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Reminiscences of The War in New Zealand

Chapter XXXVI. — Te Kooti. His Escape From the Chatham Islands and Landing at Whareongaonga, Poverty Bay

Chapter XXXVI.
Te Kooti. His Escape From the Chatham Islands and Landing at Whareongaonga, Poverty Bay.

On the 3rd of July, 1868, the schooner Rifleman was seen approaching the Chatham Islands, laden with Government stores for the use of 200 Maori prisoners, who, under the supervision of Captain Thomas, R.M., and fifteen men, were then in durance vile upon the island. A boat manned by some of these same prisoners came off, and assisted in page 206bringing the vessel to her anchorage; they behaved in a manner calculated to impress any one in their favour, offering to assist in discharging cargo, &c. It appears that some time previous to this, Captain Thomas had been warned that the prisoners were plotting to escape; but he evidently did not believe the warning, or perhaps thought it impossible; at any rate no steps were taken to prevent it, On the following morning the captain of the schooner went on shore, and had not been there many minutes when those on board the vessel heard shots fired, and saw men running wildly about. A few minutes after a boat-load of the prisoners, well armed, boarded the schooner, sent the crew below decks, and placed guards over them, threatening instant death to anyone who might resist. By this time Te Kooti had possession of the whole island, and the rifles and ammunition of the guard, with the fowling-pieces of the settlers, were in the hands of men who knew how to use them. The plot so long conceived had been ably carried out; everything had been done in a masterly manner, and the mutineers deserve some credit for their moderation. The women and children were treated most kindly; only one man was killed, and that only because he resisted. Even for this Te Kooti was not responsible, as he had given orders that there should be no killing; but he had sown the storm, and was about to reap the whirlwind. It may be doubted whether Europeans would have behaved with greater moderation if placed in similar circumstances.

So soon as the events recorded had taken place, the prisoners began to embark their wives and families; not a moment's time was lost, and no precaution neglected, and in one hour from the time of the outbreak the prisoners were on board. The ketch Florence, lying at anchor near, was boarded by them, the crew was sent on shore, and then the cable was cut, and the ketch sent after them; a simple and expeditious method of preventing pursuit. Almost the last man to leave the island was Te Kooti, and so soon as he came on board he ordered the crew on deck, and gave them page 207the choice between instant death and working the schooner to Poverty Bay. They wisely chose the latter, and were subsequently informed that their lives would be spared, and the craft surrendered to them on arrival. Sail was made that evening, but a strong westerly wind prevented them beating out, and the schooner returned to her anchorage; the sails were furled, the crew were ordered below, and Te Kooti himself took charge of the deck. On the morning of the 5th another start was made, this time with success, and nothing of importance occurred until the 9th, when the vessel having been delayed for two days by a head wind, Te Kooti ordered all the greenstone ornaments on board to be collected and thrown overboard, as a propitiatory offering to Tangaroa (Neptune). This sacrifice was evidently not sufficient, for the wind continued in the same quarter, so Te Kooti ordered his men to throw overboard an old man, a relation of his own. The poor old fellow was immediately dragged on deck, his hands tied, and despite his prayers and lamentations, over he went, a victim to mad fanaticism and revenge, for perhaps the latter feeling had most to do with it, this old man having warned the settlers of the proposed rising. For some time the victim could be seen struggling in the water, but no one seemed to pity him; or if they did, were wise enough not to say so, for after all he might have been a Jonah, as the wind, hitherto adverse, suddenly veered round to the right quarter. The Hauhaus behaved quietly enough during the remainder of the voyage, though vigilant as ever. An armed guard patrolled the deck night and day, and a sentry was placed over the wheel to see that the proper course was kept. The crew were not even allowed to cook their own victuals, the notorious half-caste (Baker) officiating in that department. On the 10th the schooner arrived at Whareongaonga, about fifteen miles south of Poverty Bay. During the whole night the prisoners were employed in landing the cargo, and by the 11th, 17 tons of flour, 5000 lbs. of sugar, tobacco, beer, spirits, and many packages of merchandise were safe on shore, besides forty page 208rifles, ten fowling-pieces, revolvers, swords, &c. This done, Te Kooti released the crew and told them to begone.

It was only natural to suppose that the mate, when free, would have sailed for the nearest port and given the alarm. But he did not do so; on the contrary, he steered for Wellington, and so gave rise to the report, generally believed at first, that he had been bribed, not coerced, into landing the prisoners. Messages were sent to the Ngatimaru and Rongowhakaata tribes, desiring them to meet the prisoners, and hold a tangi before they marched to Taupo and Waikato. These messages were forwarded to Major Biggs, Resident Magistrate of the district. At first he would not believe the warnings, it seemed so improbable that the prisoners should have been able to escape; but to solve the doubt, he raised a force of 100 Europeans and Maories, and started at once for the scene of action, arriving there on the following morning. The prisoners, about one hundred and ninety strong, were found holding a strong position near the landing-place, having high steep hills covered with dense forest on their front and flanks, and their backs to the sea. The first step taken by Major Biggs was to send a Poverty Bay chief of Te Kooti's tribe with a message for the prisoners, to the effect that as they had succeeded in landing, Major Biggs would try and smooth over matters with the Government, provided that they would all surrender and give up their arms. This arrangement was scornfully rejected, Te Kooti replying that "God had given him arms and liberty, and that he was but an instrument in the hands of Providence, whose instructions he carried out." Another messenger met with a similar reply, Te Kooti adding that he intended to march upon Waikato and dethrone the king, but would not interfere with anyone, unless they attempted to stop his march. These answers were conclusive, so Major Biggs gave orders to commence the attack; but the friendly natives, who formed the bulk of his force, were either disaffected or frightened, and refused to move, giving as their reason that the Hauhaus were too numerous and too strongly page 209posted. Under these circumstances fighting was impossible and impolitic, for in the event of defeat our men would have been followed into the settled districts, and the whole bay ravaged before another force could have been organised to meet them. On the same day the Hauhaus avoided our force, and commenced their inland march, carrying with them, over one of the most rugged districts in New Zealand, all the loot taken in the schooner.