The Hinge of Fate: The Siege of Waerenga-a-Hika, 17-22 November 1865

On Tuesday this week I gave a well-attended public talk at the Tairawhiti Museum as part of commemorations organised by Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki to mark the 150th anniversary of the siege of Waerenga-a-Hika (17-22 November 1865). Prior to the talk, I also spoke with Jesse Mulligan on Radio New Zealand about the siege and its commemoration. As I noted, Waerenga-a-Hika marked the start of a four or five year period at Turanga (Gisborne district) that contained among the darkest episodes in New Zealand history. 

The Gisborne Herald provided this report on my talk, followed by an editorial supporting my call for more awareness of the history of Waerenga-a-Hika and the New Zealand Wars more broadly. Local kaumātua also endorsed calls for a national day of memorial marking the New Zealand Wars that had previously been suggested by Tainui representatives and others.

Earlier in the week the local newspaper provided some useful historical background on the siege and the Waitangi Tribunal's findings on it. The day after my talk the main event was held at Waerenga-a-Hika, when a specially commissioned memorial was unveiled before a large crowd that included Kīngi Tuheitia. (See Te Karere's report here).

Subsequent to my talk, I received numerous requests from people wanting copies of it. The full text of my talk would be much too long to post here but a summarised version follows below.

A full house at the Tairawhiti Museum

One hundred and fifty years ago this week there occurred a siege that changed forever the course of Turanga history. It was a conflict that local Māori of all persuasions strove desperately to avoid. But the Crown was determined to impose its rule over the district once and for all while it had the force at hand to do so. And so, repeated Māori pleas to resolve matters peacefully were ignored and 800 Māori taking shelter at Waerenga-a-Hika (including over 300 women and children) were attacked. At the end of the six day siege on 22 November at least 71 of the pā’s occupants had been killed (though other estimates number more than 100, with a further eleven killed on the Crown side). Hundreds more were taken prisoner, many to eventually be illegally detained on the Chatham Islands along with Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. The government had finally overturned Māori autonomy at Turanga, imposing its own rule instead and setting the platform for subsequent land confiscations in the district. All of this is outlined in the Waitangi Tribunal’s Turanga Report, which found that the Crown breached the Treaty of Waitangi when it unjustly branded Turanga Māori as rebels and attacked them at Waerenga-a-Hika. And yet, despite this, what took place at Waerenga-a-Hika is little known beyond the descendants of those who were attacked. In this, the 150th anniversary year of the siege, it is time that changed. Waerenga-a-Hika as the historian Bill Oliver wrote many years ago, was the ‘hinge of fate for the Maori East Coast’. It is a chapter in New Zealand history that deserves to be remembered.

To understand Waerenga-a-Hika we need to consider what came before. Some Turanga rangatira signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. But it was probably of little significance to them at the time and changed nothing on the ground. Turanga was not even visited by a Crown official for more than a decade. In 1855 the region received the first resident Crown official. He lasted five years before being withdrawn after reporting that Turanga Māori ‘unanimously & emphatically denied the Queen any right in these Islands’ and ‘yielded obedience or refused it as it suited their purposes’. With a tiny settler population in the district (a few dozen compared with a few thousand Māori) local iwi remained firmly in control of their own affairs, their runanga effectively the government of the district. That was a situation that the settlers and government officials increasingly found untenable. And so, it was almost certain that the Crown would seize any opportunity it could to overturn this state of affairs. That opportunity came about in 1865.

Although expressing sympathy for the plight of Taranaki Māori when war broke out at Waitara in March 1860, the Turanga tribes refused to become involved, declaring that it was necessary for them to remain at home and protect their own lands. They adopted a similarly independent stance towards the Kīngitanga, declining requests to support the movement on the basis that they already had their own kings, who were the ariki of their tribes.

Turanga Māori had no desire to become involved in what were to them essentially foreign wars. But when conflict came to their own district it proved harder to remain on the sidelines. Substantial numbers of Turanga Māori adopted the Pai Marire faith when its emissaries arrived in the district in March 1865. Those emissaries, Patara Raukatauri and Kereopa Te Rau, had been instructed by Pai Marire founder Te Ua Haumene to convey a token – a preserved Pākehā head – to the paramount Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti chief, Hirini Te Kani. Te Ua had also warned the pair not to harm Pākehā, emphasising the ‘good and peaceful’ nature of the new faith. But at Opotiki, things had gone badly wrong when the missionary Carl Sylvius Volkner had been killed by local Māori, reportedly at the urging or instigation of Kereopa.

