Tītokowaru's war

Page 7 – Taurangaika

Tītokowaru now began work on a new pā just 25 km from Whanganui. Taurangaika measured 140 m across at its widest point and was without doubt Tītokowaru’s ‘most formidable fortress’. Its four concave sides were each ‘topped by a strongpoint’, while a ‘labyrinth of trenches and bomb-proof shelters’ provided protection and the ability to move men quickly around the pā.

While Whitmore was away on the east coast no moves were made against Tītokowaru. His raiding parties attacked settler farms and abandoned military posts in a fruitless bid to provoke another assault. Tītokowaru’s successes had seen his numbers swell to about 400 fighters, but Whanganui was protected by nearly 2000 men.

Whitmore returned to Whanganui on 18 January 1869 after defeating Te Kooti at Ngātapa, a success which boosted the spirits of his forces. Within a week he was leading 1000 men towards Taurangaika. After several skirmishes en route they arrived on 2 February and set about digging trenches for protection while ‘the six-pounder Armstrong opened fire’. The Daily Southern Cross praised the ‘splendid shooting’ of the artillery; ‘every shell appeared to burst in or very near the pa’.

The pressmen who accompanied the colonial army believed they were about to witness something special. In the view of the Wanganui Times, ‘the fate of Wanganui and surrounding districts for many years to come depends on the success or failure of Colonel Whitmore’s force in the engagement now daily expected’. But at sunrise on 3 February it was discovered that Taurangaika’s garrison had left during the night.

Over the next six weeks his enemies searched for Tītokowaru. Whitmore was initially unaware that the Ngāti Ruanui leader’s force had begun to disintegrate even before Taurangaika was abandoned  Left with perhaps only 40 loyal fighters to cover the retreat of his former allies, Tītokowaru was relentlessly pursued by 600 hand-picked men, Māori and Pākehā. After several near misses they finally caught up with his rearguard at Ōtautu, inland from Pātea, on 13 March. Once again they were left frustrated as Tītokowaru secured his final victory over the government forces. He avoided capture again on 24 March at Te Ngaere swamp (near Stratford) before seeking sanctuary in the upper Waitara valley in north Taranaki.

This was a very unsatisfactory outcome for Whitmore and his political masters. The settler community was appalled that Tītokowaru had been able to escape despite being ‘hampered … with women, children and wounded.’ Whitmore mixed his metaphors in his frustration, writing to Defence Minister Theodore Haultain that:

after a bush campaign such as there not yet been in this country for distance traversed and fatigue undergone, I believe Titokowaru has slipped through my fingers under my nose.

Whitmore’s best units were sent back to the east coast to continue the pursuit of Te Kooti. As a precaution 500 men were left to provide protection for New Plymouth, while 1600 remained on active service south of the Waingongoro River. This force continued to harry Tītokowaru’s former allies but made no attempt to pursue Tītokowaru himself.

Why was Taurangaika abandoned without a fight?

Tītokowaru had held the upper hand for most of his war. At the beginning of February 1869 he was at the peak of his powers, having reclaimed most of the territory between the Waingongoro and Whanganui Rivers. He had forced the colonial government to consider several unpalatable options, including making peace with Te Kooti to allow it to concentrate on Tītokowaru, and returning confiscated land. His following had grown to around 1000 men, women and children from Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru, Taranaki and Te Ātiawa (especially Ngāti Maru). Taurangaika was well supplied with food and ammunition and there seemed to be no military need for his abrupt retreat.

Whitmore concluded that ‘it is difficult to imagine any reason, except fear, for his abandoning of [Taurangaika]’. This explanation seems highly unlikely. Whitmore had been guilty in the past of underestimating his enemy, but after inspecting the abandoned pā he conceded that ‘no troops in the world could have hewn their way through … [had it been] defended by excellent shots and desperate men’.

One explanation for what happened at Taurangaika lies in a Māori whakataukī (proverb): ‘Men fight wars over land and lose them over women.’ It was alleged that Tītokowaru had had a sexual encounter with the wife of one of his chiefs. This undermined his mana to such an extent that most of his followers refused to go into battle with him. A decision was then made to abandon the pā during the night. Another suggestion was that Thomas McDonnell had guessed – and announced at Taurangaika – the identity of Tītokowaru’s atua (god), taking away much of his mana.

Tītokowaru’s war effectively ended with the retreat from Taurangaika. The colonial army could not claim to have won it, having been unable to inflict a decisive blow on its opponents. 

How to cite this page

'Taurangaika', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/titokowarus-war/taurangaika, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 9-Apr-2019