(1800-1913)HMS Niger and the Battle of Waireka

The Battle of Waireka was fought on March 28, 1860.  This brief history does not tend to be a description of the Battle of Waireka.  But merely a record of some of the doings of theHMS Niger’s Officers and crew. 


Battle of Waireka

The Anniversary – the 42nd – of the Battle of Waireka, which was fought on March 28, 1860, as a fitting and appropriate occasion to recall the part played in that memorable engagement by the officers and men of HMS NIGER.  What more particularly brings the event before public notice just now is the fact that it is proposed to add to the hatchments already placed in St Mary’s Church, New Plymouth, in memory of the various regiments which took part in the wars with the Maoris in Taranaki, one especially commemorative of the NIGER.  Correspondence which has passed between Mr W.H. Skinner who with Arch Deacon Walsh, has done much in connection with these hatchments, and Admiral Hotham, has elicited some interesting information from Commander Gassiot, who was a Midshipman on the NIGER at the time of the engagement, and also photographs of Captain Cracroft and a number of his officers.  As a momento of a historical event the following part of NIGERS officers and men took in the battle and the accompanying portraits and other illustrations, will, we trust, prove interesting to most of our readers.

HMS NIGER, a steam corvette of 1013 tons, 400hp mounting 13 guns, Captain P.Cracroft arrived at Auckland from Sydney on October 1 1859, for service on the New Zealand coast.  In the course of her duties she visited New Plymouth, arriving in the roadstead on March 1 1860, bringing 15 artillery men, two 25 pounder Howitzers, and 96,000 rounds of rifle ammunition.  At this time Wi Kingi’s attitude at Waitara was menacing, and causing a great deal of anxiety.

On Monday, March 4, the NIGER embarked his Excellency the Governor, Colonel Thomas Gore Browne, and steamed for Waitara, having previously taken on board a large quantity of heavy camp equipment for the troops which were marching to Waitara.  On the arrival of the later they found the Union Jack flying over Wi Kingi’s Pa.  The NIGER’s men having landed everything and taken possession.

On returning to the New Plymouth roadstead on March 7 the NIGER landed the two 34 pounder Howitzers which were taken to Marsland Hill.  On the 9th 20 marines, 50 blue jackets, the first and third Lieutenants, Blake and Wells, a Midshipman, an Assistant Surgeon, and a Gunner, together with a 12 pounder Howitzer, were landed and posted on a commanding position in the east end of the town (now known as Fort Niger).  Mr W.J.L. Grailing, in his extremely interesting journal of events published at the time in the Taranaki Herald says, “The landing of blue jackets is a novel sight in Taranaki – it being the first time men from a man o’ war have landed in this town.  They marched up from the beach with their band playing, the sailors dragging their gun, and were greeted with a hearty cheer from the assembled towns people on passing over the Hautoki Bridge.  It is not saying too much for this arm of the service that we believe that in case of emergency they will prove a most formidable force in resisting attack.”  How valuable and formidable they were shortly to prove an attack also will be shown below.

On March 10 the NIGER steamed for Manukau for the purpose coaling, and also to bring more troops, leaving behind her in New Plymouth the small force landed the previous day to assist in guarding the town.

Pending the vessels return we will now follow the fortunes of that small force.  On the night of March 16 Lieutenant Blake, the First Lieutenant, and Lieutenant Wells, the third Lieutenant of the NIGER, with a rocket corps and the two 24 pounder Howitzers, went to Waitara in the harbour boats, and on the following day took a conspicuous part in the attack on the L Pa, when the first shot of the war was fired shells and rockets from the Howitzers and rocket tube silenced the fire of the Pa, and finally a position was taken up within 200 yards of it, when operations were suspended until the next morning.  At daybreak preparations were made to renew the attack but the Pa was found to have been deserted by the natives during the night.

To return to the NIGER, after coaling at Manukau the vessel returned to New Plymouth roadstead on March 26 with Quartermaster Withers and 32 men of the 65th Regiment.

