The first Taranaki War and Te Tau Ihu


The First Taranaki War (1860-1861) was an event of great significance in New Zealand history. The event took place in Taranaki, hence its name, yet its effects were felt throughout New Zealand and notably in Te Tau Ihu

BackgroundThe First Taranaki War

The First Taranaki War was a serious conflict over land rights in early settler New Zealand. The war could be viewed as being a Māori versus British conflict, though this is not entirely the case. The war concerned the sale of Māori land by a minor Te Ātiawa chief, Te Teira Manuka, to the Crown. The sale was opposed by a senior Te Ātiawa chief, Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke. The First Taranaki War was therefore, rather than being a conflict of Māori versus the British, a conflict over land in which there was a Māori side versus a joint British and Māori side. Note that because Wiremu Kīngi and his supporters were opposed to the sale to the Crown, they were at war with the British,rather than with all settlers.

Wiremu Kingi by Gottfried Lindauer

Wiremu Kingi. Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926) -  Public Domain,

Te Teira offered to sell a 600 acre Waitara block of land to the Crown in 1859. Sale to the Crown was the only way in which settlers could acquire land following the Treaty of Waitangi. The offer of the sale was accepted on the grounds that it could be proven that Te Teira had sole claim to the land, which was done - in spite of the fact Wiremu Kīngi had authority over most of the land block in question. This was disregarded at the time a fact because Kīngi was living on the Kapiti coast when the first settlers arrived. Such disagreements occurred because of different interpretations of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Māori version of the Treaty guarantees rangātiratanga to iwi while the English version gives the Queen sovereignty over the land. Therefore in both translations of the Treaty, different parties are given authority over the land.

Wiremu Kīngi wrote to the Governor in response to the proposed land sale: “You should remember that the Māories and Pākehās are living quietly upon their pieces, and therefore do not you disturb them."1 Kīngi’s writing here makes clear that, whilst he was reluctant to start a war, it was of greater importance to protect the land. 

The First Taranaki War was the result of a failed peaceful resistance in a desperate situation. Wiremu Kīngi and his supporters had begun their protest in a peaceful way, Kīngi reportedly saying “he did not desire war.”2  The first shots of the Taranaki War were fired on 17 March 1860 by government surveyor, Charles Wilson Hursthouse. It was only after this that Wiremu's war flag was raised. The completed sale of the Waitara land meant that Wiremu Kīngi and his supporters would continue fighting until they regained what they saw as their land. The First Taranaki War lasted until a truce was reached in March 1861. The intervening period saw much fighting and casualties on both sides, with a total of twelve battles being fought.

The British attacked by sea and land, with shells and rockets being fired from the ship Niger at the mission station and then hundreds of foot soldiers were sent overland. Richard Brown, who captained the Native Contingent and was the principal guide of the Warea expedition, wrote of the British atrocities: “Orders [were] passed to pull down the houses, demolish the Pa and destroy everything destroyable.”3  The British wanted the land for settlement and because it was needed to supply food for the settlement of New Plymouth.  It would be wrong, however, to say that it was only the British that made such attacks during the war. Between Tataraimaka and Bell Block, 187 settler farmers' houses were burned and the loss of assets, including property and livestock were tallied to an estimated £200 000. Thus it was that the war made for a truly sorry period of New Zealand history.

The First Taranaki War did not have have a single clear cause. On the face of it, the war can be traced to a settler desire for land. Pākehā settlement of New Plymouth was more difficult than other areas in New Zealand due to a lack of sufficient land. In 1848, there were only 3500 acres available for settlement and though Governor George Grey increased this by 32000 acres in the years 1848-1853, it did not satisfy settler demand. The Pākehā population of New Plymouth saw an increase in the late 1850s and in 1858, for the first time, the Pākehā population of the area exceeded the Māori population.  Māori remained reluctant to sell land. It was for this reason that the idea of a Māori king emerged - the first, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, appointed in 1858. Land was placed under the protection of the Māori king. However, this was commonly interpreted by settlers as being an ‘anti-land-selling league’. The conflict thus became more complex.

