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

Chapter XXVIII — Eve of Poverty Bay Massacre

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Chapter XXVIII
Eve of Poverty Bay Massacre

Te Kooti Builds Up Rebel Force at Puketapu—Anxiety Keenest at Wairoa and Napier—Large Native Force Wasted at Wairoa—Wrong Track Into Poverty Bay Watched.

By establishing his base at Puketapu, after the fight at Ruakituri (8/8/1868), Te Kooti chose a very convenient position from which to attract reinforcements from a number of disaffected tribes and from which to embark upon attacks on settlements along the seaboard. If he had ever wished to retire to the King Country it soon became plain that it was not his intention to do so in the immediate future. His action in tarrying at Puketapu convinced the Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay settlers that, sooner or later, he would raid one or more coastal settlements if only in an attempt to augment his supplies of arms and ammunition.

Some writers have suggested that it should have been taken for granted that Poverty Bay would be Te Kooti's initial target. They argue that he was bound to bear a grudge against the military authorities there for having arranged for his exile and for trying to intercept him and his followers upon their return. Nevertheless, for some weeks prior to the Poverty Bay Massacre all eyes were turned upon Wairoa and Napier, it being believed that they were in much greater danger. Te Kooti might, of course, have arranged with sympathisers in the back portions of Northern Hawke's Bay to stage a display of unrest in order to divert the attention of the authorities from Poverty Bay.

Major Biggs did not share Colonel Whitmore's viewpoint “that Te Kooti would not require to be reckoned with for some months, if at all.” Writing to Mr. McLean on 18 August, 1868—only ten days after the Ruakituri fight and nearly three months before the Poverty Bay massacre—he said:

“Is there any likelihood of our having any protection here [Poverty Bay] in the shape of an organised force, either native or European or both? Our population is decreasing rapidly, from five to ten leaving by every vessel for Auckland. If the ex-prisoners come down in the summer (as the natives of this place expect) we shall not be able to protect ourselves without assistance.
“I did hope that Fraser's men [a Division of the A.C. which had fought at Ruakituri] or at least a portion of them would have been left here. But that Whitmore would not hear of. He is determined, if he can prevent it, that assistance shall not be rendered to Poverty Bay.
“A Maori force would be the cheapest, say, pay at 2/- per diem and 1/- per diem for rations, a suit of clothes and a red scarf. A few Europeans might be taken on with the natives—just enough to keep them together—in the proportion of 30 Europeans to 100 natives.”
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A month later (on 18 September) Biggs, upon his return from Wairoa, informed Mr. McLean that, when his application for a Crown title to the confiscated land at Marumaru had come before the Native Land Court, no hostility had been shown. He had learned that the Hauhaus were badly off for food, were very weak and that the Urewera would not receive them. All was quiet at Turanga and no Turanga natives had gone off to join Te Kooti. He had found great alarm among the whites at the blockhouse at Te Kapu (Frasertown), and he considered that a force was required at Wairoa.

A strong protest was made by Mr. McLean on 16 September on account of the Government's decision to transfer the bulk of Fraser's force from Napier to the other side of the island. He moved: “That this House views with alarm the position in which the colony is being placed by the Government in relation to Defence and Native Affairs.” Fears were expressed by him that the degree of danger had been increased tenfold more than would have been the case if there had not been several conflicts with the ex-prisoners, “in which, unfortunately, we have got the worst of it.” It was not Napier itself that was in danger, but the outlying districts. “It really seems,” he added, “as if the Government is inviting the disaffected natives to make attacks upon the outsettlers in the East Coast districts.”

Replying with considerable warmth, Premier Stafford said that Mr. McLean's speech was enormously more alarming than Tito-kowaru's proclamation. It would lead to the incitement of the natives, for which Mr. McLean would be held responsible … Additional men were to be recruited at Napier; volunteers were to be put on pay at Wairoa, and Gascoyne had been instructed to organise a scouting party whose headquarters would be at a point which would command the roads leading to Wairoa and Poverty Bay…. Through Mr. McLean, 2,209 rifles had been issued. Was there not one single trigger that would be pressed in defence of law and order? It was in a fit of disappointment that Mr. McLean had attacked the Government. He desired to be appointed a commission to control the whole of the East Coast His plan would cost £56,000 and only £7,000 would be recouped from the sale of land. The Government had told him that, if he would undertake the responsibility as a Minister residing on the East Coast, it would go as far as possible to meet his request.