On the following day about 5pm, intelligence was brought into town of the murder at Omata of three settlers, S. Ford, H. Passmore, and S. Shaw who had been shot down by natives concealed behind a Furze hedge and afterwards tomahawked.  On Wednesday, March 28 news reached town that two boys, named Parker and Pote, had been tomahawked at Omata by the Maoris.  The bodies were all brought into town and the sight of them awakened feelings of the keenest revenge and the determination of the murderers should expiate their deeds with their lives.  Accordingly number 10 Company of the 65th Regiment under Colonel Murray, 25 blue jackets belonging to the NIGER under Lieutenant Blake, and a 102 volunteers and militia marched out to Omata for the first purpose of rescuing the Reverend Mr Brown and his family and others.  About 3 o’clock 60 blue jackets, with their gallant Captain and 24 inch rocket tube and rockets landed from the NIGER and camped on Mount Elliot.  The NIGER was thus stripped of every man that was possible to spare.  Not very long after the departure of the volunteers a messenger arrived with the news that the force had been attacked in great force on Major Lloyds and Messrs McKellar’s farm where upon the NIGER’s men, with their rocket tube, immediately started off to join the engagement.  Reports continued to reach town as to the progress of the fight.  Soon intelligence arrived that Sergeant Fahey of the militia, was killed, and the gallant Lieutenant Blake severely wounded, that the volunteers were hotly engaged and were running out of ammunition and were surrounded until suckered by the soldiers and sailors.

The alarming news determined Captain Cracroft to hasten with all speed to the scene of the engagement.  Guided by Messrs F. Mace (now Captain Mace) and C. and E. Messenger the little force used such despatch that it reached the scene of strife at half past 5 having searched every house on the line of march.  Just here may be recorded an incident, one of many connected with the Battle of Waireka, which occurred prior to Captain Cracroft’s entry upon the scene.  The Captain required a guide to take him to the spot, and upon calling for one Mr Frank Mace came forward stating that he knew the road, but that he was subpoenaed to give evidence at the inquest on the bodies of those that had been murdered, a statement which Sergeant Dunn of the local Police confirmed.  Captain Cracroft, however, realising the necessities of the case, quickly ordered a cordoned of his blue jackets to surround Mr Mace and thus forcibly took possession of him, quite nonplussing the Police Sergeant.

Our narrative does not pretend to give a detailed account of the Battle of Waireka, for has it not been described fully over and over again?  It may, however, be briefly mentioned that early in the day the Maoris had marched down to Omata to show themselves, and about noon they were observed in great numbers fortifying a position to the left of the stockade with strong barricades (this position is marked with a cross in our illustration of the battlefield).  About 1 o’clock the sentinels at the stockade reported the approach of an armed body of men, which eventually proved to be an advanced guard, composed of the blue jackets under Lieutenant Blake; then came carts containing rockets, closely followed by Colonel Murray and the men of the 65th.  Another party of militia and volunteers had been sent along the beach in order to get as near the native Pa as possible without being seen.  The business of the day was commenced by the beach party, whose fire drove the Maoris towards their fortified position.  Lieutenant Blake’s blue jackets met them by crossing Mr Keller’s paddock and shot a great many who were secreting themselves in the gullies.  Shortly afterwards Paul Blake, was gallantly leading his men received a wound in his breast and Sergeant Fahey fell mortally wounded.  Then Mr Messenger, senior, receiving a wound in the arm, and a sailor also fell.  Gradually this party fell back on the light company of the 65th.  Shortly afterwards the 65th bugle sounded a retreat, but the volunteers, seeing some of their wounded comrades in a gully in need of assistance, rushed to protect them and carry them on to Mr John Jury’s house where Captain Stapp had successfully established a post, from whence his skirmishes had effected considerable execution amongst the Maoris.  This was the position when Captain Cracroft approached.  The enemy were pressing; the regulars had been called off; and the volunteers and militia were fully engaged in looking after the wounded and keeping the enemy at bay.  Never was assistance more anxiously looked for than at the moment the NIGER’s men appeared on the scene.

