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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter XVIII. — General Chute's Campaign. — The Fight at Okotuku

page 107

Chapter XVIII.
General Chute's Campaign.
The Fight at Okotuku.

Under these repeated provocations, his Excellency Sir George Grey directed Major-General Chute to proceed against the west coast tribes. The General had intended to commence operations early in December, but the expedition was delayed by the action of Mete Kingi, who, immediately after the Native Contingent landed from Opotiki, announced that he would withdraw his men from the force. Within three days we had only thirty of our 120 men left, and for some time it was feared that we should not get the number required for the campaign; but the arrival of Doctor Featherston, Superintendent of Wellington, whose influence with Wanganui was very great, turned the scale. The chiefs Kepa and Wirihana seconded his efforts, and brought the warriors to their senses. The old hands began to ask themselves the very pertinent question whether it was not better to serve the Government than Mete Kingi; and one very impudent scoundrel asked that chief point-blank whether he would give him 2s. 6d. per diem and rations. This turned the tide; the men rejoined, and shortly after Christmas 300 Maories (contingent and kupapas) joined the general's force at the Weraroa.

General Chute, who assumed command of the troops in New Zealand after the retirement of General Cameron, was a man well fitted for Maori warfare by his great energy and decision of character. He never saw or made difficulties. Neither did he allow a few lives to stand between him and his object. At the same time it must be admitted that he was incapable of such blunders as those which were made at the Gate pah and Rangiriri.

page 108

On the 3rd of January, 1866, the field force, composed of three companies of the 14th Regiment and nearly three hundred Maories, marched from the Weraroa in the direction of Okotuku, and camped on the edge of the bush at Ngamotu. Ensign McDonnell, with the scouts of the contingent, went out to reconnoitre and were fired upon from the bush. They followed up smartly, and came upon the village of Okotuku, which they burnt. On return to camp they reported having passed large plantations of potatoes and corn, which the general deemed it advisable to destroy. Consequently at grey dawn on the 4th, two companies of the 14th and a strong party of Maories under Major McDonnell advanced through the bush, preceded by an advanced guard of three, viz., two subaltern officers, Lieutenant Gudgeon, and Ensign McDonnell, and the great fighting man Winiata. In their eagerness they did not perceive that they had outrun the main body, who had halted at Moturoa (the scene of a severe action three years after). On reaching the potato-plantation below the village they were fired upon by a scout lying in ambush, whom they chased up the rise and fired upon, but without effect, as he entered a pah which had been erected during the night across a narrow neck of table-land with a precipice on either side. The small advanced guard moved on to the pah, but with what object it is difficult to determine, for they could hardly have expected to take it, and when within twenty yards received a volley from about thirty guns. They immediately fell fiat on the ground, and on inquiring after each other's welfare, and finding none hit, decided on retiring from their perilous situation to a small watercourse about twenty yards in rear, which would afford them cover. This movement was rapidly executed; they received a second volley, but again without effect. This rather remarkable escape is not to be attributed so much to bad shooting on the part of the Hauhaus, as to the fact that the outer defences of the pah consisted of a breastwork of logs, so thick that there were no crevices to fire through, page 109and too high to allow the defenders to depress the muzzles of their guns sufficiently for their fire to take effect.

Safe for the time in the watercourse, Winiata hurled defiance at the enemy, who came out at the opposite corner of their pah, and threatened to cut off their retreat; but, luckily for the advanced guard, the firing had alarmed the main body, who soon came doubling up and opened fire, driving the Hauhaus back to their pah, while a zealous party of the 14th Regiment opened fire on the three unfortunates in the watercourse, under the firm conviction that they were Hauhaus. This was too much for Winiata's philosophy, who, after expending all his stock of bad language (a tolerably large one), treated them to a few shots in return. This probably, combined with the entreaties of the contingent who now came up, convinced the red jackets of their mistake, and they ceased firing. The general now ordered Lieutenant Keogh with his company of the 14th to storm the pah. They advanced steadily until the enemy opened a heavy fire, severely wounding Mr. Keogh and several of his men. This brought them up for a moment, but almost immediately after the defences were entered at several points by the soldiers and contingent. The latter under their officers scattered in pursuit of the flying enemy through some of the wildest country imaginable, and did not return until late in the evening, the result being three of the enemy killed, one wounded, and one prisoner, in addition to three others who were killed in the attack on the pah. The prisoner had a narrow escape. He had evidently mistaken one of the pursuing parties for his friends, and got too near for retreat to be possible. Finding our men coming straight towards him, he wisely took the initiative, and stepping out from behind a tree presented the butt of his gun as a sign of amity to the leading man of the contingent. Much as the noble savage was astonished, and perhaps frightened at this apparition, his instincts were true to life, for he promptly seized the gun, and left the next man to seize page 110the prisoner. But his heart was also in the right place; he neglected the man, but stripped him of tomahawk, cartouch-box, and other portable property, in a most workmanlike manner, and then went his way rejoicing. Now the third man was naturally aggrieved there was nothing left for him; so, after having achieved the feat of putting his tongue out until it nearly reached his chest, turning his eyes inside out, and other signs of Maori emotion, he ostentatiously put a cap on his rifle, when, fortunately for the prisoner, one of the contingent recognised in him a long-lost brother, or something that would answer as well in Maoridom.

Here was a dilemma. It was manifestly wrong not to kill an enemy, but then how about the Whanaunga (relationship)? But, happy thought! perhaps he is not an enemy. So they began to question him: "Were you in the fight?" "Oh no," said the prisoner. "I was coming through the bush and I heard guns. Then I said to myself those wicked men are fighting the Pakeha, and I'll not join them. That is how you found me here." Of course it was impossible to kill so well-disposed a Maori, and he was sent back under escort to the general. After he had left, some doubts were expressed as to the captive's veracity; and they ceased to be doubts when the Maori who had taken the gun ascertained that it had been recently fired. The last of the pursuing parties returned late in the evening, and having been successful in the killing line alarmed the camp by a terrific war-dance.