“We have,” Mr. Stafford continued, “a war going on along the boundary line of two provinces on the West Coast, and were obliged immediately to reinforce our troops. We had at Napier the only disciplined force we possess. But Mr. McLean (the superintendent of a province in which there is no fighting) obstinately, callously and page 247 heartlessly—I use his own words (to me)—refuses to recognise the danger in that place [Taranaki], where women and children are within a few miles of the scene of active war and would become the prey of the enemy if he should happen to be the conqueror …”

During the final stage of the debate, Mr. Stafford informed the House that Bishop W. Williams had just told him that he considered that the absence of troops at Wairoa amounted to an invitation to the Hauhaus to make an attack there. The rebels, it seemed, had been joined by parties from the Wairoa district and had called upon their Tarawera friends to join them. On that account orders had been given for a redoubt to be built at Clyde. The no-confidence motion was defeated by 38 votes to 31.

Panic at Wairoa

Much anxiety was felt at Wairoa early in October, 1868, when, no tidings could be gleaned concerning what had become of four influential emissaries who had set out on 30 September for Whataroa in an attempt to induce Te Waru to refrain from aiding Te Kooti. Word came to hand, a fortnight later, that they had been received with every pretension of friendship, but, on the night of their arrival, they had been treacherously murdered in their sleep. Panic now seized the people around Wairoa—natives and Europeans alike. It was believed that the murders would prove the prelude to an attack upon Wairoa. Fearing that the military settlement at Marumaru might be attacked, Captain A. Tuke withdrew the settlers, and ordered his force at Te Kapu also to fall back on Wairoa.

Towards the close of October, the Government assembled a large native force at Wairoa. It comprised 120 Hawke's Bay friendlies under Renata, Tareha and Karauria; 170 Ngati-Porou, under Ropata and Porourangi; and some hundreds of Nuhaka and Wairoa natives, under Ihaka Whaanga and other chiefs. As matters turned out, the small force stationed on Kaiti in Poverty Bay proved too weak to be of any value and the large force at Wairoa (which was placed under Colonel Lambert) was wasted.

The Hon. J. C. Richmond told Parliament (Hansard, 1869) that he brought the Ngati-Porou down from Waiapu on the St. Kilda. En route from Napier a call was made at Wairoa, “where we found there was not sufficient ground for panic.” He continued:

“When we got to Poverty Bay [from Waiapu] on 27 October we found there were fires of parties approaching from the direction of the great ranges where Te Kooti was supposed to be established. Major Biggs [who had been picked up on the East Coast] held that there should be a garrison at Turanganui. I instantly consented and, at my request, the chief Henare Potae sent a messenger for 50 of his men to garrison the post. Major Biggs said that 50 men were not enough—that he should have 100 men.
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“I remember saying to Major Biggs that, whilst in the night watches—not being able to sleep very well in a Poverty Bay bed—I had been reflecting upon the unprotected state of the place, and I asked him to speak particularly to Major Westrup and Paratene Turangi and request them not to sleep another night—that was my expression—outside a stockade …”

Mr. Richmond went on to say that, whilst he was at Poverty Bay, he had asked Hotene and Ropata (whose contingents were being taken on to Wairoa) if they would make the rest of the journey overland, as it was possible that they might run across Te Kooti on the way. They agreed to do so, but, next morning, changed their minds, and he was not in a position to compel them to go. The Ngati-Porou were landed at Wairoa and he went on to Napier, where the Rev. S. Williams gave Mr. McLean and himself some information as to Te Kooti's probable movements. Mr. McLean and he were the last visitors to Poverty Bay; they had acted on the report of Te Kooti's near approach; and they had done the best they could to protect the settlement. He added: “We left the place in charge of a gentleman of distinguished ability as a soldier and a man of great resolution and firmness of character. I think I have said enough to the House and the country to wipe away from us any reproach for the unprepared condition of Poverty Bay.”

During the debate, J. D. Ormond, M.H.R. for Clive, stressed the point that Mr. Richmond had been warned on 2 November by the Rev. S. Williams that the rebels intended to move on Poverty Bay. Mr. Richmond intervened to remark: “I had seen them moving!” By way of rejoinder, Mr. Ormond then said: “If so, I do not know why you should not have taken steps to meet them. It shows that you are more responsible than I thought you were.”

On 30 October—11 days before the massacre—the large native force at Wairoa moved off to Whataroa. Only the elderly mother of Te Waru's wife (who was taken prisoner) and an old man (who was shot) were found at the pa. The bodies of the murdered emissaries were reinterred. On 6 November, upon the return of the troops, the Hawke's Bay natives were sent back to Napier, arriving there next day. Word concerning the result of the expedition reached Mr. McLean on 6 November, and, that day, he wired to Mr. Richmond: “Lambert went on to Whataroa. Hauhaus had left. Party of them supposed to be moving on Poverty Bay.”