Although Turanga Māori condemned the murder of Reverend Volkner large numbers flocked to the new faith, prompting an exodus of settlers from the district. However, the Pai Marire party were quick to reassure those settlers who remained of their peaceful intentions. ‘[W]e wish to remain at peace and protect our Pakeha friends, and trade with them as before’, one was told.

The particular brand of Pai Marire adopted at Turanga was one based on autonomy of religious worship, rather than anti-European sentiment or intentions. Politically, it involved little change from the healthy scepticism with which Turanga Māori had always viewed Pākehā and their government, or from the strict policy of neutrality or non-alignment adopted by the Turanga tribes when confronted with requests from outside groups for assistance. Because of this there was little tension between local Pai Marire supporters and the kūpapa (neutral) or Kawanatanga (‘loyalist’) parties. In fact, Crown officials frequently complained about the extent of fraternization between these groups. Such tensions as did exist at Turanga were fomented by the Crown and its allies – with the full support and encouragement of local settlers. In May 1865 the Ngāti Porou chief Mokena Kohere hoisted a Union Jack on disputed land at Titirangi (Kaiti). Local Pai Marire refused to take this bait and ‘heartily refused to mix themselves in the matter’. In June civil war broke out amongst the Ngāti Porou, as ‘loyalist’ chiefs and their followers, supplemented by colonial troops and government-provided arms and ammunition, attacked Pai Marire members of their own tribe, supposedly in an effort to arrest the Pai Marire emissaries. In September the first Crown troops were landed at Turanga and by the following month the Ngāti Porou ‘loyalists’, having defeated their own Pai Marire followers, were making their way to Turanga in substantial numbers in order to ‘settle accounts’ with local Pai Marire and the refugees from their own civil war who were now seeking shelter at Turanga.

On 1 November, Donald McLean, the government agent for the East Coast, was ordered to march the force from Waiapu to Turanga and ‘enforce’ peace in the district, by immediately expelling all Pai Marire emissaries. War was now fast approaching at Turanga, a prospect apparently eagerly awaited by the Crown, its allies, and settlers full of resentment at having been forced to live according to Māori law for decades on end in what was supposed to be a British colony. Ironically, the only people who do not appear to have welcomed the impending showdown were the local Kawanatanga and Pai Marire factions – supposedly rival protagonists in the conflict. What followed were a series of desperate efforts on the part of Turanga Māori to avoid conflict, all of which were rebuffed.

McLean arrived at Turanga on 9 November and an ultimatum was issued to the tribes the following day. This required the handing over of all ‘murderers’, the immediate expulsion of Pai Marire emissaries from the district, an oath of allegiance, compensation to settlers for any property damaged or plundered, and the handing over of all arms. Within days of this, the Ngāti Porou refugees had left the district and reports were that the Pai Marire party were willing to accept the terms imposed so long as McLean would only cross the river to see them. This McLean outright refused to do. Turanga Māori now had until Midday 16 November to surrender or suffer the consequences.

The Pai Marire party might well have asked, ‘surrender from what’? The East Coast fugitives had already gone home, and restitution had been offered for the damages done to settler property. There had been no ‘rebellion’ at Turanga.

For McLean, and for other Crown officials it was not a question of making peace but of crushing the independence of Turanga Māori by force of arms while the resources were available to do so. While Turanga Māori desperately strove to maintain peace, Europeans were just as anxious to ensure war. As McLean’s close ally J.D. Ormond had written days earlier ‘I expect to hear...that war has broken out at Poverty Bay & I hope so too – we ought to give them a lesson whilst we have the force at hand to do it.’

If McLean had crossed the river to accept their submission then there would have been no war at Turanga, no Waerenga-a-Hika with all of the associated trauma. McLean knew this and deliberately refused to do so. What followed was in no way the fault of Turanga Māori. They had done all they could to avoid conflict.

Rongowhakaata and Te Whānau-a-Kai Pai Marire, led by Anaru Matete, had fortified themselves at Pukeamionga, a hilltop overlooking Patutahi, with their Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki kin taking cover at Waerenga-a-Hika. With the expiry of the deadline on 16 November all available troops set out for Pukeamionga. But in the morning, the troops changed course and instead marched on Waerenga-a-Hika.

As they approached the mission station, they fired unsuccessfully upon a group of Māori coming in their direction. This turned out to be Wi Haronga and his family, who had stayed on at Waerenga-a-Hika to guard the mission property, departing only at the last moment while others were busy removing lead from the roof to use as ammunition against the arriving troops. The commanding officer, James Fraser, and his forces claimed possession of the strategically-valuable Bishop’s house, from which they commenced firing into the pā.

