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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 8 (November 1, 1937)

On Secret Service — Cameron's Canoe Scout. An Old-time Adventure on the Waikato

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On Secret Service
Cameron's Canoe Scout. An Old-time Adventure on the Waikato

The sun was just coming up over the foggy ranges, one morning in November, 1862, when Lieutenant Henry Bates, of Her Majesty's 65th. Regiment, left his raupo-thatched hut at the Queen's Redoubt, on the Pokeno Flat, and embarked in his redpine-tree canoe for a lone-hand mission to the Waikato river villages. The waka was the simplest kind of dug-out, about twenty-four feet long and two feet in beam, chopped out from a rimu log. He carefully stowed in the bottom of the canoe his double-barrel muzzle-loading shotgun—a much valued Joe Manton—and ammunition, his blankets, and some packets of food in a flax basket. The young officer's costume was as primitive as his river-boat—a cabbage-tree hat, a Crimean shirt, and a kilt mat of woven flax belted round his waist. “A very convenient dress for canoe work,” he wrote in his diary about that time, “where one had often to jump overboard to shove the waka off shoals, and where one ran frequent risk of being capsized and having to swim for it. And quite enough, too, for a summer day's work in the lovely New Zealand climate.”

The creek which flowed below the small plain on which the Queen's Redoubt stood (the place is near the present Pokeno railway station) was just large enough to take the canoe down into the Mangatawhiri River. Entering this winding, sluggish stream through the flax swamps, Bates paddled down to Te Ia, where it discharged into the broad Waikato. Now a long day's work was before him, and problems of frontier diplomacy exercised his mind as he plied a vigorous paddle up stream. Toilsome, but delightful. The young officer's spirits bounded; this was the joy of life, a sufficiently dangerous job of secret service work, in the glorious summer weather and the freedom of the river road.

Lieutenant Bates, though still in his twenties, was a soldier of wide experience; he had served in the Taranaki War of 1860–61; he knew the bush and the rivers, and rough travel ways, and he knew the Maoris. He was one of the few British officers who had become a proficient speaker of the Maori tongue and qualified as an interpreter. He was a staff interpreter for General Cameron. Besides acquiring a knowledge of the native tongue he had acquired also a wife of beauty and high degree. She was a daughter of Manihera Matangi, one of the Atiawa chiefs, from Taranaki, who sold the site of Wellington City to the New Zealand Company in 1839. “Te Peeti” (pronounced Pay-tee), “The Bates,” as the Maoris called him, was not only a good soldier and skilled linguist. He was an artist in watercolour, and he could write something better than official memos. Some of his manuscript diary notes of military life were given to me by his half-caste son (the late “Rewi” Bates, an old friend of mine). From these notes I reconstruct this narrative of a special service expedition on the Waikato River in the critical days just before the war.

The young lieutenant of the “Royal Tigers” was ostensibly bound on a duck-shooting trip up the river, to the creeks and great lagoons about Rangiriri. His real object was to obtain information for the General on tracks and waterways of communication, river landing places, likely sites for fortifications, Maori supplies of arms and ammunition, and other notes which would be useful in the event of the troops invading the Waikato. The situation was tense; pakehas were not welcomed in the Waikato, and those
(From a sketch by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 65th Regiment.) Old Ngaruawahia: the Maori King's headquarters in 1862, before the Waikato War.

(From a sketch by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 65th Regiment.)
Old Ngaruawahia: the Maori King's headquarters in 1862, before the Waikato War.

known to be connected with the Government were specially undesirable to the Kingites. On a previous spying-out expedition Bates had to lie concealed under shawls and blankets in the bottom of a friendly Maori's canoe when two large war-canoes, with fifty or sixty men in each, hove in sight coming down the river. There were some places where he was very welcome a few months back; now he was under suspicion as a spy. The shrewd Maori leaders knew that the Government intended to invade the Waikato sooner or later; it only awaited a pretext for setting in motion the troops encamped along the Great South Road. To obtain any information the intelligence officer had to go to work in the most cautious and circumspect manner.

Paddle and Song.

The river fogs of early morning were quickly licked up by the mounting sun, and a hot day's work lay ahead for our canoe man. The current was smooth but strong. The surface of the river shimmered and sparkled. Bates kept close in to the east bank to avoid the greatest strength of the stream. He passed the place where Mercer township now stands, and a little way above the mouth of the Whangamarino he crossed to the opposite side of the river. He called in at Te Kohekohe to see the chief Te Wheoro and picked up there a young fellow to help him in paddling along as far as the Opuatia Creek mouth, eight miles higher up on the west side.

