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

Chapter XXXI — Hands off Poverty Bay!

page 275

Chapter XXXI
Hands off Poverty Bay!

Move to Drive Rebels Away—Fight at Makaretu—Minor Massacre at Opou—Whitmore's Return—“The Gravedigger Has Arrived”—Siege of Ngatapa.

The initial move to drive Te Kooti and his band out of Poverty Bay after the Massacre (10/11/1868) was made by a force consisting of 270 Ngati-Kahungunu, under Tareha te Moananui, Renata Kawepo and Karauria Karaitiana; 60 northern Ngati-Kahungunu, under Ihaka Whaanga; about 100 Rongowhakaata; and a handful of Europeans under Lieutenant Gascoyne. On 22 November some rebels were encountered at Patutahi, and three were slain. Two days later the main body was found entrenched on the far side of the valley at Makaretu. The loyalists took up positions on the high ground opposite to, but at a considerable distance from, the rebels.

Gascoyne (Soldiering in New Zealand, p. 47) says that some rebels crept round the loyalists' flank and set fire to some dry fern. As a consequence a lot of fern had to be cleared away; otherwise their position would have become untenable. Next day further supplies of food and ammunition had to be obtained from Turanganui by bullock-waggon. A depot was established about two miles north of Patutahi, and, from that point, all supplies had to be packed. Rebels sent to raid the depot came across a convoy of packhorses laden with supplies. Immediately the natives attached to it bolted, leaving behind 16,000 rounds of ammunition and some stores, which fell into the hands of the raiders. A guard was then placed over the depot and the packers were provided with an armed escort.

Tareha's version of the fighting, in which the loyalists lost four killed and had ten wounded, was “that it went on day and night.” In Parliament, Colonel Haultain (Minister for Defence) put the matter somewhat differently. “The parties,” he said, “as is often the case among native tribes not particularly warlike, amused themselves by firing off a great deal of ammunition at each other at a safe distance!” This sarcastic remark is reechoed in Gascoyne's account, which states that, “in spite of all that we could do, the loyal natives wasted a fearful amount of ammunition.”

On 2 December, Major Ropata and Hotene Porourangi arrived at Makaretu at the head of 376 Ngati-Porou. This force had, for some time, been at Wairoa under Colonel Lambert, and it page 276 had travelled overland to Poverty Bay. The loyalists attacked the rebels on the following day and drove them into some dense bush which lay between Makaretu and the old hill-fort at Ngatapa, about three and a-half miles away. According to Colonel Haultain, the rebels lost 29 killed and had 10 wounded— not double that number, as had been stated in earlier reports from the Front. Among the slain was the notorious Nama, who was killed by Henare Turangi, the noted scout.

Whilst the loyalists were engaged in the pursuit of the rebels an unfortunate hitch occurred. Hotene complained bitterly on account of Tareha's action in sparing two prisoners who were tribal connections. Ropata regarded it as a very bad omen, seeing that the men were capable of bearing arms, and he decided to retire. Both sections of loyalists then returned to Makaretu. Eventually, Ropata agreed with Gascoyne and Preece that it would be better to attack Te Kooti before he had time to strengthen Ngatapa pa. It was now Tareha's turn to object to the resumption of the fighting, and his force set off back to Patutahi.

On 5 December, Ropata and his Ngati-Porou, together with the European Volunteers, proceeded to Ngatapa. The elevated pa was found to comprise three compartments, one behind the other. Neither of its steep flanks could be stormed in the face of enemy fire, and only by climbing up in single file could the pa be approached from the rear, which was commanded by loopholed rifle-pits. During the 24 hours' fighting that followed only one determined attempt was made to take the pa. A small party, led by Ropata and Preece (both of whom gained the award of the New Zealand Cross for their courage on that occasion), climbed a cliff to the outer end of a trench. Ten of the enemy, including Kareta, were slain there. In the morning, as bad weather had set in and the supply of ammunition was almost exhausted, Ropata withdrew.

An Unpopular Commander

It was now found that, on 4 December, the Sturt had arrived with Colonel Whitmore (who had been appointed O.C.) and Major Fraser and 70 members of the A.C. (who had been stationed at Wanganui and whose equipment included six artillery pieces). According to the Poverty Bay correspondent of the Hawke's Bay Herald, Whitmore's arrival was notified to the residents by means of placards affixed to the walls of buildings and bearing the words, “The Gravedigger Has Arrived!” The Hon. J. C. Richmond, who reached Poverty Bay on the same day, met Tareha at Patutahi, but could not induce him to turn back.

