldiers and sailors heard as they marched off was a hymn chanted by hundreds of voices rising through the air still pungent with gunpowder smoke. So ended the Battle of Puketutu—a virtual victory for the Maoris, for they retained possession of their pa.

The Maori loss was severe. The exact casualties were not ascertained, but at least thirty must have been killed and many wounded. For weeks after that day's fighting the Ngapuhi women and bush-doctors were busy tending men suffering from severe bayonet and gunshot wounds. A favourite method of treating such injuries was to bathe the wound with the boiled juice of flax-root and then plug it up with a dressing of clay. Such rough-and-ready surgical treatment would probably have killed the average white man, but the Maori usually made a quick recovery. Many of the best warriors of the north fell that day. One who received two bayonet-thrusts but survived to fight again was Riwhitete Pokai, of Kaikohe, Heke's relative and lieutenant. Even in his old age Pokai was a splendid specimen of the warriors of Ngapuhi.

Hulme found it impossible to resume hostilities on the following day. His commissariat was exhausted; there were no accommodation and comforts for the wounded; men were falling sick from wet, cold, and want of food; heavy rain soaked the ground, made travelling difficult, and depressed the spirits of all. The page 47
From a water-colour drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge] The British Attack on the Kapotai Pa, Waikare Inlet, Bay of Islands (15th May, 1845)

From a water-colour drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge]
The British Attack on the Kapotai Pa, Waikare Inlet, Bay of Islands (15th May, 1845)

Colonel therefore decided upon a retreat as soon as litters could be made for the wounded.

On the day following the fight the Rev. R. Burrows rode in to Puketutu from Waimate—he had viewed the operations the previous day from the mountain Pukenui—and in the drenching rain, at Heke's request, he carried out the duty of collecting and burying the dead soldiers. Heke's men assisted him. Eleven bodies were brought from the spots where they fell, and were buried in the trench which Kawiti's warriors had dug on the eastern slope of the battlefield. The other two soldiers were buried about a third of a mile away, near the shore of the lake and not far from the pa. Hulme returned to Kerikeri and the Bay, and landed his wounded at Auckland on the 14th May.

Major Cyprian Bridge (58th), who had been left in command at the Bay, organized a boat expedition, and early on the 15th May attacked the pa of the Kapotai Tribe on one of the head creeks of the Waikare Inlet. He burned the pa while the friendly Maoris, under Tamati Waka, fought the Kapotai in the bush. Hauraki, a young Hokianga chief on Waka's side, brother-in-law to F. E. Maning, was mortally wounded in this skirmish.

page 48

The site of Puketutu pa is perfectly level land, and is intersected by the main road at three miles from Ohaeawai, where the highway closely approaches the rushy margin of Omapere Lake, here not more than 150 yards distant. When I visited the place (1919) the historic spot might have been passed unnoticed had it not been for the guidance of the old man Rawiri te Ruru, of Te Ahuahu. Rawiri stopped when we had reached the place where the road nears a little bay of the lake, and said, “This is where the pa stood.” On the right-hand side of the road we saw the ruined rifle-pits and earth parapets that formed part of the defences of the northern bastion, with scattered stones that once were heaped against the pekerangi to strengthen its face. The large trenches are still 4 to 5 feet deep. The main portion of the trench still traceable is fourteen paces in length, extending at right angles to the road in a northerly direction, and is 5 feet wide; a mound or parapet separates it from two inner pits of lesser size; from the bottom of these trenches to the top of the parapet the height is 6 feet. The stones of the outer work are scattered about in the bottom of the ditches and among the stunted furze. In the fern and grass on the left-hand side of the road, too, we find some of these ancient stones that helped to stop the big-bore round balls of the Tower musket era. In the paddock that gently slopes from the road down to the lake cattle are grazing over the old battle-ground, where there are faint indications of trenches the field, though ploughed over many times, retains the slight undulation that marks the war-ditches dug by Heke's warriors. The hill of Puketutu, from which the pa takes its name, is a gentle rise about half a mile distant, in the direction of Ohaeawai. A little farther to the north-east is Mawhe, a rounded hill, still in part covered with puriri groves; this, too, was a fighting-ground contested by Tamati Waka and Heke.

Riwhitete Pokai died at Kaikohe in 1903, aged about eighty-five years. He was in charge of one of the war-parties detailed for the final attack on the flagstaff at Kororareka in 1845. To his last days he retained the warrior instinct and the alert wariness of his youth, and was fond of instructing the young men of Ngapuhi in the art of war as he had practised it. His rifle and muskets were always kept ready for use. His kinsmen tell of a characteristic trait of the veteran. He slept “with one ear awake,” and kept beside him an ancient sword-stick, which King William IV had sent to Titore. At any unusual noise in or near his room he would leap from his bed and lunge out fiercely with his weapon in the darkness at his imaginary enemy.