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Hero Stories of New Zealand

A Can of Cold Water — The Heroine of the Gate Pa

page 120

A Can of Cold Water
The Heroine of the Gate Pa

QUIET Tauranga town, pleasant place of tree-groves and gardens and pretty homes, on its green tongue of land overlooking a white-beached harbour, was a great military camp in the early months of 1864. Ngai-te-Rangi were out, almost to a man, for the Maori King; so were the Piri-Rakau, the tribe of bush-dwellers, whose homes were along the forest fringe of the broken ranges that made a blue skyline in rear of the Bay of Plenty slopes. The red clay of the redoubts was still raw on the waterfront of Te Papa; bell tents whitened the peninsula; tall-masted warships lay at anchor down the harbour, and boats came in to the beach with load after load of bearded soldiers in their blue serge field-dress, the British Tommy of the era when they tied them up and flogged them for getting drunk and when Tommy worshipped his officer as a being of another world. Artillery rumbled along; General Cameron's siege batteries from the Waikato were assembled to throw shot and shell into Maori entrenchments that were little more than dug-open rabbit burrows on a man-size scale.

Up yonder, a bare two miles from the big camp, were those rabbit burrows, masked by frail stockades hurriedly built with posts and rails sledged by night from a farm (Mr. Samuel Clarke's, near the British camp), with manuka stakes, with sticks of the tupakihi shrub (tutu) and even with korari, the flower-stalks of the native flax. The trenches were narrow, winding ditches page 121 and lightly roofed-over dug-outs, nowhere more than about five feet deep. This was the place where the defiant Ngai-te-Rangi and their allies made their stand against the might of Britain's Navy and Army, the place that some writers have described as a fortress. In truth it was a ridiculous thing as Maori fortifications went; but the British staff did not know that. It looked sufficiently formidable, crowning that Pukehinahina ridge (where you motor to-day right through the pa-site), and stretching across the hilly neck of land, the gateway between harbour and forest hinterland. The flimsy fence loomed like a stockade of which the staff had had unhappy experience in the Waikato and Taranaki. So up they brought their big guns; their 8-inch mortars, their Armstrong field-pieces; they planted them yonder half a mile or less on the harbour side of the “fortress”; and one day of cloud and drizzle the battle of the Gate Pa was fought; and that night fifty brave fellows of two races who really had no quarrel with each other lay dead, and eighty British wounded lay in the hospital tents at Te Papa.

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Yonder where the little memorial Church stands to-day on the right-hand side of the road as you motor down into Tauranga town, through dairy farms and orchards, is the spot where gallant Rawiri Puhirake had his citadel, such as it was. The total garrison of Puke-hinahina Pa did not exceed two hundred and fifty; most of these were Ngai-te-Rangi, the owners of the good Tauranga lands, whose active alliance with the Maori King Tawhiao and his fighting Waikato had brought down upon them the wrath of Queen Victoria page 122 and her government. There was a kind of wing to the main pa, an unfinished entrenchment on the Maori left flank; this was held by a party of about forty men, chiefly of the Koheriki, a small sub-tribe who had fought all through the Waikato war. With these people was one woman, a young half-caste wahine who carried a single-barrel gun and wore a belt of cartridges about her waist. This female warrior had already made a name for herself in the war; she had carried a baby on her back through the earlier campaign, like many another woman who followed the fortunes of her kinsfolk on the war-path. Her name was Heni te Kiri-Karamu; we shall hear more of her presently. She was the only woman permitted to remain in the pa on the day of battle.

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Turn to the British forces marshalled for the attack on the Kingites who had been so rash as to challenge—and that in a half-jocular way, they were so indifferent to danger—the power of the pakeha army. There were 1,650 officers and men, including a Naval Brigade of over four hundred, and of purepo, the artillery, there were all these to thunder against those manuka stakes and flax-sticks and rabbit burrows: a 110-pdr. Armstrong gun, two 40-pdr. and two 6-pdr. Armstrongs, two 24-pdr. howitzers, two 8-inch mortars, and six Coehorn mortars. One of the Armstrongs was taken across the swampy arm below the pa on the British right front and hauled up on the opposite hill, to deliver an enfilading fire. Soon after daybreak (it was the 29th of April, 1864) the batteries opened fire—the heaviest fire in the war—at ranges of from 800 to 650 yards.

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The fire was directed chiefly against the left of the main redoubt to make a breach for an assaulting party.

