Image: Lieut-Colonel Thomas McDonnell.
150 years ago today, a colonial force of 214 troops of the Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry, Patea Rangers, Wanganui Rangers, No 8 and No 10 Companies of the Taranaki Military Settlers and Captain McDonnell’s Native Contingent under the command of Major McDonnell attacked the Ngati Ruanui village of Pokaikai.
Departing Manawapou at 4pm, with the Native Contingent in the lead and the cavalry in the rear, they crossed the Tongahoe River and waited in the sand hills until nightfall. The Wanganui Times reported:
“At about 800 yards from the village which we were about to attack, the cavalry were halted on the edge of a small bush. A short distance on, the native contingent were placed in the rear, which brought Captain Wilson’s company to the front, and the march was resumed – Captain McDonnell and six picked natives scouting in front of the column. One hundred yards distant from the village, the whole force lay down in the fern on either side of the track, while Captain McDonnell and his trusty scouts crept up to within 30 yards of the whares; there they heard the inmates gaily chatting away, little thinking that 250 bloodthirsty pakehas were laying only a hundred yards off, bent on their destruction.”
For an hour they observed the village, trying to find a way to surround it, to no avail, as the natural position of the village provided it a steep and thickly wooded gully for the occupants to escape into. The Wanganui Times continued:
“To our intense delight, at length the word was silently passed down the column to advance as noiselessly as possible, and in two minutes the leading companies were in the centre of the village, and the deadly strife had commenced. As the Hauhaus rushed out of their whares to the attack they were shot and bayoneted, and as those at the further end of the village rolled down the gully into the friendly bush below, volley after volley was poured into them. How many were wounded and got away it is impossible to say. We counted ten dead bodies, and amongst them the Ngatiruanui chief Aperahama, supposed to have been killed at Otapawa. Ten women and children were made prisoners, and over 30 stands of arms captured, besides tomahawks, patus, &c.”
A single soldier was killed, Private Spain, of the Taranaki Military Settlers.The Colonial troops enthusiastically plundered the village (the paper listed the loot – Greenstones, mats, saddles and bridles, bran new blankets, 15 pounds in gold, the carbine and pouch of the military train orderly who had been killed between Manawapou and Waingognora, and Captain Bowden’s log book from the Lord Worsley which had been used as a letter-book), and then burned it to the ground. The troops returned to Manawapou by 6am the next morning. One of the women taken prisoner was wounded, so she was left in the burning village, in a whare, with a shawl, a pipe and some tobacco.
The Wanganui Times article concludes: “The moral effect of this bold stroke of our gallant Major will doubtless be great. With such men and such a commander, the Hauhaus must see that resistance is useless. In the meantime other similar pleasant excursions are being planned, and I trust in a few days to be able to send you an account of some of them.”
However, this is not where the story ends. Maori complaints about the conduct at Pokaikai resulted in a commission of enquiry into it in 1868, and the commissioners heard evidence from both sides.
Frederick Rolfe of the Military Settlers reported how the woman who was left in the village (by the name of Merieana) had been wounded – after being shot at, the bullet grazing her side, she had fled back into her whare and taken cover under a pile of flax mats when she was bayonetted near her collar bone, through her cheek, had a tooth knocked out, and survived the experience. He also reported that the troops were under orders to not fire their weapons unless necessary, and to instead rely upon their bayonets. Rolfe himself did not fire his rifle in the attack.
Wiremu Hukanui Manaia and Tito Hunataua gave evidence, talking about the cartridge/handkerchief diplomacy, and how the handkerchief had been accepted in good faith of peace prior to the attack.
The testimony of Sergeant Coll McDonell revealed that Private Spain was killed after he and another soldier fired into a whare, then entered it, removing a dead Maori. When Spain then left the whare, he was shot by one of his comrades, Private Hudson, who mistook him for Kimble Bent. He also reported that two of the bodies were an elderly man and an elderly woman.
Martha, wife of Natanahira, a woman who had been in the village when it was attacked also testified. She had been working on assembling a delivery of potatoes from Pokaikai to the military camp at Manawapou, intended on being delivered the morning after the attack:
“The sleep was the sleep of fools, for the words of the Governor, sent through Te Ua, had lulled us. My children were lying around me in fancied security. One of the children, a little girl, ran out of my house, and the rifles were pointed at her and fired at her, but she was not hit. My father and mother went out of their house, and were both shot dead. No shot was fired by the Maoris.” Once taken prisoner:” At this time an European took hold of the ornament which was in my left ear” “I said to the European “Do not rob me whilst I am still alive, you had better shoot me with your rifle.” The ornament, not coming away, he took a sharp instrument and cut the cartilage of the ear to enable him to take possession of it.”
Ultimately the commission exonerated McDonnell, officially stating that as one the key findings that “that no wanton outrage was committed by any enrolled member of the force”.
However, this decision of the commission was far from unanimous. One of the three commissioners, George Graham, took the unusual stance of stating his protest of the findings of the report. He submitted his own report to the commission but this was refused by the other commissioners, in which he stated:
“The Tanghoe people were sincere in their intentions to make peace, but that they had determined that it should be done through Mr. Parris instead of through Lieut-Colonel McDonnell.”
“After a careful consideration therefore of the evidence, both documentary and otherwise, presented to us, I am of the opinion that the attack on Pokaikai was unnecessary; was determined upon by Lieut-Colonel McDonnell hastily, and without sufficient examination of the reasons for Natanahira’s absence from Waingongoro at the appointed meeting; and that the course taken by Lieut-Colonel McDonnell for lulling the Natives into a feeling of security whilst contemplating an attack upon them, and whilst they still retained the emblem of peace held out by himself, was improper and unjust, and calculated to lead to serious complications in our relations with the tribe in question.”
McDonnell was not directly punished for Pokaikai; however he was made to wait twenty five years before receiving the New Zealand Cross, which he was awarded along with Von Tempsky for the scouting mission to Paparata in 1863, and recommended for again by Chute. He would receive the medal in 1887, when the government felt the smoke from Pokaikai had finally cleared.
Needless to say, the ‘complications’ mentioned by the commissioner, combined with the brutality of Chute’s earlier campaign, would result in decades of further violence in South Taranaki.