This exchange of sporadic firing continued for two days until, on the evening of 18 November, a party of Rongowhakaata and Te Whānau-a-Kai Pai Marire – who had been watching the siege from Pukeamionga – cleverly managed to sneak in to Waerenga-a-Hika by disguising themselves with the white calico arm badges of the government forces. The following day as many as 200 more reinforcements arrived to support their Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki brethren, this time carrying with them the Pai Marire fighting flag, Riki. These men were soon joined by warriors from inside the pā, and together these groups advanced on the British troops. Rather than wait to find out their intentions, Fraser ordered the advancing party to be fired on. Thirty-four Māori were killed in this exchange, compared with just one slight injury on the government side. On 20 November an hour’s truce was permitted for burial of the dead.

The remains of Waerenga-a-Hika Pā after the siege (PACOLL-8800, ATL)

Even so, this minor victory for the British had hardly altered matters. Fraser reported on 21 November that ‘the aspect of affairs remains unchanged, the Hau Haus being too dispirited to attack us, and their pa being too strong to be taken without a little time’. Yet despite this report, less than twenty-four hours later the inhabitants of Waerenga-a-Hika had thrown down their arms, some having fled and others making their submission.

The received version of the siege of Waerenga-a-Hika would have us believe that, in the midst of a supposed bombardment, the pā’s inhabitants had hoisted a white flag and offered to surrender unconditionally. In reality it was the British side which had raised a white flag of truce and invited them to lay down their arms. Reassured by promises that the vast majority of their number would be permitted to remain in the district, many had done so, with others opting to escape instead.

A clue to the real reason why the people in Waerenga-a-Hika pā surrendered comes from Fraser’s description of them as being ‘dispirited’. They had never really wanted to fight and did not wish to see more of their people killed. They had been backed in to a corner by the government and had responded bravely for a week. But the time had now come to lay down their arms.

Clearly, this was not a war of religion or ideology between rival factions of the same tribe or tribes, but rather a war of conquest directed by the Crown against Turanga Māori with the assistance of its allies. It was a war that Turanga Māori never wanted to fight and one that would have devastating consequences for all of the iwi of Turanganui-a-Kiwa, who would variously be subject over the next decade to military occupation and loss of authority, illegal exile, land confiscations, socio-economic deprivation and starvation, dramatic population declines and further military actions directed against them. Although 150 years ago, those actions reverberated across generations and the consequences continue to be felt in multiple ways today. Waerenga-a-Hika was a pivotal – and perhaps even the pivotal – event in the history of Turanga. If we are to learn from the past and avoid repeating its mistakes in the future and if we are to mature as a nation, confident enough to embrace the difficult parts of our history then we need to ensure that the story of what took place 150 years ago this week is not forgotten.



  1. Kia ora, you mentioned 'their runanga was effectively the government of the district' would you care to elaborate on runanga as referenced here?

    1. Kia ora

      The Waitangi Tribunal's Turanga Report discusses the Turanga runanga

      Or see my book, 'Beyond the Imperial Frontier' for a discussion of runanga generally.


  2. Kia Ora it's great to hear story's like these,im just learning, about Anaru Matete he was my mum,s great-grand father thank you

  3. As a Halbert/Rongowhakaata descendant this is very helpful .The ensuing chase against Te Kooti to Ngatapa and the Urueweras is the content of a major motion film.Eating the eyes of Volkner probably not the politest gesture,though there seemed a certain amount of ire in Mr Wahawahas approach to to Pai Marire,interesting to know the extent of govt. influence here. From this account seems McKlean had blood on his hands,though pointingly obvious Mr Pakeha settler also wanted big daddy Brits in charge.Yes a national day,apology and more genuine knowledge of this event a good idea.

  4. As a Halbert/Rongowhakaata descendant this is very helpful .The ensuing chase against Te Kooti to Ngatapa and the Urueweras is the content of a major motion film.Eating the eyes of Volkner probably not the politest gesture,though there seemed a certain amount of ire in Mr Wahawahas approach to to Pai Marire,interesting to know the extent of govt. influence here. From this account seems McKlean had blood on his hands,though pointingly obvious Mr Pakeha settler also wanted big daddy Brits in charge.Yes a national day,apology and more genuine knowledge of this event a good idea.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Sexual Frontier - Contrasting Māori and European Attitudes towards Sex and Nudity in the Colonial Era

'I am an Irishman': Irish and Māori Historical Connections

A Stain Upon History: The Ngatapa Massacre, January 1869