The British felt that the the authority of the Queen had to be established over Māori and over the Māori King. In 1860, the Nelson Examiner reported on a meeting on the subject of the Taranaki War, at which one man is reported to have said: “but one flag should fly in the colony and that one the Union Jack”.4  His statement was met with cheers and so whilst this was a Nelson meeting and this the view of someone not personally affected by the conflict, it demonstrates the wide settler opinion that Māori should be ‘put in their place’. In this sense the views of historian James Belich are well supported: “British sovereignty had to be asserted by denying Kīngi’s autonomy, even at the risk of war".5  Certainly it is not beyond doubt that the sale was orchestrated by the Crown, in knowledge of Wiremu Kīngi’s authority but in hope of punishing those who rebelled against the sale and authority of the Crown. 

The First Taranaki War was a time of much British fear, cruelty and patriotism. In a documentation of the events in the lead up to the battle of Waireka, a Taranaki Herald correspondent reported the following: “… five of our people, including two helpless boys, [have] been waylaid and savagely butchered in the abandoned village of Omata, within half a mile of our stockade. The victims appear to have been indiscriminately fallen upon, and they met their terrible doom not with arms in their hands, but engaged in industrial and peaceful pursuits.”6  Here, the Māori race are  labelled “savages”, and  the settlers have been cast as innocent, “indiscriminately fallen upon”. One can only imagine the fear that this must have installed within the settlers of the region.  Similar views were voiced in the correspondence of C.W. Richmond, minister of native affairs, to Donald McLean, the government’s chief land purchase commissioner. He wrote that the British must “counteract the sinister forces at work upon them.”7   As well as their demonisation, Māori were also abandoned by those previously assigned to helping them convert to religion and (supposedly) make them better citizens. In one example, the missionary of Warea, Riemschneider, informed the British of the Māori defences and labelled them as “hostile”.8  The abandonment of Māori by a missionary, one whom was assigned to see them religiously purified, seems in complete opposition to the need of counteracting their ‘sinister forces’.

Taranaki Storming the Waireka Pah 1863

Storming the Waireka Pah 1863

However, much as the war was a time of fear and cruelty, it was also a time of patriotism. In the Taranaki Herald article cited above, the correspondent boasted: “In an engagement of their own [Māori] seeking with a force nearly half composed of civilians they have been routed and broken, and what has been once done can be repeated."9  These words would have served to rally the settlers in Taranaki.  The battle of Waireka was portrayed as a great victory for the British. In the picture Storming the Waireka Pah,10   the scene of battle is depicted by an anonymous though assumedly British artist. In the foreground the British soldiers are dominant, in contrast to the ‘flailing’ Māori in the mid-ground. The drawing down of the Māori flag features as the highest point in the artwork, drawing attention to the victory and triumph of the native defeat. 1863 marked the year in which the Second Taranaki War began and therefore it was of British interest to promote the successes of the previous conflict. It was reported that 70-150 Māori were killed in the storming of the pā, though this is disputed by today’s historians. James Belich has suggested that the pā was largely empty at the time of the attack and therefore such a high number of fatalities would not have been possible. This is supported by Nigel Prickett who has estimated Māori fatalities to be between 17 and 40, significantly less than what was reported at the time. The exaggeration of victory can therefore be seen to suggest that the British were interested not only in making themselves appear to be successful soldiers in the public eye, but also in an attempt to justify the attack. 

The  First Taranaki War had a significant effect on the town of New Plymouth, which was the main town in Taranaki. Edwin Hodder, an Englishman who visited Taranaki at the time of the war, described his experience in the town: “It was lamentable to walk through that once flourishing and prosperous town, and see what ravages had been made. Business was at an end, except for articles of daily consumption; the streets were almost desolate – not a woman or child was to be seen, – only soldiers, who were all in bustle and confusion.”11  Hodder’s description is sorrowful yet it also shows what measures New Plymouth took as a war-town. Hodder reports networks of trenches and fortifications through the town and “formidable fear-inspirers” (cannons) placed in desirable locations. The town was desolate bar the signs of war, and Hodder witnessed the organisation of the evacuation of women and children from the town.

