Te Kooti the Guerilla Fighter

by James Graham

For four years Te Kooti waged the most effective guerilla campaign in New Zealand's history. His base in the Urewera mountains as the map shows provided him a central base from which he could launch his raids from and retire to after a defeat. In this time his actions constituted a major threat to European activities and settlement on the East coast.


Te Kooti's escape allowed him to build the following for his Ringatu religion and the size of his fighting force. Imprisoned on the Chattam Islands on suspicion of being in league with the Hauhau Te Kooti converted his fellow prisoners to his newly formed Ringatu religion. Te Kooti led 164 men, 64 woman and 71 children in one of the most remarkable escapes in New Zealand history. On reaching the mainland Te Kooti made for the ancient stronghold of Puketapu. He was intercepted and engaged by no less than three colonial forces. At Paparatu, Te Koneke and Ruakituri Te Kooti successfully defeated his foes in a series of battles varying in intensity. The colonialists by now stretched by war on two coasts offered Te Kooti a generous peace offer which he refused.

Sick of being hunted Te Kooti now mounted the most successful single raid in The New Zealand Wars. He left Puketapu in November 1868 and made for the neutral village of Patutahi near Poverty Bay. To confuse his enemies Te Kooti let slip that he was going to attack Wairoa, a deliberate act of misinformation on his part. From Patutahi he led a hundred hand picked men on a lightning raid of Poverty Bay. Te Kooti was ensured complete tactical surprise by another act of misinformation. While Major R. N. Biggs had received warning of an attack he was sure it would come from the south. Te Kooti attacked from the west at midnight on 9 November striking numerous Poverty Bay settlements simultaneously. The colonial commanders were sought and killed in their beds along with fifty other men, woman and children. The rest of the inhabitants of Poverty Bay fled to the Turanganui Redoubt and stayed there for a full week. During this week Te Kooti's forces plundered Poverty Bay of its cattle, sheep and supplies. Maori prisoners were also taken and executed without mercy. After the raid Te Kooti retired to another ancient fortress, Ngatapa. During the retreat his warriors successfully fought three rearguard actions, one at Ngatapa itself. Te Kooti plundered Poverty Bay and made a successful escape despite being outnumbered by the colonial forces arrayed against him.

Te Kooti was able to survive numerous colonial expeditions against him, though his support dwindled. Colonial forces surrounded Ngatapa on 27 December and forced Te Kooti to flee on 4 January. The retreat from Ngatapa was a costly affair for Te Kooti losing 135 woman and children and 140 men. This permanently weakened Te Kooti. However he did mount two more large scale successful raids on Whakatane and Mohaka. The raids helped increase Te Kooti's mana but also crystallised kupapa resolve to kill him. Over the next three years Te Kooti was hunted by his enemies who mounted numerous expeditions against him. However Te Kooti was never again able to launch anything more than ambushes and minor raids and in 1872 took refuge in the King Country.

Te Kooti and his followers waged a different kind of war against the government than hostile Maori forces before him. Te Kooti's guerrilla raids were initially highly effective against European settlements. Ultimately his lack of knowledge of the modern pa denied him any chance of holding territory. This is displayed by his two main pa Ngatapa and Te Porere which both had grave tactical weaknesses. These weaknesses allowed them to be easily taken by government soldiers and kupapa. His raid on Poverty Bay decimated that part of the country and his mere continued freedom checked if only in a slight way the European expansion on the East Coast. In Te Kooti's last few years in arms against the government he lived the life of a fugitive, albeit one that would occasionally disrupt a settlement from nowhere.

The New Zealand Wars

  1. Kawiti and the Northern War
  2. Maori Strategy in the Taranaki War
  3. Kawiti's Ohaeawai Pa
  4. Guerilla Warfare in the Waikato
  5. Battle of Rangiriri
  6. The Gate Pa
  7. Titokowaru's Tauranga-Ika Pa
  8. Te Kooti the Guerilla Fighter