Placing a rocket party in a position from which shells could be fired into the native position Captain Cracroft, under the protection of the fire, led his small force up the Waireka Hill and proceeded to attack the enemy.  Taking advantage of a thickly wooded gully he came unexpectedly on the enemy, opened fire, and charging the fugitives, entered the Pa simultaneously with them and the cutlasses did the rest.  A promised reward of 10 pounds to the capture of the enemy’s flat had caused the palisades to be surmounted, and William Hodges was the first man in.  The sailors of the NIGER alone took the Pa, held it, and only left it to return to their ship.  The casualties among the NIGER’s men included Lieutenant Blake, severely wounded, and a Marine named Thomas Millard who was killed and a picture of whose grave in St Mary’s churchyard will be found amongst our illustrations, Glanville, Captain of the foretop, and Tozer, Clarke, and Palmer, Marines, wounded.  It was estimated that there were some 800 natives engaged, and their casualties numbered from 100 to 150.  The timely attack so gallantly led by Captain Cracroft created a diversion in favour of the volunteers under Captain Stapp at Mr Jury’s house, who joined in the cheers when the Maori flag fell.  Just about dusk the Maoris rushed down the hill and entered a steep gully in the front, from whence they poured showers of bullets on Jury’s house (this gully will be seen in our illustration of the field).  About dusk Captain Stapp addressed the men, commanding them to hold themselves ready to retreat with the wounded.  The first step was to open communication with Captain Atkinson’s party, which was situated on the beach side of the hill to the left.  Without molestation they marched across the open fields and reached the stockade, thence proceeding to town.  The natives were observed on Thursday, March 29, stealing up to the stockade expecting to surprise those who had been occupying it the previous day.  They, however had made good their retreat to town, and the natives deserted their Pa.  Thus ended the Battle of Waireka.

Captain Cracroft returned to his ship with most of his men and on Saturday, March 31 steamed to Manukau taking the Governor, and also the captured rebel colours.  These later were presented to His Excellency at Auckland on the following Tuesday, with great ceremony.  The three companies of Auckland Volunteers were paraded and drawn up at Government House together with the band of the 65 Regiment.  The band played in the tars of the NIGER and the rebel flag they had so nobly won.  The flag floated from a very handsome standard, prepared for the occasion, and was of itself an object of no little interest.  Its devices were a representation of Mount Egmont and the Sugar Loaves; a bloody heart on its upper section and the initial M.N. (Maori Nation) on the lower.  Arrived in front of the principal interest to Government House the NIGER’s halted and grounded the flag.  Captain Cracroft, with Lieutenant Villiers, of the NIGER and Commander Champion and other officers of the ELK, together with Colonel Mould, and several military officers were present.  His Excellency and suite advanced to the front of the Esplanade, and was addressed by Captain Cracroft, who was greeted with most enthusiastic cheers, in the following words: – “I have the honour to present to your Excellency, on the part of the ships company of the NIGER, a flat taken from the Maori Pa captured on Wednesday last, and hope it may be accepted as a token of their respect.  It would have been more satisfactory to me if the gallant band who were engaged in this sharp and decisive affair, and won this trophy, could have accompanied it, but they are too much occupied in preparing the ship for sea.  I hope, however, your Excellency will allow these boys to represent them.  They are Auckland boys (six in number), and I trust the Auckland men around me would have reason some day to be proud of them; that, should the opportunity, offer, they may emulate the gallant deeds their shipmates have performed and also distinguished themselves in the service of their Queen and country.”  This speech was received with loud and prolonged cheers, after which His Excellency, who was greeted in the most cordial manner, replied:- “My friends I accept the trophy you offer me with pleasure and rejoice in the opportunity to convey to your gallant Captain and noble crew the thanks of the Government and people of this colony for the daring service they performed in capturing this flag – storming the Pa in which it was hoisted (an emblem of rebellion), and inflicting a severe and merited punishment on those who invaded our territory and murdered our unarmed and helpless settlers.  I shall have an inscription placed on the staff, commemorating the manner in which the flag was captured and by who it was done.  Wherever I go I shall display it with pride and pleasure – pride, that you should have confirmed so flattering a mark of goodwill upon me; and pleasure, because I shall have in it a lasting memorial of your gallantry and my happy relations with you.”

The flag was then carried into and deposited in the hall of Government House, the band playing the National Anthem and Rule Britannia, thus concluded the ceremony.

The NIGER returned to New Plymouth on April 5, but on account of a rising of natives in the Auckland Province she immediately embarked the party of blue jackets who had been left behind, with their guns, the men being chaired by the townspeople and military as they marched through the town.  Lieutenant Blake had sufficiently recovered from his wound to be taken on board, and the vessel left again for the Manukau on the evening of April the 6th.

