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The Adventures of Kimble Bent

Chapter VI — The Storming of Otapawa

page 55

Chapter VI
The Storming of Otapawa

British forces attack the stockade—The bayonet charge— Flight of the Hauhaus—Through the forest by torchlight— Doctoring the wounded—The Tangi by the river.

Summer was on the forest. The beautiful mid-summer of Maori Land, with its soft airs and brilliant sunshine, its blaze of crimson blossom on the grand old rata-trees, and its showering of scented, white, peach-like flowers on the thickets of ribbonwood. Birds flooded the outskirts of the bush with song; the early morning chantings and pipings and chimings of the tui and the korimako made a feast of melody to which the brown forest men were in no way deaf, for they delighted as much as any pakeha in the sights and sounds of the free, wild places, and the call of the creatures of the bush. “Te Waha-o-Tane,” literally “The Voice of the Tree-God”—the Song of Nature—they called these morning concerts of the birds; it was their poetic expression in the classic tongue of old Polynesia for the sounds that betokened the daily page 56 awakening to light and life of the deep and solemn forests of Tane-mahuta. Pigeons, ku-ku-ing to each other, with blue necks and white breasts gleaming in the sun, went sweeping across the clearing on softly winnowing wings, and flapped from tree to tree and shrub to shrub in search of the tenderest leaves, for it was not yet the season of the choicest bush fruits, the big blue tawa berry, the sweet yellow koroi, and the aromatic miro.

Life went easily in the pa when the early harvesting was over. There was little to do but eat and sleep and lie about in the sun, or join in the daily prayers and the procession round the Niu pole, where the brightly coloured war-flags hung.* There was abundance of food in the camp—potatoes, maize, potted birds, pork, and dried fish sent as presents from the coast tribes. Early morning, and again in the warm, golden evenings, long, straight columns of pale blue smoke arose from the cooking-ovens of the village, and mingled with the thin vapours that crept about the tree-tops; then

* These flags, displayed on the war-poles in the Hauhau villages in 1865–70, carried many a strange device. The ground was white calico, on which red patterns and lettering were sewn or painted. Favourite designs were a red half-moon, like the crescent of Islam, a five-pointed star representing Tawera, “the bright and morning star,” and what was called a Kororia, in shape like the half of a méré-pounamu, or greenstone club, cut longitudinally. These colours had been made in the Waikato during the war, and had been sent round after the manner of the Highlanders' fiery cross to the various tribes in the Island.

page 57 little clouds of steam curled up as the women, with lively chatter, uncovered the hangis and arranged the well-cooked food in little round flax baskets, which they presently carried off, women and girls in a double line, keeping time with a merry old dance-song—the lilt of the “tuku-kai,” the “food-bringing”—as they marched on to the green marae and laid the steaming meal before their lounging lords.

It was all very pleasant and idyllic from the point of view of the brown bushmen. But “Ringiringi,” the pakeha-Maori, though he led by no means a hard life now that the heaviest work of the year was over, had an uneasy mind. He was— or had been—a civilised man, and he could not forget; moreover, he often woke from unpleasant dreams. One was a vision of a British regiment charging him with fixed bayonets and pinning him against the palisades of his pa. Fervently he hoped that he would not be in the fort when the troops marched to the assault, and that the Hauhaus would not compel him to level a tupara against his one-time comrades, the old “Die-Hards.”

This peaceful state of things did not endure for long. In a few days—it was early in the year 1866 —the long-expected attack on Otapawa was delivered. Before the troops came, however, the prophet of the pa ordered all the old people and most of the women and children to retire to the page 58 forest in rear of the fort, and told “Ringiringi” to accompany them. News had just been brought in that the scouts out in the fern country had noticed signs of an impending movement in the British camp. The white man and the tribal encumbrances pushed back into the bush for about three miles, and camped in a quiet little nook by a creek-side, with high, forested hills towering around. The weather now became cold and bleak, and there was little food to sustain the refugees, for the principal stores of kai had been left in the pa.

Early one morning the sound of cannon was heard in the distance, then heavy rifle-volleying, followed by desultory firing.

The Queen's soldiers were storming the fort.

