Members of the Royal Artillery working on Great South Road, 1863. (Photo by William Temple, Urquhart album, Alexander Turnbull Library)

Just over 20 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, British soldiers began building the road that gave them — and, soon, shiploads of settlers — access to the fertile Waikato land. In Ghost South Road, Scott Hamilton tells the story of that project — and its harrowing consequences. Here is an extract:

The Road of Refugees

On the 9th and 10th of July, 1863, young men rode from central Auckland to six Māori villages — Ihumatao, Pukaki, Māngere, Patumahoe, Tuakau, Pokeno, and Kirikiri — on the city’s southern fringes, and read aloud a proclamation from George Grey, the governor of the colony of New Zealand.

Grey’s statement denounced the Māori kingdom of the Waikato as a threat to the British Empire, and demanded that all Māori living in Auckland either declare their loyalty to the empire or else leave the district for the Waikato.

Three days after Grey had sent his proclamation out on horseback, a British army crossed the Mangatāwhiri, and entered Tawhiao’s kingdom. The Waikato War had begun.

In 1863, most of the Māori inhabitants of South Auckland had complex genealogical and economic relationships with the Waikato peoples and their king. To swear loyalty to the British queen, when the queen’s army was preparing to invade the Waikato kingdom, would mean betraying kin.

In his book The Māori King, John Gorst, a former resident magistrate to the Waikato for the colonial government, described the delivery of Grey’s proclamation to the Māori villages of South Auckland, and the subsequent abandonment of these villages.

At Kirikiri, a village in the hills above Papakura, the “old people showed the most intense grief” at leaving their houses and cultivations. At Pukaki and Māngere, ancient villages beside the Manukau harbour, looters arrived as soon as Māori had gone: “canoes were broken to pieces and burned, cattle seized, houses ransacked, and horses brought to Auckland” and sold.

Some South Auckland Māori fled their villages by waka, travelling down the Manukau harbour and across an old portage route to the Waikato River.

Many, though, fled down the same road that the British had built for their war. Mohi Te Ahiatapu, the chief of Pukaki village, went south with his people on the eleventh of July. On the sixteenth of July, the Daily Southern Cross reported that “one hundred or one hundred and fifty” of the Pukaki Māori had arrived in Papakura.

The refugees had loaded “fifteen or sixteen” drays with their goods, and were “driving fifty or sixty horses” before them.

After stopping at Kirikiri, Mohi and his people continued south to the temporary safety of the Waikato.

After crossing the Mangatāwhiri and advancing a short distance in the second half of July, the British army did not resume its push into the Waikato kingdom until the end of October.

In a letter to the British War Office, General Duncan Cameron, the commander of the invasion force, blamed the pause in his campaign partly on the exodus of Māori from Auckland to the Waikato.

So many refugees had taken to the Great South Road that the waggoneers who supplied Cameron’s troops moved at an embarrassingly slow rate. John Gorst reported that the road became “thronged”, as “armed men of every description, from the veteran British soldier to the raw colonial shop boy, shouldering his musket for the first time”, had to share the route with “refugees from Pukaki, Māngere and other places”.

Gorst reports that, as they travelled down the Great South Road, Māori refugees “became alarmed” by the “martial array” moving in the same direction.

The refugees had, he notes, “good reason” to feel alarmed. Many of them would cross the Mangatāwhiri safely, only to be overtaken by the Pākehā army, as it pushed south into the Waikato at the end of 1863. Their drays and herds would be plundered by the advancing soldiers, as their houses had earlier been plundered by the settlers of Auckland.

Grey’s statement denounced the Māori kingdom of the Waikato as a threat to the British Empire, and demanded that all Māori living in Auckland either declare their loyalty to the empire or else leave the district for the Waikato.

Some of the Māori who remained in Auckland after hearing Grey’s proclamation also became refugees. A week after the reading of the proclamation, 400 armed men raided the village of Kirikiri, where they arrested the chief Ihaka Takanini and 22 of his relations.

Ihaka Takanini had neither declared his loyalty to Queen Victoria nor fled to the rohe of Tawhiao. He had for years gained mana and money by mediating between the colonial government and Auckland Māori, and he may have hoped once again to play peacemaker.

But the colonial parliament in Auckland soon passed the Suppression of Rebellion Act, which allowed the indefinite imprisonment without trial of any Māori suspected of disloyalty to the Queen. The Takanini family were locked in the Ōtāhuhu military barracks for months, where many of them died of disease, then exiled to Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Ihaka Takanini is buried on the island.

Refugees fled north as well as south during the Waikato War. After the crossing of the Mangatāwhiri in July, supporters of King Tawhiao began a guerrilla war in South Auckland. They crossed the Waikato River in small waka, made smokeless camps in the forests on both sides of the Great South Road, and ambushed wagonloads of soldiers and munitions bound for the Waikato frontline.

