It is hard to believe that New Zealand’s longest river was once patrolled by naval vessels equipped with cutting edge weaponry – but that is exactly what happened one hundred and fifty years ago.
It was the spring of 1863 and the British invasion of the Waikato had ground to a halt at Meremere. I commemorated the start of this campaign in this earlier post, where I also mentioned the role played by the Great South Road; an arterial route cut through the bush to link Auckland with Queen’s Redoubt – but this wasn’t the end of the line. Where the Great South Road ended an even larger highway began – the Waikato River.
Steam powered gunboats such as the Pioneer and the Avon used the river to take the war deep into the Waikato. The specially designed Pioneer was one of the first vessels anywhere in the world to be equipped with revolving gun turrets, which allowed it to fire at different targets without having to manoeuvre the entire vessel each time. This revolutionary technology made the Pioneer particularly well suited for river operations. Revolving turrets had first seen action only one year earlier – on the USS Monitor during an engagement in the American Civil War.
Initially the Pioneer and Avon patrolled the Waikato River on reconnaissance missions – scouting out Māori defensive positions upriver in what I’m sure must also have been intended as a show of force. These industrial leviathans must have looked impressive but they didn’t intimidate the defending warriors. Imagine the surprise of the crew of the Pioneer when they came under cannon fire from a Māori ‘battery’ of three ship guns at Meremere. The gunners were accurate but the ammunition was makeshift and did little damage to the armoured gunboat. The only confirmed casualty was a barrel of beef. Musket fire from eager warriors did even less damage
Meremere was a formidable defensive position that prevented the British from advancing further into the Waikato, but General Cameron hatched a cunning plan to take the position from behind.
On 31st October 1863, exactly one hundred and fifty years ago today, the gunboats Pioneer and Avon led a flotilla of barges up the Waikato. In the early hours of the morning they transported six hundred British soldiers upriver and dropped them off behind Meremere. Cameron’s intention was to attack from both sides at once, but the Māori warriors soon realized they had been outflanked and abandoned their position. The only items they left behind for the British to capture were the cannonades that had fired on the Pioneer, three small canoes, a few paddles, two carved heads and one musket.
The British tried to pass this off as a victory, and they had indeed captured Meremere without loss, but it had cost a considerable amount of time and money. The sentiment felt by many settlers at the time is well reflected here:
The turrets of the Pioneer can still be seen today, one at Ngaruawahia and one at Mercer. Also the wreck of another gunboat is on display at the Waikato Museum. These relics are reminders of a time when the Waikato River saw the use of cutting edge naval technology during a conflict that played a significant part in the shaping of this country.
I encourage all of you to use the 150th anniversary of the Waikato Campaign as an opportunity to learn more about New Zealand’s history.
© Lemuel Lyes