Here I may give a more detailed description of the defences of Otapawa than has appeared in the preceding pages, to enable the reader to realise the sort of place the white general was attacking. Curving round under the rear of the pa and partly protecting it on the flanks, flowed the Tangahoé River. The hill-top where the pa stood was flat, and the rear dropped precipitously to the Tangahoé, The only access to the interior of the stockade was through a low and narrow gateway. Just within, the entrance was blinded by a short fence, so that an enemy could not charge straight, even if the gate were open, but would have to turn first to the left for a short distance and then to the right, exposed page 59 to a fire from between the palisades, before the open marae was reached. The pa was defended by two rows of palisading, with a ditch between, and another shallow trench inside the inner stockade. The outer stockade, the pekerangi, was about eight feet high, and was the lighter fence of the two. The principal timbers were six or eight inches thick, but the stakes between were smaller and did not quite reach the ground; they were fastened with bush-vines and supplejack to the sapling rails that ran along the stockade. The open spaces at the bottom of the fence were for the defenders in the outer trench to fire through. The inner fence, the tuwatawata, was a stouter structure, of strong, green tree-trunks set solidly in the ground, and with openings here and there for rifle-fire, And finally—an important thing in Maori eyes— there was the “luck-stone” of the fort, the green-stone whatu. This was buried under the foot of a large stockade post, close to the right-hand corner nearest the river, as one approached from the pa gate.

It was soon after daylight that the pa was attacked. The assailing British force was assisted by some Colonial troops and a contingent of “friendly” Maoris, or Kupapas, chiefly men from the Wanganui district, under the afterwards celebrated bush-fighter, Kepa te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp). General Chute commanded the page 60 operations. An Armstrong gun was brought to within a short distance of the hill-fort, and several shells were fired into the stockade. Then the general gave the order for the assault.

As the storming party of Imperial soldiers, with bayonets fixed, doubled eagerly up the hill face to the front stockade, the Hauhau chiefs, Tukino and Tu-ahi-pa, cried to their men, crouching in the outer trench with levelled guns:

“Sons! Be steady, and wait till they come close up, then let them have it!”

As the first files of the soldiers dashed up to the stockade, “Puhia!”—“Fire!”—shouted the chiefs, and under the thundering volley many whites fell. Another volley, and then the soldiers were at the stockade, firing through the gaps in the obstruction, and slashing at the ties of the fence. Hand-grenades were carried by some of the stormers, and one of these bursting in the outer trench wounded fierce old Tu-ahi-pa, who had just killed a soldier in the act of cutting away at the pekerangi in an endeavour to force an entrance.

The Maoris did not wait for the bayonet. The wild rush of the maddened troops was irresistible. Leaving seven of their men killed in the trenches and about the palisades, the defenders gathered their wounded and fled. The trenches led to the steep bank overlooking the Tangahoé River. Down page 61 the trenches they ran, and sliding down the bank, they took to the bush, scrambling up along the river-side as hard as they could go. Kepa, with his Whanganui friendlies, pursued the flying Hauhaus and shot two or three.

As Bent had expected, it was his old regiment, the 57th, that stormed the pa. The 57th were led by Lieutenant-Colonels Butler and Haszard, and were supported by the 14th regiment, who were very jealous of the famous old “Die-Hards.” Eleven whites fell and twenty were wounded. One of those who received his death-wound was Lieutenant-Colonel Haszard. It was generally reported afterwards that he was shot by Kimble Bent, but this was mere camp gossip. Gudgeon's “Reminiscences of the War in New Zealand,” gives currency to the report, but it is strongly denied, and with every appearance of truth, by Bent. When the pa was attacked he was at least three miles away, on the northern side of the Mangemange stream. “It is false to say that I killed my old officer,” says he, “or that I ever even fired at him. I never fired a shot against the whites all the time I was with the Hauhaus.” This is confirmed by the Maoris, who say that Bent was not allowed to handle a gun in an engagement for fear he might use it against the Hauhaus themselves.

. . . . .

