Hearing of the return of the exiles in July 1868, Poverty Bay Resident Magistrate Major Reginald Biggs sent three Māori emissaries to Whareongaonga. One was Paora Kati, a Rongowhakaata chief who had guarded Te Kooti on the voyage to Wharekauri. Te Kooti and his followers were told to surrender all their weapons and ‘await the decision of the government as to their future’. Te Kooti replied that he and the whakarau (former prisoners) merely wanted to be left alone. He informed the emissaries that ‘we go to Waikato, there to dethrone the King and set up one that shall be the chosen of the Atua (God)’. He would fight only if ‘he was pursued and attacked’.
Te Kooti’s war began on 20 July when local troops and Māori were defeated at Pāparatū, inland from Whareongaonga. Te Kooti at this stage enjoyed a number of advantages over his opponents. The successful escape from Wharekauri had convinced the whakarau that his authority was God-given, and his group contained a number of seasoned and accomplished fighters. He had an intimate knowledge of the local terrain and experience in dealing with Pākehā. Further victories were achieved at Te Kōneke on 24 July and Ruakituri Gorge on 8 August, when he defeated a column led by George Whitmore, the commandant of the Armed Constabulary. Te Kooti was wounded in this action and retired to Puketapu pā, near Lake Waikaremoana.
The Armed Constabulary
In 1867, with imperial soldiers being withdrawn from New Zealand, a new military structure was needed. Believing that the ‘backbone of Māori armed resistance to state authority’ was now broken, the government decided to establish a body of armed constables able to play the twin roles of policeman and soldier. The Armed Constabulary came into existence in October 1867. It was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas McDonnell until March 1868, when Lieutenant-Colonel George Whitmore took over command. In response to the resumption of armed resistance to the state that was led by Tītokowaru and Te Kooti, the Armed Constabulary became a purely military organisation.
An offer of peace
In the spring of 1868 the Defence Minister, Theodore Haultain, wrote to Whitmore outlining a government peace offer to the whakarau:
What the government requires from the escaped prisoners is that they shall surrender themselves and give up their arms. No further proceedings will in that case be taken against them. Land will be found for them to live on.
The man charged with delivering this message to Te Kooti was Father Euloge Reignier, a Hawke’s Bay Catholic missionary. Some of the whakarau were former members of his congregation. Shortly after leaving Napier on 13 October he met a government despatch rider who told him that his chances of meeting Te Kooti were virtually nil because of heavy flooding and the presence of ‘Hauhau’. Reignier responded by giving the message to the despatch rider. Questions have been raised as to exactly what message Te Kooti received, but what is clear is that he rejected it. There is evidence that the government was attempting to drive a wedge between Te Kooti and some of the whakarau by offering to meet a group who had expressed a willingness to negotiate after the battle at Ruakituri. Aware of the presence of government scouts in the area, Te Kooti may have dismissed the offer as an attempt to stall for time.
Reignier was informed that ‘the prophet … is sleeping now’. Te Kooti was waiting to hear the response to letters he had sent to Tūhoe and to King Tāwhiao seeking permission to enter their territories. Te Kooti wrote to his kin in Turanga telling them to ‘remain outwardly loyal to the government’ while gathering arms in anticipation of his return in the summer. Tāwhiao’s reply made it clear that any attempt by Te Kooti to enter the King Country would be repelled. While a few Tūhoe had joined Te Kooti at Puketapu, he was not given permission to enter their lands. With nowhere else to go, Te Kooti turned his attention to Poverty Bay.