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

Chapter 7: The Attack on Ohaeawai

page 49

Chapter 7: The Attack on Ohaeawai

LIEUT.-COLONEL HULME'S expedition to Omapere was criticized in severe terms by professional men and lay observers alike. These criticisms were directed not so much against the officer commanding or the troops, whose courage and discipline could not have been higher, but against the ill-considered policy which had hurried an imperfectly equipped force into the wilds against an enemy of unknown strength.

It was now approaching midwinter, and the rains which make camp life in the north uncomfortable and reduce the tracks to bogs had set in heavily. The weather would not be favourable for campaigning for several months. Nevertheless, Governor Fitzroy and the military authorities resolved to recommence operations against Heke, fearing that the longer he was left unmolested the stronger would grow his forces.

Heke employed his respite in recruiting his war-parties and gathering in supplies of ammunition and food. He was not, however, left in peace, for the ever-active Waka Nene, with three or four hundred men at his command, was encamped between Okaihau and Ohaeawai, and intermittent fighting occurred early in June. In the heaviest engagement Heke received a severe gunshot wound in the thigh, and was rescued by a party led by the tohunga Te Atua Wera (whose atua, or familiar spirit, was the Nakahi, according to Ngapuhi stories). Each side lost five or six killed in this fight (12th June).

Early in June Fitzroy received reinforcements; the barque “British Sovereign” arrived at Auckland from Sydney with the headquarters of the 99th Regiment, numbering 209 officers and men, under Colonel Despard, who had seen some service in the East Indies. Colonel Despard took charge of all the troops in the colony and organized a new expedition. In the middle of June the transport fleet sailed from the Waitemata for the Bay of Islands. Disembarking at Onewhero Beach, Despard marched his force to Kerikeri mission station; the guns and stores were boated up the Kerikeri River by the “Hazard's” bluejackets. Thence page 50 the route was through Waimate to Ohaeawai; the objective was a fort which Heke and Pene Taui were reported to have built. The strength of the column, including seventy-five volunteers from the Auckland Militia and eighteen seamen and marines from H.M.S. “Hazard,” was 596 rank and file. Major Cyprian Bridge, commanding the 58th, had about 270 men under him, the largest unit in the column. Major Macpherson commanded two companies of the 99th Regiment, and Lieut.-Colonel Hulme a company of the 96th. Acting-Captain George Johnson, of the “Hazard,” with him Lieutenant George Phillpotts (the “Topi” of the Maoris), brought up the naval party to work the guns. These pieces of artillery were two 6-pounder brass guns and two 12-pounder carronades.

On the morning of the 23rd June the force marched from Waimate for Ohaeawai, seven miles away. This stage of the march was much impeded by the bad roads (or, rather, bullock-tracks), the unbridged creeks, and a deep swamp.

Waka's advance guard of Hokianga Maoris was the first to come under fire. The Ohaeawai garrison had sent out parties of skirmishers, and firing began when the forces had passed the tino of Taiamai (the remarkable rock from which the district takes its name) about a mile, and were ascending a gentle rise in the direction of Ohaeawai. Despard heard the sound of musketry on his right front, and moved rapidly forward with his advance guard (No. 9 Company of the 58th Regiment, under Lieutenant Balneavis). Some of the friendly natives accompanied the white skirmishers; with them marched Jackey Marmon, the white cannibal warrior. Volleys of musketry saluted Balneavis and his men. The advance was over rather rough ground, covered with high fern and manuka, with here and there a native cultivation. A tall stockade came in sight. At about 500 yards from the north face of the Maori fort the bugles sounded the halt. Here, on gently rising ground, within musket-range of the pa, Despard encamped.

Next morning (24th June), after reconnoitring his enemy's position, Despard prepared for a regular siege, and opened fire from his field-pieces. In the meantime we may leave him anxiously scanning the stockade with his spy-glass after each shot, and see for ourselves what manner of fortress this was that the followers of Kawiti and Heke now held in defiance of British musket, bayonet, and artillery.

