Attack on Ōpepe – roadside stories

On 7 June 1869, a small party of Bay of Plenty Cavalry was ambushed at Ōpepe, near Taupō. Nine soldiers were killed but several escaped – including one who fled completely naked. 


Audio archive: Recording of the first Ringatū Church General Assembly held in 1938 at Rūātoki.

Narrator: Ōpepe is situated at a crossroads that existed before Pākehā (Europeans) came to New Zealand. In 1869, Ōpepe was the site of a military blunder by the colonial forces which greatly enhanced the prestige of their enemy, Te Kooti.  

Te Kooti was a Māori prophet and founder of the Ringatū Church, which blends Old Testament Christianity and Māori traditions. During the late 19th century, there were several religious movements which incorporated both Māori traditions and Christianity.

One such movement was Pai Mārire, whose militant faithful were called Hauhau. Ōpepe had been a Hauhau village, and the Hauhau made attacks on Napier and other European settlements in the mid-1860s. Te Kooti actually fought against the Hauhau, but was suspected of being a spy and was jailed on Chatham Island. Using a stolen ship, Te Kooti led a daring escape of almost 300 Māori prisoners from the Chathams.

When Te Kooti arrived back in New Zealand he was pursued by the government forces for years. He launched guerrilla attacks, killing many people, and ransacking settlements. By late 1868, Te Kooti and his 200 followers controlled most of the Poverty Bay district.

In June 1869 a group of colonial soldiers, who were pursuing Te Kooti, were sent from Fort Galatea 64 kilometres away. The group was guided by a Māori, who is believed to have secretly sympathised with Te Kooti’s men and alerted them of the detachment’s location.

Voice of colonial soldier: At our first camping place, the guide lit several large fires, and I remember well that I had some suspicion of him. It was strange the Māori should have been allowed to light the fires, which were not needed; they were quite apart from our cooking-fire. I have no doubt that the fires were intended as signals to Te Kooti’s scouts on the ranges above. 

Narrator: The colonials decided to set themselves up a camp at the deserted Māori settlement of Ōpepe and build a stockade. The detachment set themselves up in existing huts of the abandoned village, but did not post any lookouts because the commander thought the unit would be safe there.

Voice of colonial soldier: Colonel St John, before leaving us was asked if the camp was a safe place, and he replied that we were as safe there as we would be in London. This assurance put to rest any anxiety about the Hauhaus.

Narrator: However, while Te Kooti was making his way from Poverty Bay over to the King Country, an advance group of his warriors completely surprised the detachment at Ōpepe.

Voice of colonial soldier: There were a great many shots fired. I had only time for a hasty glance about me when I realised that we were trapped, but long enough to see that the place was full of Maoris.

Narrator: The attack on Ōpepe saw most of the detachment killed before they could arm themselves. However five out of the 14 men got away, one of them being George Crosswell. He had to make his way back to Fort Galatea completely naked because he was in the process of drying his rain-drenched uniform when the surprise attack happened. Crosswell’s nude escape through the rough terrain in the middle of winter earned him the New Zealand Medal.

Voice of George Crosswell: It was very cold, raw weather – the middle of winter – but the excitement and the speed at which we were travelling kept me from feeling it as much as I would otherwise have done in my naked condition.

Narrator: Despite being the site of a military embarrassment, the planned stockade at Ōpepe went ahead, as well as others along the Taupō to Napier road. You can visit the site of the settlement along with the graves of those who died in Te Kooti’s attack.

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