The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume II: The Hauhau Wars, (1864–72)
Chapter 33: THE SURPRISE AT OPEPE
Chapter 33: THE SURPRISE AT OPEPE
COLONEL WHITMORE, BEFORE leaving the Bay of Plenty for Wellington, had instructed Lieut.-Colonel St. John to move the headquarters camp forward from Fort Galatea to a position between the Urewera Ranges and Taupo, and indicated Opepe as a suitable point. There the Napier-Taupo track intersected the main trail from the Rangitaiki and the Urewera Country, and the strategic value of the spot was enhanced by the abundance of grass and wood. Whitmore's proposal was to make Opepe the principal inland depot for stores, which could be brought up from Napier on packhorses. But St. John delayed his preliminary expedition until it was too late, for Te Kooti was just about to move across the Kaingaroa on his mission to the King Country to enlist the sympathies of Ngati-Maniapoto and Waikato. When at last a move was made on Taupo a tragic prelude to the campaign was the surprise and slaughter of a small Volunteer Cavalry detachment encamped at Opepe. This party, consisting of fourteen of the Bay of Plenty Cavalry troop, was unexpectedly attacked by the advance-guard of Te Kooti's column on the way from the Urewera Ranges to Taupo, and nine were killed.
The force was guided by a Maori, who in the light of after-events is believed to have been in secret sympathy with the Hauhaus. One of the only two survivors of the detachment, George Crosswell, of Opotiki, says: “After dark, at our first camping-place, the guide lit several large fires, and I remember well that I had some suspicion of him all the time. I remarked to my comrade George Stephenson that it was strange the Maori should have been allowed to light the fires, which were not needed; they were quite apart from our cooking-fire. I have no doubt that the fires were intended as signals to Te Kooti's scouts on the ranges above, on the left flank of our march, and that our Maori was in collusion with the Hauhaus. Colonel St. John seemed quite unsuspicious.”
On the following day (Saturday, 5th June) the cavalrymen continued their march up the eastern side (right bank) of the Rangitaiki, and when well up the river towards Runanga they forded it again, and rode across the Kaingaroa Plain westward for Taupo. That night they reached the Opepe bush, a belt of page 364 timber about a mile in length, one of the sparse remnants of the ancient forests which covered the great plain. In the lee of this bush, on a small pumice plateau, a few hundred yards off the main trail, there was a deserted Maori settlement, consisting of four or five huts built of saplings and fern-tree trunks, and roofed with fern-frond thatching or long strips of totara bark. The spot was about a quarter of a mile west of the junction of the tracks from Fort Galatea and Runanga to Tapuae-haruru, and was reached by a turn-off track to the right up a gully. On two sides of the village plateau there was a pumice valley, and the belt of bush was immediately in the rear. Here in the old Maori settlement Colonel St. John left his escort, instructing them to camp there, while he, Major Cumming, Captain Moorsom, and one or two others rode on to Tapuae-haruru. As for the Maori guide, he rode off in the direction of Runanga after he had watched the detachment go into camp at Opepe, and that was the last seen of him by the troopers.
Ex-Trooper George Crosswell, who had a marvellous escape from death in the events which followed, gives a very clear and connected account of the occurrences at Opepe after the troopers off-saddled there on the evening of the 5th June. He first joined the colonial forces at Tauranga in 1865 as a bugler in the 1st Waikato Regiment of Militia. Later, at Opotiki, he carried a rifle and obtained a grant of land, and was settled on his section when he joined the Bay of Plenty Cavalry.
“I believe,” narrates Crosswell, “that Colonel St. John before leaving us was asked if the camp was a safe place, and he replied that we were as safe there as we would be in London. This assurance put to rest any anxiety about the Hauhaus, and we set to work to make ourselves comfortable in the whares at Opepe, after turning out our horses in a broken-down paddock at the edge of the bush. On Sunday some of us rambling about got three sheep, probably strays from one of the out-stations on the ranges to the east, and we killed them and hung them up in the camp. However, we never had the pleasure of eating them—the Maoris got them. On the following morning (Monday, 7 June) I went in search of my horse, which had strayed in the direction of Galatea, and after an unsuccessful search I returned to camp. It was raining, and I was wet through by the time I got back to the whares, so I took all my clothes off and put them to dry at a big fire which we lit in one of the smaller huts, built of ponga fern-tree trunks. In the largest whare, the door of which faced north, towards the bush, there were seven men; in another were three half-caste troopers from Tauranga, and I and the others were in the small hut.
“I had returned to the hut about an hour, and it was now page 365 about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I was lying on my blankets reading a paper, when I heard voices outside, and, looking out, saw a Maori, a stranger, who had come up from one of the gullies on our flanks. Some of our men called to him, and the troopers came out of the large whare to talk to him; they took him for a friendly native. I heard more voices, and, getting up, was confronted at the door by two Maoris in fighting trim, with Enfield rifles capped and cocked.
