A Stain Upon History: The Ngatapa Massacre, January 1869

Imagine this: somewhere between 86 and 128 people, captured or surrendered at the end of a siege, are stripped naked, lined up against the side of a cliff, and summarily executed without trial by government forces. Couldn’t happen here, many people would probably say. But it did, and the story behind the worst massacre in New Zealand history deserves to be more widely known.

In July 1868 Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki and nearly 300 other mostly East Coast Maori escaped from the Chatham Islands (Wharekauri) and made their way back to the mainland. This group, known as the Whakarau, had been held at Wharekauri since 1866. None of their number had been tried, and the government admitted that they were being held as ‘political offenders’ while arrangements were made to confiscate their lands back home. Judith Binney suggested that Te Kooti had been included among those illegally imprisoned at Wharekauri because he was regarded as a threat by rival traders back in Gisborne (Turanga).

Te Kooti, Binney argued, had every incentive to seek utu from those responsible for his long exile and imprisonment. But despite this, when the Whakarau landed back on the mainland, Te Kooti indicated their desire to travel peaceably inland. Captain Reginald Biggs, one of those response for Te Kooti’s earlier arrest and detention, blocked the Whakarau’s only route of escape and engaged them in a series of battles over the following months.

In the early hours of 10 November 1868 Te Kooti struck back, killing Biggs and more than 50 others, including women and children, at the settlement of Matawhero. Many of those killed were, like Biggs, members of the colonial militia or their families. Others were Maori suspected of assisting the government.

Following this attack, the government vowed to seek revenge for those slain. A reward of £1000 was placed on the head of Te Kooti, dead or alive.

Sketch of Ngatapa, nzhistory.net.nz

By December the Whakarau had retreated to Ngatapa, a hilltop fortress in a strong defensive location inland from Gisborne but without a secure water supply. Government troops and their Maori allies besieged Ngatapa in early January 1869. Their water supply exhausted, in the early hours of 5 January Te Kooti and many others escaped down a steep cliff and into the bush. Crown forces spent two days hunting down prisoners, who were brought back to the camp at Ngatapa.

What occurred next is among the most shameful incidents in New Zealand history. According to multiple witnesses, large numbers of prisoners were (as Lieutenant Gudgeon later described it) ‘led to the edge of the cliff, stripped...then shot, and their bodies hurled over the cliff’. A correspondent for the Hawke’s Bay Herald, commenting on the rewards placed on the heads of Te Kooti and many other members of the Whakarau, wrote that ‘The good effect has been seen in the arrival of a great many prisoners, who are shot as soon as they arrive.’ J P Ward, a member of the Armed Constabulary, wrote that:

In all some 130 odd of the defenders of Ngatapa were captured in the bush and gorges below the pa where they lay asleep having had neither sleep nor water for 2 days. They were marched up the hill side again under the outer wall – as it were – of the pa they had defended so long and so heroically, 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 PB [Poverty Bay, Matawhero] Massacre. 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 this – and very much more – as done beneath the meteor flag of Mighty England.

While the precise number of people extra-judicially executed in this manner has been much debated, the Waitangi Tribunal concluded, after a careful review of the evidence presented during its Turanga inquiry, that the figure was between 86 and 128 people. The Crown had argued during that inquiry that the number may have been as few as 8 people, while also pointing the finger of blame at the Crown’s Maori allies – both arguments that were emphatically rejected by the Tribunal.

In the words of the Turanga Tribunal, the Ngatapa executions were (and are) ‘a stain upon the history of this country’. Yet to this day there is no monument or memorial to the victims of Ngatapa and precious little recognition of the worst Crown atrocity in New Zealand history.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Useful resource for my history class- pass on regards to Bruce if he is still at History Works:)

  3. Thank you for sharing this korero....I believe and know I am a descendant of this slautered ...I belong to the iwi of Te Whanau a Kai and this story has been shared and told to us .Within my iwi we retell this story to our tamariki and whanau through waiata, haka and korero.

    I just want to say thank you for believing that this massacre did take place and yes you are correct there never has been some acknowledgement at all...this is some thing I would like to see as my iwi seem to be the forgotten people....

    I am here because there were some of my people that did survive and get away and I am a descendant from there...

    So once again thank you...

  4. These were my people my tribe. Too sad to comprehend

  5. this kind of kōrero needs to be taught in our schools

  6. Thank you. Adjusted history serves only liars. Thank you for telling us the whole story.

  7. Ngati Hineuru��of Ngatapa, where they died like dogs&branded forever with the name "Hauhau",the reason,tikanga maori values demand that all visitors to a mate should be welcome with karanga &whaikorero.Te Kooti Rikirangi was well known to ngati Hineuru&not the villain the crown was chasing,but the crown choice������to run every last one of us from our lands (less than 5% of our families return home)driven out&told never to return������.history's should be told not repeated like they don't matter☻☹

  8. Totally despicable behaviour by a brutal, bullying British army-backed Colonial invading force, who stole land off the indigenous Maori people. Many native tribes having occupied Aotearoa for around 800 years PRIOR to the uninvited arrival of "civilised" white Europeans, predominantly from Britain, under the mighty Rule of good old "mother England"

  9. wow ...another fact of history not widley known or learned at school

  10. We were taught about Te kooti and the Matawhero massacre at school( in Gisborne) but nothing at all about this Ngatapa executions.

