Preparing for war
Waikato was the home of the Māori king. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero had been proclaimed the first king in 1858, and in 1860 he was succeeded by his son, later known as Tāwhiao. Some of the king’s followers had participated in the Taranaki war. Despite the truce in Taranaki, the government was keen to punish them – and to satiate European land hunger in the Waikato region.
In 1861 Thomas Gore Browne was replaced as governor by George Grey. On 1 January 1862, construction of the Great South Road southward from Drury began. This would enable men and military supplies to be moved to the Waikato River in preparation for an invasion. On 9 July 1863, Grey issued a proclamation directing Waikato Māori living in the government-controlled area south of Auckland to swear allegiance to the Queen or return to the Waikato. A second proclamation dated two days later warned those ‘in arms’ that they had forfeited their right to their lands.
On 12 July 1863 the British army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron, crossed the Mangatāwhiri Stream, which marked the aukati (boundary) between the Kīngitanga lands and the government-controlled area to the north. Troops took up positions below the Koheroa ridge and scoured the area for Māori fighters. Five days later, on 17 July, British regulars attacked a war party on the ridge, firing and instigating a bayonet charge which caused the Māori to retreat. About 15 Māori, including Waikato chief Te Huirama, died during this engagement.
Māori attacks behind the lines slowed British progress. Cameron tried to establish water-based transport, but his forward depot at Camerontown was destroyed by Māori. Advance parties were ordered to drive on to the Waikato River in order to secure British supplies through the use of gunboats. Waikato Māori retreated to Meremere pā, which overlooked the river, blocking Cameron’s advance. Meremere seemed impregnable.
On 12 August 1863 the gunboat Avon fired on Meremere, then slipped past to conduct reconnaissance. The Pioneer followed, exchanging fire with concealed riflemen. On 31 October, 600 men from the 40th and 65th regiments were towed past the pā on barges and landed 8 kilometres upriver, beating off an attack from the pā. With the British now in their rear, Waikato abandoned Meremere.