Next day Mr. McLean wired to Colonel Haultain (Defence Minister) reporting the return of the Hawke's Bay friendlies. He added: “Hauhaus said to be going to Poverty Bay. Enemy should have been followed up to Puketapu and Poverty Bay. page 249 Propose that the St. Kilda should proceed to Poverty Bay to ascertain the whereabouts of the Hauhaus.” [According to J. D. Ormond, M.H.R. [Hansard, 1869), the Government approved the dispatch of the St. Kilda. However, on account of a gale, she could not leave Napier on 8 November. Then, unfortunately, her engine broke down, necessitating repairs. Not until 10 November—the massacre had taken place that morning—was she able to sail for Poverty Bay.]

In his report to Mr. McLean, Lambert stated that, as no enemy had been found at Whataroa, he had, “as directed by the Hon. J. C. Richmond,” returned and embarked the Hawke's Bay natives. On 9 November Mr. McLean wired to Mr. Richmond stating that it was his impression that no such instruction had been given to Lambert; that it was fully intended to find out the position of the enemy before the expedition was dispersed; and that, if Captain Tuke and the natives had gone on, “as arranged before we left Wairoa,” we should soon have had an account of the enemy. He added: “The present state of things is most unsatisfactory. Are you coming up in the Sturt?” Next day Mr. McLean informed Lambert that he must have misunderstood Mr. Richmond's instructions; that, with such a large force, it should have been possible at least to have ascertained the enemy's position; and that the Hawke's Bay chiefs had told him that they and the Ngati-Porou had been willing to go on.

On the morning of 10 November the Hawke's Bay Herald quoted its Wairoa correspondent as its authority for the statement that the elderly woman who had been taken prisoner at Whataroa had told Lambert that Te Waru's people, with Te Kooti's, intended to attack Turanga (Poverty Bay), Wairoa and Napier in succession. That journal added: “It is much to be regretted that the force did not go on to Puketapu … it being, we believe, Mr. McLean's intention that it should have done so.”

Rumoured Pending Raid

As it was Biggs's opinion that the rebels would use the Te Reinga track if they invaded Poverty Bay, he stationed Gascoyne and his scouts at a point near Waerenga-o-Kuri, where they could overlook a wide stretch of country. The Government was aware of the decision (Premier Stafford, 16/9/1868). However, those settlers who lived to the north of Matawhero feared that the rebels might enter Poverty Bay via Ngatapa Valley. On that account they formed themselves into a vigilance committee and, each night, took it in turn to watch, a ford over the Waipaoa River at a point above Patutahi. They had given up their self-imposed vigil only a week or two before the massacre took place, page 250 because Biggs regarded their action as unnecessary. Unhappily, his judgment on the matter as to which track would be used proved unsound.

W. L. Williams (East Coast, New Zealand, Historical Records, pp. 59–60) says that the native mailman, upon his arrival from Wairoa at Whakato (about nine miles from Turanganui) at midday on Sunday (8 November) informed him and others that the woman taken prisoner at Whataroa had told Lambert that Te Kooti had gone to Poverty Bay. He (Mr. Williams) went on to Matawhero to hold an afternoon service and, whilst he was there, he told Biggs what the mailman had said. Biggs mentioned that Major St. John and Major Mair had written to him only a few days earlier, warning him that Te Kooti had urged his sympathisers at Opotiki to join him in a raid on the East Coast and reporting to him that Te Kooti had been joined by a number of Waikato and Tuhoe rebels. It was added by Biggs that the scouts under Gascoyne were in a position to warn him in ample time to enable the outsettlers to be withdrawn to Turanganui.

When the mailman reached Turanganui on the morning of Monday (9 November) he handed to W. L. Williams a letter from the Rev. S. Williams, of Napier. The writer stated that he had received information, “on authority which he could not doubt,” that Te Kooti had started for Poverty Bay, and he suggested that all the settlers should at once get into as secure a position as possible. This information, it was added, had been conveyed not only to Mr. McLean but also to the Hon. J. C. Richmond (who was on a visit to Napier). W. L. Williams says that he went over to Wilson's Redoubt, where Biggs was holding a court sitting, and gave him this further information. To his surprise, he found that Biggs had not received any communication either from Wairoa or from Napier. However, Biggs told him that he was expecting to hear from the scouts at any time that Te Kooti was somewhere in the neighbourhood and that he would be ready, at a moment's notice, to leave his post at Matawhero for Turanganui.

