NGATAPA, SIEGE OF
After his defeat at Makaretu on 3 December 1868, Te Kooti, together with 300 men and a number of women and children, took up his position at Ngatapa, about 6 miles away. Ngatapa Pa, in Whitmore's opinion, was the strongest and most formidable fortress he had ever seen in New Zealand. A single cone-shaped mountain, about 2,000 ft high and conspicuous from its height and isolation, rose abruptly out of a confused mass of forest-clad hills. It was covered with bush, some of which had been burned leaving the summit bare. The apex of the hill was girt by a triple line of parapets, the inner two of which stood 10 and 16 ft high respectively. Rifle pits guarded the front and the water supply, which lay about 2 chains outside the fort's perimeter. A steeply scarped ridge terminated the parapets on one side while, on the other, a 200-ft precipice prevented any attack from that direction. Behind the apex a single ladder gave access to a knoll upon which the women's kainga stood, and Whitmore considered that this ladder provided the sole means of escape for the garrison.
On 5 December 1868 Ropata and Preece attacked Ngatapa with two companies of friendly Maoris. They penetrated the defences, but had to retire when their ammunition became short and when the main body of the Ngati Porou contingent refused to fight Te Kooti. Ropata, who was disgusted by this defection, returned to Waiapu to recruit a fresh force. Although Whitmore was anxious to invest Ngatapa at once, he agreed to wait at Patutahi until an adequate force could be gathered.
While he was waiting, Whitmore perfected his arrangements for reducing the fortress. Bearing in mind the difficult nature of the terrain, he planned to send troops to prevent a possible escape from the rear while he led the main body against the front. There he intended to construct a sap trench under the parapets and thus gain a foothold inside the pa. Major Roberts' Regiment and some of the Ngati Porou were to guard the scarped face while Major Fraser would cut off any retreat along the narrow ridge in the rear. Near Robert's position Whitmore proposed to place his Cohorn mortars, which would have to fire vertically into the pa. The precipice remained unguarded, because he considered it impracticable as an avenue of escape.
On 24 December 1868 Whitmore pushed his troops ahead from Fort Fraser, at Patutahi. He camped about a mile from Ngatapa on 27 December, where Ropata joined him two days later. At daylight on 31 December Major Fraser occupied a knob on the same ridge as the pa while Whitmore deployed his forces for the frontal attack. It rained heavily on 1 January 1869, but on the following day he commenced the sap. Te Kooti's sharpshooters slowed down progress and the garrison made several determined attempts to break out, both then and on the two succeeding days. During this time Whitmore's mortars continued their bombardment, but on 4 January Fraser doubted whether he could contain any further enemy efforts to break out. As night approached, Whitmore's men pierced both ends of the first rampart and occupied the outer defences of the pa. At this stage Te Kooti realised that the position was hopeless and he, his men, and some of the women let themselves down the precipice on the flax ropes. They were detected escaping in the direction of the Wharekopae Stream. Although Ropata and his men pursued them, Te Kooti and most of his party reached safety.
Whitmore's forces at Ngatapa consisted of 16 officers and 678 men, of whom 370 were Ropata's Ngati Porous. Colonial losses were 11 killed and eight wounded, while Te Kooti lost 136 killed. Four men received the New Zealand Cross for their services during the siege. These were Major Ropata, Lieutenant Preece, and Benjamin Biddle and Solomon Black, both of the Armed Constabulary.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives: A. 3, A. 21 (1869)
- New Zealand Wars, Cowan, J. (1956).