In his report to Colonel Haultain on the initial attack upon Ngatapa (5–6 December) Mr. Richmond referred in terms of page 277 high praise to the part which Ropata had taken. He also said that the Hauhaus had burnt their tents and that their women and children had been heard clambering down the cliffs. Ten loyalists had lost their lives and 20 had been wounded; the rebel casualties numbered about 50. It was his opinion that the enemy had either decamped or were about to do so.

On 6 December, Whitmore told Colonel Haultain that the Ngati-Porou desired to return home, but, if the enemy was found to be still in position, it might be possible to retain them. He added that Tareha's contingent might just as well return to Hawke's Bay and that, as the destination of the rebels was unknown, it would be best for Ihaka Whaanga's force to go back to Wairoa to act as a shield for that district. Two days later Whitmore erroneously believed that the rebels had fled into the wilds. Writing to the Minister, he reported: “All quiet here … Ngatapa is abandoned.”

Mr. Richmond, too, must have been satisfied that the rebels would not occasion any more trouble. On 11 December he sent word to Colonel Haultain that the forces were about to leave “as the enemy has disappeared.” He added: “It is quite clear that we must concentrate and strike on the West Coast first. It will be time enough to strike at these Hauhaus [Te Kooti and his followers] in four or five months. Te Kooti has no food but fern-root and but little powder. He makes bullets of shot cast in a thimble.”

On 12 December the p.s. Sturt set off from Turanganui for Wanganui with 150 members of the A.C. Providentially (as it were), she was holed on the bar of the river and had to disembark her troops. That day, unbeknown to the authorities, the rebels made another descent upon the Flats and, near Opou, caught a young trooper (Finlay Ferguson), two half-caste lads (Willie Wyllie and Ben Mackey) and a native boy (David Hapi Kiniha). One of the rebels' prisoners, Apera te Awahaku (who was related to Wyllie's mother) appealed to Te Kooti to spare the lads. He was ordered to cast aside young Wyllie, who had clung to him for protection. The captives were then slain.

During that afternoon, as rebels had been seen near Patutahi, Whitmore sent out mounted troops in that direction, and the right wing of No. 1 Division of the A.C. was moved out to Makaraka. After dusk the cavalry fell back, as their scouts had deserted. No trace of rebels was found in the morning, but, just as the troops were about to re-embark, word was received of the Opou murders on the previous day. Ihaka Whaanga, it was stated, was engaging the rebels near Opou. A force of A.C. was sent to Muriwai on the Sturt to assist him, and the Ngati-Porou page 278 proceeded overland to lend a hand. With another force Whitmore set off to cover the Ngati-Porou right flank. Observing about 100 rebels making off in the direction of Patutahi, he attempted to intercept them. “My men,” he says, “had three miles, and the enemy four miles, to go to reach a gorge. When we reached the point where the two tracks met it was found that the Hauhaus had gained the gorge.”

Rebels Driven Out of Ngatapa

Whitmore then began to muster a large force to re-attack the rebels at Ngatapa. A chain of small forts was built up the Ngatapa Valley. He named the fort which stood farthest away —it was about two and a-half miles from Ngatapa—“Fort Richmond.” Ropata returned with 300 Ngati-Porou. The siege was begun on 27 December. A section of Ngati-Porou (under Ropata) and some of the Poverty Bay Volunteers were stationed along the front of the hill-fort. The 6th Division of the A.C. (under Inspector Roberts) and the rest of Ngati-Porou (under Hotene) were posted along the southern side. Major Fraser's 7th Division of the A.C. took up a position beyond Hotene's force and his No. 1 Division entrenched at the rear of the pa. On the precipitous northern side no investing force was placed. It was afterwards explained by Whitmore that the omission was due solely to the inadequacy of the force at his disposal.

In all, Whitmore had 700 troops, and his equipment included two cohorn mortars capable of throwing shells into any part of the pa. At the rear there was only a knife-like track up the steep hillside. Those brave attackers who were able to retain a foothold there harassed the rebels into diverting some of their best marksmen from their front-line trenches. Two of the A.C. —Private Solomon Black and Private B. Biddle—earned the New Zealand Cross. On the night of 4 January, 1869, Ropata's force drove the defenders back from their outer trenches and placed itself in a good position from which to renew the attack in the morning. When dawn came it was announced by women within the pa that the defenders had left. With the aid of flax ladders they had escaped down the unguarded side of the hill-fort.

