Wiremu Kīngi's opposition to the Crown's attempts to purchase land near the mouth of the Waitara River in north Taranaki in 1859 led to the outbreak of war in March 1860. Governor Gore Browne was under increasing pressure from frustrated settlers in New Plymouth who were becoming increasingly worried about the future of the province. Men with capital were leaving and it was felt that more should be done to support the Māori who were willing to sell land. This meant putting Kīngi in his place.
Why did Gore Browne accept the offer?
A successful outcome at Waitara could win back settler opinion. Historian James Belich says that Gore Browne believed that ‘British sovereignty had to be asserted by denying Kīngi’s autonomy, even at the risk of war.’ If the Kīngitanga was behind the unrest, as Gore Browne believed, more was at stake than ‘a comparatively valueless purchase’. He ‘must either have purchased this land or recognised a right which would have made William King [Wiremu Kīngi] virtual sovereign of this part of New Zealand.’
Gore Browne met with Te Ātiawa. They were encouraged to sell any land they were not using. He stressed he would not buy land where there was any dispute over its title. But in a thinly veiled threat he made it clear that he would not allow anyone to interfere in any land deal to which they were not a party.
At this point Te Teira Mānuka indicated his desire to sell the 600-acre Pekapeka block at the mouth of the Waitara River. Gore Browne, advised by Donald McLean, accepted the offer subject to proof of Te Teira's sole claim to the land. Kingi made clear his opposition to any sale.
Gore Browne was increasingly of the view that Kīngi had no customary rights at Waitara as when the settlers first arrived he was living on the Kapiti coast. In April 1859, the Governor wrote to both men in an attempt to progress the sale. Te Teira reiterated that ‘no other person’s rights were infringed’ by the offer. Kīngi did not challenge Te Teira’s title but stressed that as Māori and Pākehā were living in peace it would be wise to let matters lie.
In early December 1859 an instalment of £100 was paid to Te Teira. Kīngi repeated his opposition to the deal and made clear his intention to stop any sale. In January 1860 the Minister of Native Affairs, C.W. Richmond (a New Plymouth settler himself), ordered that the survey of the land begin. Premier Edward Stafford made it clear that any disruption to it would have serious consequences.
Civil disobedience and preparations for war
Elderly supporters of Kīngi obstructed the surveyors when they began work on 20 February 1860. Kīngi maintained that he had no desire for war but ‘intended to hold the land’. Martial law was declared on 22 February. Members of the local militia and volunteer force were called out for active service. Many settlers in the outlying areas began to move into New Plymouth.
HMS Niger was sent to New Plymouth, as was the 65th Regiment under the command of Colonel Gold. Camp Waitara was established on the disputed land. Kīngi’s people were forced from their kāinga and he was ordered to destroy any new pā he had built. If he didn’t, he was warned, ‘the blood of your people would be upon your head.’ Kīngi's response was to build a fighting pā inside the Pekapeka block and overlooking Camp Waitara.