Prior to his arrival, the town had been overcrowded as rural settlers were moved to the town for their safety; it was in rural areas that most Māori attacks were made. This in turn led to poor conditions and with that the spread of disease. The death toll reached 120. Life was miserable.

Taranaki Dispute over evacuation of women and children

Dispute over evacuation of women and children

In 1860 most settlers would have only recently immigrated to New Zealand, so the war and its effects would have been a far cry from the peaceful and beautiful life they were set to expect in New Zealand. In spite of this, the evacuation of women and children did not bring much relief. In August 1860 it was stated that it was an “absolute necessity”12  that all women and children were evacuated from the town. This was fully funded and done  without any class distinction -  a demonstration of the importance the evacuation had to the war. The presence of non-fighting individuals would not only have hindered the war effort, but also it was dangerous for them to stay. It was in accordance with British values that women and children be protected as they were the future of society. The evacuation was not welcomed by families - separation from loved ones would have caused much anxiety - as shown in the image.13  The depiction shows the clear divide between the women and soldiers. 

Impact on Nelson

The town of Nelson was significantly affected by the First Taranaki War through the intake of evacuees from Taranaki. Nelson settlers were very willing to aid the Taranaki cause and there was only a short sea voyage from New Plymouth to Nelson,  so approximately 1200 evacuees of the Taranaki War (known as the ‘Taranaki refugees’) were transported there. Though most of the country was supportive of the settler cause in Taranaki, Nelson was more inclined to sympathy than others. Whilst the North Island of New Zealand still had much Māori resistance and presence in the mid-19th century, such was not the case in the South Island. Nelson settlers also had the added memory of the 1843 Wairau Affray which resulted in the deaths of 22 Europeans and four known Māori. Therefore knowing first-hand the trauma of a Māori-European conflict would have caused much sympathy within the region given that Nelson was a firmly established settler community.

On the face of it, the intake of refugees was only positive for Nelson. Aid committees helped to integrate refugees into the daily life of the province and those billeted with families were able to offer domestic help to their hosts. Donations to support the refugee cause were received from other towns within the country including Auckland and Wellington. This support would no doubt have been appreciated given the enormity of the task of providing for the refugees. For a small town, it would have been of great significance that they were receiving so much support. At least 1200 refugees arrived in Nelson, a significant intake in relation to the population number of 4701 in 1861.

The intake of such a large number of refugees was used advantageously by some who wished to promote permanent and increased settlement in the Nelson region and outlying districts. In the years following the war's end, many settlers returned to New Plymouth. However some stayed, notably Thomas Rutherford’s family including, Ernest Rutherford’s mother, and artist Emily Harris

However, the sheer number of refugees did have its drawbacks. The Nelson Examiner expressed that it was “apprehensive”14  about the number of refugees that might have to be catered for. Whilst initially refugees were housed with families and in the Oddfellows Hall, the continued arrival of refugees required the building of the Taranaki Buildings. For this, £6000 was given by the Provincial Government. Yet conditions did not necessarily satisfy all inhabitants. W.H. Scott wrote a letter of complaint to the superintendent concerning the “miserable arrangements”15  and noting that there was a lack of nursing staff to assist the sick. These supposed poor conditions can be attributed to the stress and difficulties of having to cater for so many refugees as opposed to being a result of neglect. Certainly, the sheltered and war-free Taranaki Buildings were an improvement on the conditions in New Plymouth.  

Generally, it is true that the refugees were a positive influence on Nelson. This is not only due to the benefits it brought at the time, but also because of their lasting significance in helping to shape the community. There were large numbers of Anglican refugees, which prompted the formation of the Parish of All Saints in 1862. A church was built in 1868 and Trafalgar Park was purchased in 1891 with money spare from the refugee fund. These places are still central to the Anglican and wider community today.

