The cover image (by Kate Harris and Ana Morris), portray the Ngāi Te Rangi chief Hōri Ngātai and Duncan Cameron, the general who led the Pākehā troops.

Last week, we ran a piece by Buddy Mikaere on the aftermath of the Battle of Pukehinahina-Gate Pā and its devastating consequences for Tauranga Māori. In this week’s extract from Victory at Gate Pā?, Buddy Mikaere and Cliff Simons look at what made the battle itself so remarkable for both Māori and Pākehā.


On 29 April 1864, just over 200 Māori faced a force of about 1,700 Pākehā on a grassy hillside on the outskirts of the fledgling town of Tauranga. Both sides fully intended to destroy each other.

But the fight that followed — the Battle of Pukehinahina or Gate Pā — is largely remembered as a Māori victory, even though they abandoned the battlefield during the night.

It is also remembered for being one of the worst reverses suffered by an Imperial force at the hands of “natives” in the history of the British Empire.

But can we really say that it was a Māori victory? It certainly contained all the elements of a victory, because in a stunning feat of arms and courage, a small band of Māori sent a much larger and better armed adversary fleeing in panicked disarray.

However, the Māori side hardly acted as victors after the battle. They abandoned their shattered pā and crept off into the night, taking many of their wounded comrades with them. In the light of what happened next, it was a classic Pyrrhic victory where the battle was won but the war was decisively lost.

The Pākehā “army” that day was made up of a mix of soldiers, sailors and marines backed by a formidable artillery battery — the biggest ever assembled in colonial New Zealand. The soldiers were a mix of veterans of Crimea and the Indian campaigns, while the sailors and marines were drawn from the warships that had transported the troops from Auckland. Some of the ships had come from the Baltic via the Australian Station.

This mixed force was in turn backed up by a reserve force of some 600 “local” troops, most drawn from the 1st Regiment of the newly formed Waikato Militia.

The Militia numbered in its ranks both locals and recruits from Australia drawn to New Zealand by promises of land grants in return for military service.

The assault at Pukehinahina-Gate Pa. Māori defenders are still in their trenches or just emerging. (Watercolour by Lt Horatio Gordon Robley. Alexander Turnbull Library.)

The defending Māori irregulars came mainly from the three-local iwi of Ngāiterangi, Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Pūkenga, reinforced by contingents from other tribes: Waitaha, Whakatōhea from the Eastern Bay of Plenty, perennial Tauranga allies Ngāti Rangiwewehi of Te Arawa and an itinerant band of Māori mercenaries, Ngāti Koheriki, largely members of the Hauraki iwi of Ngāti Pāoa and who came from the East Wairoa–Hunua area.

The Māori numbers were estimated to be around 230, possibly a few more. When the battle was over on the following morning, there were 111 British dead and wounded. On the Māori side, it was estimated that about 25–30 Māori had been killed and an unknown number wounded.

In New Zealand, this small piece of our history is not particularly well known. School curricula for many generations have not been too fussed with New Zealand history, something that is thankfully changing.

But it is a shame, because it means many opportunities have been missed for us to ask ourselves questions like: what lessons can we learn today from the events of that afternoon in 1864 and its aftermath?

Largely driven by the revival of Anzac Day remembrances, our attitudes to wars past have changed dramatically. Where once the war dead were characterised as noble and glorious heroes who laid down their lives to preserve our freedom, that is now undergoing a subtle change and is being replaced by a sobering sadness at the waste of millions of lives and a sometimes bitter resentment at the blind loyalty to the inept leadership that threw those young lives away.

On a smaller scale, it is the same with Gate Pā. Over 150 years on, there is no glorious victory to celebrate, but there is a sadness derived from the mature reflection of hindsight and regret that no one in Tauranga on either side saw the opportunity to broker a resolution that did not involve fighting.

So why should this battle, a relatively small affray in the affairs of the Empire, be of such importance, and why should the battle be regarded as something other than a brief engagement on a muddy hillside on a wet afternoon in April 1864?