The New Zealander, published at Auckland, recorded in its issue of April 28, 1860, that an address, beautifully engrossed in velum, signed by 180 ladies of Taranaki, had been received and presented to Captain Cracroft, whose officers, and noble ships company, it was terse and to the purpose being worded as follows:- “Captain Cracroft, the Officers, the men of HMS NIGER- “The relatives and friends of the militia and volunteers engaged in action on March 28, 1860, at the Waireka, beg to tender their heartfelt thanks to Captain Cracroft, the Officers, and men of HMS NIGER for their prompt and gallant attack and capture of the Waireka Pa by which the discomfortune of the natives was completed, and the militia and volunteers with their dead and wounded, relieved from a very perilous position.

The following reply as sent:- “To the Ladies of Taranaki – Captain Cracroft, the Officers, and the ships company of the NIGER are at a loss adequately to express their feeling on the reception of the address forwarded by the Airedale.

In expressing their acknowledgements they will however look back with heartfelt gratitude at having been permitted under divine providence to be the means of saving so many of their countrymen from almost certain death.  H.M. Steamship NIGER, Manukau Harbour, April 27, 1860.

On June 7 the NIGER left Manukau for Sydney for the purpose of being docked and overhauled on account of her having grounded at her anchorage and knocked of some 27 feet of her false keel, which required to be replaced.  The necessary repairs having been effected at Cockatoo Island the vessel returned to Auckland on August 14, 1860.

On September 19 she paid another visit to New Plymouth, leaving again a week later for a cruise down the coast.  On the 28th she was again in the roadstead, and left for Manukau on the 30th.  During the next few months she was engaged in carrying despatches and men along the coast.  In November, it is recorded in the New Zealander she and the Steam Sloop VICTORIA had an exciting race from the Manukau to New Plymouth.  Both crossed the bar at the same time, the NIGER leading the way, and beating her opponent half a mile by the finish.  The 180 miles being done in little over 12 hours.

In February, 1861 a seaman named Griffith was drowned off the vessel in Manukau Harbour.  The body was recovered and buried in the churchyard at Onehunga.

On April 29 the NIGER finally left New Plymouth roadstead and on the May 9 she left New Zealand for home.  The following extract from the Auckland Weekly registrar of May 13, 1861, will give some idea of the estimation in which Captain Cracroft and his officers and men were held: – “HM Steam Corvette NIGER, 13 guns, Captain Peter Cracroft, sailed from the Manukau for Portsmouth on Thursday May 9.  She took her departure about 11am and in moving down harbour shared alongside the MIRANDA, the ships loudly cheering each other, and the NIGER shieing their old caps on board the MIRANDA a mode, we presume, of wishing them good luck, as well as bequeathing them a share of that popularity which they themselves had so honourably acquired and so invariably maintained.  Heaven speed the noble barky and her gallant band to their destined haven.  It will be long before their memories shall be forgotten in New Zealand.”

In the face of what has preceded who shall say that is not fitting that the valuable services rendered to the colony, particularly in Taranaki by the NIGER should be commemorated as have been those of the various regiments which took part in the wars by a memorial hatchment in St Mary’s Church.

Admiral Hotham, in a letter to Mr W.H. Skinner, has suggested a design for the hatchment as follows:- “The crest of Captain Cracroft, as shown in one of our illustrations, supported by a Union Jack and White Ensign on each side respectively and the words, “HMS NIGER, 1860” underneath.”

Commander Gassiot, in a letter to Admiral Hotham on the subject, suggests the crest and moto “Ne Cede malis” of Captain Cracroft and the words “Hic Niger Est” which formed the stern ornament of the NIGER.  Commander Gassiot in forwarding the old photograph from which our reproduction is taken, mention that W.C. Karslake and C.B. Theobald Midshipman on the NIGER in 1860 are now retired Rear Admirals.  He himself is a retired Commander and all the others have passed away.  Lieutenant Blake died in the Ashante War of 1873/4.  Chief Engineer Rock was drowned in HMS CAPTAIN on September 7 1870.  It is, we believe, the intention to place a hatchment in St Mary’s Church, Arch Deacon Walsh having very generously consented to add this further favour of the many the church already owes him.

This brief history, as we have already stated, does not tend to be a description of the Battle of Waireka.  But merely a record of some of the doings of the NIGER’s Officers and crew.  With all its imperfections we trust it will prove interesting to our readers.