The text of the Rev. S. Williams's letter to W. L. Williams does not appear ever to have been published. W. L. Williams (Southern Cross, 23/12/1868) said that, whilst he was discussing the Wairoa rumour with Biggs on the Sunday (8 November), he had remarked to him that he (Biggs) would be certain to hear from Lambert on the following morning “whether the report was worth taking any notice of.” He added: “When I saw Biggs on the Monday afternoon, and asked him what news he had received by the mail, his answer was, ‘Not a line!’ The natural conclusion from this was that Lambert hadn't considered page 251 the circumstance worth reporting … It is to be borne in mind that, at that time, nobody in Poverty Bay knew anything of the information that had been communicated by the Rev. S. Williams to Mr. Richmond.”

Shortly after the massacre, the Rev. S. Williams, in a letter to the Southern Cross, stated that, on 1 November, he received reliable information from Taupo to the effect that a native named Toetoe (a Hauhau and a Kingite) had visited Te Kooti's camp at Puketapu, and had learned that raids were about to be made upon various settlements upon the East Coast and that Poverty Bay was to be the first place to be attacked. Whilst Toetoe was there a party of 140 Nokowhitu, headed by Nikora and Henare Pata—prisoners captured at Omarunui and exiled to the Chatham Islands—was told off to attack Poverty Bay. Nama, a Wairoa native, went as guide. Te Kooti promised that he would follow, with the remainder of his band, in about three days.

The Rev. S. Williams went on to say that he reached Napier on the evening of 1 November and that he gave Mr. McLean the information on the following morning. Later in the day he met Karaitiana Takamoana, who told him that he had received, through a separate channel, information to a like effect. Together they went to see Mr. McLean, who sent for the Hon. J. C. Richmond. They were given to understand that every precaution had been, or would be, taken. Surprise and disappointment were mild terms to express his feelings when, after the sad occurrence, it appeared that the warning given by him at Napier eight days before had not been acted upon. He added: “It would, however, be a mistake for anyone to say that Mr. McLean had doubted and had refused to act.”

Poverty Bay Settlers Not Unduly Alarmed

If a rumour suggesting that Te Kooti was on his way did gain currency in Poverty Bay on the Sunday or on the Monday, it would seem either that it was not believed or else that the residents had implicit faith in Biggs's ability to give ample warning to everybody to move into Turanganui. Had the Parkers, for instance, heard a report to the effect that a raid was imminent they would, assuredly, have gone over to Mrs. Bloomfield's home for two of their children who were staying there. However, not a single settler on the Flats deserted his home on the eve of the tragedy. All appear to have retired for the night in the full expectation that on the morrow they would be able to carry out the plans which they had made.

After the dire calamity, some other persons also claimed to have given Biggs warning that Poverty Bay was about to be page 252 attacked. Readers of Te Kooti's Expeditions (G. Mair, N.Z.C., and G. A. Preece, N.Z.C., p. 185) are told “that Major Mair, by paying £15 to a friendly native on the Friday, two [actually four] days before Te Kooti's attack, sent Major Biggs a letter from the Bay of Plenty warning him that he would be attacked in a day or two, and it is a fact that Major Biggs received the letter, but, probably, too late to take decisive action.” This would be the letter to which Biggs referred when conversing with W. L. Williams on the Sunday afternoon after the arrival of the mailman at Whakato, but he did not say that it conveyed a warning that a raid was imminent—only that one was being planned.

Howard Strong is quoted by Cowan (The New Zealand Wars) as having stated that Mrs. Wyllie, a half-caste, had informed him one day that she had been told by an old Maori woman that Te Kooti was moving down through Ngatapa Valley. When the report was conveyed to Biggs he merely replied: “Well, you know, I have scouts out and I will receive 24 hours' notice before anything can happen. The story is absurd and you are all in an unnecessary state of alarm.” In his comment thereon, Cowan says: “Had Biggs heeded Strong's warning, the massacre would have been averted.”

If, however, Strong and his neighbours (who included the Wyllies) really did place reliance upon the old Maori woman's report, it would be difficult to account for the fact that they gave up keeping a watch at night at the ford over the Waipaoa River near their homes. They knew that Gascoyne and his scouts were posted at a considerable distance south-west of Matawhero, and they must have realised that, if Te Kooti entered the district via Ngatapa Valley, the scouts would be among the last persons to learn the grim news. In any case, if Biggs had intended to have the Ngatapa route watched, he would not have posted scouts at the ford at which the settlers had kept watch but at a point several miles inland, where scouting would have proved much more effective.

Whitmore (The Last Maori War in New Zealand, p. 68) claims to have received, some days after the massacre, a letter written by Biggs. He says that Biggs told him that Te Kooti was advancing; that he knew every detail of his force; and that Poverty Bay was his destination. Biggs had added that he realised that the settlers must be called in, but, feeling what such a step must entail upon them, he had hesitated to expose them to such a sacrifice till the last moment. Next day, however, he would do so. In view of Biggs's adverse feelings towards Whitmore, this claim must have occasioned astonishment among the former's friends when it was published.

