Marking ‘horrors of Ngatapa’
Te Whanau a Kai host a commemorative event today marking the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Ngatapa, where Crown forces stripped and executed captured prisoners “like dogs’’. Wynsley Wrigley looks at the Waitangi Tribunal’s finding of what happened in response to a deadly raid on Matawhero by Te Kooti and his forces, after the Crown — including a Ngati Porou force — drove Te Kooti back to a hilltop pa at Ngatapa in 1868-1869.
The execution of between 86 and 128 prisoners (as estimated by the Waitangi Tribunal) by Crown forces demonstrated ‘‘how thin the veneer of the rule of law could be in colonial New Zealand”.
Yesterday, January 5, was the 150th anniversary of the day colonial forces discovered Te Kooti and his supporters had escaped down the steep northern face of a 600-metre high cone-shaped mountain.
The Crown forces quickly set off in pursuit. The Waitangi Tribunal described the incidents that followed as ‘‘the horrors of Ngatapa’’.
Over the two months from Te Kooti’s attack on Matawhero in November to the Crown’s revenge at Ngatapa, some of the most distressing events in New Zealand’s colonial past happened, said the tribunal in its Turanga hearings report.
“From the Crown’s attack on Waerenga-a-Hika in November 1865 to the fall of Ngatapa in January 1869, we estimate that approximately 240 adult men, or 43 percent of the adult male population of Turanga, were killed in armed conflict with the Crown.
“This is an extraordinary level of loss for any community anywhere.
“It is, we believe, the highest casualty rate suffered by Maori in any region in New Zealand during the land wars.”
The tribunal estimated Te Kooti led between 217 and 230 men at this time, and 210 women and children were also in the pa.
Te Kooti’s fighting force of around 200 was made up of men from the upper Wairoa, Ngati Kahungunu, Tuhoe from Te Whaiti and Maungapohatu, some of his Ngati Maru kin, and a number of escaped prisoners from their exile in the Chathams.
The siege, the second attempt to take Ngatapa Pa, had begun on New Year’s Day and featured the use of “vertically firing cohorn mortars,” which Colonel George Whitmore, commander of Crown military forces (and a veteran of the Crimean War) said had never previously been used against Maori forces.
Colonial forces consisted of about 680 men, comprising 313 Armed Constabulary — including 60 Te Arawa — under a Pakeha officer and 370 Ngati Porou led by Rapata Wahawaha.
They did not have men stationed on the northern side of the hill top where Te Kooti escaped because of an erroneous belief it was too steep to negotiate.
'Shot like dogs'In the words of J.P. Ward, a member of the Armed Constabulary, captured prisoners were ‘‘stripped of every vestige of clothing they possessed and shot — shot like dogs”.
“There was no mention of a trial or if any or all of them had participated in the Poverty Bay Massacre,” said Ward.
“That did not matter to us one straw.
“They were shot and their bodies left to swelter and rot under the summer’s sun, and bones to bleach to this day.
“And all of this — and very much more — as done beneath the Meteor flag of Mighty England.”
Major John St John wrote that “every hour brought forth intelligence of Hau Haus overtaken and shot”.
“One party of Uriwera (original spellings used here), eighteen strong, was met by the Ngatiporou, and fifteen fell before the fire brought to bear upon them.
“Still Te Kooti was not brought in, although bands of pursuers returned at intervals, few of them but were laden with loot, bringing with them women and children.
“It is much to the credit of the native allies that they did, although bent on massacre, refrain from following out their old Maori customs, and that in every instance women and children were spared.
“As for the men, they met their fate boldly.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Porter said that Colonel Whitmore left Ropata to await the return of the pursuing parties.
‘‘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 Chathams and also those who had participated in the massacre.
‘‘The place of execution was upon the verge of a cliff, where the prisoners were stripped, then ranged in line and shot down by the firing parties, their bodies falling over the cliff.
“The retribution lasted for three days.”
Kotuku, one of the Whakarau — exiles or “unhomed”, as Te Kooti named the nearly 300 prisoners he escaped with from the Chatham Islands several months earlier — said: ‘‘I escaped into the deep forest, but many of our people were captured and shot.’’
A Ngati Porou source also referred to the capture of some 100 people in the pursuit, the majority of whom were killed in the bush.
The tribunal concluded that the killings “clearly occurred after the capture”.
“The sources disagree only as to the site of the killings.”
Assessing the evidence presented, the Waitangi Tribunal estimated:
Numbers of men killed by Crown forces during the siege — 48 to 53Numbers executed: 86 to 128Those killed in pursuit: 16 to 30.Those taken prisoner and returned to Turanga: 22 to 34.Crown forces: 11 men killed, including five Ngati Porou and one Te Arawa.Some of those killed by Crown forces had been the prisoners of Te Kooti.
The tribunal said “the Crown was entitled to undertake military action against the Whakarau following their attack on Turanga’’.
But in their military action at Ngatapa, the Crown “failed to discriminate between those who had participated in the Turanga murders and those who were innocent captives of the Whakarau”.
“To that extent, the Crown engaged in careless and indiscriminate military action against innocent people.
“They were unreasonable and in bad faith.
“They failed actively to protect the lives of innocent Maori.
“They failed to ensure that Maori were accorded all the rights and privileges of British subjects as promised by . . . the Treaty of Waitangi.’’
The Crown conceded that the execution of unarmed prisoners by the State, without due process, constituted a breach of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
However, the Crown argued that the executions were carried out by Ngati Porou auxiliaries under the direction of their leader Rapata Wahawaha.
They were effectively independent allies of the Crown, rather than Crown troops.
The Tribunal rejected that argument, noting the Crown had argued previously, concerning the Siege of Waerenga-a-Hika, that iwi were not independent of the Crown.
Maori, even if not represented by a signatory to the Treaty, became British subjects simply by virtue of the annexation which took place as an Act of State by the Proclamations of May 1840, the Crown had argued.
The Crown therefore could not argue Ngati Porou forces were independent of the Crown at Ngatapa three years later.
“Ngati Porou forces were obviously acting with consent, implicit or explicit, at the highest level of command.
‘‘We find accordingly that the executions were carried out by Crown forces — and therefore by the Crown itself.”
The Waitangi Tribunal said there was a “remarkable official silence’’ relating to the events at and after Ngatapa.
There was no government inquiry into the allegations of execution.
It was certainly apparent that many knew killings had occurred there on a horrific scale.
The Crown ought to have investigated them and tried those implicated in their commission.
“To be blunt, the Ngatapa executions are a stain upon the history of this country, and it is long past time for them to be put right.”