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Hero Stories of New Zealand

Farmers of the Frontier — How the Waitotara Settlers saved their Stock

page 212

Farmers of the Frontier
How the Waitotara Settlers saved their Stock.

IT was in the early Seventies that life on the Upper Waikato border was at its most hazardous, when rumours of coming raids kept settlers and military alike on the alert. Te Kooti was the bogey man of the frontier. He had taken refuge in the King Country, and though he had had enough of fighting it was common belief on the pakeha side that he and his Hauhau recruits would combine with the Waikato and Ngati-Maniapoto to attempt the reconquest of the confiscated lands.

Who could blame Waikato for their wild schemes of revenge? We lived on their best lands from which they had been driven by British rifles and bayonet and artillery and grenade. What wonder if many of the men whose thatched kaingas stood a few miles to the south of the Puniu River had one ruling passion, the hope to ride with gun and tomahawk from one farm and one township to another across the border, exacting utu for the seizure of their lands by the strong hand, the ringa kaha. There was more than once a condition of standing to arms along the Waikato frontier. It created anxiety throughout the colony. The calmest people of all were the furthest-out settlers. They were organised for defence; their plucky wives often tended the farm while the men were out drilling or riding on cavalry patrol along the border tracks.

There were several frontiers besides Waikato—Taranaki, the Patea-Waitotara border, the Bay of Plenty confiscated country, the Poverty Bay country, the Taupo page 213 line of communications. Towards the end of the wars there was many a gallant deed, along the lines of demarcation between pakeha and Maori.

The most hotly-contested frontier of all was Taranaki North and South. A huge extent of Maori territory was confiscated in South Taranaki, tribes were driven off their most fertile lands; the country was surveyed and cut up for military settlement sections. Titokowaru and his fighting men were thoroughly justified in resisting this arbitrary annexation of their homes and lands. They were the real defenders of Taranaki.

The Maori patriot view was expressed with simple eloquence in a letter sent by Titokowaru to Colonel Whitmore in 1868. The great war chief asked his antagonist:

“To whom does England belong, and to whom belongs the land on which you are now standing? I shall tell you. The heavens and the earth were created in the beginning. Then was man created, and also all things that are in the world. If you believe that God created them all, it is well; we are agreed thus far. But you were formed a pakeha; and England was named for your country. We are Maoris, with New Zealand for our country. There has been fixed between you and us a great gulf, the ocean. Why did you not take thought before you crossed over to us? We did not cross hence over to you. Away with you from our land to your own country in the midst of the ocean; away with you from this town.”

The authors of the confiscation laws were legislators who seldom ventured into the field; the Maori blows page 214 fell first on the venturesome military settlers, and the Colonial Forces were not able to protect them on their farms. Many a farmer was forced to abandon his home, losing all his livestock and other property. Sometimes the pioneers of the borderland West Coast made a manful effort to save their stock when they were forced to leave their primitive homesteads. The incident I shall relate here as a typical adventure of the last wars on the Coast was narrated to me by two of the men chiefly concerned in it.

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On the north bank of the twisting, muddy Waitotara River there lived, in 1868, two young settlers named William Brewer and Charles Durie, who had a block of land, intersected by the river, leased from the friendly Maoris of the Ihupuku Pa, which lay about half a mile from their raupo-thatched hut. They had about 1,000 sheep and 300 cattle grazing on the block, and were in a fair way to become prosperous men when Titokowaru's campaign to regain possession of the Maori land confiscated by the Government drove them off. (Their adventure of October the 30th, when they narrowly escaped capture and death, was related in the story “The Midnight Warning.”*)

The Hauhaus were in almost full possession of the countryside, from the bush to the sea. But Brewer and Durie determined to make an attempt to save their stock from the rebels. Titokowaru and his men-at-arms were enjoying themselves, living on the sheep and cattle and helping themselves to the goods of the driven-off whites. The mobs of sheep and cattle on the Ihupuku page 215 block were worth an effort, for they represented a considerable sum of money in those days of profitable commissariat contracts.

A few days after Brewer and Durie had so narrowly escaped that Hauhau raid, old Pirimona came to them and said:

“Now's the time, pakehas, to shift your cattle and sheep! There's going to be a big fight up there across the river”—nodding his head towards the Waitotara. “How do I know? Never mind! I tell you, in three days there will be a battle at the Moturoa, where the Hauhaus have built a great and strong stockade. They are all gathered there now, and are waiting for Whitmore. Then, when Whitmore attacks, get your stock away. Do it in one day, or you will never see them again, for I believe the Hauhaus will beat Whitmore. Don't ask me any questions, but do just as I say.”

Brewer and Durie decided to follow Pirimona's advice. They had with them William Lingard, a young settler who had escaped with them on the night of the 30th of October—and who was to win the New Zealand Cross a few weeks later at the Tauranga-ika Stockade—and an active young lad named O'Neill. Wishing to strengthen their droving party they went to Colonel Whitmore at his camp a few miles away and asked him to give the services of a few men to help get their stock to a place of safety.

“Couldn't think of it—couldn't think of it!” said the little Colonel. “It's a most foolhardy business. Your stock will have to take its chances. I can't spare you a single man. I want all my force; I'm moving against the Hauhaus to-morrow. I can't help you.”

