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A colonial premier called 1863 "the year New Zealand went mad". It
was the year Auckland went to war in the Waikato.
It was Auckland's war. The town's leading business and political figures, such as Frederick Whitaker and Thomas Russell, were pressing the Governor to put down the Maori King Movement among Waikato tribes.
They were backed by newspapers, including the newly launched New Zealand Herald that declared in its first issue: "We are born at a time of grave national crisis. This year of 1863 sees the colony racked
by civil war ..."
Governor George Grey, who had returned for a second term after dealing in the interim with similar tensions in South Africa and India, needed
no convincing the King Movement was an incipient rebellion.
By that time most matters of government had been handed to elected representatives of the settlers but the Governor appointed from
London retained control of Maori affairs and the colony's defence.
Many representatives of other provinces did not share Auckland's fear of the King Movement and watched developments in the capital with mounting dismay, not least because the British Government was warning the colony it would have to pay the bill.
Grey was convinced nothing could be resolved without a show of force. But first he set up a Maori newspaper to counter the King Movement's propaganda.
In February Grey's paper published an editorial attacking the Maori idea of kingship. Furious, their leading King Movement warrior chief, Rewi of Ngati Maniapoto, raised a war party, marched on the newspaper's offi ce in Te Awamutu, took the printing press and ordered all Europeans to leave the Waikato within three weeks.
Soon missionaries and settlers were walking up the Great South Rd to Auckland with all the possessions they could carry. Auckland, according to Grey's biographer Edmund Bohan, "understandably panicked, convinced an invasion from Waikato was imminent".
But Grey, in Taranaki attending to Maori tensions there, was unshaken. There were rumours of plots to ambush him as he rode but he ignored them.
On May 4, a military contingent was ambushed on the road from New Plymouth to Tataraimaka where the Governor usually rode daily. Seven soldiers were killed by warriors who imagined Grey was one of them.
Government forces took retaliatory action which had the effect of subduing trouble in Taranaki and allowed Grey to concentrate on preparations to invade the Waikato.
On July 9 he expelled all Maori from South Auckland villages and imprisoned those who were slow to move. The commander of imperial forces in the colony, General Duncan Cameron, led his soldiers across the Mangatawhiri stream, the King Movement's line in the sand. Now Auckland citizens had reason to fear.
"Now," Bohan writes, "Rewi's war parties did prowl amid the bushed hills around Drury and north of the Waikato River, their numbers swelled by the fugitives from the Auckland settlements."
While guerilla warfare in the Hunua Ranges held up Cameron's advance, he writes, "in Auckland racial antagonisms sank to unprecedented depths".
In the week the Herald was founded, it reported a fierce battle
at Rangiriri. But there was not much evidence of fear in another story
published that week. The paper carried complaints of women evacuated with their children from Manukau Heads overnight.
One, Mrs Jane Willis of Awhitu, said officials had panicked. Her
children had developed bronchitis on the squally boat trip and she wanted to know why they had had to sleep the night in an Onehunga shed rather than in the Green Hill blockhouse.
An Auckland Diary column said, "War is still the general topic of conversation and the streets are bristling with bayonets. More soldiers seem to be arriving by the day resplendent in their red coats."
The diary also noted an upcoming regatta that would include races between Maori war canoes, a haggis picnic for Scottish settlers in Government House grounds, the results of races at Epsom and the latest theatrical productions at the Brunswick Music Hall.
More ominously for Auckland, it said, "There is a disturbing rumour circulating that a plot is being hatched to remove the seat of Government to Wellington.
"It is understood the southern Members have been meeting at the Masonic Hotel in Princes St to see if they can sink their parochial differences ... This is disquieting news and we await further developments with trepidation."
The General Assembly was dominated by members from Otago and Canterbury where gold rushes were swelling the population. They saw the war primarily as a land grab in the interests of the Auckland province,
to be financed at their expense.
Grey had made no secret of his intention to confiscate Waikato land and distribute it among exsoldiers to develop small farms.
In the new year, 1864, Cameron advanced as far as Orakau where Rewi had dug in. Troops also moved into the Bay of Plenty for fear that hitherto neutral tribes there would join the rebels. After the battles of Orakau and Gate Pa the Government offered a ceasefire under which rebel tribes
would surrender their arms and live on reserves.
It was not accepted and guerilla warfare spread into the eastern Bay of Plenty and Wanganui.
When Auckland's hinterland was eventually pacified, swathes of land were confiscated, giving dispossessed tribes a burning grievance for the next 130 years.
The General Assembly had voted to remove the capital to Wellington and the imperial forces began leaving.
Auckland suffered an economic decline that was eventually arrested
by the discovery of gold in quartz reefs on the Coromandel, not by new farms in its province.
Reference: To be a Hero, a Biography of Sir George Grey by Edmund Bohan, Harper Collins, 1998.