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

The Te Arai Mock Trial

The Te Arai Mock Trial

How it came about that Colonel Whitmore gained the nickname “The Gravedigger” is described in his book, The Last Maori War in New Zealand, p. 10. He says that, after a battle in Poverty Bay, some of his Hawke's Bay pakeha troops became discontented because they were not being supplied with biscuits. He had no more power to punish them than a subaltern on detachment, but, luckily, nobody seemed to be aware of that fact. He arranged with Major Fraser to try the ringleaders by detachment general court-martial—a procedure which he describes as “a solemn farce” —and to have them found guilty only of mutinous conduct.

“The ringleaders,” he continues, “behaved in a most craven manner, making the most piteous entreaties to be spared. ‘I am no ringleader, Sir!’; ‘For the love of God, let me off, Sir!’ ‘Sentry, as you are a Christian, give me a start of six yards!’ and so on were the appeals which they interjected while the court was sitting … At each outcry silence was ordered in loud tones, and, to improve the occasion, I asked, incidentally, ‘Sergeant-Major, are those men ready with the spades?’ which produced another wail … They were dismissed with ignominy … The garbled versions which got about were most amusing, and, when I reached Poverty Bay some months afterwards, the walls were decorated with placards announcing: ‘The Gravedigger has Arrived!’”

According to Robert Thelwall, this mock trial was held at Te Arai after the retreat of Westrup's force from Paparatu. It had its origin in the fact that three Hawke's Bay pakeha malcontents —one of whom was known as “Donnybrook”—refused to carry provisions, making the excuse that they had signed on only to carry arms.