Alfred, Arthur and Tom Rawson, refugees from Taranaki, are also credited as being the first boarders of Nelson College.16  If the Taranaki War served in any way to initiate boarding at Nelson College, this too is significant for not only did boarding provide a way for boys from across the region to attend school, but boarding continues to be a valued part of Nelson College.  In light of all this, it would seem a fit conclusion that the intake of refugees was of positive effect to Nelson, not only at the time but in the long run as well.

Impact on Māori in Te Tau Ihu

Māori of Te Tau Ihu (Nelson-Marlborough) were ancestrally connected to Taranaki and the Taranaki war had an impact on the Māori people of the top of the south.  Māori had populated Te Tau Ihu since the 14th century, however, the tribes living in different parts of the region changed over time as a result of invasion and conflicts amongst different iwi. Several tribes arrived in 1828 including Ngāti Toa and Te Ātiawa, from Taranaki. It was Ngāti Toa Māori who were involved in the 1843 Wairau Affray and subsequent to this a number of Māori returned to their point of origin.  Te Ātiawa Māori still residing in Te Tau Ihu were thus connected to the conflict, as many of their relatives were living there.

Elizabeth Caldwell, a Nelson settler, wrote of the effect of the war outbreak on Māori in Te Tau Ihu, saying that they became “very sullen and silent”.17  This outlines how greatly the war came to effect Māori life in Te Tau Ihu and would have caused significant anxiety for settlers of the region for it was uncertain which way Māori would turn. Some Māori wished to aid Wiremu Kīngi in the fight against the British, as they sympathised with the way he lost his land. They had also lost their promised Native Tenths. Other Māori aided Te Teira, as they believed they could benefit from the sale of the land which was no longer of use to them if residing in Te Tau Ihu. On both sides decisions were based on kinship - as either relatives  of Wiremu Kīngi or Te Teira and, in some cases, both.


Burning the old people's home (The Taranaki Barracks, in1909). Nelson PhotoNews, 13 November 1971

Caldwell wrote of the support Māori of Te Tau Ihu gave to those in Taranaki: “large war canoes were sent away laden with contributions of bullets and other accessories of war to Taranaki.”18  Caldwell does not report  which side these Māori were supporting and it is likely that she did not know, which would have been unsettling. However, not all Te Tau Ihu Māori were willing to become involved in the war for, much as they had whānau connections to consider, some also considered it important not to upset the balance of Māori-Pākehā relations. Much indecision arose among Māori because of this and resulted in rifts among Māori of Te Ātiawa at the time.

As Assistant Native Secretary in Nelson, James Mackay Jr. had responsibility for preventing Māori from siding with Wiremu Kīngi and aiding the war effort. Mackay recognised that there was a high presence of Te Ātiawa Māori in Nelson and worked with both the Māori and Europeans to ensure a mutual state of peace. Mackay tried to prevent provocative acts or words said to Māori in order to “preserve the good understanding which [existed] between the two races”.19  In September 1860, Mackay also secured the exemption of the Nelson volunteer militia from joining the war at Taranaki,  in a further attempt to pacify Te Ātiawa Māori. For Nelson settlers to become involved in the war would act as an indirect invitation for Māori to take up arms, a complete contradiction to the aim of preventing their involvement. Mackay was respected by many Māori chiefs in Te Tau Ihu and this, in conjunction with his warnings to Māori, helped to maintain peace between the races. In July 1860 he is reported to have informed the Māori that: “[anyone] who commences any disturbances or [?] threats [will be sent] to Nelson to work on the roads.”20 

Mackay still faced opposition from Māori. Manihera, of Ngāti Kuia, expressed his concerns about the militia in Nelson: “… I see the soldiers drilling at Nelson. The Magistrates wish me to believe it is all right, that they (the soldiers) do not desire my eyes …. Although you try and deceive me by saying these soldiers are for Taranaki, they are for me…”.21  This indicates how truly Te Tau Ihu and Taranaki Māori were intertwined and how truly Nelson military actions in aid of the Taranaki War caused ill feeling for Māori in Nelson. This was a difficult time for both the settlers and Māori, and the Taranaki War had a lasting significance for the region and Maori.

