Preparing for war
The 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 Tāwhiao. Some of the king’s followers had participated in the Taranaki war. The government was keen to punish them, despite the truce in Taranaki, and to satisfy European land ambitions in the Waikato region.
In 1861 Thomas Gore Browne was replaced by as governor George Grey. On 1 January 1862 construction of the Great South Road southward from Drury began in order to move men and military supplies into the Waikato in preparation for the intended government 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. Two days later Grey issued a second proclamation, warning those ‘in arms’ that they had forfeited their right to 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. The army entered the Waikato, taking up positions below the Koheroa ridge and scouring the area for hostile Māori. Five days later, on 17 July, British regulars attacked a war party on the ridge, firing and instigating a bayonet charge which caused Māori to retreat. About 15 Māori, including Waikato chief Te Huirama, died during the 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 at their rear, Waikato abandoned Meremere.