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On 8 March 1859, Donald McLean, speaking on behalf of Governor Gore Browne, informed Maori and settlers in Taranaki that “he would never consent to buy land without an undisputed title” and “would buy no man’s land without his consent”. At the same time he said he would not permit anyone to interfere in the sale of land “unless he owned part of it”. Soon after, Te Teira Manuka of Te Atiawa offered to sell him land at Waitara known as the Pekapeka block. Three days after making his offer, Te Teira wrote to the Governor to state that he and another owners were only selling their own undefined interests in the block, a small area that he estimated might be ‘only sufficient for three or four tents to stand upon’.
Immediately after Teira made his offer to the Governor, Wiremu Kingi te Rangitake, widely acknowledged as the principle rangatira of Waitara, objected to it. He argued that as rangatira he was responsible for protecting the collective interests of his people, including the retention of land and the preservation of autonomy. Kingi told the Governor, speaking on behalf of his people, that “I will not permit the sale of Waitara to the Pakeha. Waitara is in my hands, I will not give it up…”
Despite this objection, and despite the Governor’s previous statement about not purchasing disputed land, the Governor ordered his officials to identify each person’s part in the Pekapeka block, and to negotiate terms of sale with those identified. Wiremu Kingi and others from the Waitara community refused to undermine the collective interest by making an individual claim to any part of the block.
The Crown did not gain the general agreement of the rangatira and hapu of Waitara while negotiating the Pekapeka purchase. Governor Gore Browne received poor advice from Crown officials concerning the nature of Te Atiawa rights at Waitara. The Crown purchase agent in Taranaki, for example, informed the Governor that Kingi had no interest in the disputed land, despite knowing that Kingi was in residence there at the time.
In November 1859, the Crown made a partial payment to Te Teira. In February 1860, the Crown attempted to survey the block but was prevented from doing so by an unarmed party of Kingi’s people, mainly women. The Crown responded by proclaiming martial law throughout Taranaki, and sending Crown troops to support the survey.
After martial law was proclaimed, the Crown executed a deed of purchase with Te Teira and some of his whanau and announced that the title to Pekapeka was not disputed. Kingi continued to dispute Te Teira’s right to sell, and indicated his determination that Te Atiawa retain the land. Early in March 1860, the Crown took military possession of the Pekapeka block. On 15 March, after the survey of the block had resumed, Kingi’s supporters built a fortified pa on the south-western corner of the block, commanding the road access. When Kingi refused to surrender it, on 17 March 1860, some 500 Crown troops began a bombardment of the pa. This marked the beginning of war in Taranaki.
Te Atiawa soon received support from other Maori from within and outside of Taranaki. Initially, most fighting took place to the south of New Plymouth, as the Crown responded to attacks mounted in the area by iwi groups from middle and southern Taranaki. In June, fighting resumed in the Te Atiawa rohe, with fighters from Te Atiawa and other iwi groups defeating a force of 350 British troops at Puketakauere, just inland from Waitara. In the following months, Crown troops moved through the Te Atiawa rohe engaging in skirmishes with Te Atiawa fighters and destroying abandoned pa, kainga, and stores of provisions. Between December and March 1860, British forces employed sapping techniques which involved approaching established Maori positions through long trenches constructed for the purpose. This technique, designed to counter the guerrilla tactics being successfully employed by Maori, was labour intensive and expensive, and did not produce any significant victories for Crown forces.
In April 1861, after a year of fighting, a peace agreement was reached with the involvement of Kingitanga representatives. The agreement provided that the Waitara purchase would be investigated. In the meantime, the Pekapeka block remained occupied by Crown troops, while iwi of central and south Taranaki maintained occupation of the Omata and Tataraimaka Blocks. These two blocks had been purchased by the Crown in 1847 but re-taken by Maori during the war. Some Maori asserted that the return of Tataraimaka, and presumably also Omata, was contingent on the Crown giving up Waitara.
In March 1863, before an inquiry into Pekapeka had been completed, Governor Grey ordered Crown forces to re-occupy Omata, and on 4 April, troops occupied the Tataraimaka block. On 6 April, Governor Grey decided to renounce the purchase of the Pekapeka block, but his Ministers did not announce this until 11 May.
In the meantime, Crown troops had been carrying provisions and equipment across Maori land between the Ōmata and Tataraimaka Blocks and New Plymouth. One week before the announcement to abandon the Pekapeka purchase was made, a group of Taranaki Maori attacked a party of soldiers moving between the blocks at Wairau, killing nine. Within three weeks, Crown troops and Maori in Taranaki were again engaged in fighting.
Conflict continued through late 1863, and in early 1864 Crown troops occupied Te Atiawa land and built the Sentry Hill military redoubt on an ancient pa site called Te Morere. In April 1864, a Maori force of approximately 200 assaulted the redoubt, but was repulsed with significant losses. In the following months, Crown forces built a number of redoubts on Maori land along the lower Waitara River, to secure military occupation of the land and to provide security for military settlements. Some redoubts were built on wahi tapu. In July and August, Maori carried out raids against settler properties around New Plymouth, including in the Te Atiawa rohe. In late September, Crown forces mounted several attacks against groups of Maori fighters and pa sites in the Te Atiawa rohe. These attacks resulted in the loss of Te Atiawa property, and injuries and loss of life for Te Atiawa people.