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Gascoyne's Story

Gascoyne (Soldiering in New Zealand, pp. 34–36) says that Biggs (in spite of his strong representations as to the danger) was allowed only the one small party of scouts to watch an extent of country which would have required the services of six scouting parties. Its chief camp was about 20 miles from Turanganui, “where the main track descends to the Hangaroa River.” After scouting had gone on for several (sic) months he was told by a very old native that Te Kooti would use a very ancient track a long way to the right if he made a raid. Next day [Saturday, 7 November] he took two men and found a deeply-worn track, heavily overgrown with big manuka trees, in a valley eight to ten miles to his right. - It led towards a saddle overlooking the Mangakaretu Stream. Only signs of pigs were found. Smoke seen six miles away was believed by his native companions to have its origin in a fire lit by pighunters.

That night, on their way back to camp, he left his two comrades and rode on to Matawhero to report. Biggs, he says, did not approve his suggestion that three men should be posted in the valley which he had inspected. He said that he knew that Te Kooti was restless; that he was being kept informed by spies of the rebels' doings; and that he was sure that he would use the track which was being watched. Biggs added: “Now get right back to your post, and be sure not to leave it yourself … Keep a sharp watch every night and scout towards Wairoa daily. If you see armed men, or are fired on, all of you are to come in at once and give the alarm by scattering, but come yourself to me as quickly as possible.” Strange as it may appear, Gascoyne considered it safe to grant leave to two of his native scouts. They went down to Pipiwhakao Bush, and it was from them, when they returned to him post haste on the Tuesday morning, that he first heard about the tragedy!

It was, at first, proposed that Matawhero should be the rendezvous for the settlers and loyal natives in the event of a raid proving imminent. The settlers began to throw up the earthworks for a redoubt, and the loyal natives went ahead with the palisading. Then the work was stopped, and Turanganui was decided upon. W. L. Williams (Southern Cross, 23/12/1868) says that, when he arrived back at Poverty Bay from Auckland on 6 November, he found the redoubt at Turanganui occupied by an ill-disciplined force of about 70 friendly natives, and the inhabitants of the district, Europeans as well as natives, not feeling by any means secure, but yet not apprehending any immediate mischief, because of the force, 700 strong, which was then operating against the Hauhaus from Wairoa. [This force page 254 never made contact with the rebels, and the southern section of it got back to Napier on 7 November.]

Little is known concerning the composition of, or the strength of, the band of rebels which made the murderous raid on Mata-whero. According to Maata te Owai, the “spearhead” consisted chiefly of Nama's outback Wairoa people and Urewera tribesmen. Jimmy Wilson says that a Poverty Bay native well known to his mother was among the party which raided their home. Hamiora Pere (who was hanged at Wellington) was among the raiders. It was the general belief among the old settlers that most of the participants were Tarawera, Taupo, Urewera and Wairoa rebels.

Why it was that Te Kooti did not also attack Turanganui is not clear. Some of the survivors, held that the rebels preferred to make the most of their opportunity to raid the stores and homes on the Flats for liquor and other loot. W. L. Williams thought that the arrival of s.s. St. Kilda that day might have caused Te Kooti to alter his plans. What is most unlikely is that the rebels were afraid to raid the township on account of the presence on Kaiti of such a small force of Ngati-Porou. These loyal natives made no attempt to engage the raiders, and the European refugees were too few in number to risk venturing upon a sortie. Samuel Locke was of the opinion that, if Te Kooti had accepted 100, instead of only 25, Tuhoe reinforcements,” not a single European would have been left alive in Poverty Bay.”


Whitmore (The Last Maori War in New Zealand) says that, when he landed at Poverty Bay after the massacre, popular feeling was much excited against the Stafford Government, “upon whom the blame for the massacre was being unfairly thrown, the agent on the East Coast [McLean], who was, of course, the actually responsible person, escaping the odium through the circumstances of his position, he being bitterly opposed to the Government.” This attack on McLean need not occasion surprise. If he had had his way, Major Fraser—not Whitmore—would have been sent to Poverty Bay to take charge of the military operations. McLean told Mr. Richmond that he feared that the loyal natives might disperse upon Whitmore's arrival. It was only on Mr. Richmond's urgent solicitations that McLean wrote to the Ngati-Porou leaders urging them to continue the campaign to a successful conclusion. The contents of one of his letters were revealed in Parliament on 18 June, 1869.