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The War in New Zealand.

Chapter XI

page 158

Chapter XI.

The Prisoners taken in the War—how they escaped.

A long chapter might be written on the escape of the 200 prisoners, who, from time to time, were taken in arms against the Queen's troops, and handed over by General Cameron to the Colonial Government for safe custody and final disposal. But since the Head Centre of the Fenians has escaped from Richmond Bridewell, it seems unnecessary to offer much explanation of the similar feat performed by the rebel prisoners at Kawau. If the British Government, with all the Irish constabulary, with all its troops, and with its perfect prison discipline, could not keep one dangerous man within stone walls, and behind iron bolts and bars, it cannot be surprising that the Colonial Government, with comparatively few appliances for such a purpose, should be equally page 159unsuccessful with the 200 wily Maories, who, no doubt, were quite as watchful for a chance as Mr. James Stephens. I shall, therefore, omit much of what I should otherwise have said on this subject, and confine myself in relating it to the briefest limits.

One hundred and seventy-eight of these prisoners were taken at Rangiriri, in November, 1863; a few more taken from time to time at other places, brought up the total number to 214. These were all, with one or two exceptions, taken fighting with the Queen's troops, and handed over by General Cameron to the Governor, who passed them on to the Colonial Government. There being no available prison ashore, they were placed in a hulk of 347 tons measurement, with two decks, carefully fitted up for the purpose, and which lay in smooth water in Auckland Harbour. According to the official certificate of the immigration officer of the port of Auckland, there was space and accommodation for 219 adults; and had the vessel been fitted up for a sea-going voyage, she would have been allowed to proceed to sea with that number. As to the page 160manner in which they were treated, I may summarize a vast amount of certificates and returns on the subject, by quoting the words of the Rev. Charles Baker, of the Church Missionary Society, who gratuitously performed the functions of chaplain to the hulk for several months. "The provision," Mr. Baker writes, "was good in quality, and sufficient in quantity. The comfort of the prisoners was promoted in every practical way. Cleanliness and order were enforced; their moral and spiritual welfare were cared for. A very decided improvement in their appearance was manifested, and expressions of surprise were frequently heard among them of the kind treatment they received at the hands of the Government. The officers in charge were unremitting in their attention to the prisoners. In short, under the peculiar circumstances, the Maories could not have received better treatment." Ti Ori Ori, the principal chief among them, wrote to his sister ashore,—"Sister, our place is very good, and also the treatment we receive from our masters." The whole body of prisoners also, after their escape, bore similar testimony. "The page 161Government," they said, to Mr. White, their chief officer, "have been very kind in providing for us clothing, provisions, and utensils; and great is our unkindness to you, who have been a father to us, and have attended to all our wants in sickness as well as on all other occasions."*

Very shortly after the capture of the first lot of prisoners the Governor began to press his ministers to release some of them on parole. They consulted a great number of experienced persons, and the almost unanimous opinion was that the parole of a Maori was not to be relied upon. The ministers, however, expressed their readiness to bring them all to trial. This the Governor declined; and he continued to press for release on parole, expressing in the strongest manner his conviction that the honour of a Maori once pledged was inviolable. Ministers, however, seeing no reason for such a step, and believing, on the contrary, that the imprisonment of these rebels had a very beneficial effect on those still at

* See C. P. P. 1856, E. No. 1, p. 46 et seq., where very full documentary evidence relative to the custody and escape of the prisoners will be found.

page 162large, they continued firm, and refused to release them except after trial. The Governor, howover, found means to place his advisers in a very painful position, by charging them in his despatches to the Home Government with cruelty towards the prisoners, and conduct "derogatory to the British name." As Mr. Fitzgerald lately observed in a letter to Mr. Cardwell,—"Amidst all that the colonists have suffered, nothing is more galling than to see Sir George Grey earning a great and ill-deserved reputation for humanity at their expense."* This was exactly a case in point, and the position of ministers became so painful that they determined on the first opportunity to get rid of the responsibility of the prisoners. They had not long to wait. On the 8th of July the Governor made them a definite proposal to send the prisoners on parole to the little island of Kawau, about 30 miles from Auckland, his own private property, where he had a country seat, and where there were no inhabitants but his own servants. On the 2nd of

