Te Kooti's war

Page 3 – Exile and deliverance

Chatham Island was home for Te Kooti and his fellow prisoners for two years. Roughly 800 km south-east of Wellington, Rēkohu (as it was known to its original Moriori settlers) or Wharekauri (its Māori name) was also home to a small number of civilian settlers. Captain William Thomas, the Resident Magistrate, was backed by a military guard of 25 men under the command of Captain Edmund Tuke. The prisoners were provided with accommodation and land on which to grow crops.

In early 1867 William Rolleston, under-secretary in the Native Department, conducted an inspection of the island, accompanied by Gilbert Mair (who from 1869 would play a key role in the pursuit of Te Kooti). Writing to James Cowan in 1921, Mair recalled his visit to the Chathams:

We found matters in a most scandalous state. Captain Thomas appeared to exercise no control whatever. The 200-odd native detainees were out of hand and in an excited state. Of the twenty-five men comprising the guard, we found more than half under arrest for drunkenness, disobedience, and bad conduct towards the interned Maoris.

Following this visit, Tuke was transferred back to the mainland and the guard was reduced to 15 men.

Spiritual awakening and deliverance

According to oral traditions Te Kooti had experienced his first visitation in the 1850s when the Archangel Michael appeared to him. He was told that ‘your people will be crushed by the weight of your deeds upon them … and you will know with certainty at that time I am a God who saves people’. In February 1867, Te Kooti lay ill on Wharekauri with tubercular fever. He described being raised up by the ‘Spirit of God’, who instructed him to teach the people. The lesson was one of deliverance – Jeremiah 31:16–17 became its cornerstone:

Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.

And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border.

Te Kooti began holding regular religious services. By June 1868 Captain Thomas was concerned enough to place him in solitary confinement. This achieved little, as on most nights Te Kooti was able to escape and hold secret prayer meetings.

The ‘ark of salvation’

On 4 July 1868, Te Kooti led an escape from Wharekauri by 163 men and 135 women and children. They seized the supply ship Rifleman – the ‘ark of salvation’ that would return ‘thy children … to their own border.’

Though Te Kooti had given clear instructions that no one was to be harmed one guard, Michael Harnett, was killed. Weapons and ammunition stored in the redoubt’s armoury were seized, as was nearly £400 (equivalent to about $50,000 today) of government money stored in the island’s safe. The settlers’ houses were ransacked for anything of use or value.

The crew of the Rifleman were told that their lives would be spared if they worked the vessel to New Zealand. Once the exiles were safely ashore on the mainland, the ship would be returned to them. The ship’s mate, John Payne, agreed to these terms and the schooner set sail for Poverty Bay, but a headwind made for slow progress. On the third day at sea Te Kooti demanded a sacrifice. Greenstone and other treasures – and his uncle, Te Warihi Potini, who was believed to be a spy – were thrown overboard. Te Kooti told Payne that he suspected the crew were making for Wellington.

On the evening of 9 July the Rifleman made landfall at Whareongaonga, south of Poverty Bay. Te Kooti kept his word. The crew were paid £6 ($760) each and Te Kooti gave Payne a letter exonerating them from any involvement in the escape. Te Kooti then ordered the sacrifice of a pig and a fowl as thanksgiving for their safe return. He told his people that they would no longer kneel to pray but would instead pay homage to God by raising a hand – Ringa Tū – at the end of prayers. This became the name of the new faith.

How to cite this page

'Exile and deliverance', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/te-kootis-war/exile-and-deliverance, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 26-Oct-2021