Tītokowaru's war

Page 5 – Turuturumōkai to Moturoa

Before dawn on Sunday 12 July 1868, 60 of Tītokowaru’s men led by Haowhenua bypassed the large colonial force in Waihī Redoubt and attacked the nearby outpost of Turuturumōkai, which was garrisoned by 22 men. By the time Major Gustavus von Tempsky arrived from Waihī with reinforcements around 7 a.m. and forced Haowhenua’s withdrawal, 10 of the defenders lay dead and six were wounded. Haowhenua lost only three men.

The attack on Turuturumōkai saw the revival of whangai hau, a ritual in which the heart of a slain enemy was offered up to Tūmatauenga, the god of war. Captain Frederick Ross, the garrison’s commander, was the unfortunate donor on this occasion. His heart was removed according to ‘strictly regulated religious ceremony’. Tītokowaru knew that this action, following his earlier declaration that his throat was ‘continually open for the eating of human flesh’, would unnerve local settlers. The revival of this practice may also have been a way to appeal to those seeking a return to pre-Pākehā ways. While such actions were used by the press to demonise Tītokowaru, the colonial forces would prove to be just as capable of committing atrocities against their enemies, dead or alive.

‘Roberts, I shall have revenge for this’: Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu

After inspecting the grisly scene at Turuturumōkai, McDonnell declared to one of his officers: ‘Roberts, I shall have revenge for this’. However, his first two attempts to attack Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu achieved little. On 7 September McDonnell mounted a third expedition. The 360 men at his disposal outnumbered Tītokowaru’s force by six to one. They included ‘the cream’ of the Pātea Field Force, notably Tempsky’s Forest Rangers and Keepa’s Whanganui Māori.

McDonnell’s force lost its way – and the element of surprise – while approaching Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu. When they finally reached the clearing in front of the pā, the visible defences did not appear too challenging. However, fighters were concealed around the edge of the clearing and inside the pā.

While Keepa moved his force around the pā to attack it from the east, Major W.M. Hunter made an immediate frontal attack. His men were struck by a devastating crossfire. Some 20 soldiers. including Tempsky, were killed or died of wounds. The assault disintegrated and the colonial force fragmented into several groups which were harried by Tītokowaru’s men as they retreated towards Camp Waihī, 8 km away. By the time they reached safety, the colonists had lost more than 50 men dead and wounded. The number of casualties among their Māori allies is unknown. Tītokowaru lost only three men.

Blaming both his subordinates and his superiors for this shattering defeat, McDonnell did not help his case by writing recriminatory letters to the government. He was dismissed on 14 October and replaced by his ‘hated rival’ George Whitmore, who had already succeeded him as commandant of the Armed Constabulary and had been leading the pursuit of Te Kooti on the east coast. Whitmore faced an immediate problem in south Taranaki: hundreds of men had deserted or refused to re-enlist when their term was up. When Tempsky’s men refused to serve under a new leader, the unit was disbanded. Some of the Whanganui Māori felt that Tītokowaru’s mana was now stronger than the government’s and also refused to continue to fight.


As the Armed Constabulary retreated towards Whanganui, Tītokowaru’s followers began to occupy the vacated land. Success had increased Tītokowaru’s support, but his 200 fighters were still heavily outnumbered by the 900 men now serving under Whitmore at Pātea.

After failing to entice Whitmore into battle, Tītokowaru established a position at Moturoa, near Wairoa (Waverley). Raiding parties had the desired effect and Whitmore moved his base to Wairoa. On the night of 6/7 November, 250 Armed Constabulary and 300 Whanganui Māori marched out of camp for Moturoa.

Mind games

When Governor George Bowen placed a bounty of £1000 (equivalent to nearly $130,000 today) on Tītokowaru’s head, the Māori leader responded in kind. He valued Bowen at half a crown (two shillings and sixpence – $16).

Moturoa appeared to be only half built, but its palisades concealed its real strength. As the invasion force approached, the defenders were safely concealed in a two-level firing trench and three low towers made of packed earth. Whitmore divided his force into three. Keepa and his men moved to the rear while Whitmore and his party remained in front to provide covering fire for Major Hunter, who was to lead an attack from the left flank. Hunter was burning to disprove allegations of cowardice at Tuturuturumōkai. After holding their fire until the last possible moment, Tītokowaru’s force inflicted heavy casualties on his exposed party, most of whom lay dead or wounded within a few minutes. The defenders then moved into hidden rifle pits on Whitmore’s flanks, maintaining a heavy fire that forced him to retreat.

The attacking force lost 19 men killed and 20 wounded; Tītokowaru lost only one man killed. Though Inspector John Roberts, Henare Kepa Te Ahururu and Major Keepa were awarded the rare New Zealand Cross for their actions at Moturoa, there was no hiding the fact that this was another disastrous defeat.

Whitmore and the bulk of the Armed Constabulary now moved by ship to Poverty Bay to confront Te Kooti. The remaining forces on the west coast concentrated on the defence of Whanganui, leaving south Taranaki almost entirely to the ‘rebels’.

How to cite this page

'Turuturumōkai to Moturoa', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/titokowarus-war/turuturumokai, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 26-Oct-2021