The decision around whether to aid the war against the British,  caused rifts to emerge between Te Tau Ihu Māori - within and between tribes. These rifts healed over time.  The establishment of Whakatu Marae in 1977 was significant in helping to heal any remaining divisions. The Marae encompasses six tribes of the Nelson region: Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Kuia, Te Runangā o Toarangātira, Ngāti Rarua, Ngāti Tama and Te Ātiawa, and it is an acknowledgment of the presence of Māori with various tangata whenua status within Te Tau Ihu. 

Maori-Pakeha relations

The First Taranaki War caused a deterioration of Māori-Pākehā relations. The war developed  a sense of mistrust.  Māori killed settlers and destroyed assets in Taranaki and there was uncertainty about which side Māori in their own region would support. Newspapers labelled Māori as “savages”, which only increased anxiety.  The separation between the races forced Europeans were forced to reduce their dependence on Māori for produce and other assistance in the new land.

On the Māori side, the war exposed the truth in British ideologies and actions; it marked them as killers with a corrupt government who wanted only to take their land in unjust manner. They also saw the British deviate from Christian values - British soldiers  fought on Sundays and ransacked Christian places.

Relations were not helped by the opinions voiced by certain settlers. David Monro, Nelson and national politician, wrote of Māori: “… a black man has no respect for the white settler, until the latter has shown him he is physically his superior. …. The Maories are a confounded nuisance: and will never be brought to reason until they get an uncommonly good thrashing.”22   There was also an opinion that the Māori race was in decline, and the Taranaki War hastened this. In 1862, the Nelson Examiner stated: “… the [Māori] race has been for some years in rapid decay. The excitement of an active struggle may have quickened their failing energy, but the existing sullen jealousy must co-operate with the poverty consequent on the late commotions, to hasten their downward progress.”23  

As an early Māori-European conflict, the First Taranaki War was significant for all New Zealanders. It  had a big impact on Māori-Pakeha relations, not only in Taranaki, but also in other areas of New Zealand, and particularly Nelson, with its close connection to Taranaki. The influx of the Taranaki refugees has had a lasting impact on the Nelson community.

Written for NCEA Assessment, Nelson College for Girls 2016 (edited for the Prow). Updated August 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Wiremu Kīngi (25 April 1859), letter to the governor, retrieved from 'War in Taranaki 1860-63', NZ History,
  2. Scott, D. (1991) Ask That Mountain: The Story of Parihaka p 13
  3. Scott, p 11
  4. 'Local Intelligence: Public meeting respecting the rumoured cessation of hostilities' (25 April 1860) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 2
  5. Belich, J. in 'War in Taranaki 1860-63', NZ History,
  6. 'The Battle of Waireka' (31 March 1860) Taranaki Herald, p 2
  7. Richmond, C.W. (20 July 1860) letter to Donald McLean (typescript), retrieved from Papers Past,
  8. Reimschneider, in Scott (1991), p 15
  9. 'The Battle of Waireka' (31 March 1860) Taranaki Herald, p 2
  10. Storming the Waireka Pah, 1860, retrieved from'War in Taranaki 1860-63', NZ History,
  11. Hodder, E. (1863), Memories of New Zealand life [Taranaki - the Refugees] p 192, retrieved from ENZB:
  12. Proclamation (28 Aug 1860), in Day, K. (ed.) (2010) Contested Ground – Te Whenua I Tohea: The Taranaki Wars 1860-1881, p 38
  13. Bent, T. (c.1860) Untitled, in Day, K. (ed.) (2010) Contested Ground – Te Whenua I Tohea: The Taranaki Wars 1860-188,1, p 40
  14. Nelson Examiner (1860), in Day, K. (2010), p 36
  15. Scott, W.H (28 Dec 1860), letter to the superintendent, in Day, K. p 42
  16. Rawson, H.P. (2011) 'A chilling tale of two cities' Nelson Historical Society Journal 7(3)
  17. Caldwell, E. (1850-1862) [Reminiscences (typescript)]. Nelson Provincial Museum: A430, p 34
  18. Caldwell, p 34
  19. James Mackay in Day, K. (2010), pp 45-46
  20. Day, K p 47
  21. Manihera in Day, K. p 48
  22. David Monro in Day, K., p 45
  23. Nelson Examiner (1862) in Day, K., p 53
  24. Anon in ‘Judd felt force of anti-Maori racism’ (10 May 2016), Radio New Zealand, 

