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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter XXVI. — Outbreak at Napier. — The Fight at Omarunui and Petane Under Colonel Whitmore

Chapter XXVI.
Outbreak at Napier.
The Fight at Omarunui and Petane Under Colonel Whitmore.

Until October, 1866, the brunt of the war had fallen entirely on the three provinces of Taranaki, Auckland, and Wellington. Hawkes Bay had escaped the murders, burnt homesteads, and general destruction of property, which had been more or less the fate of the sister provinces, especially so in Taranaki, where military incapacity was rampant. Why Hawkes Bay had hitherto escaped, it is difficult to say, for the Maori tribes of that province were not more peaceably inclined, nor did they love the enterprising Pakeha more than their rebel neighbours did; many of them had assisted the Waikatos, with both men and ammunition, against the troops under General Cameron. The solution of the riddle may probably be found in this, that they had less to gain, and more to lose than other tribes; they had sold but a small portion of their lands, comparatively speaking, to the Government, the rest had been leased to various Pakehas for sheep-runs, generally at a high rental. Another possible reason for their keeping quiet within their district, is the open nature of the country, which is generally free from those forests or ravines so essential to the Maori warrior. This want would necessitate a style of fighting repugnant to page break
Vincent Brooks Day & Son Lith.Colonel Whitmore.

Vincent Brooks Day & Son Lith.
Colonel Whitmore.

page 155the feelings of a well-bred Maori; unless indeed, he happened to be under the influence of fanaticism, or Whakamoraori (desperation), one about as bad as the other.

Several of the northern tribes of the province had joined the Hauhau religion, notably the Ngatihineuru of Tara-wera, and Te Rangihiroa's people; and as the fact of being a Hauhau necessitated deadly enmity to Europeans, there was in the province a volcano, ready at any moment to break out in obedience to the orders of any one of the prophets. This outbreak occurred in October, 1866, when the Ngatihineuru, assisted by disaffected men from other tribes, in all one hundred fighting men, suddenly appeared at Omarunui, near the Meane village. They were led by the chiefs Nikora, Tahau, Kipa, and a fanatical Hauhau prophet named Panapa; their appearance was unmistakably hostile, though for some days they remained quietly in the village, and did not interfere with the neighbouring settlers. Sir Donald McLean, then superintendent of Hawkes Bay, sent several messages to them, requesting an explanation of their presence, and requiring them to return at once to their own district; the only reply vouchsafed was to the effect that they would not return. Sir Donald was evidently forewarned of their intentions, for while using all possible means to bring about a peaceful solution of the difficulty, he at the same time instructed Colonel Whitmore to call out the militia for active service, and drill them ready for action. He also availed himself of Mr. Locke's influence with the well-disposed tribes, and desired that gentleman to organize them, with a view to taking part in the coming struggle; orders were also sent to Major Fraser at Te Wairoa, to hurry up with his veteran company of military settlers.

It was some days before the Meane settlers really comprehended that the Hauhaus meant mischief; the suddenness of the movement, and the apparent absence of motive, rendered hostilities so unlikely. The chief, Nikora, had hitherto borne a very high character, and had only a short time previously been employed by the page 156Government to improve the mail-track between Napier and Taupo. Te Rangihiroa, who had not as yet appeared upon the scene, was a very different man; turbulent and suspicious, one of the first to adopt the Hauhau religion, and to spread it among the Wairarapa tribes. A man who hated the Europeans, not because they had injured him, but because he saw that the mana of the Maori race had departed, and that henceforth the Pakeha would take the lead in all things.

Panapa, the real leader, was not a chief by birth, nor was he a clever man; his influence was due solely to the power of fanaticism, but this was in itself sufficient to make men socially his superiors obey him slavishly. Major Fraser and his company, forty strong, with the chiefs Kopu and Ihaka and thirty men, arrived from Te Wairoa on the 11th of October, not a day too soon, for by this time it was evident that negotiations were useless, and that force of arms must decide the question. Luckily we were now in a position to dictate terms or fight, as might be most expedient; and it was well, for intelligence was received that another party of Hauhaus, under Te Rangihiroa, Anaru Matete, and Paora Toki, were advancing by way of Petane, to attack the town from the western side of the harbour. To prevent this movement in his rear, Colonel Whitmore detached Major Fraser and his company to a position in the Petane valley, about twelve miles from Napier, from whence he could watch the Taupo tracks, and prevent the threatened movement. At midnight on the 11th of October, Colonel Whitmore, with 180 men of the local militia, marched from Napier and took up a position in front of the Omarunui village; while Mr. Locke, with 200 soi-disant friendly natives, established themselves on the edge of a swamp in rear of the same place. A temporary flagstaff was erected, and as day broke a white flag was hoisted; Mr. E. Hamlin was then sent into the village with Sir Donald's ultimatum to the enemy. For some time they took no notice of Hamlin, but sat glowering in their whares. In fact they were puzzled how page 157to act; they did not intend to surrender, nor did they wish to fight just then; we had taken the initiative and upset their plans. Had Te Rangihiroa been ready to operate from the western spit, there would have been no hesitation shown, and Mr. Hamlin would in all probability have been sacrificed as an offering to Tu. As it was, they were not prepared, and they finally consented to receive Sir Donald's letter, which was to the effect that, if within one hour they did not lay down their arms and surrender, they would be attacked. This was an extremely bitter pill, and the only reply Hamlin could obtain was, that the time allowed was short. The pah, or rather village, for it was not fortified, was situated on the bank of a fordable river, with a swamp in rear, which, as before-mentioned, was occupied in force by the friendly natives. To attack in front it was necessary to cross the rather rapid stream, and a broad open shingle-bed, immediately under the high bank on which the village stood. Under ordinary circumstances, the enemy would have availed themselves of this advantage, and inflicted severe loss upon their assailants; but on this occasion they were unaccountably apathetic, and allowed Major Lambert to cross with two companies in open column, but did not fire a shot. When the militia gained the top of the river-bank, they found the Hauhaus drawn up in the form of a wedge, apex towards them. It had been their intention to charge the militia so soon as they appeared on the high ground, and had they done so, the militia would probably have been annihilated; but the heavy cross-fire opened on them from all sides, would seem to have puzzled them as to which party they should charge. Before they could make up their minds, the opportunity was lost, and half of them were hors de combat. Meanwhile Major Lambert and his men had entered the outer portion of the village, and exchanged shots with the enemy; here a slight panic occurred among some friendly natives, who, finding the fire rather hot, fell back in confusion. The militia showed a similar tendency, so Colonel Whitmore ordered them to page 158fall back to the river-bank, and take cover in such a position that their fire could sweep the village.

