The wars of Waitara - roadside stories

Many battles have been fought near the north Taranaki town of Waitara, including major conflict between Waikato war parties and the local Te Ātiawa people. In 1860 a dispute over land ownership at Waitara led to the First Taranaki War between Māori and the government.

Transcript

Archival audio: Excerpt from historical radio series, What they said, when war came to New Plymouth.

Narrator: The town of Waitara, 16 kilometres north of New Plymouth, stands in an area that has been the site of many bloody battles over the centuries. 

In [1821], a large war party of Waikato warriors arrived in northern Taranaki but found it tough going. They were offered refuge by the people of Pukerangiora at their pā, or fortified village, about 8 kilometres from the mouth of the Waitara River.

However, once the Waikato warriors were inside the pā, warriors from Taranaki’s Te Ātiawa tribe built palisades around a section of the pā, trapping a thousand Waikato warriors inside what became known as [Raihe] Poaka – the pig pen.

The Waikato men were trapped for over seven months before a fleet-footed warrior escaped and ran 120 kilometres north in less than two days to raise the alarm. Waikato chief Te Wherowhero then assembled thousands of men and headed south. The siege was eventually broken, though the Waikato tribes suffered heavy casualties.

Ten years later, in 1831, a massive war party of around 2000 Waikato warriors, well armed with muskets, returned. Nearly 4000 Te Ātiawa men, women and children took refuge at Pukerangiora pā – the very place that the Taranaki tribe had previously held many Waikato warriors captive.

Food inside the pā soon ran out, and the trapped Te Ātiawa people tried to break out in broad daylight. Over a thousand were believed to be slaughtered, with many bodies being cooked and eaten by the victors. Rather than be captured by the enemy, some Te Ātiawa women chose to throw themselves and their children off the cliff at Pukerangiora and onto the riverbed 100 metres below.

The arrival of the Europeans saw more bloodshed at Waitara. In 1860, conflict over the Waitara Purchase, where the government tried to acquire land from its Te Ātiawa owners, began the Taranaki War – the first of the New Zealand Wars.    

Aware that a substantial group of Te Ātiawa had occupied Pukerangiora pā, the commander of the [imperial] forces, General Thomas Pratt, began a slow march up the Waitara River towards it. Pratt dug a long trench toward the pā, building redoubts along the way. Despite Te Ātiawa sniper fire, the trench gradually inched closer to the pā. However, just as Pratt’s force was ready to attack, negotiations between Te Ātiawa and the colonial government brought the Taranaki War to an end – though Te Ātiawa did not get their land back.

Today, a section of Pratt’s long trench can still be seen at the Pukerangiora Reserve, 8 kilometres along Waitara Road. Bullets can sometimes still be found in the soil around the reserve.

During the 19th century, as more and more Māori land was taken, and the deadly effects of new European diseases spread, the Māori population declined.

Early in the 20th century, a new generation of young Māori leaders sought to improve the plight of their people by working within the political system. The Young Maori Party included Sir Māui Pōmare, who was from Waitara. Pōmare did much to improve Māori public health in his two decades as a cabinet minister and he is remembered at Waitara’s Ōwae Marae by a magnificent carved meeting house built in 1936. A marble statue of him stands beside it.

Another member of the Young Maori Party was the north Taranaki leader, Te Rangi Hīroa, better known as Sir Peter Buck. Hīroa had a distinguished military career and became a world authority on Polynesian anthropology. Buck is remembered by a concrete canoe prow that juts out of a hillside at Ōkoki pā, 34 kilometres north of New Plymouth.

Corrections to the original text are marked by square brackets.

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