Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand
Chapter XI — The Opotiki Expedition. — The Landing
The Opotiki Expedition.
The Opotiki or expeditionary force, as it was called, was composed of two companies of Military Settlers, three companies of Bush Rangers, the Native Contingent, and Wanganui Yeoman Cavalry, in all 500 men, under the command of Major Brassey. The start from Wanganui was not easily effected on the part of the contingent, for their wives managed to get on board the steamer and refused to leave, and the men, dismayed at the prospect of a sea voyage, were quite ready to desert, but McDonnell's firmness and vigilance overcame the difficulty; the ladies were bundled with little ceremony into their canoes, and to prevent desertion our steamer crossed the bar. On arrival at Wellington the contingent, at the instigation of Mete Kingi, demanded arrears of pay to date, or they would not go to Opotiki. This demand was absurd, for they had only fourteen days' pay due, but the Government did not consider it advisable to refuse payment, and the Native Contingent went on their way rejoicing. On the 7th of September the steamers reached Hieko Bay, where H.M.S. Brish and the Huntress tender were waiting to convoy them to Opotiki. At dawn on the following morning we were off Opotiki, and Major Brassey, with Nos. 8 and 10 Companies of Taranaki Military Settlers and the Patea Rangers, embarked on board the Huntress, and made an attempt to land. The tender crossed the bar safely, page 67but found a heavy freshet in the river, against which she was powerless; a rush was made against the freshet, which carried them, some distance up the river, hut only to be swept back and lodged on a sandspit in the middle of the stream, where they could not land, for the tender had no boats, and there was deep water on either side—as the tide receded the little steamer heeled over on her side, and in this perilous position, her decks crowded with men, she offered the Hauhaus as fair a target as they could wish; but, fortunately for the force, the beach offered no cover, and the enemy, not caring to expose themselves, fired at such long range that but little damage was done. Ensign Northcroft was hit on the buckle of his belt, and one of the men had a bullet pass between his foot and the sole of his boot. At this uncomfortable juncture an incident occurred which showed the pitch to which fanaticism might be carried. One of the Hauhaus advanced slowly across the sandflat to the edge of the river not fifty yards from the Huntress, and began his Hauhau incantations, waving his hands in a mystic manner, after the fashion of a mesmerist; two or three bullets fired simultaneously put an end to his manœuvres, and he fell mortally wounded. Our men could not reach him, so the rising tide finished what the bullets had begun. At low water the men managed to wade on shore on the opposite side to the village, where we will leave them for the present, wet, cold, and hungry, with no prospect of relief from their misery for two long days, for the wind which had been rising all the morning was now a perfect hurricane, accompanied with torrents of rain. We could do nothing to assist them, and had to run before the gale all night. About noon on the following day we managed to anchor under the shelter of Whale Island; some of the men got permission to land, and were rather astonished when they jumped out of the boat to find the surf rather more than warm, in fact nearly boiling; they had jumped into a boiling spring, of which there are page 68several on this island, it being in the line of volcanic action between White Island and Tongariro. Nest morning the sea was sufficiently calm to attempt a landing, and by 10 a.m. we were again at anchor off Opotiki; the Native Contingent were the first corps to land in the boats of H.M.S. Brisk. The enemy could be seen swarming down the sandhills of the right bank of the river ready to meet us. But the men led by McDonnell and Hunia Te Hakeke soon drove them back, and followed, skirmishing, for some miles, killing six of them. Our casualties were light, consisting of McDonnell's cartridge-box—the bullet entered it in front, knocked all his cartridges to pieces, and passed out over his hip unpleasantly near, but without wounding him. The force now crossed a branch of the Opotiki river, and entered the Opotiki village, probably the largest Maori settlement in New Zealand. The contingent were in their glory examining and looting the whares, when Private Hanieta entering a small hut was astonished to find a Hauhau in possession, sitting calmly with his gun across his knees; for one moment our noble savage was startled, but, rising superior to the circumstance, he ordered him to come outside and be hung like Volckner; impressive as the invitation was, the Hauhau declined, so Hanieta shot him and set fire to the whare. The next morning only a small portion of our enemy remained. That night the force slept in Mr. Volckner's church; it was bitterly cold, and we had nothing but sail-cloth to cover us: this is not a warm material; in fact, I have every reason to believe that a small portion would preserve ice through an Indian summer. The surroundings might also have been happier, but the force, satisfied in having killed some of Yolckner's murderers, slept the sleep of the just.
On the following morning the stores and camp equipage were landed and placed in the church, which was hence-forth to be the commissariat store. The European portion of the force were told off to pitch camp, and the contingent page 69sent out to forage. With such foragers the force was soon supplied with poultry, pigs, cattle, horses, and tons of kumeras; in fact, Opotiki became a veritable Paradise to the colonial forces.