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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Defence of the Mill — The Story of a Gallant Frenchman

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The Defence of the Mill
The Story of a Gallant Frenchman

THERE is a beautiful old place known as Mill Farm on the east side of the Whakatane River, in its lower part where it flows gently between willow-shaded banks. Whakatane town, on the seaside, is a little over three miles away. The Farm is bordered by the main road leading inland to Taneatua and the Urewera Country. It takes its name from the fact that on it there once stood a Maori flour-mill, driven by water-power. The low grassy mounds which indicate the sites of the mill and a small redoubt alongside it can still be seen, if one knows where to look. Probably very few passers-by indeed have ever heard of the place, and so are not likely to notice anything as they speed past in their motor cars. Yet those silent crumbled earthworks have a story of tragedy and heroism of which New Zealanders should not be ignorant.

Te Poronu, as the Maoris call the spot, was the scene of one of the most courageous defences in the history of the wars. The ground where the brave French miller, Jean Guerren, held his post to the death in the face of overwhelming odds deserves remembrance as a shrine of valour.

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Jean Guerren was a Frenchman who at the time of this episode was about forty-five years of age; he was short and sturdy of build. He was an excellent mechanic, with a special knowledge of the working of flour-mills, and this knowledge he turned to account in page 170 New Zealand when the Maoris were industrious growers of wheat. Every large community in the corn-raising districts had a flourmill driven by water-power to grind the wheat, and here on the Poronu Stream, flowing from the ferny hills to the Whakatane River the Ngati-Pukeko tribe built theirs. They employed Guerren to erect and work it. The mill and his house, which stood beside it on the mound above the dam that supplied water to turn the wheel, were models of efficiency and neatness. There was a small garden of Old World flowers, and there was a little vineyard, from the produce of which Jean made wine for his household and his occasional pakeha guests. He had a Maori wife, handsome young Erihapeti (Elizabeth) Manuera, called Peti for short; with them lived Peti's sister Monika, a pretty girl of sixteen or seventeen.

The Ngati-Pukeko brought in their wheat, by sledge and bullock-cart and canoe, and Te Poronu was a happy scene of industry and contentment. But not for long. The age of peace was rudely broken by a Hauhau invasion, early in 1869.

Te Kooti and his band of warriors from the East Coast, reinforced by many Urewera men from Ruatoki and the Upper Whakatane, suddenly descended on the plains and laid siege to the wheat-growers' large entrenched pa at Rauporoa. This tribal refuge and rallying-place stood on the west bank of the Whakatane, not more than a third of a mile from the mill, but on the opposite side of the river. There was a small earthwork redoubt alongside the mill; this had been built the previous year as a means of protection in the event of any raid by the mountain tribes, but it was not garrisoned in 1869.

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While Te Kooti and his main body surrounded Rauporoa Pa, a company of a hundred men of the rebel force was detailed to attack the mill and redoubt, and soon the continual bang and crackle of gun-fire resounded across the plain. It happened that there were only seven or eight people, including the two women, in Te Poronu when the attack began, and the defence of the mill devolved chiefly on the stout-hearted French-man. Guerren sent his wife and sister-in-law into the redoubt, while he remained alone in the mill to hold it against the fierce Hauhau foes.

Jean possessed a good double-barrel gun and plenty of ammunition. When firing began he gave the enemy a taste of his markmanship. He was a very accurate shot, and firing from an upper window of the mill he soon killed or wounded several of the Hauhaus. His shooting was supported from the redoubt by a young man named Tautari and the others. The sisters, Peti and Monika, handed out cartridges and helped to load the guns.

For two days and nights the tiny valiant garrison kept the Hauhaus off. The defence was so well sustained that its raiders imagined there must be a considerable number of men in the place. They dug trenches for shelter from Jean's straight shooting. At last, the Maori scouts ascended the near hills of the range on the eastern side of the valley, a few hundred yards from the mill, and there, being able to see down into the redoubt, they discovered the weakness of the garrison. They reported this to the main body and the attack was pressed home.

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The Hauhaus, working up in skirmishing order, got close to the walls, and while some tried to set fire to a large raupo hut which occupied the middle of the redoubt others endeavoured to scale the parapet. Jean, still fighting splendidly, had now been forced to abandon the mill. Firing right and left, he dashed into the redoubt to join his people. Now he defended the gateway, a narrow opening on the east side of the work. At last a Hauhau bullet pierced his brain and he fell dead across the entrance. Before he dropped, he killed the leader of the war-party, Wirihana Koikoi, and another chief, Paora Taituha.

The Hauhaus swarmed over the earth walls and through the gateway to tomahawk the defenders. The only two men jumped the rear parapet when the final rush was made and ran across the flat to the Whakatane River and Rauporoa.

A few moments after Jean was killed, his wife Peti and Monika were surrounded. Peti flung herself down, her long hair flowing in disorder about her, and clasped the knees of the man who had seized her, a chief named Te Rangihiroa, who had come from Tarawera (on the Taupo-Napier track), begging him to save her and her sister. He protected the pair for the time being; the others were killed.

After the sacking and burning of the mill, Te Rangihiroa led his captives to the leader's camp before Rauporoa Pa. When it was reported to Te Kooti that the Tarawera chief had saved two women, the ruthless leader sent for Te Rangihiroa and ordered him to take Peti to wife and kill her sister, who had refused to tell where Jean had hidden his reserve stock of gunpowder.

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(It was buried in the redoubt.) He obeyed the savage command. Down his tomahawk flashed and poor little Monika died a cruel but mercifully quick death. He took the weeping Peti to Tarawera when the Whakatane raid was ended, and she lived there as his wife until her death.

Relief by the Government forces—Captain Gilbert Mair raced from Tauranga to the rescue—came too late for Te Poronu. But the Rauporoa garrison succeeded in escaping before the final assault. Mair covered their retreat to the coast. Jean Guerren's plucky defence had helped Rauporoa to hold out; it diverted the attention of many of Te Kooti's best warriors for the two days and nights. It was hopeless from the first. Jean knew that there were very faint hopes of relief, he knew that the path of prudence lay in joining the main body of the tribe in Rauporoa Pa. But the mill was his trust and his pride; he must save it at all costs, he had no thought of tamely abandoning it to an enemy, however strong.

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The old people of the plains had not forgotten the name and the brave stand of Jean the Frenchman. They speak of him as Hoani te Wiwi, the native form of “John the Oui-oui.” But to the young generation of Maori, as well as to the pakeha farmer, the story is all but unknown. No memorial stands at Te Poronu; those shapeless mounds where cattle graze on the rich grass alone remain to show where a gallant son of France fought and died at the gateway of his post.