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Thomas McDonnell


Thomas McDonnell, 1860s.

Thomas McDonnell served in the Waikato War and was promoted to captain in the Colonial Defence Force in March 1864. He participated in campaigns in south Taranaki under both Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron and Major-General Trevor Chute before taking command of colonial troops in the Pātea district in 1866.

Though Ngāti Ruanui were desperate for peace, McDonnell provoked war by attacking the village of Pokaikai in August 1866. While a parliamentary commission of inquiry only narrowly exonerated him for this action, many colonists were more supportive of his ruthless approach. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel on 25 April 1867 and appointed inspector in the new Armed Constabulary a month later.

In March 1868 Lieutenant-Colonel George Whitmore replaced McDonnell as head of the Armed Constabulary. McDonnell retained command in south Taranaki as Tītokowaru’s war developed. He blamed both subordinates and superiors for his defeat at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu in September. This reaction, as well as the defeat itself, saw him dismissed in October and replaced by his ‘hated rival’, Whitmore.

In December 1868, McDonnell swallowed his pride and apologised to the government for his outbursts in the wake of Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu. Keen to make amends, he returned as a subordinate to Whitmore. But he suffered another embarrassing defeat near Te Karaka on 18 February 1869 during the pursuit of Tītokowaru, and resigned. After a change of government in June 1869, McDonnell was reappointed. He had charge of the Taupō campaign that ended with Te Kooti’s defeat at Te Pōrere in October.


Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: PA2-2601
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

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Thomas McDonnell, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated