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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Chapter XXVII — Te Kooti Revolt Opens

page 237

Chapter XXVII
Te Kooti Revolt Opens

Interception Proceedings Fail—Crown Forces Suffer Three Defeats: Paparatu, Te Koneke and Ruakituri—Whitmore Calls Settlers “Cowards and Curs

Whilst the Rifleman was lying off Whareongaonga on Friday, 10 July, 1868, she could be seen by J. W. Johnson from his home at Wharekaia. He believed that she was a smuggler, but, next day, after she had gone, a party of armed natives passed nearby and his suspicions were further aroused by conjectures hazarded by two of his native workmen.

On the Sunday morning, Alexander Blair and John Maynard, who were riding to Wairoa, were halted by some natives near Mr. Johnson's home. They rejected their advice that they should not proceed any farther. When they saw between 40 and 50 armed natives at the top of the next rise they turned back. Members of the smaller party were now on patrol duty, with fixed bayonets. Mr. Johnson declined an invitation by Blair and Maynard to join them, but advised them to go straight to Major Biggs and tell him what they had seen. A friendly native at Muriwai told them that the intruders were escapees from the Chatham Islands and that Te Kooti was at their head. When they reached Matawhero, Archdeacon W. L. Williams was holding an afternoon service. “The unwelcome news,” we are told, “threw the worshippers into a state of great alarm.”

That day Major Biggs had also set off for Wairoa. He, too, learned that the rebels had returned and he had turned back. Word was sent to all the settlers, who assembled at Matawhero next day. On Tuesday he led a party of about 30 settlers and between 40 and 50 natives in the direction of Te Kooti's camp, which stood on the banks of the Maraetaha Creek. Under a white flag, Paora Kati, a loyal chief, was sent on ahead with some other natives, who were in charge of F. G. Skipworth, to interview Te Kooti. Some members of their party began to mingle with the rebels and exchange greetings with them, and it was withdrawn.

According to the Hon. J. C. Richmond (Hansard, 1869, p. 199) Biggs's request to Te Kooti was that the rebels should lay down their arms in return for the right “to have a free passage up the country.” Some other accounts state that he desired them to give up their arms, remain peacefully where they were, and trust to favourable consideration being given to their case by the Government. A further, and more popular, version is that he demanded that they should surrender unconditionally.

page 238

W. L. Williams states that Te Kooti's reply was: “God has given us the arms and we are not going to give them up at any man's bidding. We wish to go on our way unmolested.” On the other hand, Colonel Whitmore told Parliament (Hansard, 1868, p. 172) that Te Kooti received the messengers with great bombast and “frightened them out of their senses by talking of hanging them,” and that he gave as the chief reason for refusing to listen to any overtures “that his hands were red with blood.” On account of the murders of Hartnett and Warihi, it is improbable that Te Kooti entertained for a single moment the idea that he should give himself up.

As Biggs's force was small, and as he could not rely on some of his friendly natives, he returned to Matawhero. If he had attacked the rebels (who were in superior numbers) and had been routed, the whole of Poverty Bay would have been placed at Te Kooti's mercy. Biggs had already sent word to Colonel Whitmore at Napier that the rebels had returned, and all that he could now do was to direct the loyal natives at Muriwai to keep an eye on their movements.

Troops Suffer Setback at Paparatu

When it was learned on the 15th that the rebels had moved farther inland, Biggs, with the object of intercepting them, set off at the head of a force of 36 Europeans and 40 loyal natives. Henare Turangi (or Kakeopongo) guided it to Paparatu, the only place at which the rebels could come out on to the track leading to the Urewera Country. There was no sign of the rebels at Paparatu, and, amid the snow, an encampment was made.

Leaving Captain Westrup in charge, Biggs went back to Turanganui to arrange for further supplies. Whilst he was returning on the 20th he saw H.M.S. Rosaria enter Poverty Bay. Retracing his steps, he found that Whitmore had arrived to take command, bringing with him 30 Hawke's Bay European Volunteers under Captain Oswald Carr (formerly of the Royal Artillery) and Captain Herrick. Later in the day the Waipara landed 40 Hawke's Bay friendlies. That morning, in Biggs's absence, the rebels reached Paparatu. Westrup advanced one section of his troops on to a spur above the camp and Wilson took the other section on to a ridge on the right. When Westrup called upon the rebels to lay down their arms their answer took the form of a shower of bullets.

Vainly, Te Kooti tried to get in between Westrup's and Wilson's forces. He then sent a party, by a circuitous route, to a piece of bush at the rear of Westrup's section. Westrup fell back on to a hill on the other side of his camp. Just prior to the page 239 engagement much-needed supplies had come to hand. The food, hardly any of which had been touched, was at once looted—and in a very cheeky manner—by the rebels who had got round behind Westrup. Among them was a bugler, who merrily sounded the “Grog” and “Officers' Mess” calls!

The fighting went on for about seven hours. Westrup then ordered the troops to retreat, via Te Arai Valley. He was forced to leave behind the bodies of “Billy the Goose” (William Wilson) and Wi Koro. The wounded (who were brought away) comprised: Robert Goldsmith (shot in the elbow), L. Farrell (severe shoulder injury) and Thomas U'Ren, junior, Charles Evans, Hilton, C. W. Ferris, F. G. Skipworth and Pilbrow (all with lesser wounds).

It was after midnight when Westrup's section reached his outstation at Te Arai. His troops had been greatly handicapped on account of their horses having fallen into the rebels' hands. Lack of food had proved an even greater hardship. Their plight, however, would have been much worse had they not had for their guide Henare Kakeopongo, who was an experienced pighunter and was thoroughly acquainted with the locality. Wilson's section did not get back until late next day. The loss in horses, munitions, provisions, etc., was estimated at £1,000.

Meantime, Colonel Whitmore had reached Te Arai with his force. He wished Westrup's troops to turn back—within an hour was the time which he fixed—and assist him in the pursuit of the rebels. Much to his disgust, the settlers told him that they desired to return to their homes for a few days to obtain a change of clothing and some proper food, have a short spell and attend to urgent private affairs. According to J. D. Ormond, M.H.R. for Clive (Hansard, September, 1868), Whitmore dressed the settlers down, describing them as “cowards and curs.”

In The Last Maori War in New Zealand, Whitmore admits that he became very angry. He continues:

“… I certainly regret having been betrayed into using language which expressed my feelings at the moment. But I claim that it was neither unreasonable nor undeserved and, though silence might have been wiser, yet it was hard to maintain it at the time, believing (as I did) that, unless the pursuit began at once, Te Kooti would probably escape.” [The settlers returned within a few days.]

With reference to the Paparatu engagement. Whitmore (page 7 of his book) is unnecessarily harsh in his criticism:

“It was,” he says, “a day of shame to our arms. But it illustrates very forcibly the danger of being led away by the apparent eagerness of the men to attempt operations in a New Zealand bush, even under favourable circumstances, with untrained and inexperienced troops. The military disgrace of defeat and the misfortune of showing ourselves so unfavourably to the Maoris would have produced a page 240 worse effect, however, but for the devotion of the little detachment which rallied round Captain Westrup and, by their constancy and pluck, prevented the rout from becoming a massacre.”

Prior to the engagement at Paparatu, Biggs sent Lieutenant Gascoyne to Wairoa with a request that a force should be sent to his aid. Contingents raised by Ihaka Whaanga, of Nuhaka, and Paora Apatu, of Waihirere, were placed under the command of Captain W. A. Richardson, who, with Captain A. Tuke, had assembled 36 Europeans, bringing the force up to a strength of 140. It left Wairoa on the 21st—the day after the fight at Paparatu—and headed for Te Reinga. Whitmore now ordered it to take up a position at Te Koneke Ridge and to engage the rebels until his own force arrived.

On 24 July, Te Kooti and his band appeared at Te Koneke and attacked Richardson's force, inflicting one casualty. Apatu's contingent at once bolted. As the Crown force was now smaller than Te Kooti's, it made a hasty retreat towards Te Reinga. Turning northward, Te Kooti crossed the Hangaroa River and proceeded leisurely up the Ruakituri Valley.

Whilst Whitmore was at Te Arai he received a further reinforcement of between 60 and 70 A.C. under Major Fraser. Not until 31 July was he ready to begin the pursuit. He says that he had about 236 men, but W. L. Williams places his strength at 140 Europeans and 180 natives. Snowstorms made lengthy forced marches impossible. Near the Hangaroa River the mutilated body of a young half-caste, Paku Paraone (a son of William Brown the Whaler) was found. The lad had been caught by the rebels whilst he was carrying dispatches between Poverty Bay and Wairoa.

Poverty Bay Troops Return Home

When Whenuakura was reached, the Poverty Bay settlers pointed out to Whitmore that they had volunteered to serve only for the protection of their own district, and that they were not prepared to engage upon a lengthy campaign farther afield. Writing to Mr. McLean on 18 August, 1868, Biggs stated:

“Whitmore abuses Poverty Bay and the whole of its population very much indeed. You will hear him say before very long that the Poverty Bay Volunteers deserted him within sight of the enemy. This is far from the truth. The enemy had crossed the Hangaroa River ten days before we got to it … Our force was short of food, had to sleep in the snow, and had but little prospect of getting more provisions…. Westrup asked Whitmore to give him some idea when the expedition would end, as he considered it useless to go on over the river without food. His men were willing to go on for even ten days, but wanted some limit put on the time, as they had been absent from home for nearly a month. Whitmore would give no satisfactory answer, but told him that the settlers might go back if they wished to, after which he issued an order that they were to do page break
John Townley. Gisborne's “G.O.M.” Mayor, 1889–1908. Harbour Board Chairman, 1890–1918.