Tawhiao’s irregulars also raided the clearings that Pākehā settlers had burned from the bush. They stole cattle, dismembered farmers with tomahawks, and fired their muskets at the specially reinforced walls of the settlers’ churches. Women and children began to flee up the Great South Road to the safety of Auckland; husbands and fathers followed them, leaving their cottages and hayricks to burn.

In August 1863, the Otago Daily Times published a letter that lamented the way that “the tomahawk” had “obliged … harmless unsuspecting families” to “flee their homesteads in South Auckland”. The letter urged South Islanders to come north and help to defend the Great South Road. By the end of 1863, though, the guerrilla war in South Auckland had petered out, and settlers were returning to the area.

In 1864, the British army won a series of battles, the Great South Road was extended deep into the Waikato, and thousands of Tawhiao’s followers fled south across the Puniu River, into the region of bush and hills that has become known as the King Country.

Until the middle of the 1880s, when Tawhiao made peace with the colonial government, the Puniu would be, like the Mangatāwhiri before it, a frontier between Māori and Pākehā law, between the realms of a white queen and a brown king.

The King Country quickly became a refuge for Māori at odds with the British Empire. The rebel prophets Te Kooti and Te Mahuki, who preached that resistance to the white man was commanded by Jehovah, retreated from colonial soldiers and police to the King Country.

Scores of Te Kooti’s followers from the eastern parts of Te Ika a Māui established a village at Otewa, near Otorohanga, a few miles south of the Puniu River.

In 1876, a young man named Taurangaka Winiata escaped from Auckland down the Great South Road to Tawhiao’s realm. After being suspected of killing Edwin Packer, a Pākehā who had been working alongside him on a farm in Epsom, Winiata had fled to a cave in Kohimarama, where he hid for several days, then began a furtive journey south.

At Mercer, he crossed the Mangatāwhiri, which was now spanned by a bridge; at Rangiriri he drank in the hotel that had risen beside the great pā General Cameron’s army stormed in 1863. Dozens of police and pro-government Māori volunteers pursued Winiata; once a couple of policemen almost caught him, but he was able to hide in roadside scrub.

After Winiata crossed the Puniu River and was given sanctuary by King Tawhiao, the colonial government offered a reward of five hundred pounds for the capture of the refugee. Winiata’s heavy, neatly bearded jaw and small dark eyes appeared on WANTED posters that were posted in pubs as far south as the Wairarapa.

In the winter of 1882, a “half-caste” named Robert Barlow walked his horse through the Puniu River, rode to Otorohanga, where Winiata was living, and stayed up all night drinking rum with the fugitive. The next morning Barlow arrived at Kihikihi, the fortified village just north of the Puniu, with a hungover Winiata tied to the back of his horse.

Taurangaka Winiata

Taurangaka Winiata was put on public display in Hamilton, before making a journey back up the Great South Road to Mount Eden prison. One rainy morning at the beginning of August, the former refugee slowly asphyxiated in the prison yard, as a damp rope refused to snap his spine.

Robert Barlow’s bounty hunt was celebrated by Auckland’s newspapers.

In a portrait published by admirers at the Observer, Barlow stares calmly, even sleepily, at his sketcher; his shoulders are wide and his huge chest threatens to break the top button of his jacket.

Only a few days after Winiata’s death, Barlow visited Alexandra, another fortified village on the frontier of the King Country. Inside the Alexandra Hotel, he encountered some Kingites who had crossed the Puniu to drink; one of them raised a glass, and toasted the “kahuru (traitor) Barlow”.

When Barlow went to the hotel’s stable to retrieve his horse, someone fired two bullets at him; the first missed, and the second ripped his waistcoat. A squad of police escorted Barlow up the Great South Road to the safety of Auckland.

The bounty hunter bought a farm at Māngere with the reward he earned for snaring Winiata, but he soon died from a mysterious illness that many Māori blamed on mākutu.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an Auckland pensioner named Valerie Sherwood became obsessed with Taurangaka Winiata.

She prised police records and court transcripts from chaotic colonial archives, collated newspaper articles, consulted and contested oral traditions, and eventually argued, in the thesis that earned her a master’s degree from the University of Auckland, that Winiata had never murdered Edwin Packer. Packer and Winiata had been friends; police had never questioned a Pākehā who was observed running from the Epsom farm shortly after Packer’s murder.

But Winiata’s flight down the Great South Road to Tawhiao’s relict kingdom had been proof enough, for Auckland’s papers and jurors, of his guilt.


Scott Hamilton has a PhD in Sociology and lives in Auckland. His books include The Crisis of Theory (Manchester University Press, 2011), The Stolen Island (Bridget Williams Books, 2016), and two volumes of poetry. Scott travels regularly through the Pacific and has written about the artists and cultures of the region for journals like EyeContact, The Spinoff, Landfall, and Overland. In 2015 Len Brown gave him the inaugural Mayoral Writers Grant. Ghost South Road is the result.

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