The opening shots of the Taranaki war were fired at Kingi's new pa, Te Kohia – also known as the ‘L’ pa because of its shape – on 17 March 1860. After a day of fruitless artillery fire Maori evacuated the pa during the night with no loss of life. Te Kohia set the pattern for the next 12 months of fighting. Te Atiawa aimed to confront the British in a way that prevented them from being able to use their superior manpower and resources.
Raids against settler properties in outlying areas increased, forcing many into New Plymouth for safety. Fears that the conflict might spread beyond Te Atiawa appeared realised when a force of 500 Taranaki, Ngati Ruanui and Nga Rauru Maori assembled above Omata, less than 10 km south of New Plymouth. They built Kaipopo pa, which provided a good view of both the main road and the settlers' stockade at Omata. News reached New Plymouth on 28 March that five settlers, including two boys, had been killed in Omata, increasing fears that the town was slowly but surely becoming encircled by hostile forces. A force was dispatched immediately to rescue settlers said to be trapped behind enemy lines near the Waireka Stream.
The Battle of Waireka was the first significant encounter of the Taranaki War. Just what happened that day has become the source of intense historical debate. It was a confused affair in which William Odgers became the first person to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the New Zealand Wars.
Historian James Belich described Waireka as a ‘paper victory’ in which claims of ‘enormous’ Maori losses supported the notion of a great British victory. He maintained that the pa was empty save for one elderly Maori occupant. The Waitangi Tribunal’s Taranaki Report (1996) even claimed that Waireka was a Maori victory. Nigel Prickett acknowledged that British reports of ‘cart-loads’ of Maori bodies were exaggerated, but concluded that between 17 and 40 Maori were killed. Regardless of the body count, the British could claim Waireka as a victory - albeit one of uncertain magnitude. Reputable sources thus cover the full gamut of contradictory outcomes.
The rescue plan involved a force of around 120 troops and 100 local volunteers and militia. Lieutenant-Colonel Murray's troops met no resistance as they advanced along the main road. However, the warriors at Kaipopo pa spotted the settlers as they marched along the beach. They moved out of the pa and took position near the Waireka Stream below. After an exchange of fire lasting several hours, ammunition on both sides was running low by late afternoon.
Murray had orders to have his men back in New Plymouth by nightfall as they formed a significant part of the town's defences. He had sent some of his men to help the settler force but sounded the recall around 5.30 p.m. During the march back Murray and his men were passed by Captain Peter Cracroft of HMS Niger with 60 of his men. The return of Murray and his men was roundly condemned. How could professional soldiers abandon amateurs in their hour of need?
The men of the Niger arrived below Kaipopo near dusk. Cracroft declared, ‘Ten pounds to the man who gets that flag!’ Kaipopo pa was stormed and ‘captured under heavy fire’. Newspapers claimed that Cracroft's men killed anywhere between 70 and 150 Maori. Odgers was now £10 richer and had gained his place in New Zealand military history. No attempt was made to contact either the marooned settlers or the militia under attack near the Waireka Stream before Cracroft and his men returned in triumph to New Plymouth. The Maori near the stream withdrew upon hearing the action at the pa above them, clearing the way for both settlers and militia to reach the town.
Had the settlers really been in danger? Most had gathered at the property of Rev. Henry Brown. He and fellow clergyman Thomas Gilbert had been declared tapu. The Portuguese and French settlers with them were also safe, as the conflict ‘was only with the British’. Gilbert said later that ‘it was no wish of ours that an armed expedition should be set on foot on our behalf. We were perfectly safe’.