John Townley.
Gisborne's “G.O.M.”
Mayor, 1889–1908. Harbour Board Chairman, 1890–1918.

James Woodblne Johnson. First Chairman Cook County, 1877–78.

James Woodblne Johnson.
First Chairman Cook County, 1877–78.

page break
Gladstone Road, Gisborne, 1875. (Looking from Custom House Street)

Gladstone Road, Gisborne, 1875.
(Looking from Custom House Street)

page 241 so … The Poverty Bay natives then said that they would not remain without their pakehas, so back they went also. I had been sent to Turanga to see about getting up supplies.”

Biggs added that Whitmore intended to pay the settlers, but not the natives—picked men from Paratene's and Hirini's tribes—although they had been promised 2/- per day and rations. If the natives were not paid and were again required, they would naturally refuse to assist. It would not do to embitter them at that juncture. Whitmore also talked of having the Poverty Bay Volunteers disbanded, but he (Biggs) hoped that no such injustice would be done and that a strict inquiry would first be held. Whitmore's language to the Volunteers and in their hearing about them “has been enough to make any men mutiny. The natives are equally disgusted with him …”

Whitmore's version appears in Hansard (4/9/1868):

“The Mutiny Act is,” he pointed out, “not available without the concurrence of the O.C. the Forces of the colony. When we were within two days' march of the enemy, and with his fires almost in sight, I was made acquainted with the fact that … the Volunteers from Poverty Bay, which I had come to protect, were unwilling to go farther than the Hangaroa River, alleging that it was their district boundary and that, if further employed, they should be used as a transport corps … If 1 had accepted this offer I should have been no better off in keeping up supplies; it would have cost £100 to £150 per ton for a service of about 30 miles … I had to consider my position as regards the law. At least one half of these Volunteers had not been sworn in…. If the state of the law had been known, even those who had been sworn in could not have been forced to do anything they did not choose to do. Being unwilling to expose this state of affairs, I simply ordered them back to their homes … Had they all been regular Volunteers, they never would have been allowed by me to return …”

The Ruakituri Engagement

Whitmore's force was now reduced to about 140, of whom 40 were Hawke's Bay natives. The terrain proved very difficult. In some places progress could be made only by crossing and re-crossing the Ruakituri River, which was swollen with snow-fed waters. On the afternoon of 8 August the rebels were found at Tuahu under cover on the bank opposite what has been described in some accounts as an “island” in the stream, but which, in fact, was only the tail of a boulder spit that had formed around the shaft of a rock known as “Te Wero-a-Tohe.” This rock was about 3 ft. 6 in. in diameter and stood about 12 ft. above water level.

When the engagement began, a large number of the pursuers were in exposed positions in the riverbed. Most of them took refuge in the mouth of Mako-ka-Muka Creek. Captain Carr and Captain Canning made for the inadequate shelter of the rock, page 242 and both were fatally wounded. Two hours later Whitmore wisely decided to retire. He had found it impossible to draw the rebels out into the open, and it was getting on towards sunset and he had no supplies. The bodies of Carr and Canning could not be recovered. Nothing authentic was learned as to the rebel losses, but it became known afterwards that Te Kooti was wounded in an instep. Great privations had to be endured during the retirement.

“All night,” Whitmore says, “we toiled, carrying the wounded up a long ascent, with the groans of several seriously injured men ringing in our ears after the reaction from great excitement had set in, when hunger had begun to press upon us, and the hard frost was chilling us to the marrow.” [Three of the wounded men—Privates Byrne, A.C., J. Condon, A.C., and W. Oates, Wanganui Militia—died during the first night.]

During the night a colt was roasted and eagerly devoured by the ravenous troops. Next day they plodded up and down the snow-covered hills from 5 a.m. till 5 p.m. They were exhausted when they got back over the Hangaroa River on the following morning.

Whilst the campaign was being discussed in Parliament, Colonel Whitmore claimed that he knew, when the Poverty Bay Volunteers and the Poverty Bay natives left him, that he would not receive the aid which he had ordered from Wairoa. Richardson had, he said, informed him that Mr. Locke had seen a dispatch from the Government, giving orders that the pursuit of the rebels should be abandoned. However, in the position in which he was in, he had not felt disposed to take orders on mere rumour. In reply, the Hon. J. C. Richmond said that both he and Mr. McLean had advised the Government that it would be futile to pursue the rebels into inaccessible country, and that Mr. McLean had mentioned the fact to Mr. Locke. Richardson had not been delayed by what he had heard; he had merely passed on to Whitmore the information that such a rumour was in circulation.

