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Soldiering in New Zealand, Being Reminiscences of a Veteran

Chapter III

page 22

Chapter III.

The Armed Constabulary—Te Kooti lands at Poverty Bay—Major Biggs—I help to raise a force—We are attacked at Paparatu—Carrying a despatch to Wairoa—Rakiroa guides me—Paku Brown—Dr. Scott—Colonel Whitmore arrives—Westrupp's stand—Retreat from Paparatu—On Te Kooti's track—Bad weather at Waihau—Escape of Te Kooti—Colonel Whitmore's disgust—Trial of three volunteers.

The Government now raised a force of about 600 armed constabulary, under officers who were called “Inspectors,” with the relative rank of major, and “Sub-Inspectors,” ranking as captain. Nearly all my late comrades, many of them junior to me in rank and length of service, were gazetted to the new force, but owing to the private animosity of two men of influence and position, my name was omitted from the new appointments, so that for several months I was unattached. Thus it happened that I was “at a loose end” when, early in the winter of 1867, Te Kooti, having overpowered the weak guard and seized all the arms and ammunition he could find, broke away from the Chatham Islands with nearly 200 followers, and forced the master of the Rifleman to land his people at Whareonaunga, near Nicks Head on Poverty Bay.

On hearing this news I immediately reported myself to Major Biggs, commanding the district, who accepted my offer to help him to assemble a force of civilian settlers and a few friendly natives, in the hope of retaking the escaped prisoners from the Chathams. We could only muster about 30 settlers and about 40 Maoris: quite half of the last were of doubtful value, for many of the Poverty Bay natives were disloyal at heart. We reconnoitred Te Kooti's camp, and some of our page 23
Major R. Biggs.

Major R. Biggs.

page 24 page 25 natives who went among them, shaking hands and rubbing noses, reported that they were well armed with government rifles, and did not intend to fight unles they were interfered with.

After a council of war, in which Biggs pointed out our weakness in number and the evident sympathy of many of the Bay natives with the enemy, our commander determined to take up a position at Paparatu, at a point that Te Kooti would have to pass on his way inland to reach the safety of the Uriwera country. Meanwhile he sent to Wairoa and Napier for all available help.

I had just ridden into camp with pack-horses laden with provisions, and, dismounting, went to report myself to Major Biggs, who was speaking to a group of officers and men of the assembled volunteers and natives. I heard him say, “I will pay £30 to anyone who will carry a despatch for me to Wairoa,” and, turning to the natives, he repeated the offer in Maori. No one seemed willing to go, as a messenger would run the gauntlet of Te Kooti's men hunting for horses and wild pigs along the track, so I said, “I will take your despatch, Major, if you will lend me a fresh horse, and of course I don't want a money reward.” Biggs looked round and said, “You can have my horse,” and added in a lower voice, “I did not like to ask you to do this, as you have been pretty hard at it already.”

Within half an hour I was mounted and off and started to take a short cut over the hills. There was no track, but I depended on my knowledge of the country. I had ridden about five or six miles, when I found that my horse was badly griped. It was plain that he could not do the journey of about sixty miles in that state, but I did not like to return lest it should be thought that I had funked the job. I knew, too, that it was not likely that I could get another horse in camp that would be any good to me. Accordingly I decided to go back to an out-station page 26 of Westrupp's at Te Arai and turn Biggs' horse out there, get-a pony of my own from the station paddock and on him fetch a horse that I knew of at Makaraka, owned by a Maori there.

I reached the out-station at sundown, got my pony without being seen, and galloped into Makaraka. It was midnight before I got the horse I wanted, and then I had to promise to give the owner £3 for the loan of him for three days.

However, I got away at last and rode as fast as the darkness would allow, though I had to save my horse in case I was chased. Early in the morning I was twenty miles on the journey, when through the frosty air I heard the sound of firing in the direction of Paparatu, and knew that the enemy had attacked our fellows. In the excitement of the moment I turned to gallop back to help. Then I remembered that I was on special duty and had to get the despatch to Wairoa as soon as possible. It was clear, too, that the fight would be over before I could get back, and that it might help my chance to pass the worst bit of the road. I pushed on, therefore, and reached the bush near Whenuakura a little before dark. There in an open spot in manuka I left my horse and saddle (for the bush track was impassable for a horse in the dark), and soon found that it would take me all night to find the way on foot. I struggled on, however, until I got opposite the native kainga across the river at Whenuakura. The glare of a fire some distance from the river told me that there were natives there, but whether they were friendly or not there was nothing to tell.

