Maori Strategy in the Taranaki War

by James Graham

Maori in the Taranaki War fought a largely defensive war. They did however have an overall strategy which they actively pursued. The British were largely unable to counter this strategy in an effective way.

The Battle of Puketakauere was the most decisive engagement in the Taranaki War. In the battle less than 200 Maori comprehensively defeated 400 British soldiers killing a minium of 30 and wounding 34. The Maori in contrast lost only five men killed. Innovative Maori fortifications were the major cause of the Maori victory. The actual pa was located on Onukukaitara hill and consisted of a small relatively simple stockade. Onukukaitara was essentially a dummy pa that attracted British attention and artillery fire. Rifle pits dug in a deep trench between the pa and the British lines were the real key to the position. The British force was split into groups with the intention of making a two pronged attack on Onukukaitara. The first division was halted a few yards from the rifle pits by a coordinated volley. The second division tried to attack Onukukaitara by way of Puketakauere hill. The British were under the understanding Puketakauere hill was not fortified. The Maori however had so skilfully concealed their entrenchments that the soldiers walked straight into an ambush. Both divisions were either forced to retreat or to flee for their lives.

The defenders of Puketakauere included Kingite soldiers from the Ngati Maniapoto tribe, "Epiha's vanguard." The battle and subsequent victory convinced the King Movement resistance in Taranaki was not futile. This realisation is likely to have been a major factor in the increase in warriors the movement sent to fight in Taranaki alluded to in the exert. The King Movement while among the most agriculturally advanced Maori tribes in the country still relied on a tribal economy to sustain themselves. Enormous strain was placed on tribes when a large percent of their work force were away fighting. The movement overcame this by establishing a shift system. Under the system parties of warriors would fight in Taranaki for a period of around two months then return home to care for their cultivations. Returning parties were replaced by fresh warriors. This helped the movement maintain a minimum of 400 warriors in Taranaki peaking at 800.

The first aspect of the Maori strategy was to maintain a war on two fronts, to the north and south of New Plymouth. Just as important was the maintenance of a creditable threat on New Plymouth itself. When an expedition was mounted against the south Taranaki tribes, the Te Atiawa and the Waikato made a threat against the town and vice versa. This tactic also had the side effect of causing extreme overcrowding in the town as the perimeter was shrunk to make the town more defendable. Disease from the overcrowding led to a marked increase in the death rate. The second aspect of the strategy was the destruction of settler property. Houses, household goods, stock, crops and agricultural equipment were either commandeered by the Maori or destroyed. Property losses exceeded 200,000 pounds by the end of the war and 200 farms were completely destroyed. The third element of the strategy the modern pa, provided bases for the Maori warriors to carry out their plundering and raiding activities. The easily built and expendable modern pa were constructed in a flexible ring around New Plymouth and other British positions. When the Maori had the upper hand the ring was extended to within kilometres of New Plymouth. From these advanced positions the destruction of the Taranaki province could continue at an increased rate. The Maori in Taranaki had a clear strategic strategy that minimised their weaknesses and protected their fertile cultivations.

The Maori strategy effectively blocked the British from achieving their objectives in the Taranaki War. At all stages during the war the British wanted a decisive victory over the Maori. The Maori strategy effectively prevented the British from even gaining an opportunity to achieve this goal. If the British attacked a weak pa the Maori would simply abandon the pa. If the British attacked a strong pa they had to attack a garrison with intricate knowledge of the battleground entrenched in pre prepared positions.

The settlement of Taranaki had ceased to exist as a viable economic and social district by the end of the war. However the Maori did not win all the battles in the war and the end result was a stalemate. By merely fighting in the aid of another tribe the King Movement gained significant support from around the North Island. The Taranaki War made the British determined to smash the King Movement as it now presented a serious barrier to British law and order in the North Island.

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