“The Maoris shook hands with me, and allowed me to pass outside. I had just got up from my blanket, and had not a stitch of clothing on, as my uniform was not yet dry. I had a suspicion now that something was wrong. I did not attempt to take my arms. Passing the natives, I walked towards my comrades, most of whom were now outside the huts. Then all with one accord, realizing that the Maoris were enemies, made a rush for the shelter of the bush, which was perhaps a chain away. Not a single one of us had any arms; our carbines, revolvers, and swords were all in the huts.
“When we made the dash for the bush the Maoris did not five immediately, as they were on both sides of us, and they could not fire without endangering their own party. The instant, however, that the troopers ran the gauntlet a heavy volley was fired after us. The shooting continued as long as any of us were in sight; there were a great many shots fired. I had only time for a hasty glance about me when I realized that we were trapped, but long enough to see that the place was full of Maoris. Immediately the first volley was fired into us I took a different direction from that of the others, and dashed by myself for the bush, making to my left; they ran to the right. Bullets were poured after us; I saw them knocking up the earth all about me as I ran. As I was racing over the short distance between my hut and the belt of bush I received a skin wound; a bullet grazed my left arm, but I scarcely felt it. I plunged into the bush and made my way through it as fast as I could travel, and when I had gone four or five chains I met Trooper George Stephenson, of Opotiki. We kept together, and just at dusk—it would then be about 5 o'clock—we got out of the bush, which was a belt of trees and undergrowth about a mile in length and half a mile in width. Stephenson was fully dressed, but had no arms, not even a revolver; and I don't think any of the others had had an opportunity to get their weapons—our one impulse was to get to the cover of the bush.
George Crosswell, of Opotiki
(Ex-trooper, Bay of Plenty Cavalry, and survivor of the attack at Opepe.)
“It was very cold, raw weather—the middle of winter—but the excitement and the speed at which we were travelling kept me from feeling it as much as I would otherwise have done in my naked condition. My feet suffered most—they were terribly cut about by the fern and the pumice track. We reached Fort Galatea at last that evening and gave the news of the attack on the camp. My feet were quite poisoned by the rough journey, and it was a long time before they were right again.
“Three more survivors straggled in long after us. Sergeant Dette and Trooper Lockwood reached Fort Galatea after spending three nights and two days on the Kaingaroa Plain. Neither of them saw the other all this time. Cornet Angus Smith, our officer, did not come in till ten days after his escape from the camp; he was in a very bad way when he was found wandering outside the redoubt by a search-party.page 367
“When we made that dash for the bush I believe the three half-caste troopers from Tauranga were lying down in their whare, and they may have been killed there. I heard long afterwards, from a Maori in Opotiki who had been one of Te Kooti's men at Opepe, that our big sergeant-major, Slattery, was the only one who made much of a fight. He picked up a stick or stone from the ground, and was only killed after a struggle. Most of the rest killed were probably shot as they ran, and were not killed with the tomahawk. So far as I can remember they were all fully clothed—I was the only one whose uniform was drying; but when they came out to speak to the first Maori who appeared they left their weapons in the hut, and other Maoris quickly came up on both sides between them and the huts, so that they were quite defenceless.
“It was, of course, a most foolish and imprudent piece of work altogether. Our subaltern officer, Cornet Smith, had no sentries out and took no precautions whatever, but I believe the chief blame must rest on Colonel St. John, for Smith understood from him that the place was perfectly safe. I believe the Hauhaus must have seen me out by myself when I first let my horse go and when I was searching for him, but they did not ambuscade me because they did not wish to alarm the camp until they had us all trapped. When they attacked us they came up from where our horses were grazing on the grass near the bush.”*
The first discovery of the tragedy at Opepe was made by Mr. Thomas Hallet, of Napier. He was with his brother and Mr. Henry Mitchell, who had just finished the survey of a block of land near Taupo and were on their way back to Napier via Runanga. They were riding past from Taupo on the morning of the 8th June—the day after the attack—when they decided to turn off the main track to visit the Opepe camp, of which they had heard in Taupo. Mr. Hallet was riding ahead, and on ascending from the gully to the flat on which the camp stood he saw the smouldering ruins of the whares which had been fired by the Hauhaus. Then he discovered the naked bodies of two of the troopers lying between the whares and the bush. Two more bodies were found just within the edge of the bush. The surveyors turned and rode into Tapuae-haruru to inform Colonel St. John of the fate of his men. A body of Taupo Maoris from Poihipi's pa at Tapuae-haruru came out with St. John and buried the bodies of the nine men in two graves.
The cavalrymen killed were—Sergeant-Major Slattery, Troopers Ross, Lawson, McKillop (trumpeter), Cooke, H. Gill, Johnson, Bidois, and C. Poictier (Potie).page 368
Trooper Harry Gill was a Tauranga lad, the son of Judge Gill, of the Native Land Court. Johnson, Bidois, and Poictier were half-castes from Tauranga. The rest of the detachment were from Opotiki.
