In September 1863, the British army charged down the Great South Road, and Ngāti Pou marched north, and in the middle was the scene of the pluckiest and staunchest defence of settler interests in the New Zealand Wars – a little town named Pukekohe. Just 17 settlers held the Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church against attack, because if they did not, the floodgates would let the entire Ngāti Pou infantry swarm into Pukekohe and every farming town like it. It all happened metres from where you may live, just over on Runciman Road, where yet another sparkling subdivision is being built right now. It was the War Next Door.
In 1852, laws and rights still hadn’t permeated the remotest parts of New Zealand. News was slow to travel, and Franklin was at the coalface of Maori-European tensions. The resident magistrate at Tuakau translated laws into te reo Maori and did his best to impress British legal culture on Maori of the region , and Ngāti Pou built several courthouses in 1857, but Maori were still getting antsy about the state of the country. The land which Maori had once had at their disposal was increasingly being swapped for commodities, capital and tradeable goods, which meant the balance of power was shifting.
In 1858, King Potatau I was named monarch of the Kingitanga movement, which resisted the imperial government of New Zealand. Even though Potatau himself did not want war, Franklin was being transformed by farming, Ngāti Tamaoho had abandoned their pa on the Paerata ridge, and British troops were being pumped towards the Waikato via the Great South Road – directly through Franklin.
An interracial murder in Patumahoe in 1860 led European settlers to believe a Maori uprising was about to take place, and a panicked exodus of women and children took refuge on a schooner, while others fled to Drury and Auckland.
Bishop Selwyn and Archdeacon Maunsell had to appease 400 armed Maori who arrived in Tuakau, and finally, in 1861, Governor Grey stated that although he would try for peace, he would also prepare for war. The next year, Maori watched as forts were built along the Waikato River; they retaliated by dismantling a brand new courthouse at Te Kohekohe in 1862. Rewi Maniapoto then expelled all settlers and missionaries from the Waipa area, as the government readied the gunship Pioneer. The Kingitanga threatened to invade Auckland, and so regiments, artillery, engineers and munitions were sent to the Mangatawhiri Line. Lastly, General Cameron ordered armed Maori living in Tuakau to surrender their weapons, but most refused and joined the Waikato rebels. On July 12, 1863, General Cameron’s 65th infantry passed through Franklin, crossed the Mangatawhiri Stream and invaded the Waikato.
WAR NEXT DOOR
The murders of local farmers illustrated the vulnerability of small farming towns, and volunteers and soldiers had engaged in sporadic gun battles with Maori. When the Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church was built in 1863, it was quickly protected with a surrounding stockade (a tall, reinforced fence made of sharpened logs), as well as a trench. When the first shots were heard, a few miles to the south, all able-bodied men who could handle a rifle were formed into the Forest Rifle Volunteers, to defend the Franklin district, and on the morning of September 14, the Volunteers at Pukekohe East felt their stockade walls shake with the first thudding bullets. The Battle of Pukekohe was on.
Some say the church was targeted because some Christian Maori saw the barricading of a church as blasphemy ; others say that the church was simply a soft, easy target. Nevertheless, the Volunteers would not have had time to wonder why as they reloaded their muskets and watched the armed taua (warriors) creep over the hills towards them. Did the Volunteers know this was a sideshow in a much grander war being played out all across the top half of the North Island?
The Maori followed closely, retreated frequently, and fired many, many rounds, usually too high and too close to hit their targets. Notable local surnames defended the stockade – Perry, Scott, Roose, Hodge, Easton, Comrie, Hawke and McDonald. Later in the morning, Rangi Rumaki screamed the order to her warrior comrades, “Riria! Riria!” (“Fight away! Fight away!”) ; in response, Sergeant Perry ordered his men to “Fix bayonets!” as the trickle of attackers turned into a flood of up to 400 men.
THE MAORI PERSPECTIVE
Te Huia Raureti, of Ngāti Maniapoto, recalled the battle in 1920:
“We came down the Waikato River from Meremere in three war-canoes, and were joined by Ngāti Pou. We landed near Tuakau, and were guided through the bush to Pukekohe by Ngāti Pou, whose land it had been. At Tuakau …we saw [some Ngāti Maniopoto] enter a settler’s house and loot it, removing the goods it contained. This… was a bad omen for us in the fight that presently began. … Then the leading sections made a dash for the stockade, which stood in a small clearing. The rest of us, under Raureti and Hopa, also charged …. Raureti and Maaka, with whom was the woman Rangi-Rumaki, saw a sentry on a stump outside the defences and fired at him; he ran inside the stockade. Rangi-Rumaki… charged daringly close up to the stockade, armed with a single-barrel gun; round her waist was buckled a cartridge-belt. An old Waikato fighting-man, Rapurahi, was the leader of the charge, and the woman was close up to the front; Renata and Arama followed. When we reached the front of the stockade we saw the muzzles of the guns with fixed bayonets pointing at us, and we seized some of the guns by the end of the barrel and tried to pull them out through the loopholes... ”
Frustrated by the bayonets, the attackers fell back to take cover, but as they did so they seized the Volunteers’ meal of meat and potatoes, which was cooking in iron pots in front of the stockade. So close to the fort, several warriors fell dead or wounded, but the prize was secured: the attackers feasted on their contents in the gully below the church – a psychological ploy which would have anguished the desperate, encircled Volunteers.
The firing continued endlessly, filling the church with smoke. The Volunteers’ eyes burned and their throats were parched but they stuck to their post, watching their dwindling supply of ammunition. So vastly outnumbered were the Volunteers, it was only their bayonets which stopped the warrior hordes from charging over the unfinished stockade. Joseph Scott and James Easton defended the front gate, where most of the attackers were concentrated, and those Maori dead and wounded were removed by warriors who crawled beneath the gunfire on their hands and knees, dragging the fallen into the bush or the valley.
Maori snipers, meanwhile, climbed a large puriri tree, and from the main branches fired over the log wall. One sniper was shot in the tree and another was gunned down from his perch on Easton’s house roof. Some Maori got so close that they threw sticks over the wall and fearsomely challenged the defenders to come out in the open, while Rangi Rumaki continued to scream “Riria, riria, riria!”, challenging her men to hurl themselves on the Volunteers’ bayonets and to rush the garrison.
Eventually, that September afternoon, British bugles were heard as reinforcements arrived from Ramarama, tripling the number of Volunteers. Finally, 150 more soldiers charged the Maori, who were within yards of the stockade. Vicious fighting saw many Maori stand their ground until the bitter end, and the reinforcements came just in time: many Volunteers had only one round of ammunition remaining.
Six Maori were buried there, three British were killed and eight wounded, but the true death toll is still a mystery. “We lost, I think, more than forty men killed,” says Te Huia Raureti. “Ngāti Pou… had about thirty men killed…
Some of the bodies were concealed in the hollows and the branch forks of large trees… so that our enemies should not find them. We had no time to bury them.”
It was as exceptional and defiant a stand as the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, or the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, or Custer’s Last Stand. Still, those fighting on both sides must have wondered how it had come to this – how, 23 years after a treaty of good intentions, two sides could have become so embittered that full-scale war was declared. The slaughter of settlers, soldiers and warriors caused a huge social disruption and while the little church has tried to paint over its bullet holes, the legacy of intercultural mistrust is still being repaired.
Note: If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Pukekohe, the Pukekohe East Church Preservation Society is always keen to show the historic church to visitors and tourists. Phone Susanne Stone on 09 238 3797 and come up and visit the church on Runciman Road.