STRUCK IN THE MIDDLE: WAIKATO WAR, NEW ZEALAND, 1863-64
Lieutenant W. E. Mitchell, HMS Esk Monikie Parish Church, Kirkton of Monikie, Angus
It is well known that the mid-19th Century in Britain were the decades of the railway barons, those speculators and entrepreneurs who rode the iron rails to wealth and, on occasions, hubristic downfall. Characters like George Hudson, York's 'Railway King', are prominent, but around the country less exalted men were also building their roads to success, and one of those in Scotland was James Mitchell of Broughty Ferry.
In 1841 Mitchell was described as a "contractor", and was living in the Tayside town with his children. The actual nature of his profession at that time is not clear, but it is by 1851, when he is specified as a "railway contractor", and is no longer in Broughty Ferry. Although his firm was based there, in King Street, James and his children had moved a few miles north-east; he had bought up Auchinlech Castle and House (now known as Affleck), near the village of Monikie. A dynasty looked set, but it was not to be.
In 1856 his eldest son, Andrew Crawford, died from injuries after falling off his horse in Delegate, New South Wales. In 1858 James himself died, as did daughter Elizabeth, who had married an Edinburgh architect named James Gowans (intriguingly she is described as having died "in her bath, in unusual circumstances"). Two years later, the youngest son, John Miller, died at Auchinleck, leaving just one surviving sibling, William, who by then was in the Royal Navy.
In 1862 William was a Lieutenant on board the corvette HMS Esk, sailing from Australia to New Zealand to provide support against the Maori in the Waikato region of North Island. Trouble there was nothing new, as there was constant strife between the native people and the settlers over possession of land. The Waikato area was proving especially troublesome because, unlike elsewhere where they operated as separate tribes, the Maori of Waikato had decided to unite. Reasoning that if they had a monarch they would be able to negotiate on more equal terms with Queen Victoria's representatives they duly elected a king, and proceeded to open negotiations.
Needless to say the British were not impressed. They refuted the Maori claims, and the late 1850s and early 1860s were punctuated by a series of disputes in the region, all incidents sparked by arguments over land. Then, in 1863, real trouble started brewing.
In March of that year some Maori warriors raided a farm on disputed land, and prevented the construction of a police station, knowing that police would attempt to impose control that they opposed. In retaliation, in early April, a force of three hundred soldiers evicted the Maori from the contested area. In May a force of forty Maori attacked a military convoy, killing a number of soldiers. In June the British commander, General Duncan Cameron (born in Hampshire, despite the Scottish name) led eight hundred and seventy men to attack a gathering of warriors, killing twenty-four. The region was clearly on the brink of war; all it needed was a formal declaration.
On July 9th the Governor, Sir George Grey, issued an ultimatum, stating that all Maori had to recognise Victoria's supremacy or be exiled out of their own territory, south of the Waikato River. Three days later Cameron's army crossed the river; war was declared.
It was never going to be a long conflict. The Maoris were outnumbered and outgunned and were soon forced into a guerrilla campaign. If they tried to assemble in force they were vulnerable to damaging attack, as proved on July 17th at Koheroa, near Mercer. The Maoris were working on a pa, a stockaded fortification, when Cameron attacked with five hundred men. The Maoris had fifteen out of one hundred and fifty killed, a casualty rate their numbers could not sustain. Sporadic attacks on isolated settlers continued, but the British were in control, and worked to ensure it.
To affirm control Cameron needed a reliable way of getting troops and supplies into the interior, and for that he wanted boats on the Waikato. In July HMSAvon arrived, a coastal paddle-steamer of forty tons, sixty feet long and drawing three feet of water, with a bullet-proofed hull, iron plated wheelhouse, and a 12-pounder gun in the bows. With such protection it could carry stores and tow iron-plated troop barges. The draught was a problem, however, and in October she was joined by the purpose-built HMSPioneer, which drew only two and a half feet.