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Amongst the waggon-drivers and others about the Constabulary camp, however, the two settlers managed to pick up five or six volunteers for the risky job, and the whole party, armed and mounted, crossed the Waitotara one wet and foggy morning just at dawn, and set about mustering the stock. It was the morning of November 7th, 1868, a tragic date, for in front of the Moturoa palisades that day Major Hunter and more than a score of his comrades were killed, and more than that number were wounded.

It certainly was a risky business, stock-mustering almost under the guns of hundreds of Hauhaus. But it was the only chance. “The roughest day of my life,” said one of the two survivors of that droving party, who told me the story. “We were wet through from the start, then we had to scour the hills for our stock, doing everything at top speed, for we never knew when we might get a volley poured into us.”

After fording the Waitotara the little band of pakehas rode northward for four miles, until they were within about three miles of the Wairoa Redoubt (where the township of Waverley now stands). Then they circled round seawards, gathering in the stock as they went.

The first alarm of “Hauhaus in sight!” came soon after they had crossed the river. A party of Maoris, mounted, suddenly came in view, riding towards the white men. Brewer and his companions instantly prepared to do battle. They galloped up a hill commanding the Maoris' line of approach, and prepared to open fire. Several of them had rifles, the rest double-barrelled page 217 shotguns. Against a large force, of course, they would have had very little chance.

“It's all right!” cried Lingard; “they're showing the white flag!” One of the Maoris was waving a white handkerchief tied on the end of a stick; and, much relieved, the white men rode down towards the others, who proved to be friendlies of the Waitotara tribe. There was a short talk, and as they were speaking to one another, the sound of heavy musketry came rolling down on the still morning air.

“Listen to that!” said one of the Maoris. “Whitmore is attacking the Moturoa Pa. But he'll never take it! Titokowaru will never be defeated. We are not Hauhaus, but we know that Titokowaru will never be beaten!”

With the distant rattle and roll of that bush battle in their ears, the settlers rounded up their stock, and worked them down towards the Waitotara. It was a difficult task, for the country was rough, unbroken, much of it in high fern, and there were swamps intersecting it. Half the party collected the cattle, and the rest gathered in the sheep, and, with much galloping to and fro to head off refractory steers and much cracking of stockwhips and barking of dogs, the whole of Brewer's and Durie's four-footed wealth by the afternoon was on the swampy banks of the Waitotara.

Crossing the stock was no easy matter, but it was done at last, and by nightfall every animal was safe on the southern bank. Fortunately the Waitotara was low and not swift of current. The sheep had to be swum over, and two of the men got into a canoe to help. And page 218 it was a tired-to-death party that built a cheerful fire and ate a meal that night in the Ihupuku camp.

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At the first peep of light next morning they were at their task again. Brewer and Durie and another man got the cattle moving, and took them out along the seabeach and down in the direction of Wanganui. By night time they had reached Nukumaru, and there they camped for the night in the settler Handley's woolshed. After dark Lingard and the rest of the party joined them.

Lingard and his companions had had a terribly trying time of it with the sheep. Those animals, with a hungry enemy not far away, were exasperatingly slow. And the Hauhau scouts soon discovered the pakehas. Lingard and another man rode up on to the sandhills skirting the beach, to keep a lookout as their comrades worked the sheep along below. Armed Maoris, obviously enemies, rode parallel with them, a little distance inland, all the way to Nukumaru. Creeks had to be crossed, and at these and a score other places the little party could have been wiped out had the Hauhaus come down in force. But the cherub that watches over the frontier settler kept his eye on them that day; and the Hauhaus evidently were unaware of the real strength—or weakness—of the Europeans. No doubt they imagined there was a much larger force on the beach.

The greater part of the flock of sheep had to be abandoned on that beach and sandhills march. Three hundred out of the thousand were all that Lingard and his companions finally paddocked at Nukumaru, and page 219 later shifted to the Marahau station with the cattle. The rest they hoped to recover later; but most of those sheep went into the stomachs of the victorious Hauhaus.

That night at Nukumaru was a night of alarms. Now and again in the middle of the night the dogs barked furiously, and the men stood to their arms. None of them dared to sleep, for at any moment the Hauhaus might be upon them. The next night, after bringing in the sheep a stage further, the musterers decided to seek a safer resting place than the station woolshed. Near the deserted Handley homestead was a small lake, the shallow, reedy water-sheet called Nukumaru. In the middle of this lake there was a little island, low and shrub-covered, about half an acre in extent. On this islet the settlers and their helpers decided to seek refuge from the marauding rebels. There was a small canoe lying moored at the bank, and in this canoe they ferried themselves across, making two or three trips before all were safely landed. Under the karaka trees which grew in a clump in the middle of the island, surrounded by a belting of taupata and tupakihi shrubs, they made themselves as comfortable as they could, but the consolation of a camp fire was denied them, for it would have betrayed their hiding place to any night-roving band. They lay there and talked in low voices. There was little sleep. It was obvious that the Hauhaus could easily have surrounded the tiny island and killed every soul. They were very thankful when daylight came at last and enabled them to move on their stock.

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Soon those alarms and excursions were over, for a troop of Wanganui cavalry, under Captain O'Halloran, page 220 arrived in a few days and pitched camp at Nukumaru, and the place was alive with bugle calls and the clink of sabre and spur; and the stock were safe. It was a task pluckily accomplished; but those things were all in the day's work in ’Sixty-eight.

* See pages 151–157.