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  • Nigel Prickett certainly doesn't support Belich in any of his absurd comments about Waireka. There were many Maori casualties there. HMS Niger followed the defeated warriors south and attacked them at Warea with cannon bombardment and rocket fire. There are many available sources you have neglected. Ed. This is a Your story and one student's interpretation of her reading. A fuller list of sources can be found at:

    Posted by Ian Mack, 14/12/2019 2:08am (4 years ago)

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Further sources - The first Taranaki War and Te Tau Ihu


  • Broad, Lowther, (1976) The Jubilee History of Nelson, Capper Press: Christchurch, New Zealand
  • Caldwell, E. 1850-1862. [Reminiscences (typescript)]. Nelson Provincial Museum: A430
  • Day, Kelvin (ed.) (2010) Contested Ground – Te Whenua I Tohea: The Taranaki Wars 1860-1881, Huia Publishers: Wellington, New Zealand
  • Lash, M. & Smith, D. (ed.) (1992) Nelson notables, 1840-1940: A dictionary of regional biography, Nelson Historical Society: Nelson, New Zealand
  • McAloon, Jim, (1997) Nelson: A Regional History, Cape Catley Ltd: Whatamango Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand
  • Hodder, E. (1863) Memories of New Zealand life [Taranaki - the Refugees]. Retrieved from ENZB: 
  • Pratt, W. T. (1877) Colonial Experiences; or, Incidents and reminiscences of thirty-four years in New Zealand, Chapman & Hall: London, retrieved from 'Internet Archive':  
  • Scott, Dick, (1991) Ask That Mountain: The Story of Parihaka, Reed/Southern Cross: Auckland


Newspaper articles

  • 'The Battle of Waireka' (31 March 1860) Taranaki Herald, p. 2
  • 'Battle of Waireka' (31 March 1860) Taranaki Herald, p. 3
  • 'Naval Brigade' (31 March 1860) Taranaki Herald, p. 3
  • 'The War' (31 March 1860) Taranaki Herald, p. 3
  • 'Shipping' (3 April 1860) Colonist, p. 2
  • 'The Taranaki Refugees' (4 April 1860) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 2
  • 'Motueka' (13 April 1860) Colonist, p. 3
  • 'Taranaki Aid Committee' (14 April 1860) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 3
  • 'Local Intelligence: Public meeting respecting the rumoured cessation of hostilities' (25 April 1860) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 2
  • 'Ladies Taranaki Aid Committee' (27 April 1860) Colonist, p. 2
  • 'Ladies Taranaki Aid Committee: To the Taranaki Refugees' (28 April 1860) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 2



  • Rawson, T. E. (4 April 1861) letter to his sister (typescript), Nelson Provincial Museum
  • Rawson, T. E. (30 Sep 1862) letter to his sister (typescript), Nelson Provincial Museum
  • Richmond, C. W. (3 June 1859) letter to Donald McLean (typescript),retrieved from Papers Past, date accessed 16/06/16
  • Richmond, C.W. (25 November 1859) letter to Donald McLean (typescript), retrieved from Papers Past, date accessed 16/06/16
  • Richmond, C.W. (7 March 1860) letter to Donald McLean (typescript), retrieved from Papers Past, date accessed 16/06/16
  • Richmond, C.W. (20 July 1860) letter to Donald McLean (typescript), retrieved from Papers Past, date accessed 16/06/16

Personal Communications

  • Mitchell, Hilary and John, personal communication (email), 22-30 June 2016

Web Resources