Gate Pā early on the morning of 30 April 1864, the day after the battle. Stretcher parties are removing dead and wounded. The front fighting trenches can be clearly seen. The area in the centre of the pā provided underground shelter. The pekarangi (fence) and entrenchments are surprisingly still intact after a day of bombardment. (Sketch by Lt Robley 68th Regiment. Alexander Turnbull Library.)

While the Imperial troops were in possession of the battlefield on the day after the fight, there is nothing in their correspondence or demeanour to suggest they saw themselves as victors. They clearly saw Gate Pā as a defeat.

But in the shock of defeat, a legend about the chivalrous conduct of the Māori participants was born, so much so that in subsequent years the aftermath of the battle was thought by Pākehā to be worthy of remembrance, even celebration.

It is very rare that there are positives to be drawn from war, but at Gate Pā, the way the Māori fighters conducted themselves is the single aspect of the battle to which both Māori and Pākehā are drawn.

The voluntary code which Māori drew up and fought under best exemplifies that conduct and the humanity needed to give it effect.

That voluntary code is described by some as a precursor for the Geneva Convention. It certainly has some common elements. It required humane treatment by the Māori soldiers of non-combatants — women and children, prisoners, or those who might run away from the battle, “ … being carried away by his fears”.

The code itself is recorded in a letter, dated 28 March 1864, and addressed to the commanding officer in Tauranga at that time, Lt Colonel Henry Greer of the 68th Regiment:

Friend, do you give heed to our laws for regulating the fight.

Rule 1. If wounded or captured whole, and butt of the musket or hilt of the sword be turned to me, he will be saved.

Rule 2. If any Pakeha, being a soldier by name, shall be travelling unarmed and meets me, he will be captured, and handed over to the direction of the law.

Rule 3. The soldier who flees, being carried away by his fears, and goes to the house of the priest with his gun (even though carrying arms) will be saved. I will not go there.

Rule 4. The unarmed Pakehas, women and children, will be spared.

The end. These are binding laws for Tauranga.

The biblical injunction associated with the code comes from the New Testament Book of Romans:

Ki te matekai tou hoariri, whāngainga; ki te matewai, whakainumia

Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink … Romans 12:20

In the heat of battle, the Māori soldiers gave practical effect to their code of conduct and the Christian principles which they embodied. It is probably this juxtaposition of “savages” behaving in such a civilised manner which so captured the Victorian mindset.

What happened at Gate Pā probably helped mould the view that later came to be held by the general who led the troops, Duncan Cameron, that the motives for the war in New Zealand were ill-founded. This view culminated in his falling out with the settler government and his eventual resignation and return to England in August 1865.

This code was also said by some to have been instrumental in forming the Imperial regular force soldier’s later opinion that Māori were worthy opponents and deserving of respect.

Fifty years after the battle in 1914, the Mayor of Tauranga spoke these words at the unveiling of a stone monument to the Ngāiterangi leader at Gate Pā, Rāwiri Puhirake:

The warriors of the native race were always noted for great physical courage. In addition to this, Rawiri held a still greater attribute. He had the moral courage to do what he considered right … He insisted that the prisoners of war should be treated with mercy, and at Gate Pa he himself saw to it that his orders were carried out. It is difficult to estimate the moral courage required for an action of this sort …

The humanity of the Māori defenders at Gate Pā is what makes that battle stand out from every other colonial conflict in this country. It was something that truly captured the Victorian sentiment of the day.

On his return to England in 1868, Augustus Selwyn, chaplain to the troops and the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, commissioned a stained glass window commemorating the battle and the Māori chivalry. The windows are in the episcopal chapel attached to Lichfield Cathedral and are said to have been part funded by soldiers who took part in the battle.

A fine monument to the fighting in New Zealand was also erected at Greenwich in London. The Lichfield window very much captures the gleam of humanity amidst the darkness of conflict that makes the story of the battle at Gate Pā so compelling, to the point that it has taken on the mantle of legend.

This is an excerpt from the book Victory at Gate Pa?, written by Buddy Mikaere and Cliff Simons, and published by New Holland Publishers. It is reproduced here with permission. ( RRP $39.99)


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