The Hauhaus stripped the dead of their uniforms, and secured the whole of the arms and equipment of the detachment—fourteen Calisher and Terry breech-loading carbines, and the same number of revolvers and swords, besides the horses and saddles. The ammunition captured was about twenty rounds per carbine. With these weapons Te Kooti was able to complete the equipment of his mounted men, and, as he had already at various times captured troopers' carbines and swords, he had by 1870 a small body of cavalry dressed and armed like our own men.
Cornet Angus Smith received the New Zealand Cross as the result of the Opepe affair. This was regarded as a gross misuse of the decoration, for Smith was guilty of an inexcusable neglect of ordinary military precautions in omitting to post sentries and guard against surprise. The chief blame, however, rested with Colonel St. John whose conduct in establishing camp in such a dangerous position alongside the bush, and in leaving the detachment with the assurance that the place was safe, was careless and unsoldierlike in the extreme.
The most remarkable feature of the episode, probably, was the extraordinary physical endurance of Trooper Crosswell, who travelled across the desolate wind-swept Kaingaroa Plain from Opepe to Galatea, a journey of almost forty miles, in the depth of winter, in an entirely naked condition. Mr. Crosswell, who is a good example of the wiry, hardy pioneer, is still (1923) living at Opotiki.
Very shortly before the Opepe surprise two orderlies riding with despatches from Galatea to Taupo to overtake Lieut.-Colonel St. John were ambuscaded by the Hauhaus on the trail, and one of them was killed. These troopers, Donald MacDonald and Alexander Black, were hurried from Galatea soon after St. John's party had gone, with information brought in by Captain Mair's scouts that Te Kooti was at Heruiwi waiting to descend on the plain. Trooper MacDonald was the bearer of the despatches, written by Mair and others. While the cavalrymen were on their way up the Rangitaiki Valley on the eastern side, close under the ranges, they were observed by three Hauhau scouts, Peita Kotuku, Te Makarini, and Porekapa. The scouts, who were mounted, intercepted the troopers near Te Tieke, an isolated clump of bush at the foot of the hills. Peito was fired at by one of the troopers, page 369 and the bullet struck him on the breast but was deflected by some of his equipment. Peita, describing the encounter, said:—
“The troopers got off their horses and, to our surprise, retreated. Had they been Maoris or experienced soldiers they would, of course, have taken cover and skirmished up to us, for there were only three of us. I was armed with a carbine and revolver. I fired at the man who had fired at me [this was MacDonald], and my carbine-bullet struck him in the right thigh and smashed the bone. He fell, and as he lay there disabled Te Makarini shot him dead. This Makarini (McLean) was a Tuhoe man, an elder brother of Te Whakaunua, who was killed in the flight from Ngatapa. The other trooper escaped, after abandoning his horse and carbine. We took the arms and equipment and reported to Te Kooti, and immediately afterwards we all set out from Heruiwi on the march for Taupo and surprised the camp at Opepe.”*
Alexander Black, who left his horse and carbine and rushed down the track towards the Wheao River, succeeded in escaping to Fort Galatea.
† Captain Preece, writing from Palmerston North, December, 1921, said:
“We afterwards heard from the natives who were with Te Kooti that they had no idea that our forces were moving towards Taupo. When they came on the tracks and saw there was only a small party they decided to cut it off. They worked their way round to the Opepe camp through the edge of the bush, sending by the track a friendly native who had been taken prisoner by Te Kooti at Tauaroa, when he retired from Whakatane, to get into conversation with our people and put them off their guard. The plan acted well. Trooper Gill, knowing the man as a friendly native, but unaware that he had been taken prisoner by Te Kooti, got into conversation with him, and was told that he was with some other friendly natives who had come to scout. A few more came up and engaged our men in talk, thus giving the main body time to surround and attack them. After-events proved that Colonel Whitmore's policy which planned the occupation of Taupo was the right one, but it was unwise to send forward a small body of men a distance of over forty miles from their base. The withdrawal of the troops from Fort Galatea to Tauranga was another insane act.”
After the slaughter of the troopers Te Kooti led his force to Waitahanui, on the eastern side of Lake Taupo, and went on to the southern end of the lake and gained the friendship of Te Heuheu Horonuku and other principal chiefs of Ngati-Tuwharetoa. From the Taupo district he travelled on to the King Country and met the Waikato and Ngati-Maniapoto at Tokangamutu, now Te Kuiti.
Lieut.-Colonel St. John immediately returned to the coast. Colonel Whitmore, in discussing these events in his book on the Maori wars, blamed St. John severely for his tardiness, for his assurance given to the escort that they had nothing to fear at Opepe and that a sentry was unnecessary, and for his conduct in withdrawing after an incident which in itself was not of great military importance, and by failure to advance at once, permitting Te Kooti to obtain great influence over the doubtful tribes. In Whitmore's opinion St. John should have collected every available man for a Taupo expedition, and his failure to do so resulted in an enormous increase of Te Kooti's mana.