Putting the Battle of Gate Pa in context

by Roger Childs

It (Gate Pa) was one of the big ones.  –Cliff Simmons

The Battles of Gate Pa and Te Ranga were late contests, followed by a peace that deserves a more prominent place in our memories. —John McLean and John Robinson

Next year is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Gate Pa near Tauranga. Was  it a significant battle, part of a series of engagements, or just a minor contest, ending in defeat for the Maori participants? Opinions differ. Waikanae historian, John Robinson and Tross Publisher and historian John Mclean decided to set the record straight and head off another planned book on the topic.

Their book Gate Pa and Te Ranga: The Full Story came out two months before Victory at Gate Pa? by Buddy Mikaere and Cliff Simmons.  Many historians over recent decades, both Maori and non-Maori, have been anxious to find victories by the indigenous people over the Crown forces in the 19thcentury. For a number of writers, Gate Pa was one of the great successes. However, it wasn’t  a clear-cut Maori victory.

Certainly the defenders of Gate Pa did repel an attack by government forces, but the latter held their ground and captured the pa the following day after the Ngaiterangi had abandoned it overnight. Is this the way victors in battle behave – give up their fortified positions and withdraw?

Essentially Gate Pa saw a brave showing by the defending Maori in repelling a poorly managed assault on a well constructed pa, but the claims of a victory cannot be substantiated. In fact Gate Pa was one of a series of engagements involving the Ngaiterangi and their allies who supported the rebel kingites, against government forces and friendly Maori forces (kupapa.) Ultimately it ended two months later in a decisive victory for crown forces at Te Ranga.

In an interview in November 2017, Buddy Mikaere made clear what the approach to Victory at Gate Pa? would be. He spoke of an “invasion” of the Tauranga area by government forces and went on to say … the machinations of settler land greed and colonial politics and confidently riding on the back of relatively easy victories in the Waikato fighting, they [the colonial government] thought this was the way to go.

The two Johns put the lie to these claims in their highly readable, thoroughly researched and well constructed analysis of the background to the fighting; what happened before and after Gate Pa; and the significance of the lasting peace that followed. 

They provide detail on the 18 battles from 1820 to 1840 fought between local tribes in the Bay of Plenty area. Most involved the Ngaiterangi. There is also background on the kingite rebellion and how some East Coast / Bay of Plenty Maori, like the Ngaiterangi, supported the rebels. Warriors from these tribes arrived by canoe at Otaramakau in April 1864.

There followed a series of engagements – Tarua, Maketu, GatePa and Te Ranga. The authors correctly put Gate Pa in the context of one of a number of contests at the time. They emphasize that the outcome was ultimately positive for all concerned. Reconciliation and forgiveness were the way ahead for all – former rebels, friendlies and settlers.

This is an excellent account of what really happened, told concisely. It also provides very useful Appendices on what key figures said at the time and lists of the casualties on both sides. There is also a useful chapter entitled Correcting some myths, and the book includes a number of appropriate maps, sketches and other illustrations. Some of the maps could have been larger.

Thoroughly recommended.

Gate Pa and Te Ranga: The Full Story by John McLean and John Robinson: 
169 pages including 16 pages of maps/photos in A5 format, softcover. (Available from Paper Plus for $30 or can be ordered off the Tross Publishing website.)