For nearly twenty minutes the enemy stood this fusilade, until at length they were driven from the doubtful shelter of the huts, and forced to take cover in a hollow roadway at the further corner of the village. Here they were safe from the militia fire, but the colonel moved up a company of volunteers to a position that completely enfiladed them. At first, the volunteers could not believe that the men so close to them were their enemies, and withheld their fire, believing them to be friendly Maories; this illusion was quickly dispelled by a volley from the supposed friendlies which aroused the volunteers to a sense of their danger. In a very short time the enemy were driven out of their cover, when they found the militia and friendly natives closing up on either flank in such a manner as almost to bar retreat. Under these circumstances the Hauhaus made a virtue of necessity, and hoisted the white flag. It was some little time before Colonel Whitmore could stay the firing and make known the surrender; but when he did so, Nikora came forward, laid down his arms, and called on the survivors to do likewise. The majority, only too glad to save their lives, obeyed promptly; but a small party of the most desperate character, taking advantage of the confusion, attempted to escape across the swamp. A company of militia under Captain Rhodes tried to intercept them, but without effect, and they would probably have succeeded in effecting their escape; but at this moment, Captain Gordon and his volunteer cavalry appeared upon the scene. They had been employed in seizing the enemy's canoes, and had performed this duty satisfactorily. They were now sent in pursuit, and succeeded in heading the fugitives, before they reached the summit of the neighbouring hills. Most of the Hauhaus were captured, though not without a struggle, and not more than two or three made good their escape. The enemy had behaved throughout this skirmish with remarkable courage, and their casualties were pro-page 159portionately heavy; out of not quite one hundred men, there were twenty-three killed, twenty-eight wounded (many of whom died in hospital), and forty-four taken prisoners. Our losses were insignificant, being one European and two Maories killed, and one officer and eight men (Europeans) and four Maories wounded. This fight was scarcely one to be proud of, for our force was fourfold that of the enemy; but it must be remembered, that hardly any of the Europeans had been previously in action; they were in fact a levy en masse of the town and country districts in the immediate vicinity.

As for the friendly natives, although numerically strong, they were to a certain extent a source of weakness; for many of the Europeans believed (probably unjustly) that they only awaited an opportunity to join the Hauhaus. Had the Hauhaus been allowed sufficient time to mature their plans, this fight would have taken place in the streets of Napier; where even if beaten, they would have inflicted heavy loss upon the settlers. As it was, the very prompt and decided attitude of the authorities forced the enemy to fight on ground eminently unsuited to develope Maori warfare, and inflicted on them the most crushing defeat in New Zealand annals.

While the events related were in progress, Major Fraser was not idle; they had marched from Napier at 2 a.m. on the 12th, and at 8 o'clock the following morning reached their destination, Captain Carr's station in the Patene valley. Major Fraser at once sent round to the neighbouring settlers, ordering them to come in and reinforce him; but before they could do so, two officers, who had gone to bathe in the river, returned and reported that a body of mounted men were approaching the station. The party proved to be Te Rangihiroa, Paora Toki, and Anaru Matete, with twenty-two Hauhaus, who were marching to assist the Omarunui men. Major Fraser first sent a party to cut off the enemy's retreat by a small gorge through which they had to pass, and then, barring the way page 160with the remainder of his company, called upon them to lay down their arms and surrender.

But Te Rangihiroa, like his compatriots at Omarunui, behaved with remarkable boldness; although he knew that his retreat was cut off, and that he was confronted by nearly double his number of well-armed tried men, he refused to surrender, and retired to a small house for cover. Fraser immediately ordered his men to open fire, and a very sharp affair ensued, but lasted only a few minutes, for our men, judiciously posted under cover of a fence, held the Hauhaus at their mercy. We had only one man wounded, whereas the enemy had twelve killed, one wounded, and three men taken prisoners. Te Rangihiroa was killed, but Paora Toki and Anaru Matete managed to escape, fording the river, to the great disgust of our men, as it was at the instigation of these two chiefs that their followers refused to surrender.

These two very successful actions effectually crushed the rebellion in Hawkes Bay, for even fanaticism is not proof against such sharp lessons. About one hundred and thirty Hauhaus had taken part in these affairs, and not more than a dozen had returned to tell the tale. Of the leaders, Panapa, Kipa, and Te Rangihiroa were killed, and Tahau and Nikora taken prisoners. The two chiefs who had escaped from Petane were followed a few days after by a party under Colonel Whitmore, who advanced as far as Tarawera on the Taupo road, in the vain hope of catching them; but the fugitives had seen enough fighting, and were safe before the expedition started. Most of the prisoners taken were shipped off to the Chatham Islands, where they joined Te Kooti in his daring escape; some of them are still with him, but by far the larger number lost their lives in the numerous fights that followed the Poverty Bay massacre.