I had come to the conclusion that without the help of a guide it was impossible for me to get through the bush before morning, and I might break my neck or leg in trying; so I determined to risk a “coo-ee,” which was answered from the kainga. Soon I could see someone carrying a fire-stick coming down to the river. I drew my page 27 revolver and crept down to the waterside to wait for the canoe. When it got close to me I saw by the light of the fire-stick that it was the chief, Rakiroa himself, who was acting as ferryman. Now I did not intend to let him go back and tell his people that a pakeha was by himself astray in the bush, for, knowing them to be Hau-haus, I did not trust their goodwill; so I drew back under cover. When he called out to know where I was and why I did not come down to the canoe, I replied I was afraid to move in the dark and that he must show the way down the bank. The old fellow growled a little and came up the bank with his torch. I then told him that he must take me through the bush. Of course he refused, saying that I must wait till morning; that he would send a man to take me through; that he would have to make several torches (rama-rama) before he could do it. However, I told him plainly that I was obliged to go on at once; that I would not let him go back or call anyone; that there was plenty of dry stuff for torches where we were standing; and that I would pay him well for helping me to find the road. Seeing that I was armed and determined he consented at last to show me the way as far as the end of the first bit of bush.

That was all that I wanted. After that the country was more open and I should be able to get along by myself; so we tied up a couple of manuka torches and started. It was bad travelling, even with the aid of the torches, but at last we got through, and I told the old man that I would bring him anything he liked on my return from Wairoa next day. He looked rather glum at not being paid on the spot, but as I had no money with me he had to put up with it. He asked me to bring him a sheath knife, pipes, tobacco and matches, all of which I promised he should have, and I duly kept my word, to his great delight. It only remains to add that the day after I gave him these articles he and his page 28 people joined Te Kooti and fought against us throughout the war.

After parting with Rakiroa, I ran and walked up and down hill till I reached the Waipouiti river about daylight, ten miles from Wairoa. There I caught a horse, and crossing the river found myself in the camp of a party of volunteers under Captain William Richardson, who were on a scouting expedition to the Waihau. I got some breakfast in camp, and then found that the horse I had commandeered belonged to D. Scott who was with the party. He very kindly let me have it and a saddle to go to my destination and back. I reached Wairoa and delivered my despatch by nine o'clock a.m., having then been riding and walking for more than forty hours from the time I left Biggs' camp, and without food till I fell in with Richardson's party.

After three hours' rest and telling the news to eager inquirers, I started back. Having settled up with old Rakiroa and recovered my horse, I spent the night with Richardson's party, whom I overtook at the Waihau. Next day I returned to Poverty Bay in company with Dr. Scott who left Richardson to come with me, though I warned him of the risk he would run. We rode rapidly across the open country by the Waihau lakes, for I was afraid of Te Kooti's scouts. It was fortunate that we lost no time in getting down into the bush by the river, for what happened afterwards suggested that we had been seen, and that an attempt was made to head us off before we got to the river. As we were going down the bank we met Paku Brown, a half-caste, who was carrying a second despatch for the officer commanding at the Wairoa. I just stopped to order him to hurry across the Waihau flats and reach the protection of the ridge on the far side where he would find Richardson's party, and then pushed on. A few days after poor Brown's badly-hacked body was found on the track a very short distance from the spot where we parted from him.

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Dr. Scott and I kept going till we reached the high ground sloping down to Patutahi in Poverty Bay, when hearing a whistle we pulled up and drew our revolvers. We returned them when we saw that it was Lieutenant James Wilson. He had ridden out with Paku Brown, but had been taken ill and had been lying in the scrub near the road where we met him. His horse was tied up in the scrub and he mounted and came on with me, and told me what had occurred at Paparatu.

The same day that I left, Colonel Whitmore arrived at Turanganui with Major Fraser and No. 1 division of the armed constabulary. Instead of sending them forward at once to reinforce Biggs' small force of untrained men, Whitmore summoned Biggs to meet him at Turanganui. Biggs left the camp at Paparatu in charge of Captain Westrupp and Lieutenant Wilson. Westrupp took charge of the picket at the head of the spur by which Te Kooti would have to ascend if he left his camp near the beach at Whareanaunga; Wilson with the rest of our settlers and Maoris camped in the little valley in rear of the picket to act as support.

At daylight on the day after Biggs left, Te Kooti attacked in force. Though Westrupp made a stubborn stand, his picket, with three men killed and several wounded, was driven back on the support, of which the Maori portion immediately bolted. The English, cumbered with the wounded, had to retire before the superior numbers of the enemy; but the enemy did not follow them up, and they were fortunate in being able to retreat without severe loss.

On my return from Wairoa I found Whitmore encamped in Te Arai valley with a few local volunteers; No. 1 division of the constabulary had been ordered to proceed to the place along the road to Wairoa, where I had parted from poor Paku Brown.

Whitmore at once sent me with Henare Kakapungo and another page 30 native to pick up Te Kooti's trail at Paparatu and locate his where-abouts, as he intended to follow in pursuit of him next morning. We easily found the trail, and at dusk that evening got close to the enemy's camp. We had left our horses hidden about two miles back, and crawled on through high fern till we could hear the voices of the Hau-haus sounding close to us just over a low ridge. We dropped into a small overgrown gully eight or ten feet deep. In doing this I had the bad luck to strain my left knee so severely that I fainted from the pain. When I came to I heard my companions say that I was dying, and that they had better hide my body and get away. I told them that my leg was badly hurt, but that if we kept quiet till midnight they could help me to reach the horses and get away all right. They were good comrades and agreed to stick to me; but my knee was injured for life, and though by keeping it bandaged I could soon walk without limping, I was never able to run fast, jump, dance, or play cricket again.

