War in Tauranga

Page 4 – British soul-searching

British soul-searching after the defeat at Gate Pā in April 1864 did not acknowledge the superior tactics and capability of their enemy. The British had assumed that their artillery assault had annihilated the garrison. The fact that those in the pā fired virtually no shots in return had reinforced this confidence. Defeat could not be blamed on inaccurate artillery fire. Though the Māori had placed their war flag 50 m behind the pa, this had fooled the gunners only briefly. The loss of so many officers contributed to the confusion that unfolded inside the pā. But this excuse overlooks the fact that the initial assault was poorly organised. And sending in the reserves too soon created a bottleneck that played into the hands of the pā’s defenders.

Some concluded that Ngāi Te Rangi had won ‘by accident’. The assault party had, it was argued, achieved its goal in forcing the defenders from their position. Those fleeing had then been met by the 68th Regiment and chased back into the pā. The assault party could not be blamed for thinking the returning Māori were reinforcements. It was this confusion that had panicked the attackers, who thought they were about to be overwhelmed and fled. Historian James Belich is among those who see this as a rather convenient explanation for the British.

Cutting his losses

In the aftermath of Gate Pā, Governor Grey wrote to a relative that ‘we are all here plunged into a sorrow and grief that I cannot describe’. He arrived in Tauranga on 12 May and spoke of his ‘desire for the two races to be at peace’. Ngāi Te Rangi had successfully taken the war to the British with relatively few casualties. They were beginning to feel the strain of the campaign but were confident that if put to the test they could succeed again. They would make peace only on condition that they retained their lands and their freedom.

A British redoubt was built on top of Gate Pā. With winter approaching, Cameron considered his options. From the outset he had been unhappy about what he saw as Grey’s interference in military matters, and the governor’s arrival may have hastened Cameron’s decision to return to Auckland. He saw little point in seeking revenge for Gate Pā.

On 15 May Cameron announced that he had abandoned aggressive actions in Tauranga. The 43rd and 3rd Waikato Regiments were to be withdrawn. Cameron believed that the British presence in Tauranga would be enough to enforce the blockade of Waikato that had been the original purpose of their deployment. It was now more important to consolidate the Waikato frontier and deal with new problems in Taranaki and Whanganui. On 16 May Cameron and his strike force left Tauranga. Lieutenant-Colonel Greer was instructed to hold the territory they already had.

The British occupied the peninsula on which the modern city of Tauranga is built. Redoubts were built to provide protection from a hostile approach from the sea or from west or east along the coast. Greer still had at his disposal 1500 British and colonial troops. From June this force included the 1st Waikato Regiment, a militia made up of Australian recruits. They, along with men from the 68th Regiment, garrisoned Gate Pā and Maketū to the east. A further 100 men were stationed at the India Redoubt north of Gate Pā, while Greer and a mobile force of 500 men remained at Te Papa.

Cameron was convinced Ngāi Te Rangi would not attack the British outright. They would instead seek to repeat the tactics that had brought them success at Gate Pā by building a pā and provoking the British into assaulting it. Cameron’s parting instruction to Greer was to remain vigilant and mount constant patrols. If Ngāi Te Rangi attempted to build a pā, they should be attacked without delay.

How to cite this page

'British soul-searching', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/war-in-tauranga/soul-searching, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-Apr-2019