Now and again the hard-toiling pair met a canoe full of Maoris floating easily downstream, the crews singing as they leisurely dipped their paddles. When these canoe-folk came close enough to recognise the pakeha, they usually began to chant with great animation and good humour a little song about Bates himself that was well page 18
(From a drawing by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 1862.) On the broad Waikato River.

(From a drawing by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 1862.)
On the broad Waikato River.

known all along the river:—

“Kei taku pikitanga
Ki runga o Peowhairangi,
Te rongo o Te Peeti
E aki ana-e.
(“On my coming southward
From the Bay of Islands
I heard the fame of Te Peeti
Dashing like a wave
Upon the coast.”)

The heat of the day and the toil of paddling against a strong current presently oppressed the pakeha. His shoulders ached for a rest, the light was dazzling on the smooth waterway; he wanted to shut his eyes and doze awhile. So, soon after passing a sleeping village called Te Takinga Wairua (after some old legend about a man meeting a spirit of the dead) he lay down with a flax mat around him in the bottom of the canoe, and left his Maori mate, Hami, to keep the dugout moving.

Under Surveillance.

He was just dropping off to sleep when he heard someone asking Hami who the white man was. He threw off his flax covering and saw that there was a canoe alongside, with a man and two girls in it. The man, a big tattooed truculent-looking fellow, one Te Waka, was very inquisitive about Bates and his excursion. When he heard that the pakeha was bound to Tupekerunga village, he instantly turned his canoe about—he was going downstream with a cargo of dressed flax packed in baskets—and set off up the river, alongside Bates' waka.

His sleepy fit gone, and feeling annoyed and a trifle anxious about this meddlesome flax-trader on his trail, the pakeha took up his paddle again. Te Waka steadily kept pace with the scout's canoe. Bates landed his lad Hami at Opuatia, where a dark slow creek came out from the secret places of the forest on the west. Dipping his blade steadily, he paddled on, presently passing the wooded island of Tarahanga, on which he saw the remains of the palisading of an abandoned pa. The island was a tapu burying place.

The blazing sun went down at last; cool breaths came from the broad riverway and the fragrant bush. A large village lay straggling along the west bank; beyond the thatched houses were potato-gardens and fruit trees. This was Tupeke-runga, a kainga where one of Bates' trusted secret agents lived.

Te Peeti's “Tupara.”

Very weary, after more than twelve hours' canoe work, Bates tied up his dug-out at the bank, and placed his gun and blankets in a hut. He walked through the kainga to look up Haré Mokena (Harry Morgan), the man on whom he relied in his intelligence work.

In his absence Te Waka quietly made off with his gun and ammunition and paddled three miles up the river to a village called Horahora, where the Kingite runanga, or council of the district chiefs, was sitting. He declared that he had found a pakeha carrying a gun into the country, and therefore he had confiscated it, and he laid it before the Council.

(From a sketch by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 65th Regiment.) Fort Britomart, Auckland, 1863.

(From a sketch by Lieut. H. S. Bates, 65th Regiment.)
Fort Britomart, Auckland, 1863.

Meanwhile there was turmoil in Tupeke-runga. Bates, very indignant, demanded that the people should recover his valuable tupara (double-barrel) from the thief. It was a matter involving principle of much greater importance than the value of the gun. The prestige of the pakeha was at stake. It would never do to let Waikato boast that they had taken a gun from a Government officer, a soldier of the Queen.

Haré Mokena and an old chieftainess named Te Raro set out in the darkness to follow Te Waka and regain the confiscated tupara. Meanwhile Bates slept in Mokena's whare. “Leave it to us,” said Mokena, as he went out into the night, “we shall return with the gun.”

Here it should be explained that since Bates' first cruise along the Waikato, a law had been made by the Kingites that no pakeha should bring a gun up the river. They professed to fear that King Tawhiao—he was at this time usually called Matutaera (Methusaleh), his missionary name—would be shot by order of the Government There was also the desire to assert native independence, for, said they, the Maori was not allowed to carry guns about Auckland and other pakeha towns, therefore any European carrying firearms into Kingite territory should forfeit his weapon.

The Lady and the Gun.

How the white scout's friends contrived to recover the now-famous double-barrel made a long and eloquent story in the meeting-house later on. It was attributed by Mokena to the old dame's vigorous and tireless tongue. The Kingite chiefs yielded from sheer fatigue; she threatened, rated and coaxed; until in sheer sleepy despair they said, “Oh, take your accursed gun, take it to Te Peeti and tell him to shoot himself with it!”