Ohaeawai pa in its original form was the headquarters of the chief Pene Taui. He strengthened it after the fighting at Kororareka, realizing that his own district might before long become a theatre of war. After the Battle of Puketutu, Kawiti and Heke united with Pene Taui in converting Ohaeawai into a page 51 formidable fort, proof against artillery as well as musketry. Old Kawiti, wise in all matters of warfare, marked out the lines of the new fortification, which when completed more than doubled the size of the original stockade, and in Heke's absence he superintended the labour of hauling the puriri palisade timbers from the forest and setting them in position. The pa stood on elevated ground, a terrain well adapted for defence, except in one important detail: it was commanded by a conical hill about a third of a mile away on the north-west, a knoll about 300 feet higher than the site of the stockade. This hill, Puketapu, on the northern flank of a wooded range which rose immediately west of Ohaeawai, was partly covered with puriri groves. The ground fell quickly away from the pa on all flanks but the north; the track from Waimate to Kaikohe passed under its eastern front, where the main road runs to-day. The ground sloped very gradually on the north, and it was that side, facing the quarter from which attack was expected, that the garrison made particularly strong. Eastward was the forest. Through the valley which half-encircled the pa hill on the west and north-west sides flowed a small stream, intersecting the Kaikohe track. Beyond this stream on the west swelled the ranges in a cloud of forest. On the partly cleared land to the north, where the British camp was pitched, stood many a large puriri. One of those puriri, still standing, could tell us, had it a tongue like Jason's talking-oak, of Despard's council of war held beneath its boughts, and of the shells and round shot which the guns of 1845 sent over its head. One of those shots fell short—there was many a defective charge—and smashed off the old tree's top branch.

The fort was oblong in form, with salients on each face and at two of the angles (south-east and south-west, giving the garrison an enfilading fire in every direction. The greatest axis was east and west; the distance from the eastern to the western-most palisade was a little over 100 yards. The shortest flank, the western, measured 40 yards; the eastern 43 yards. The original and the newer sections of the pa did not run on a continuous alignment; Kawiti's portion was constructed slightly en echelon, projecting a few yards on the south beyond the eastern division of the pa. The palisades and trench, however, made an uninterrupted defence, and the numerous projections gave an admirably complete flanking fire; therein shone the innate military engineering genius of the Maori. Part of the lines was defended by three lines of stockade timbers; on two faces the palisade was double. The outer wall, the pekerangi, or curtain, was formed of stout timbers, most of them whole trees, sunk deeply in the ground at short intervals, with saplings and split timbers closely set between the larger posts, all bound firmly page 52 together with cross-rails and torotoro, or bush-vines. The smaller timbers did not quite reach the ground; it was through the spaces left that the defenders fired from their shelter in the trench behind the second palisade. The outer defence was completed by the masking of the timber wall with green flax, as at Puketutu. The stockading was 10 to 15 feet in height; it was covered from a foot above the ground to the height of 8 or 10 feet with a thick mantlet of green flax-leaves tightly bound to the palisades. This padding of harakeke not only afforded considerable protection by deadening the impact of bullets, but masked the real strength of the stockade.

The second line of stockade, the kiri-tangata (“the warrior's skin”), was stronger than even the well-constructed pekerangi; every timber was set in the ground to a depth of about 5 feet, and rose above ground to a height corresponding with that of the outer line. Many of the palisades so planted, set close together, were whole puriri trees a foot or 15 inches in diameter—some were even larger—and some when cut and hauled from the forest must have been quite 20 feet in length. This line of stockade was loopholed; the apertures for the Maori musketry fire were formed by taking a V scarf with the axe out of the two contiguous timbers. These loopholes were on the ground-level; and the Maori musketeer, pointing his gun through the aperture, was thus able to deliver his fire under the foot of the pekerangi without in the least exposing himself. The distance between the two fences was 3 feet. The trench in which the musketeer squatted was 5 to 6 feet deep and 4 or 5 feet wide, with earth banquette on which the defenders stood to fire, and traverses at intervals of about 2 yards, with narrow communicating-trench between each, admitting of only one man passing at a time. The venerable Rihara Kou, of Kaikohe, describing it, said: “We could travel right round the pa in the trench, winding in and out” (“haere kopikopiko ana”).

Within the double stockade and the firing-trench again, on a portion of the front at least, there was a third line of timbers, a palisade about 10 feet high, against the outer side of which the earth thrown from the ditch was heaped. Inside all these defences were the living-quarters of the garrison—the warriors, and the wives and daughters who had come to cook for them and make their cartridges. These quarters were all underground, and were made shell-proof by being covered with heavy timbers, branches of trees, and earth. The roofs of some were built with the slope of the usual low whare, and the soil from the excavations was heaped up against them and over their tops until they seemed mere mounds of earth. These subterranean chambers (ruas, or pits, the Maoris called them) were usually 6 feet deep; page 53
Ground Plan of Ohaeawai Pa

Ground Plan of Ohaeawai Pa

Showing north-west angle attacked by British storming-parties (1st July, 1845)

Section of Stockade and Trenches

Section of Stockade and Trenches

Flax-masked Palisade

Flax-masked Palisade

page 54 some were as large as a good-sized wharepuni, about 30 feet long and 20 feet wide. The garrison were completely sheltered here, as in the trench, until Despard's guns were mounted on the hill to the north-west, and even then few of the Maoris were hit by the plunging fire.

