Tītokowaru's war

Page 4 – The war begins

As the Waitangi Tribunal’s Taranaki report puts it, Tītokowaru’s ‘year of the lamb’ was followed by the ‘year of the lion’. In March 1868, Tītokowaru authorised a muru (punitive plunder) against Pākeha involved in the confiscation of land at Ketemarae (Normanby). ‘This involved taking personal property as compensation for a perceived offence against an individual or community, while stopping short of bloodshed.’

Te Ngutu-o-te-manu was raided by the authorities in an attempt to recover the goods taken, and some of Tītokowaru’s men were imprisoned. When one of them escaped from custody, Tītokowaru chose to go to war rather than hand him back to the authorities.


On 9 June 1868, Ngā Ruahine men acting on Tītokowaru’s orders killed three settlers near the Waingongoro River. Three days later, Trooper Smith was ambushed outside the Waihī redoubt, near Hāwera. A hotel and a house belonging to Edward McDonnell, brother of Thomas McDonnell, were burned down.

The theatre of war would eventually be the 110-km coastal strip between Whanganui and Mt Taranaki. This was a mixture of scrub and thick bush with some open country; most of it had been confiscated, at least in theory.


Tītokowaru sought to instil fear in the settler community. In late June he wrote a letter in which he referred to having ‘eaten the European’ (Trooper Smith). Pākehā were advised to:

cease … travelling on the roads [around Waihī] lest ye be left … as food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the field, or for me. For I have … begun to eat the flesh of the white man; I have eaten him like the flesh of the cow, cooked in the pot; all have eaten him, even the women and the children. My throat is continually open for the eating of human flesh…. I shall not die; I shall not die. When death is itself dead I shall be alive.

With no known pictures of Tītokowaru, rumours quickly spread that he walked the streets of Whanganui, ready to strike unsuspecting settlers. In this way he became the stuff of nightmares.

In fact Tītokowaru himself did not consume human flesh. Nevertheless, the colonial press portrayed him and his supporters as ‘fiends in human shape.’ A correspondent in the New Zealand Advertiser described him as the ‘most villainous-looking Maori I ever saw’. Auckland Punch emphasised the cannibalism associated with his war in headlines such as TITO-KAWARAU & CO., BUTCHERS AND DRYSALTERS…. A large supply of Cured Constable, Potted Pakeha, and Dried Militiamen always on hand’. In reality there were few verified instances of cannibalism; for Belich, the focus on this aspect of Tītokowaru’s war has deflected attention from his military achievements.

As a rule, Tītokowaru ‘directed operations from a safe command post’ and did not use a weapon himself in battle. He may not have needed to: the only account of violence by him during his war has him ‘breaking a colonist soldier’s neck with his bare hands’.

Tītokowaru had not yet persuaded all Ngā Ruahine to support him. Tangāhoe and Pakakohe remembered only too well their suffering during the 1865–6 campaigns. Though Tītokowaru’s youthful prowess as a warrior was acknowledged, he was as yet unproven as a military leader. Until September 1868 he had as few as 80 fighters at his disposal. These included ‘experienced, disciplined, and tough’ men such as Haowhenua and Toi Whakatakā. Against him McDonnell could muster nearly 1000 men, including approximately 150 Whanganui Māori.

To compensate for his numerical disadvantage, Tītokowaru sought to provoke his enemies into premature or rash attacks on prepared positions. A false target or apparent weak point lured opponents into deadly traps. Concealment in the bush formed part of this strategy, and units retiring after a battle were pursued in an attempt to inflict more casualties.

Raids and ambushes disrupted ‘supply columns, woodcutting parties and stragglers’, and forced settlers to abandon outlying farms. These were often plundered, leading to calls for decisive action. Pātea’s Resident Magistrate, James Booth, advocated a ‘sudden and effective’ strike against Tītokowaru. Determined to complete the training of his new volunteer units, McDonnell resisted the urge to assault Tītokowaru’s base at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu until events on 12 July broke his resolve.

How to cite this page

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