We reached our horses before daylight, and in the early morning met the head of Whitmore's column on the march. I reported and pointed out the hills behind which Te Kooti had camped the previous evening, and turned away intending to ride to Turanganui to see a doctor; but Colonel Whitmore ordered me to ride with him. When I explained about my knee he said that he must have my services as guide, and that I could be carried on a stretcher. I preferred, however, to trust my good little horse Ngakahi (The Snake) to carry me over or through anything.

The column camped that evening on the side of a bush-covered hill above the Waihau flats, as heavy snow began to fall. Next morning it was still snowing fast, and I was ordered to take two of the mounted constabulary and return to Turanganui to hurry up a supply of biscuits and bacon to meet the column at Whenuakura. I mounted page 31 and waited on the top of the hill for the orderlies to join. At last one of them came to tell me that one of the horses was lost, and it was absurd to expect men to travel without a track through such weather. I told them that I was going on and they could follow my horse's tracks if they liked, but I would not wait for anyone. I gave my pony his head and he took me straight back, although the track made by the column on the previous day was obliterated by the snow, except where growth of fern or manuka was unusually high.

Meanwhile Te Kooti pushed on and got his people into the Ruakaturi gorge beyond the Hungaroa river. I thought Fraser's division of constabulary would have stopped him there, but possibly he had orders to wait for Whitmore's column to join him. Te Kooti must have crossed the Hungaroa in the night of the snowstorm, passing between Richardson's Wairoa party on his left and Fraser's division on his right flank. In any case, the policy of allowing him to cross the river without opposition, when there were two separate parties of men more or less between him and his objective, seems to me to be without excuse, and the attempt to overtake him from his rear without arranging to delay his retreat, showed great want of judgment.

To return to my own job. I reached Turanganui early in the evening, and after a meal set to work loading four pack horses with provisions. Next morning at dawn, after a busy night, I started for the front with a man to help me. We travelled fast, and at about 4 p.m. reached the mouth of the Ruakaturi valley, where we met Whitmore's force retiring. They had lost Captains Carr and Davis Canning killed, and were hampered with the carriage of several badly wounded men.

The weather was cold and wet, and the men were so fatigued and hungry that I had to call on the non-commissioned officers to prevent them from rushing the pack horses. A short halt was called; provisions page 32 were served out, and the retirement continued through the rain to Whenuakura. It was dark long before we got down to the kainga, and if I had not led Colonel Whitmore and his staff all the way they would have been obliged to camp in the rain. We passed many small parties of our men lying on the track quite exhausted. Several times we stopped while they got dry fern-tree fronds out of the bush on the hillside and made fires to warm themselves. It was quite safe to do this, for there was no chance of the enemy following them up on such a night when quite eight miles from the locality of the engagement. I was tired, too, when we reached the huts at Whenuakura, as I had been on the march and working for 36 hours without a break.

The next morning a parade of all forces was held, and Colonel Whitmore addressed the officers and men. The wounded, including Captain A. Tuke, shot through the shoulder, had started earlier for the Wairoa. His harangue expressed his disgust at not having captured Te Kooti's force. He attributed his failure to do so to want of loyalty and energy of all grades, blaming particularly the Poverty Bay settlers and volunteers, who, being much offended at his accusation of cowardice at Paparatu, had refused to march beyond the Hungaroa river, the boundary of the district within which they were liable for military service. The colonel finished by pointing to me and saying, “This is the only man who has not failed me since I came into the district.”

Major Fraser, with No. 1 division and the Wairoa men, then marched for Wairoa, and the Gisborne volunteers took the direct track to Poverty Bay. Colonel Whitmore with two orderlies and myself returned across the Waihau, heading for the Arai valley; and as it was late in the afternoon before we started, we had to camp in the scrub that night. The colonel seemed afraid lest we should be page 33 followed up by some of Te Kooti's men, and the rush of a startled wild pig close to us in the middle of the night made him so nervous that we had to put out our fire and keep on the watch till it was light enough to proceed on our way. When we reached Westrupp's house on the Big River, Whitmore borrowed my pony, to which he had taken a great fancy, and rode on with the orderlies into Gisborne. He returned in a few days and left in the Sturt for Wellington.

Here I must mention a curious episode that occurred immediately after the unfortunate affair at Paparatu. Three of the Poverty Bay volunteers, a man called Donnybrook and two others, were charged with cowardice in having retreated before the enemy, and after trial by drumhead court-martial, were condemned to be shot. Their graves were dug; their eyes were bandaged, and then they were reprieved and discharged “with ignominy.” I was absent on despatch duty when this occurred, so I set down what is perhaps only a camp tale of this farcical affair, but I never heard it contradicted.