Although Cameron would have prevailed eventually without the naval support, there is no doubt that against the Maori guerrilla tactics the struggle would have dragged on. As it was, with the arrival of the Pioneer the main campaign ended quickly. On November 1st the ships landed troops near Meremere, the northernmost of a line of fortifications. Fearing encirclement the Maori abandoned that post and retreated south to the next pa, at Rangariri, where a total of about five hundred warriors assembled. On the 20th Cameron attacked with eight hundred and sixty men, while the ships took another three hundred men further south to attack from the rear. After an artillery bombardment from the Pioneer and HMSCuracoa the British began the assault in the late afternoon, and fighting continued until nightfall. The attackers continued to throw grenades into the stockade throughout the night, and realising that defeat was inevitable half of the Maoris escaped. When morning came the remainder surrendered; nearly forty had been killed in the battle, and one hundred and eighty-three were taken prisoner. Although the majority of warriors escaped the fight had depleted their meagre supplies of weapons and ammunition. On December 4th King Tāwhiao declared that he had run out of muskets and powder. It was clear that any remaining fighting would be by individuals waging small-scale guerrilla resistance.
Cameron now moved to secure the region, moving his HQ as he advanced, and leaving detachments to enforce control as he moved on. By the end of the year he arrived at Te Rore on the Waipa River, and on the 20th February arrived at Te Awamutu on the Mangapiko. The war was virtually over, which makes what happened to William Mitchell rather sad.
It was a very warm summer's day, February 3rd, and HMSAvon was cruising up the Waipa River, near Whatawhata. The ship's officers were sweltering in the armoured wheelhouse, and so decided to step onto the deck, which was iron-clad to about waist-height, to get some fresh air. The banks were thickly wooded. Mitchell, known to his friends as Jock, was standing in between the ship's commander, Lieutenant Easther from HMSHarrier, and Midshipman Foljambe. A volley of shots was fired from the east bank. Easter and Foljambe were unharmed, but William Mitchell received a musket-ball through the chest which lodged in his back. He did not die immediately, but succumbed before he could reach the hospital at Ngaruawahia.
Not an ignoble end, but not one young William would have imagined as he dreamt in his Tayside home - dying slowly from a random musket shot in the closing days of a struggle about land on the other side of the world? Not ignoble, but not glorious.
One other peculiarity about the musket ball that struck Mitchell. If it had hit Midshipman Foljambe instead, New Zealand's history would have been slightly different. Cecil Foljambe went on to become Lord Liverpool, a Privy Councillor, and a member of Campbell-Bannerman's Liberal Government. His son, Arthur, became Governor of New Zealand in 1917, and was then the country's first Governor-General.
In memory of JAMES MITCHELL of Auchinleck who died 31 October 1858 aged 50 years also his son Lt W E MITCHELL of H.M.S. Esk who was mortally wounded when in command of HM Gunboat Avon in the Waira River New Zealand and died 3 February 1864 aged 22 years
Sources Photos Lieut. W.E. Mitchell, HMS Esk. - ALB0373, plate 56, Photographic Albums Collection, National Maritime Museum, London - on the reverse is written "This was found in Jock's pocket at the time of his death & was given to me by Ettrick W. Creak, the master of the Esk. I have felt that you might like this (all crushed and tumbled as it is) of one of the Esk's Lieuts killed in New Zealand – this has been in action.” The grave of Lieut. Mitchell, HMS Esk - ibid. plate 58 Military 'The New Zealand Wars: a History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume 1: 1845-1864' by James Cowan (R.E. Owen, Wellington, 1955) - viewable online at www.nzetc.victoria.ac.uk 'The First New Zealand Navy; with some Episodes of the Maori War in connection with the British Navy' by Herbert Baillie (paper presented to Wellington Philosophical Society, 1919) - viewable online at nzetc.victoria.ac.nz www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk - ref. ADM 101/239/3 www.collections. rmg.org.uk/collections/objects/534398.html - a collection of carte de visites relating to New Zealand, including the two illustrations at the head of this story