Land disputes in South Taranaki
Riwha Tītokowaru was a Ngā Ruahine leader who had been influenced by Pai Mārire and fought in the Taranaki wars. Initially he was committed to peace, but as settlers began moving into South Taranaki and land confiscations began, Tītokowaru became committed to defending Māori land. On 9 June 1868 a disagreement over cutting-rights near Māwhitiwhiti led to the killing of three sawyers. Māori accused of the killings took refuge among Ngā Ruahine led by Tītokowaru, who refused to turn them over to the government. Four hundred additional armed constabulary were recruited and posted to Taranaki, along with 100 Whanganui Māori who would also see action in the area.
The war begins
On 12 July 1868 Tītokowaru attacked a redoubt at Turuturumōkai, 5 kilometres from the main armed constabulary redoubt at Waihī, near Hāwera. The early-morning assault lasted for two hours, with Māori unable to breach the redoubt walls. Ten members of the armed constabulary, including the officer in command, Captain Frederick Ross, were killed, before reinforcements arrived from Waihī.
In retaliation for this assault, Tītokowaru’s village, Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, was attacked on 21 August 1868, with inconclusive results. A second expedition was launched on 7 September, with a force of 360 constabulary under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas McDonnell marching to within 45 metres of the village before Ngā Ruahine opened fire from concealed positions within the forest. McDonnell called an immediate retreat, but not before many of his men had fallen, including Major Gustavus von Tempsky. Following this defeat, the armed constabulary abandoned Waihī redoubt and withdrew to Waverley. McDonnell was relieved of his command and replaced by Colonel George Whitmore.
On 7 November 1868 Whitmore attacked Tītokowaru at Moturoa, inland from Waverley, with over 300 men – including Māori from Whanganui under the leadership of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui. Whitmore’s frontal attack proved ineffective against well-constructed ramparts and concealed riflemen. With casualties mounting (19 of his men died, against only one of Tītokowaru’s) and the engagement clearly lost, Whitmore retreated to Waverley.
Following the engagement at Moturoa, Tītokowaru moved to Taurangaika pā, near Nukumaru, which building massive earthworks. The armed constabulary approached the pā in late January 1869, encamping some distance away, preparing for an assault in early February. However, when the assault was launched on 2 February 1869, the pā was found to have been abandoned. The reasons are uncertain. According to Kimble Bent, an American ex-soldier serving with Tītokowaru’s party, a major disagreement had arisen during the evening before the battle. As a consequence, the decision had been taken to withdraw the entire army into the bush, effectively bringing Tītokowaru’s campaign to an end. Tītokowaru covered the retreat of his people as they fled inland from Waitōtara.