The unsubstantial palisade soon was smashed in many places by the shells, and some of it only hung together by its ties. The earth of the parapet was sent flying in showers of clods and dust. But the bold chieftain Rawiri strode fearlessly up and down the centre of the pa, on the exposed ground above the dug-outs, or rua, and along the parapet on the left of the main work. “Kia u, kia u!” he cried to his people; “Kaore e tae mai te pakeha!” He was bidding them “Stand fast, stand fast,” the enemy would not reach them. He shouted, when his eager men showed signs of wishing to charge out on the advancing foe, “Ko te manawa-rere, ko te manawa-rere, kia u, kia u!” (“Impetuous ones, be firm, stand fast!”)

There were two tohungas, or priests and chaplains, in the entrenchments. Both were killed by the artillery fire. One was an old Maori priest named Te Wano, who recited the ancient karakia for victory. The other was a Christian minister, or lay-reader of the English Church, named Ihaka (Isaac). This minister was standing up to invoke a blessing when some of the garrison were about to eat a meal of potatoes. Just as he uttered the Maori words of the prayer, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of —–” a shell from a British gun struck him in the body and shattered him to pieces. A little later the old tohunga was killed in a similar manner by a shell while standing up reciting his karakia Maori.

The old warrior Hori Ngatai, chief of Ngai-te-Rangi, in describing to me the killing of those priests of the page 124 rival religions, said that the shell scattered Ihaka's body in fragments all over the place. “Panepane, one of our old men, a tattooed veteran, had leaned his gun against the earthwork while he joined in the prayers. After the bursting of the shell he went to pick up his gun, when to his astonishment he found some of the dead minister's entrails were wrapped round and round the barrel. And a jest, even at the cannon's mouth, did the old warrior utter. ‘See!’ he cried, ‘the white men even load their big guns with human fat and fire it at us!’”

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By four o'clock in the afternoon the breaches in the works, chiefly in the Maori left, were considered large enough for the entrance of a storming party. Had the staff but known it, the breach did not matter much one way or the other; the troops could have pulled down enough of the fence with their hands.

Really the small earthworks constructed for the batteries were almost as strong as the Maori position. The bugles rang out as the artillery preparation ended, and up the ferny slopes of Puke-hinahina advanced the storm troops, three hundred of them, four abreast—two sailors and two soldiers. Commander Hay, of H.M.S. Harrier, commanded the Naval party, Lieut.-Colonel Booth, of the 43rd Regiment, was at the head of the soldiers. The rest of the Naval Brigade and the 43rd Regiment followed as a reserve.

At the double the stormers covered the last hundred yards of the advance. Into the breach they poured. Close quarters now! Rifle and bayonet met tomahawk, Navy cutlasses clashed on double-barrel guns and old page 125 flintlock muskets. The Maoris were masters of the fine art of parrying a sword slash; masters, too, of the kakauroa, the deadly tomahawk-blade on a long handle, which gave the brown warrior a glorious reach for a blow that shore through neck and shoulders or split a skull in two. Now for it, ye tars, yelling like fiends, ye big whiskered linesmen! Into the Maori ranks they go, shouting, slashing, thrusting. Behind them come the supports, led by gallant Captain Hamilton of H.M.S. Esk.

Victory is almost theirs—it would have been theirs but for this labyrinth of rabbit burrows. The men rush charging here and there, they find themselves confronted by brown tattooed warriors everywhere—some of those defenders, wavering, are driven back by the 68th Regiment in the rear, and they seem to the now bewildered troops like reinforcements. Officers and men fall, a fearful proportion of officers. Captain Hamilton, calling on his men, tumbles from a parapet with a bullet through his brain. The leader of the soldiers, too, is down. The troops are in a dreadful confusion. It becomes a panic that seizes the bravest men.

They give way before the infuriated onset of the garrison. Out again the survivors pour; there is a disorderly retreat such as no army likes to think about afterwards.

That was the debacle of the Gate Pa attack. The British retook the pa next day—but by that time it was empty.

Hori Ngatai said of this “glorious fight,” as he described it: “We Maoris, although victorious, had suffered severely. My old relative Reweti fell with seven page 126 gunshot wounds. Te Kou was bayoneted to death, and many others received bayonet wounds. It was growing dark at the time of the melee, and it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe. The troops suffered most from getting into a cross-fire between the two pas, but particularly that from the small one. The soldiers and sailors were all mixed up together, and were equally fearless. I was amused,” continued Hori, “at the coolness of one of our old warriors in the thickest of the hand-to-hand fight. He was a deeply tattooed old man, of the past generation of toa. He had six or seven bullets in his body, and being shot through the thighs was quite helpless. He sat leaning up against the remains of the parapet, and had taken out his pipe for a consoling smoke, but couldn't get a light. So he kept calling out, ‘Give me a light, give me a light!’ but no one heeded him when everyone was fighting for his life. Amidst the din of war he could be heard calling out for a match, then his excitement would overmaster him and he would cry, ‘Fight on! Fight on! Give it to them! Give it to them!’ With one breath he would ask for a light, then with the next he would urge us on to the combat.”