According to Whitmore (Hansard, 1869) the European troops desired to go after the rebels, because many a prisoner was worth £20 in money or in plunder upon his person. Ngati-Porou also wished to join in the pursuit, but Ropata was afraid that white troops might mistake them for rebels in the forest. It was then arranged that the pursuing force should be restricted to the Ngati-Porou. Nikora, who had taken part in the Poverty Bay Massacre, was among the rebels slain. Rusden says that page 279 when his head was brought in Mr. Richmond paid £50 for it. That day, Cabinet offered £1,000 as a reward in respect of Te Kooti.

W. L. Williams (East Coast, New Zealand, Historical Records, p. 65) summarises the results of his inquiries in these words:

“As soon as day dawned the escape of the rebels was discovered. They were immediately pursued and many of them were killed. Fourteen men were taken alive in the pa and about 66 women and children. Fifty-eight dead bodies testified to the terrible havoc wrought by the shells from the cohorn mortars. The rebels' total loss is said to have been at least 125 killed. Among the Colonial Forces the casualties were 11 killed and five seriously wounded.” [The killed included Captain D. M. Brown, of the A.C.]

In his History of the Early Days of Poverty Bay, p. 29, Colonel T. W. Porter says:

“Ropata allowed no time to elapse before he sent out pursuing parties upon the trail of the retreating enemy … Many prisoners were brought in, to the number of about 120 in all … As each detachment came in with its batch of prisoners, Ropata rather unsparingly ordered them for execution, particularly those known to be escapees from the Chatham Islands and those who had participated in the Poverty Bay Massacre. The place of execution was upon the verge of a cliff. There the prisoners were stripped, then ranged in line, and shot down by a firing party, the bodies falling over the cliff. The retribution lasted for three days.”

Lambert (Story of Old Wairoa, p. 560) is not less enterprising in his attempt to establish that a large number of the rebels were executed. He comments:

“After Ngatapa, as in former cases, a number of prisoners taken were allotted to the different chiefs for their safe custody. Among them, fifty were allotted to one, and with fatal results. Next morning there was heard in the European camp heavy firing, and a messenger was sent to ascertain the cause. It was then learned that the whole fifty had been taken out and shot by their custodians, their bodies being thrown over a cliff. The affair was hushed up, of course, but it cannot but have accentuated the trouble with the Hauhaus.”

A more modest estimate of the rebel losses after the fall of the pa is given by Gascoyne in Soldiering in New Zealand, p. 75:

“Presently,” he says, “two excited natives came to ask me if it were true that the Government had promised £5 per head for all Hauhaus caught. On my saying that I believed the offer was genuine, one of them slapped his thigh and remarked: ‘My word! I get some of that money!’ Sure enough, next morning he produced a sack with three heads in it, and his mate brought in a sack containing two heads. However, I do not think that many of the Hauhaus were caught, though one or two noted men were captured. A few women were overtaken, but their heads were not wanted. The following day … half a mile from Ngatapa, I noticed between 20 and 30 prisoners drawn up near the track. They seemed a fine lot of young men and I was told that they were to be shot. Afterwards I heard that the sentence had been carried out.”
page 280

In a dispatch to Defence Minister Haultain, Whitmore estimated the total rebel losses during, and after, the siege at “more than 120.”

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.


Major-General George Stoddart Whitmore, K.C.M.G., M.L.C. (born at Malta in 1830), took part in the Kaffir Wars (1847 and 1851–53), the Boer rising (1848), and the Crimean War (1854). He came out to New Zealand as military secretary to Sir Duncan Cameron, and served in the Taranaki and Waikato Wars and against Te Kooti. He was the first New Zealand officer to be raised to the rank of Major-General. In 1861 he took up “Rissington” (Hawke's Bay), which he sold to Miles and Co., of Canterbury, for £50,000 in June, 1873. He then acquired “Clive Grange” and other Hawke's Bay runs. For some months he held “Malvern Hills,” an Otago leasehold of 350,000 acres (with 140,000 sheep and 300 cattle), and then parted with it to James Coyle, of Tasmania, for £130,000, the amount which he had paid for it. In 1883 he took up Tuparoa run (20,000 acres), and, in 1894, disposed of it to Archdeacon Sam Williams. He was a member of the Legislative Council from August, 1863, till his death on 16 March, 1903. For short terms he held Cabinet rank in various Ministries.