On this day in 1864, during the New Zealand Wars, 1700 British soldiers attacked the Ngāi Te Rangi stronghold of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), defended by just 230 Maori warriors, after a heavy artillery bombardment.
When Gate Pā was built within 3 miles of Tauranga to provoke a British response, Lt.-Gen. Duncan Cameron duly arrived from Auckland with reinforcements. Playing chess to the Brit’s checkers, Maori leader Rawiri Puhirake and others enlarged the existing trench and banks and transformed the pā into a system of two redoubts, including a honeycomb of rua, or anti-artillery bunkers. On April 28, Cameron and his 1700 troops marched towards the pā, which was shelled from daybreak through midnight.
The artillery bombardment was the heaviest of the New Zealand Wars, with huge Armstrong guns supported by howitzers, but Gate Pā withstood the barrage. Firing few shots, the defenders created the impression the shelling had largely wiped them out, and laid in tactically brilliant wait.
In fact, 15 Māori at most were killed by the bombardment. When a British raiding party assaulted the pā, the men became disoriented in a maze of trenches and were routed by warriors firing from concealed positions. Within 10 minutes, the storming party suffered well over 100 casualties and fled.
The disaster required scapegoats. The assault party were branded as cowards, the army blamed naval troops, and Cameron was accused of being either too rash or too timid. Meanwhile an account in the British press reliably resorted to racial superiority, stating the gallant force had been “trampled in the dust … by a horde of half-naked, half-armed savages.”
Meanwhile in the modern era, many Maori and other indigenous peoples of New Zealand believe the land wars continue, with the battlefields of old now substituted by the courts.