‘Murders most cruel and infamous’

MATAWHERO’S DARKEST DAYS REMEMBERED: A memorial to 33 European victims of Te Kooti’s raid on November 10, 1868, 150 years ago tomorrow, stands in the north-east corner of Makaraka Cemetery. The following July, many of the European remains were exhumed from scattered graves in which they had been buried and reinterred at Makaraka. Militia officers Captain James Wilson and militia commander and resident magistrate Major Reginald Biggs were two prominent people among the settler families and local Maori who were killed by Te Kooti and his men. Descendants of both will speak at a service at the historic Matawhero Church tomorrow, starting at 10am.
Captain James Wilson. Picture courtesy of Tairawhiti Museum
Major Reginald Biggs. Picture courtesy of Tairawhiti Museum

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Te Kooti’s night attack on Matawhero in 1868.

Te Kooti and his men — known as the whakarau (exiles or unhomed) — had been imprisoned without trial on the Chatham Islands for two years before escaping and commandeering the supply ship Rifleman to sail here.

They killed between 50 and 70 settlers and Maori in the early hours of November 10 and the four days following.

The attack became known as the Matawhero or Poverty Bay “massacre”.

The Waitangi Tribunal, in releasing its Turanga findings in 2004, described the “murders as his most cruel and infamous”.

Te Kooti instructed his force of 100 men, mostly members of the whakarau, to use silent weapons so as to not raise the alarm. Sixty were on horseback.

On the first day, between 29 and 34 settlers (men, women, children and young people of dual descent) were killed.

Most were either killed with tomahawks, shot or bayoneted.

The 13 European men killed were militiamen.

One of them was militia commander Major Reginald Biggs, also the resident magistrate of Turanga.

Biggs was dragged out of his house and beaten to death. His wife Emily, their infant son George, and his nurse, were also killed.

More than 30 other settlers, such as James Wyllie, escaped with their families.

Most of those who escaped were either warned by Maori living in the area, heard gunfire, or saw the attackers in time to react, and fled across the river in time.

“Wyllie attributed the survival of three families to the fact that Tutere Konahi and Miriama Whakahira refused to inform the whakarau as to which way they had gone,” the tribunal finding says.

“Konahi was killed for not co-operating.”

Panic spread through the area. Some settlers fled from Matawhero to Muriwai in the night.

Over the next few days, Te Kooti turned his attention to his own relations.

Another 20 to 40 Maori were killed after being captured during the night or on subsequent days. The tribunal said it was difficult to be precise about the number who died because some were killed days later as they tried to escape from Te Kooti or tried to negotiate with him.

Crown forces went on to fight Te Kooti at the siege of Ngatapa and pursued him when he fled to Te Urewera.

The Crown, in their tribunal submissions, said the Government had acted on the return of the whakarau with caution.

Delegations had been sent to persuade them to give up the arms and ammunition they had captured.

Whakarau actions were “hardly likely to ensure the local population, or the Government, of a pacific intention’’.

Te Kooti fired the first shot

Ultimately, it was Te Kooti who fired the first shot and it was “reasonable for the Crown to make a military response”.

Any reasons for the attack did “not provide justification for the means Te Kooti employed”.

“The evidence of the time labelled the events at Matawhero as an atrocity, not a reprisal.

‘‘There was ample evidence available at the time to justify that conclusion.’’

The Crown argued that there was no question that the Crown had every justification to attack the whakarau after Matawhero.

Counsel for tribunal claimants Nga Uri o Te Kooti Rikirangi, said the whakarau were justified in freeing themselves from false imprisonment on the Chatham Islands.

The Crown had no legal justification for attempting to restrain them on their arrival home, nor for pursuing them ‘‘at the point of a bayonet’’.

None of the whakarau had been tried, convicted, or sentenced for any offence, so they ‘‘were free to move to wherever they wished and could use reasonable force to resist false imprisonment or act in self-defence or in defence of property’’.

The claimants said the pursuit of the whakarau by Major Biggs — after Te Kooti’s escape from the Chatham Islands — forced Te Kooti into taking “pre-emptive action” because his pathway to Taupo was blocked by Tuhoe and the Kingitanga.

Claimants said the Matawhero attack was not a wanton massacre without reason or purpose.

Referring to the work of Professor Judith Binney, claimants said the attack was deliberately focused on certain individuals, being mainly those who had been instrumental in their deportation to Chatham Island or who had targeted their ancestral lands.

The European males who were killed, died because of their previous military roles. All of them had served in the militia forces.

Some, most certainly Major Biggs, had been involved in the execution of prisoners, they claimed.

They and their families were killed also because they were living on land that had belonged to Te Kooti and from which he had been dispossessed during his exile.