To these skilfully planned defences, evolved out of the Maori's brain, ever resourceful in devices to combat new weapons, there was added a battery of artillery. To be sure, it was a scrap-iron battery: it consisted of four old ship's guns gathered from one quarter and another, but it gave a finishing touch to the fortress. Two of the pieces were iron 9-pounders; the others were smaller iron guns, a 4-pounder and a 2-pounder swivel. The two smaller guns had been brought in bullock-drays by Heke and his friends from the Bay of Islands. One of the weapons had been taken as spoils of war from Kororareka after the fight of the 11th March. One of the 9-pounders had a curious history: it was one of two which the Maoris commandeered from the Waimate mission station. The history goes back to the year 1823, when the ship “Brampton,” which had brought out the Rev. Henry Williams and his family, went to pieces on a reef, which now bears her name, outside Kororareka Bay. After the ship had been abandoned, two of the guns with which she was armed were brought to Paihia, the mission station opposite Russell, and were used there for firing salutes; afterwards they were taken to Waimate.

One of the 9-pounders found after the siege stood in a square bastion facing the east, close to the south-east angle of the pa. Another was mounted at an angle on the northern front, facing the encampment of the troops. One of the smaller pieces stood in an embrasure on the same front, about 70 feet from the north-west angle. The other gun, so far as can be gathered, was mounted in the small bastion at the south-west angle.*

* In comparing the Maori fortresses with the contemporary defensive works of other primitive races we find the closest resemblance to the New Zealand pa in the stockades of two far-severed peoples—the Burmese and the Indians of some of the western States in North America. In the first Burmese War (1824) the British soldiers were confronted by immense jungle stockades, built sometimes of very large tree-trunks, and defended also by an abattis of pointed stakes and felled trees. It was found necessary to breach these stockades with artillery. In Catlin's “North American Indians” a Mandan village on the Upper Missouri is described. This fort was built on a precipitous cliff 40 or 50 feet high. The stockade was built of timbers a foot or more in diameter and 18 feet high, set firmly in the ground at a sufficient distance apart to admit of guns being fired between them. “The ditch, unlike that of civilized modes of fortification,” Catlin wrote, “is inside of the picquet, in which the warriors screen their bodies from the view and weapons of their enemies whilst they are reloading and discharging their weapons through the picquets.” Exactly this plan of defence was adopted by the Maoris in the New Zealand wars.

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The Maori garrison of the pa was considerably out-numbered by the troops. The strength of the defenders varied from time to time, as men were continually passing between the stockade and Kaikohe, five or six miles in the rear. A strong bodyguard had been sent with the wounded Heke to Tautoro, a safe place of retreat some fourteen miles away, close to the beautiful mountain lake of Tauanui, or Kereru, with its sacred islet. The natives say that when Despard delivered his assault on the 1st July there were not more than a hundred men in the pa. The principal hapus composing the garrison were: Ngati-Rangi, under Pene Taui; Ngati-Tautahi, of Kaikohe, under Tuhirangi (elder brother of Heke); Ngati-Whakaeke, Ngati-te-Rehu, and Ngati-te-Rangi, all Heke's hapus; Ngati-Kawa, of Oromahoe; and Te Uri-Taniwha, of Te Ahuahu; also Ngati-Hine, led by Kawiti.

Picture the interior of Ohaeawai stockade that midwinter of 1845. The northerly gale brings a thin but searching rain; squalls sometimes obscure the battlefield in a driving mist. The troops in their leaky tents and their roughly made manuka shelters are uncomfortably damp; in the securely roofed dugouts within the stockade the Maoris are snug and dry. The floors of the ruas are thickly spread with soft fern and flax mats. In the store-pits are heaps of potatoes and kumara, baskets of dried eels, preserved pigeons, shell-fish from the Kawakawa. In the larger of the semi-subterranean huts are fires burning, fed with manuka branches and heaps of Kapia, or kauri-gum. At some of these fires women and boys are roasting potatoes; at others men are cleaning and polishing their flint-lock muskets and percussion-cap guns. In the safety of the deeper dugouts groups are busy making cartridges, filling the thick paper holders from small kegs of gunpowder; others are melting lead into bullets, using moulds either bought from the trading-houses before the war or looted last March from the stores at Kororareka. There is no lack of powder or of bullets; even after hostilities had begun and after a blockade of the Bay of Islands had been established the Maoris had little difficulty in finding white traders and captains of coasting-vessels or timber-ships (chiefly at Hokianga) ready to supply ammunition at war prices.

