5 January 1869
It was a crime which Maoris have never forgotten, committed when New Zealand, though technically self-governing, was still, both in name and in the thinking of much of its settler population, a colony of Great Britain. On 5 January 1869, the first of several batches of captured Maori rebels, who had attempted to escape from the besieged hilltop fort of Ngātapa were summarily shot by colonial troops. At worst, the victims were guilty of following Maori leader Te Kooti in an insurgency against the takeover of their land by British and other European settlers. However, many of those captured, according to a Maori translator serving with the colonial forces, were ‘unarmed Turanga natives who had been taken prisoner’ by the rebels.1
Under the cover of darkness in the early hours of 6 January the surviving Maoris had used ladders, made from forest vines, to flee down a sheer sixty foot cliff that lay adjacent to a section of the fort. They were severely weakened from lack of food and water and over the following three days dozens were rounded up as they hid or slept in the surrounding bush by Maori auxiliary forces employed by the colonial government. Those captured were marched back up to the top of the hill, lined up along the edge of the cliff, where in the words of J.P. Ward, a member of the armed constabulary, they were ‘stripped of every vestige of clothing they possessed and shot – shot like dogs… There was no mention of a trial. 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.’2
A report in the Illustrated London News noted briefly that ‘few prisoners were taken except women and children. Indeed quarter was neither expected or given.’3 Exactly how many Maoris were slaughtered appeared to be of little consequence, although the number was later estimated at between 86 and 128. According to Major John St. John ‘they met their fate boldly’ and his account of events, suggests the number of those killed in the massacre might well have exceeded the official estimate, since as he recalled, ‘every hour brought forth intelligence of Hau Haus ( Maori rebels ) overtaken and shot.’4 If the purpose of such mass slaughter was to deter further rebellion it failed, with the London Standard commenting four months later that ‘the triumph at Ngātapa, so far from having crushed the spirit of revolt, has only advanced it to greater proportions.’5
- Cited in Judith Binney, Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, Bridget Williams Books Limited, 2012, p. 145.
- J.P. Ward cited in Wynsley Wrigley, ‘Marking Horrors of Ngātapa: ‘A stain upon the history of this country,’ The Gisborne Herald, 6 January 2019 accessed online at url http://gisborneherald.co.nz/lifestyle/3899541-135/marking-horrors-of-ngatapa
- ‘Capture of a Maori Pah,’ The Illustrated London News, 3 April 1869, p. 18.
- Major John St. John cited in Wynsley Wrigley, ‘Marking Horrors of Ngātapa: ‘A stain upon the history of this country,’ The Gisborne Herald, 6 January 2019 accessed online at url http://gisborneherald.co.nz/lifestyle/3899541-135/marking-horrors-of-ngatapa
- The Standard, 19 May 1869, p. 4.
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