Colonel Whitmore also told his fellow-members of Parliament that it was “on the entreaty of his men” that he decided he would not allow the last two miles to stand between his force and the enemy. It took three hours, however, to cover the final stretch, and that meant that he was compelled to go into action under the absolute necessity of returning that night for food and blankets. He added: “We went off from Ruakituri with the honours of war and were never followed a single yard.” In his book he claims that, after the fight, “Te Kooti continued in full retreat towards Puketapu mountain.” But Biggs, in a letter to Mr. McLean (18/8/1868), put the matter very differently. page 243 “Whitmore,” he said, “came back on Friday after getting what everybody but himself calls a thrashing … Many such victories will cost us dearly!”

Were Interception Proceedings Justified?

In Parliament, in September, 1868, members were afforded full opportunity to discuss whether Biggs did right in intervening when the rebels returned. Mr. Rolleston argued that the rebels were to be commended in that, when they regained their freedom, they did not give way “to the passions that would have characterised a Sheffield or a Birmingham mob,” and that Biggs's action had changed them from “crusaders who might have gone through the country diffusing a feeling of loyalty amongst the tribes” to “firebrands ready to kindle rebellion wherever they went.” In turn, Mr. McLean stressed the fact that the rebels, upon their return, “got the idea that they could defy us,” and that they were now looking for protection to the Urewera, who, at Orakau, had used those memorable words “Ake! Ake!”—that they would never yield till death. Premier Stafford said:

“It might have been better not to have attempted the recapture of the ex-prisoners. But it was one of those cases in which the Government had no discretion, as initiatory steps had been taken, before it had heard of their escape, by Biggs and Westrup … Our instructions when we heard that the ex-prisoners had landed were to induce them to surrender by telling them that nothing would be visited against them with relation to the past, except such as might, when leaving the Chatham Islands, have committed any atrocity; the rest would be unconditionally pardoned. But events accumulated from time to time, and, before we knew anything of it, the escaped prisoners had attacked the settlers.”

The cudgels were taken up in defence of Major Biggs by the Hon. J. C. Richmond (Hansard, 1869, p. 198):

“I wish to say a few words,” he said, “with respect to the slander affecting Major Biggs which found its way into the English press and which has been half adopted in official dispatches from Home. It has been stated that the Chatham Island prisoners were a most peaceful and quiet people; that their minds were possessed of a new and very spiritual religion; and that, if they had only been left to their own devices, they would have done no harm to anybody … A passage in Te Kooti's journal—a curious little book which I obtained at Ngatapa—will show the temper of that remarkable man … It says: ‘My wrath against the tribe which has destroyed my tribe is unchangeable. I will destroy them from the parents unto the children. I will not cease for ever.’ That passage shows a spirit not altogether of a peaceful character, and I think that, viewed in the light of subsequent events, it shows that there was mischief in the mind of this man.”

Mr. Richmond added that he had just received a note from Archdeacon W. L. Williams which tended to remove any sort of charge upon the memory of Major Biggs that impetuosity and page 244 pugnacity were really at the bottom of his attempt to intercept and recapture Te Kooti and his band. The note stated: “There is no question but that these people meant to do mischief when they landed. All the really friendly natives in Poverty Bay, as well as the Europeans, were thoroughly convinced of this. The hostile attitude which the rebels assumed from the first—before anyone attempted to molest them—can be explained in no other way. Poor Biggs had a very difficult part to play, and, whatever mistakes he may have made afterwards, he had no other course open to him but to use such means as he had in his power to prevent Te Kooti and his party from coming into Poverty Bay.”


The Government marked its appreciation of Henare Turangi's services in extricating Westrup's force from Paparatu by presenting him with £100 and a sword.

An interesting letter, dated 22 August, 1868, recently found its way back to Gisborne. It had been in the possession of George Graham, of Auckland. Addressed from Turanga to Warana Pirihi (or, perhaps, Pirild), it is signed by Paora Matuakore, Wi Pere, Himiona Katipa, Henare Ruru and Pita te Huhu. The text and the signatures are believed to be in Wi Pere's handwriting. Its signatories accuse the Government of attacking the rebels at Whareongaonga and of compelling them to defend themselves at Paparatu, Te Koneke and Ruakituri, and urge that they should not be outlawed but be permitted to come to Turanga “fully armed” and be dealt with according to law. “If,” it is added, “all of them are guilty, then all should pay the penalty; but, should only one man be at fault, then he alone should be punished.”