Observe these half-stripped fort-builders and gun-fighters of Ngapuhi, the pick of Maori manhood. Tall fellows, with the shoulders and chests of athletes and the straight backs of soldiers; quick darting eyes, always on the alert; clean-shaven faces thickly scrolled with the blue-black tattoo lines of the moko. Some of the veterans have scarcely an inch of skin on cheeks and nose and brow and chin clear of the deeply cut lines of tattoo; their tapu heads are a marvel of savage carving. There are boys here page 56
From a water-colour drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge] The Ohaeawai Stockade

From a water-colour drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge]
The Ohaeawai Stockade

page 57 only just entering their teens. Yonder is a youngster of twelve proudly handling a hakimana, a single-barrel percussion-cap musket; it is his first gun, and he is waiting with mingled impatience and excitement for his share of ammunition that will enable him to take his place in the fire-trenches. (The Maori took to the war-path young; so, indeed, did most people living a primitive or semi-primitive life. In the American backwoods in the old Indian fighting-days the settler's son often was already a veteran at an age when most boys are at school. “A boy of the wilderness,” Sir George Otto Trevelyan wrote in “The American Revolution,” “so soon as he had passed his twelfth birthday, was recognized as part of the garrison of the farm, and was allotted his loophole in the stockade which encircled it.” In G. M. Trevelyan's “Garibaldi and the Making of Italy” mention is made of a Sicilian boy of twelve who behaved with such admirable courage in the Battle of Milazzo (1860) that Garibaldi made him a sergeant on the field.)

Here is dour old Kawiti, hero of many fights, burning to avenge the death of his son on the battlefield of Puketutu. Here is that most daring of Ngapuhi tomahawk-men, young Riwhitete Pokai, his two bayonet-wounds received at Puketutu scarcely healed yet. Here is Ruatara Tauramoko, of the blue-blooded clan known as the Uri-Taniwha (“Children of Sea-monsters”); clean-limbed, square-shouldered, symmetrically tattooed, he looks the perfect type of a New Zealand warrior. One of his comrades, Wi te Parihi, or Pirihonga, is a man of an alien tribe, the Arawa; he was brought here as a captive long ago, but his merits have won for him a high place among his captor's people; he and Pokai are spoken of to this day with admiration as Heke's two greatest toas, or braves. And in the trenches also you may see one or two young musketeers whose skin is curiously light in contrast with the dark curves of the tattoo; they are half-castes.*

* Ruatara, like his comrade Pokai, showed the warrior spirit to the last. In his old age, at Tautoro, he preserved with pride his armoury of seven guns—of all makes and periods, from flint-locks to modern rifles—which he kept carefully cleaned and polished, always in readiness for use if needed. Like Pokai, too, he took delight in teaching the younger generation the use of arms. In 1901 he was one of the northern chiefs in the great Maori gathering at Rotorua to welcome King George V (then Duke of Cornwall and York). The tall old tattooed warrior made a picturesque figure of the past as bareheaded and barefooted he marched up and laid his most treasured heirloom, a whalebone hoeroa or broadsword, at Royalty's feet.

Rihara Kou, of Kaikohe, now about ninety years of age, was in the trenches at Ohaeawai, using his first gun; he would then be about twelve years of age. Rihara is the last survivor of the defenders of Ohaeawai and Rua-pekapeka. He is a good type of the Ngapuhi, with a fine, intelligent, shrewd face and long snowy hair and beard.

page 58
From a photo, April, 1922]Rihara Kou, of Kaikohe Last survivor of the defenders of Ohaeawai.

From a photo, April, 1922]
Rihara Kou, of Kaikohe
Last survivor of the defenders of Ohaeawai.

The first British battery, protected by a breastwork, was placed about 100 yards in front of Despard's camp, on gently rising ground, and the first gun was fired at 8 a.m. on the 24th June. The fire was kept up from the four guns during the greater part of the day, but with little effect upon the stockade.

New emplacements were made; one battery was not more than 100 yards from the stockade. The guns made no impression on the stockade, and the only casualties were those suffered by the troops. Despard at last wrote to Acting-Captain George Johnson, of H.M.S. “Hazard,” which was anchored in the mouth of the Kerikeri River, requesting him to send up one of his 32-pounders.

Meanwhile some ingenious artilleryman, racking his wits for means of more effective attack, bethought him of the empty shell-cases. Could they be converted into stench bombs or balls, with short time-fuses, and fired from the mortars? Colour-Sergeant R. Hattaway, of the 58th, narrated the incident. Two old soldiers were sent to assist in the manufacture of the balls or shells; the experiment was regarded with high hopes by the artillery officers. “The shells,” wrote Hattaway, “contained some poisonous substance the effect of which was expected to deprive the rebels of all animation, and leave them a prey to the European victors. As day by day passed away and nothing occurred to disturb the natives in their stronghold it was concluded that the project had been a failure.”

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This curious experiment, the first and only instance of the use of poison-gas in New Zealand, was attended with no better success than the other means adopted for the capture of the pa. The composition of the “stench-balls” remains a mystery; unknown also is the number of these shells delivered to the Maoris by vertical fire. The expectation was that the mortars, with their 45° angle of fire, would land the poison-shells within the trenches or the dugouts, where their explosion would produce stupefaction as well as consternation. Wherever they exploded, they failed to produce any noticeable ill effect upon the Maoris.