* C. P. P. 1865, A. No. 5, p. 38.

page 163August the hulk and its contents were towed down to Kawau, and the prisoners were liberated on their parole that they would not attempt to leave the island. From this time they were practically in the Governor's hands, and under his personal charge. He spent a considerable portion of his time at Kawau, fixed the place of residence of the prisoners (unfortunately a locality from which they could the most easily escape), and employed himself in superintending their operations in clearing land and building houses. Early on the morning of the 11th September, just six weeks after they had been liberated, news was brought to Auckland that on the previous night they had all, with the exception of some three or four, broken their parole and gone no one knew whither.

The Colonial Government has been much blamed for allowing the prisoners to be at Kawau without a military guard. They really had nothing to do with it. After the prisoners were sent to Kawau, the Governor was the person responsible for their safe custody. He had over and over again asserted his belief in the in-page 164violability of their parole; and it does seem that it would have been a very Hibernian proceeding to release prisoners on parole, and at the same time place a military guard over the persons released. Besides which, constantly among them as he was, if a guard were necessary, he must have known it; its appointment was in his own power, and no one but himself could have appointed one.

The subsequent history of these prisoners was remarkable. They landed on the mainland, and took up a position on an isolated circular hill, "Omaha," in the midst of a district somewhat densely occupied by small farmers. By some means they got a large supply of arms, and they were provided with food partly by neighbouring natives and partly by purchases at the stores of the European settlers, which they visited in small armed parties. Several officers of Government and colonists visited them on their hill, and were received in the most friendly manner. The Governor first tried to coax them back; then he laid a trap for them; but they were suspicious of his intentions, and declined all his advances. page 165Though only 35 miles from Auckland, where there was a large military force, and though only about a mile from the sea-shore, their position relatively to unprotected settlers and surrounding natives was such that to attack them would have been to run the risk of setting the north in a blaze. So there they remained on "the top of the lofty Omaha," exchanging compliments with the Governor and the colonists, and feeling, according to their own account, extremely comfortable. At last the Governor invited them to go back to Waikato. Their reply was that they did not intend to move at all till they had eaten their Christmas dinner with a friendly chief at the foot of the hill, and then they would decide what to do. Ultimately they broke up their party. Some, I believe, did return to Waikato; others remained among the friendly natives north of Auckland.

I believe that the long imprisonment of these men on board the hulk had worked a great change in their character. It would have been very easy for them after their escape to have deluged the country north of Auckland with blood, page 166and involved us in a war with the northern tribes. It is believed that attempts were made to incite them to do it; but they had had time in the quiet of their prison to reflect on passing events, and they were evidently not prepared to plunge again into hostilities with us. And I am inclined to think that the kind treatment which they had received on board the hulk, and to which after their escape they on several occasions referred in grateful terms, had softened them, and convinced them that the Pakeha did not, as many of them had been told, seek the destruction of the Maori or look upon him with unkindly feelings. I cannot say that they left their prison sadder men, but certainly they left it wiser than they entered it; and it was well for us that they did so.

The reports made by Mr. T. A. White of his interviews with the natives subsequently to their escape are extremely interesting. The Colonial Office, however, has not thought proper to publish any of the papers relating to the prisoners, except a few of the Governor's early despatches. They were asked for in the House of Commons in March last, but Mr. Cardwell made some excuse page 167for not producing them then; they appear not to have been subsequently laid before the House, and I suppose never will be, as they certainly reflect no great credit on the Governor.

When the Head Centre of the Fenians escaped, the English Government vindicated itself by dismissing the governor of Richmond Bridewell. When the 200 prisoners escaped, the Colonial Government had not the power to dismiss the Governor of Kawau, or they would have done it without hesitation.

The bitter experience of Kawau does, however, seem to have taught the Governor a lesson, as he has confined a number of Hau Hau prisoners since taken at Wanganui and elsewhere on board another hulk in Wellington harbour, though in one most important case—that of old Pehi—we shall see that he could not resist the temptation of trusting to Maori parole again, and with a result quite as little satisfactory as at Kawau.