The claimants said the Maori who were killed were those who had fingered him as disloyal, or who had dispossessed him during his exile by seizing the opportunity to attempt sales, or by their readiness to co-operate with the government’s land schemes.

Women and children were killed as members of the family — which was usual in their style of warfare, the claimants said.

Some Maori women were chosen for death — and others exempted — because of who they were and how they had acted in these issues.

Claimants argued that, if a ‘‘massacre’’ had been intended, ‘‘many more might have died”.

“Few, if any, individuals have been pursued and hunted with such vigour and single-minded determination (as Te Kooti) in the history of Crown–Maori relations in the 19th century.’’

Claimants acknowledged, in response to a question from the Tribunal, that it was inevitable that an armed response from the Crown would follow the attack at Matawhero.

But due process should have been followed, arrests made and charges laid, they said.

The tribunal found that no level of provocation could justify the atrocities that Te Kooti and the whakarau perpetrated at Matawhero and elsewhere from November 9 to 14, 1868.

“Even if it could be demonstrated that Te Kooti had a reason for the murder of each of the 50 or so victims of that five-day period, we can think of no reason that could provide a justification for them.

“Even if Te Kooti had a right to feel rage at the things that some of the victims had done against him personally, or the whakarau more generally, the evidence shows nonetheless that many were completely innocent of any such wrongdoing.

“These people, such as the families of Biggs, were guilty only of being related to the wrongdoers.

“The day when tikanga provided a justification for the murder of these innocents had long passed.

“The Treaty itself signalled an end to these old ways.”

The evidence also showed Te Kooti and the whakarau were driven to the excesses of the Turanga murders by the legacy of the siege of Waerenga a Hika and the arrest and detention of the whakarau “by a Crown which was itself acting in a lawless and ruthless manner, by a local militia which, in the name of the Crown, had an overweening view of its military role and capabilities; by the proposed introduction of a process for the systematic theft of the whakarau’s land, and, “finally by the rubbing of Te Kooti’s nose in the dispossession of his own land interests’’.

“These factors help us to understand why the murders happened, even if they go no way to justifying them.

“Above all, these things demonstrate clearly that the Turanga tragedy need never have happened.

“Even accepting the incarceration on Wharekauri, if the Crown had released the detainees after a year; if Crown forces had not aggressively pursued Te Kooti once he had returned to the mainland; if the Crown had attempted to broker his passage through the Urewera and the King Country; if the Crown had acknowledged the just grievances of the whakarau and delivered terms for peace through a credible spokesperson; if Biggs, the key Government official, had not settled on Te Kooti’s land; and if the final resolution of the land question in Turanga had not been likely to have involved the complete dispossession of the whakarau — if any one of these possibilities had come to pass, Turanga might have been left in peace.”

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Te Kooti’s night attack on Matawhero in 1868.

Te Kooti and his men — known as the whakarau (exiles or unhomed) — had been imprisoned without trial on the Chatham Islands for two years before escaping and commandeering the supply ship Rifleman to sail here.

They killed between 50 and 70 settlers and Maori in the early hours of November 10 and the four days following.

The attack became known as the Matawhero or Poverty Bay “massacre”.

The Waitangi Tribunal, in releasing its Turanga findings in 2004, described the “murders as his most cruel and infamous”.

Te Kooti instructed his force of 100 men, mostly members of the whakarau, to use silent weapons so as to not raise the alarm. Sixty were on horseback.

On the first day, between 29 and 34 settlers (men, women, children and young people of dual descent) were killed.

Most were either killed with tomahawks, shot or bayoneted.

The 13 European men killed were militiamen.

One of them was militia commander Major Reginald Biggs, also the resident magistrate of Turanga.

Biggs was dragged out of his house and beaten to death. His wife Emily, their infant son George, and his nurse, were also killed.

More than 30 other settlers, such as James Wyllie, escaped with their families.

Most of those who escaped were either warned by Maori living in the area, heard gunfire, or saw the attackers in time to react, and fled across the river in time.

“Wyllie attributed the survival of three families to the fact that Tutere Konahi and Miriama Whakahira refused to inform the whakarau as to which way they had gone,” the tribunal finding says.

“Konahi was killed for not co-operating.”

Panic spread through the area. Some settlers fled from Matawhero to Muriwai in the night.

Over the next few days, Te Kooti turned his attention to his own relations.

Another 20 to 40 Maori were killed after being captured during the night or on subsequent days. The tribunal said it was difficult to be precise about the number who died because some were killed days later as they tried to escape from Te Kooti or tried to negotiate with him.

Crown forces went on to fight Te Kooti at the siege of Ngatapa and pursued him when he fled to Te Urewera.