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Turn now to the Koheriki wing of the pa. It was there just where it joined the main redoubt, that the 43rd soldiers rushed in with the bayonet, led by Lieut.-Colonel Booth. The little band of defenders fought with the fury of utter desperation. The young woman Heni te Kiri-Karamu, warrior-vivandiere, was with them; when she had fired a shot out of her single-barrel gun she jumped back into the shallow trench to reload. page 127 When the soldiers were beaten back she and her brother Te Waha-huka, and the rest of them, rushed out to the front of the pa in pursuit, but were recalled by a shout from their leader Wi Koka, and firing began again. Heni fired several more shots. By this time an almost choking pall of gunpowder smoke was over the pa, and a small drizzly rain began to fall; it seemed dusk though it was only half-past four or so in the afternoon.

Heni was in the firing trench when she heard an English voice behind her calling feebly: “Water—give me water!” She turned and saw a wounded officer lying there; near him were some soldiers in like distress. She remembered that there was some water in rear of the trench where an earth-oven had been made to cook the breakfast that the warriors never had an opportunity of eating, for a cannon-shot had sent potatoes and all flying. She slung her gun over her shoulder by its strap and jumped out of the trench.

“Where are you going?” called the young woman's brother.

“The wounded men are calling for water,” said Heni. “I must obey the call.”

Not a word more said the brother. He stood with his gun-butt planted on the ground, his hands gripping the muzzle; he watched his sister intently while she ran to fetch the water.

Heni went a few yards in rear of the trench. As the fence in front was almost demolished she must have been fully exposed to the enemy's view. There was an old iron nail-can full of water which had been brought from the swamp before the battle began. She had to spill about half of it before she could conveniently carry it. She page 128 took it in her arms to where the wounded officer was lying. He was Lieut.-Colonel Booth, but Heni, of course, did not know who he was then, indeed, did not for three years afterwards. He was the nearest of the soldiers to her.

The young woman dropped down by her dying foeman's side, and took his head on her knees. “Here is water,” she said, in English.

Tipping the can, she poured some of the water into her cupped hand, which she held close to the officer's lips so that he could drink. Eagerly he swallowed; he said “God bless you!” and drank again from her hand.

Leaving the colonel, Heni went to the other wounded soldiers, lifted them up so that they could drink, and gave them water one by one in the same way. Then, placing the nail-can so that it would not spill, she ran back to the trench, reloaded her gun and stood ready with her comrades to meet the expected second assault, which never came.

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That night the Koheriki party abandoned the battered pa and took to the swamp below, into which the British fired every now and again. Heni, before leaving, gave the soldiers some more water and left the can with a little water in it by the officer's side. He was still alive when the British entered the pa next morning; he died in the military hospital.

The Ngai-te-Rangi had already evacuated their dugouts when the Koheriki left; they were still ready to fight but their ammunition was exhausted. They realised that they would be attacked in overwhelming force next day. All told the defenders of Puke-hinahina lost about page 129 twenty-five killed. A few weeks later the British troops terribly avenged their repulse. They stormed the Maori entrenchments at Te Ranga, a short distance inland, and killed a hundred and twenty, most of them with the bayonet.

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The chivalrous fighting of Ngai-te-Rangi and their allies in the cannon-battered Gate Pa has been the theme of praise ever since that red day on Tauranga's shore. The humane code of conduct drawn up beforehand by the chiefs, and Henare Taratoa's injunction to his comrades (he had been a teacher of the Ngati-Raukawa mission school at Otaki) to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsting, have won enduring fame. But much that is quite inaccurate has been written of Taratoa's deeds at the Gate Pa. It was not he who was the hero of this episode of giving water to the dying officer. Heni Poré—as she became known in later years—was the person to whom credit is rightfully due. It must be noted that neither she nor any of her Koheriki comrades in the left wing of the pa knew anything of the code of fighting drawn up by the chiefs at Poteriwhi some days before the battle. The Koheriki only came in from the bush the evening before the fight. Heni, in succouring the wounded, simply obeyed her own womanly dictates of humanity. She fought gallantly on the Government side in the years following the Gate Pa episode. If ever a fighter in the New Zealand wars deserved a decoration for bravery under fire, it was she. But neither medal nor mention in despatches came to heroic Heni Poré.