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A Sketch of the New Zealand War

General Pratt at Mahoetahi IX

page 81

General Pratt at Mahoetahipage 82page 83 IX

Before describing the battle, I wish to sketch for you the state of things in New Plymouth. General Pratt had received a distinct challenge to fight the quarrel out signed by Waitini, Wiremu Kingi, and Haperona. One Maori name was as good to him as another. The whole war was in his judgment one vast nightmare. The General was a tall, weakly old man, who suffered habitually from diarrhœa. He sat his horse like a soldier, and was above personal timidity. An austere phlegm was the varnish with which nature concealed a feeble and irresolute will. He was a gentleman anxious to do his duty, but the marrow had long since gone out of his bones. He was surrounded by an active, capable staff who only worried him; but in the end he did whatever he was told. He consented to accept the challenge, and ordered the necessary preparations. The morning of the 6th November (I860) was cool and a bit dark. The soldiers page 84paraded in the main street of the town. It looked an imposing force. The Taranaki volunteers were intended to act as supports, and space was left in the column for their companies. When the force was ready to march, as the space retained for Taranaki volunteers was not nearly filled, there was much tittering and ridicule amongst the soldiers. Colonel Carey rode up to Major Atkinson, and said,—

"Major, this is very bad. Where are your men?"

Major Atkinson was a stumpy little Devonshire man, with a long body, short legs, shaggy eyebrows, and an eye betokening a highly intellectual character. His brain was so hot within his head that his coarse, short hair always stood up. He was the gentlest of men and the bravest of soldiers. In battle, or when he was angry, Harry Atkinson's eye wore the cold, fierce glitter of the wild boar. His eye now shone with a fierce light, as he replied in a hoarse trumpet voice that penetrated one's bones,—

"Colonel, let the column advance. My men will fall in as we go, and, in any case, there are enough volunteers present to storm the position."

This savage answer electrified the listeners.

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I watched Colonel Carey's face. He was a débonnaire little man, as brave as a bantam cock, shrewd as a court bailiff. He smiled good-naturedly. Every one knew the serious side of Major Atkinson's character. Colonel Carey alone saw the grotesque. The news of the Major's defiant air spread like wildfire through the settlement. His men joined the column in threes and fours as we marched along, and soon the Major's complete companies were in the ranks.

The interview with Major Atkinson was reported to General Pratt, who smiled in grim content. Great was his animosity against the volunteers (though his was a kindly nature) because the Taranaki Herald had held him and his soldiers up to unmeasured contempt. He felt that at last each was to occupy its proper relative position in the public view, and that this parade had drawn the'sting of volunteer ridicule.

Arrived at Mahoetahi, the General saw nothing but an insignificant hill surrounded with an apparently dry swamp. There was not a Maori to be seen, nor an earthwork or stockade. The only sign of life was a thin wreath of smoke ascending peaceably in the morning air.

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The General chewed his grey moustache, eased himself by sitting sideways in the saddle, and said,—

"Well, Carey, sold again?"

Just as they were in doubt, Major Atkinson fell out of the ranks, and, hot with seething emotions, walked up to the General, and said,—

"General, my men were slow in parading. This is our land. I claim for the Taranaki volunteers the honour of the assault."

The General looked at Colonel Carey, who said,—

"Major, the dispositions for the attack are not yet completed. In any case you and your men are entitled to an honourable position in the field. You shall hear from the General later."

It was then decided that the assault should be entrusted to a company of the 65th Foot, and a company of the Taranaki volunteers under the command of Major Atkinson. A wiser decision could not have been arrived at. Both of these forces knew the country well.

Instructions were given for the various companies to deploy to the right and the left, so as to surround Mahoetahi. Major Nelson at Waitara had been warned by marching early page 87to take it in the rear. The guns unlimbered were brought into position, and commenced firing. The 65th and Taranaki volunteers, skirmishing around, soon found practical access at the rear. With great fury they hurled themselves at the elevated ridge, where they were met by Waitini in person leading his men.

Here a hand-to-hand conflict between the tomahawk and the bayonet took place in the open. Both the natives and the white men were too eager to reload once the first volley was fired. Waitini was both outnumbered and overmatched in weapons. His men went down in numbers, Waitini amongst the very first.

When the ridge was carried, the remainder of Waitini's men took to the swamp, and in many instances were hunted like rats in a water-hole. Many of them got away into the high fern, before our soldiers woke up to the realization of the victory.

Haperona at Waitini's rear merely fired a volley in the air and decamped. The bitter story of Waitini's death was told with weeping all over the Waikato, and the Waikatos swore eternal vengeance for a near day.

The confusion amongst our men was great. There were so few Maori to kill, and so many anxious to kill them. This incident caught page 88my eye. A noble-looking Maori, naked and tattooed, stood up to his waist in swamp-water. He was quite near, and flourished his tomahawk bravely. The Enfield rifle was a beast of a weapon at a short range. The trajectory was too high. In the haste and turmoil many of our men fired at him, but missed. A hot-headed Irishman, impatient of the delay, took a running jump, and with fixed bayonet made a rush at him. The Maori, as he saw his adversary in the air, lightly stooped, and let his tomahawk swing to his wrist by its thong. The bayonet passed over his head, and he caught the soldier by the hips and waist, and gently placed him under his foot in the water. There was a furious shout from the bank, "He is drowning Mick Ryan."

Two or three men lay on their stomachs, and fired point-blank. As the gallant Maori toppled over, Mick came to the surface spluttering, and bawled out, "Bedad, I thought he had smothered me entirely, entirely."

As soon as the battle was over, we gathered together the Maori dead. Wounded Maori there were none. None of the dead were mutilated. To the number of fifty the Waikatos got off through the swamp and fern. The gallant dead were carted into New Plymouth page 89on our gun-carriages. There they were all laid out like pheasants after a battue. Descriptions of their tattoos, with full details of their height and figure, were taken down, and published in the Maori language. There was to be no mistake about the announcement of the victory.

And a victory it was, though it brought us much trouble, and finally led to the Waikato war. The escaped Ngatiaua (Waikatos), after the manner of their race, graphically told the whole story on their return home. These are the only particulars I have to add.

When Waitini's scouts ran in and said, "The soldiers are approaching," Waitini, with Maori stolidity, replied, "Waitini is at his breakfast. When informed that the soldiers had arrived, he said, "Waitini is at his breakfast." When assured the whole position was surrounded, he rose, and quietly said, "Waitini has finished his breakfast."Then at the head of his men he rushed to meet the storming party, which had already touched the crown of the hill.

One word in extenuation of Wiremu Kingi's desertion of his noble ally.

It is undoubtedly true that Major Nelson's march from Waitara took Wiremu Kingi by surprise, because it threatened his rear. It had never been calculated by Waitini, when he page 90made his dispositions, that so important a concentration could be effected.

It is difficult to acquit Wiremu Kingi, however, of a full knowledge of our resources, and certain it is in my opinion that Wiremu Kingi would never have deserted his own people as he did the Waikatos. When the details of the catastrophe were sifted at Ngaruawahia by the King's Council, it was resolved, in the interests of the Maori national movement, to hush up the facts; but the sting remained, and had it not been for the necessity of combining against the common (English) foe the treachery would have been wiped out in blood.