The Crown, in their tribunal submissions, said the Government had acted on the return of the whakarau with caution.

Delegations had been sent to persuade them to give up the arms and ammunition they had captured.

Whakarau actions were “hardly likely to ensure the local population, or the Government, of a pacific intention’’.

Te Kooti fired the first shot

Ultimately, it was Te Kooti who fired the first shot and it was “reasonable for the Crown to make a military response”.

Any reasons for the attack did “not provide justification for the means Te Kooti employed”.

“The evidence of the time labelled the events at Matawhero as an atrocity, not a reprisal.

‘‘There was ample evidence available at the time to justify that conclusion.’’

The Crown argued that there was no question that the Crown had every justification to attack the whakarau after Matawhero.

Counsel for tribunal claimants Nga Uri o Te Kooti Rikirangi, said the whakarau were justified in freeing themselves from false imprisonment on the Chatham Islands.

The Crown had no legal justification for attempting to restrain them on their arrival home, nor for pursuing them ‘‘at the point of a bayonet’’.

None of the whakarau had been tried, convicted, or sentenced for any offence, so they ‘‘were free to move to wherever they wished and could use reasonable force to resist false imprisonment or act in self-defence or in defence of property’’.

The claimants said the pursuit of the whakarau by Major Biggs — after Te Kooti’s escape from the Chatham Islands — forced Te Kooti into taking “pre-emptive action” because his pathway to Taupo was blocked by Tuhoe and the Kingitanga.

Claimants said the Matawhero attack was not a wanton massacre without reason or purpose.

Referring to the work of Professor Judith Binney, claimants said the attack was deliberately focused on certain individuals, being mainly those who had been instrumental in their deportation to Chatham Island or who had targeted their ancestral lands.

The European males who were killed, died because of their previous military roles. All of them had served in the militia forces.

Some, most certainly Major Biggs, had been involved in the execution of prisoners, they claimed.

They and their families were killed also because they were living on land that had belonged to Te Kooti and from which he had been dispossessed during his exile.

The claimants said the Maori who were killed were those who had fingered him as disloyal, or who had dispossessed him during his exile by seizing the opportunity to attempt sales, or by their readiness to co-operate with the government’s land schemes.

Women and children were killed as members of the family — which was usual in their style of warfare, the claimants said.

Some Maori women were chosen for death — and others exempted — because of who they were and how they had acted in these issues.

Claimants argued that, if a ‘‘massacre’’ had been intended, ‘‘many more might have died”.

“Few, if any, individuals have been pursued and hunted with such vigour and single-minded determination (as Te Kooti) in the history of Crown–Maori relations in the 19th century.’’

Claimants acknowledged, in response to a question from the Tribunal, that it was inevitable that an armed response from the Crown would follow the attack at Matawhero.

But due process should have been followed, arrests made and charges laid, they said.

The tribunal found that no level of provocation could justify the atrocities that Te Kooti and the whakarau perpetrated at Matawhero and elsewhere from November 9 to 14, 1868.

“Even if it could be demonstrated that Te Kooti had a reason for the murder of each of the 50 or so victims of that five-day period, we can think of no reason that could provide a justification for them.

“Even if Te Kooti had a right to feel rage at the things that some of the victims had done against him personally, or the whakarau more generally, the evidence shows nonetheless that many were completely innocent of any such wrongdoing.

“These people, such as the families of Biggs, were guilty only of being related to the wrongdoers.

“The day when tikanga provided a justification for the murder of these innocents had long passed.

“The Treaty itself signalled an end to these old ways.”

The evidence also showed Te Kooti and the whakarau were driven to the excesses of the Turanga murders by the legacy of the siege of Waerenga a Hika and the arrest and detention of the whakarau “by a Crown which was itself acting in a lawless and ruthless manner, by a local militia which, in the name of the Crown, had an overweening view of its military role and capabilities; by the proposed introduction of a process for the systematic theft of the whakarau’s land, and, “finally by the rubbing of Te Kooti’s nose in the dispossession of his own land interests’’.

“These factors help us to understand why the murders happened, even if they go no way to justifying them.

“Above all, these things demonstrate clearly that the Turanga tragedy need never have happened.

“Even accepting the incarceration on Wharekauri, if the Crown had released the detainees after a year; if Crown forces had not aggressively pursued Te Kooti once he had returned to the mainland; if the Crown had attempted to broker his passage through the Urewera and the King Country; if the Crown had acknowledged the just grievances of the whakarau and delivered terms for peace through a credible spokesperson; if Biggs, the key Government official, had not settled on Te Kooti’s land; and if the final resolution of the land question in Turanga had not been likely to have involved the complete dispossession of the whakarau — if any one of these possibilities had come to pass, Turanga might have been left in peace.”

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