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The first thing the wise old woman did was to draw the charges from the double-barrel. (Bates wrote in his journal: “Now, I ask, would an old English lady have had so much sense and foresight?”). On general principles a gun was safer unloaded.

Te Waka was greatly disgusted when he saw that the gun he had confiscated was to be returned to the white man. He was an excitable, dangerous fellow, given to furious fits of anger. Leaving his flax-laden craft tied up, he took a light canoe and paddled off downstream, shouting threats of vengeance on the pakeha. Mokena and Te Raro followed him, and there was a frenzied race for the kainga.

Te Waka on the War-path.

In the first dim light of dawn Bates was startled by Te Waka bursting into his hut. The Maori was armed with a tewhatewha, a wooden weapon shaped like a battleaxe, with a long handle, and a plume of hawk's feathers just below the blade. Bates was quite unarmed. Te Waka danced about, threatening him with death if he did not leave the village at once and return to the Mangatawhiri. The soldier hastily wrapped a blanket round his left arm to ward off the expected blow.

The maddened Maori's shouted threats brought the whole village out. Everyone was eager to see how the pakeha dealt with the Kingite champion. The wild man stood in the doorway brandishing his tewhatewha and yelling. One of the young women made a taunting remark. Te Waka struck her with the weapon. Next moment Haré Mokena jumped in and dealt him a blow with his fist.

“Run, run for your life!” cried a Maori, rushing and seizing Bates by the hand. He was not inclined to run; nevertheless he went with the Maori to a house where most of the women were gathered. There they begged him to wait till the mad fellow had cooled off. Meanwhile Te Waka was dashing about the place, striking viciously here and there with his tewhatewha. The sun rose, and with its coming, a complete change seemed to pass over the savage.

“Where is Te Peeti?” he asked quite mildly. “My anger is done. I am sorry I took his gun. I must make amends for it.”

Bates walked out to the village green. He distrusted the big warrior, and he kept the blanket on his left arm to take the first blow.

At the moment the pakeha appeared, Te Waka went mad again. He leaped into the air, his battleaxe thrust at arm's length above his head. He slapped his tattooed thigh, he went jumping to and fro uttering short, sharp sentences, his eyes glittering, glaring.

“You tell me!” he yelled, “that I have behaved treacherously! Yes, treacherously!” He charged up to Bates as if he were about to strike him down, then stopped short and slapped his thigh. He turned and trotted back, then ran forward again, whirling his weapon with its dancing plumes. “You call me treacherous! Yes, you have asked for satisfaction, for utu! Oh, yes, I'll give you satisfaction!”

“Now,” thought Bates, “it's coming! What a fool I am to stand here without a weapon to defend myself. Oh for my gun!” But he braced himself to look cool and keep on the alert for a lightning blow. The gun? Wise old Te Raro had hidden it until the trouble was over.


Te Waka came dashing towards him again, his face distorted, his frame quivering. He yelled at the top of his voice: “Payment! Yes, indeed, I'll give you payment! I'll give you satisfaction. That tupara of yours that I took is the weapon of your ancestors. This tewhatewha”—and he shook it above his head—“is the weapon of my ancestors. Take it as utu for my offence!”—and he flung it at the pakeha's feet.

Anti-climax? At any rate a tremendous relief. Bates had quite anticipated a desperate tussle. He was enormously pleased to see that tewhatewha lying at his feet. It meant that not merely was he saved the threatened rough-and-tumble on the green but his calm unruffled attitude had won the day, the mana of the pakeha was unimpaired. Thus the news would go from end to end of the Waikato that Te Peeti, without a weapon, had triumphed over the Maori warrior.

Bates said, with an air of cool dignity: “That is well! You have done the right thing,” and, stooping slowly, he took up the tewhatewha, which now was his. It was a treasured weapon of polished hardwood. He knew what an effort it must have been for Te Waka to surrender it. It was the act of a chief. Te Waka, said the soldier to himself, was rough stuff but a gentleman.

* * *

In his red-pine canoe again, his recovered gun in his hands, Bates was presently enjoying himself among the grey duck in a lagoon reached by a slow creek from the main stream. With him were Haré Mokena and the old dame Te Raro, paddling while the pakeha potted the parera. The intelligence officer, having given out that his expedition was for sport, must keep up appearances.

At a camp they made for a meal and rest he noted down certain things Mokena told him, heard at the Kingite villages, and he made a sketch map. Two days later when he was back in camp, he had more than a bag of wild duck and his hardwood trophy to show for his river excursion. He had all the data he needed for his report, which presently lay before the general of the Queen's troops. And the “rongo o Te Peeti,” in the words of the song—the fame of The Bates—was higher than ever along the Waikato.

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