    1. another interesting point here is about what Biggs was doing at the time. He was blackmailing maori into panic selling land, helped the government to steal Te Hau ki Turanga from Rongowhakaata, and was involved with the executions of two high ranking Chiefs, not to mention his role in the deportation of Te Kooti.... So when Te Kooti returns..... the rest is history.

  11. Not even a mention during my 18 year education, and to think the Crown tried to blame Kupapa and reduce numbers.

  12. No wonder the pakeha don't want to teach the true history of New Zealand as there are so many horrendous things done all in the name of Queen Victoria...dammn white savvages

  13. This account was given by Captain Thomas Porter in 1897: “Te Kooti and his fighting men who escaped the fight retired upon the masked hill fort of Ngatapa, some four miles higher in the ranges. Te Kooti himself had a very narrow escape as when retreating the wound he had received at Ruakituri caused him so much pain and weakness that he was unable to walk, and he was alternatively carried upon some of his wives backs. As one instance of many how maoris, when uncontrolled in warfare by European customs, treat the prisoners under vengeful feelings of “utu,” (Satisfaction or payment), the following will illustrate. Among the captured was the rebel Nama, a man who rendered himself by atrocious acts of violence, and in the murder of the Wilson family [of Matawhero], also in the murder of the four scouts. Some of Ropata’s soldiers then addressed him in Maorito the following effect: “your Atua (God) has deserted you, now Hatana (The Devil) has you, and we will give you a taste of fire in this world, before you get it in the next.” Thereupon they fastened ropes upon him and dragged him backwards and forwards through the fire of the burning pa until he died.”

    J.P Ward, a pakeha volunteer who fought at Ngatapa stated: “I Was Amongst them – tired , cramped, and wishing anything, even death, to the frightful monotony of the trenches, sneaked up the hillside (against orders) and got into the rear proper of Ngatapa”. he continued proudly, and unrepentantly “in all some 130—odd of the defenders were captured in the bush, where they lay asleep, having had neither sleep, nor water for two days. They were marched up the side of the hill that they had defended so long, and heroically, stripped of every vestige of clothing they had possessed and SHOT – shot like dogs. If any or all of them had participated in the poverty bay massacre. That did not matter to us one straw. They were shot and their bodies left to swelter and rot under the summer sun, and their bones left to bleach to this day, and all this was done beneath the meteor flag of Mighty England”.

    Captain Porter comments: “before [the executions] Colonel Whitmore was on his return march, leaving Ropata to await the return of the pursuing parties. As each detatchment came in with its batch of prisoners Ropata rather unsoaringly 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 side of the cliff.” This instantly brings to mind the murders of Jews in Poland who were executed, standing on the ledges of the mass graves they were buried in.

    The Wai814 claim estimated that between 86 and 128 unarmed prisoners (Captain Porter stated 120, and J.P Ward at 130) taken to Ngatapa or Fort Richmond, were without charge, trial, or conviction unlawfully, and summarily executed. These murders although some were carried out by the Ngati Porou contingent, “they were carried out by Crown forces in the Crowns name” which were sanctioned by settler military commanders and the senior politician present at the battle J C Richmond. This systematic slaughter was one of the worst abuses of human rights and law in the entirety of New Zealands colonial history.

    From the Battle of Waerenga-a-hika in less than four years from November 1865 to the fall of Ngatapa in January 1869 over two thirds of the male population of Turanga were killed in armed conflict as the union jack fluttered proudly in the wind as it did when Cooks men murdered Te Maro, Te Rakau and many others. Essentially the murder of these Maoriremoved many likely to object, creating a climate amongst the remaining of sympathy for settlers and the losses suffered.

  14. I have visited and scaled the former site of Ngatapa Pa, as part of a research trip, as my great great grandfather Ben Biddle NZC, a member of the Armed Constabulary (Military Police) participated in the siege of Ngatapa. He was awarded the rare New Zealand Cross for bravery, for his role in scaling the rear of the maunga, digging a firing position into the side of the cliff and keeping Te Kooti's people from escaping down the rear precipice of the position. He did not participate in the slaughter of these people though, as his unit had already moved on from Ngatapa when this incident occurred. Interestingly, after the war ended, he and his family lived with Te Kooti's people in Wainui and Ben's son Rapata Pene Biddle became the Secretary of the Ringatu Haahi (Te Kooti's church), designing the Ringatu crest (in the 1920s) and registering the church with the government.

  15. Theres a book called ask that mountain. Parehaka.

  16. Done a massive hikoi ki runga I a Ngatapa... SHAMEFUL GOVERNMENT TROOPS OF ENGLAND!!! Still have a few of those haters lingering still here in Aotearoa...E hoki!


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