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The refugees in the bush-camp with Bent waited anxiously for news of the fight. Was it a victory or a defeat? Soon, the first of the defenders of the pa dropped into camp, blood-stained and angry. And then, as the afternoon went on, the rest straggled in. Many were wounded, and seven dead bodies were carried in on hastily made litters of supplejack vines lashed to poles. Then the full story of the battle was told.

It was a sad and angry camp, that remote pocket between the hills. Most of the Hauhaus came in nearly naked, just as they had jumped up when the first shot was fired in the grey dawn. They were desperately sullen and grief-stricken over their dead and the loss of their stronghold, which to them had seemed almost impregnable, for it was the strongest stockaded position they had yet built. Many a dark look was bent upon the white man as he sat by one of the fires, not daring to speak a word.

That night the camp was suddenly abandoned by order of the Hauhau leader, who feared pursuit, not by the Imperial soldiers, who had no relish for “bushwhacking” at night—or, indeed, at any other time—but by Kepa's Government warriors, hereditary enemies of the Taranaki men. Hurriedly packing on their shoulders what few belongings they had managed to save from the pa, they set off in single file through the thick forest, making for the banks of the Tangahoé River, which they reached before page 63 daylight, and there halted. The wounded who were unable to walk were carried with difficulty through the tangled bush, where it was often necessary to cut away at the supplejacks and aka vines, so intricately interlaced and festooned across their path, before a passage could be made for the litter-bearers. There was no moon; it was an intensely dark night, rendered more Cimmerian still by the unbroken roof of foliage overhead. The Hauhaus made torches of pieces of dry pinewood, bound together with scraps of flax torn from their scanty mat garments, and with these they managed to dimly light their way through the forest—a wild and savage band; the warriors in front and rear, their cartouche-belts over their naked shoulders, and guns slung across their backs, or carried in their left hands; in their right they gripped their tomahawks and slashed away at the twining impediments of the jungle.

A camp was made near the banks of the Tangahoé,* and here, as soon as it was light, the Hauhaus mus-

* There is an interesting Maori proverb concerning this rapid Tangahoé stream and the Tangahcé tribe who lived on its banks. This is the proverb, or pepeha:

Tangahoé tangata, e haere;
Tangahoé ia, e kore e haere.

This, being interpreted, is:

“Men of Tangahoé depart;
But the current of Tangahoé remains.”

A pepeha which recalls Tennyson's “Brook”:

“Men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.”

page 64 tered
and reckoned up their losses. There were about three hundred and fifty of them now in camp—men, women and children. With wonderful celerity the forest-men cut a little clearing, and built wharau, or rough huts, of saplings, thatched with the long fronds of the nikau palm and the mamaku tree-fern. Here the wounded men were attended to as well as the primitive methods of the bush allowed. Women were sent out to search the river-banks for flax-plants; the flax-roots were dug up, boiled, and the resultant mucilaginous juice poured over the gunshot and bayonet wounds. This was the Maoris' most favoured method of treating injuries of this character, and it generally bore good results.

“Ringiringi” himself took a hand in the bush-surgery, for he had watched army surgeons at their work, and the Hauhau wounded, though most of them preferred their own people's doctoring, were grateful to the white man for his efforts to ease their sufferings.

A picked band of the fugitives scouted back through the forest and cautiously reconnoitred their captured fort, which had been set on fire by the troops, and was now a heap of blackened ruins. The Government force had by this time passed on to the attack of other pas, and the scouts reentered their destroyed fortress and searched for their dead.

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The scene in the camp by the Tangahoé waters when the war-party returned from Otapawa was one that “Ringiringi” never forgot. It was the first great tangihanga, or wailing over the dead, that he had witnessed. The people gathered in the middle of the little clearing, and for hours the sound of lamentation rang through the forest, often rising into a wild, heart-breaking shriek as some blanket-draped or mat-kilted woman, her long hair unbound, and her cheeks streaming with tears, cried her keening song for her slain. The chiefs taki'd up and down, weapon in hand, and told of the deeds of those who had fallen; each ended his mournful speech with a chanted dirge. When the song was a well-known one, the whole tribe would join in and sing the lament with an intensity of feeling that made their very bodies quiver. It was the full and unrestrained outpouring of the soul of the savage.