During the 1850s the European population in New Zealand overtook the Māori population. As newcomers flooded in, there was increasing pressure to obtain land still under Māori control. By 1860 nearly all of the South Island was in Pākehā hands, but North Island Māori had organised themselves to resist further loss of land.
Land issues at Waitara
Land disputes caused tension in New Plymouth. Settlers urged Governor Thomas Gore Browne to open up access to Māori land. Māori generally resisted sales, though some hapū were bitterly divided on the issue.
On 7 March 1859, Gore Browne visited New Plymouth and encouraged Māori to sell land. A young Waitara chief, Te Teira, offered 600 acres (240 hectares) at the mouth of the Waitara River, despite the objections of a more senior chief, Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke. Gore Browne accepted Te Teira’s offer, subject to his title being confirmed by officials.
Surveying of the Waitara purchase commenced on 20 February 1860 but was interrupted by Wiremu Kīngi’s supporters. The British army based at New Plymouth immediately occupied the disputed block. A blockhouse was erected, commanded by Colonel Charles Gold, who observed Te Āti Awa building a fortification at Te Kohia, on a ridge overlooking the British position.
Outbreak of war
On 17 March 1860, Gold ordered an attack upon Te Kohia pā. Cannon and rockets were fired, inflicting heavy damage upon the palisades. Te Āti Awa returned fire, causing the British to take cover. At dawn they found the pā had been abandoned.
10 quid and a VC
The first European into Kaipopo pā was William Odgers, the coxswain to Captain Peter Cracroft of HMS Niger. Cracroft had offered £10 to the first man over the stockade. Odgers won his £10 and for good measure was also awarded the first Victoria Cross in the New Zealand wars.
Battle of Waireka
In early 1860 settlers built a protective stockade at Ōmata, about 6 kilometres south-west of New Plymouth. Ngāti Ruanui and their supporters then built their own pā, Kaipopo, overlooking it. Gold decided to relieve the stockade and rescue settler families. On 28 March two forces, about 120 British regulars and 150 volunteers and militia, approached, and the local force came under attack from Māori. The regulars, with orders to return to New Plymouth by nightfall, retreated. So eventually did the locals. It was left to a group of about 60 naval men to attack Kaipopo pā and take it, although some historians claim it had already been abandoned. Two Europeans and between 20 and 50 Māori were killed.
While the strengthening of the Waitara garrison continued, Te Āti Awa gathered at Puketakauere pā, in full view of the British camp. They threatened Devon Road, which linked Waitara to New Plymouth, conducting raids and firing upon the camp at will. On the morning of 27 June, the British launched an attack against Puketakauere. Māori were positioned outside the pā, firing from a series of trenches. When the British attacked these trenches, concealed Māori opened fire, catching the attackers unawares. A withdrawal was ordered, and British survivors staggered back to Waitara, having sustained a major defeat. 30 British died at Puketakauere, and 34 were seriously injured. Māori casualties could not be calculated. It was claimed that Te Āti Awa had at least 800 men in the field, including a war party from Ngāti Maniapoto.
Following the defeat at Puketakauere, Major-General Thomas Pratt took command of the British army in Taranaki. Pratt launched well-timed raids on Te Āti Awa strongholds along the upper Waitara River throughout September 1860. On 6 November, Pratt marched out of New Plymouth and defeated a Ngāti Hāua war party that was hurriedly digging in at Māhoetahi.
Pratt’s long sap
Major General Pratt’s strategy in attacking the pā of Pukerangiora was to build a long sap (covered trench) along which artillery could be wheeled. The total length of this sap, painstakingly dug out, was almost 1,500 metres. Its remains can still be seen.
On 18 January 1861 Pratt attacked Huirangi pā, causing Te Āti Awa to fall back upriver. Pratt kept up the pressure by constructing small redoubts in succession, as staging posts for the advance. A major midnight attack launched by Māori against redoubt no. 3 on 23 January ended disastrously for them, with perhaps 50 dead and 60 wounded. Te Āti Awa set up a defensive line of pā protecting the historic hill pā at Pukerangiora, overlooking the Waitara River.
End of the war
By February 1861 Māori had fallen back and were defending Te Ārei, literally ‘the barrier’ protecting Pukerangiora. Winter was approaching, placing pressure upon seasonal supplies of food. Heavy artillery fire was directed at Te Ārei, with British regulars digging threatening saps (trenches) closing in on the pā. Attacks against the trenches were repulsed. The last shots were fired on 18 March 1861, when the war in North Taranaki finally ended with a truce negotiated by senior Kīngitanga figure Wiremu Tāmihana, who did not want the war to extend into the Waikato.