With its commanding river views and access to eel-filled swamplands, this high point next to Te Teoteo’s pa had long been valued as a place of sanctuary and restocking for local iwi.
From here, in the opening weeks of the war, Kingites ambushed British messengers and burnt some of their supply depots. But they were soon forced to retreat south. The British occupied the pa and built the Whangamarino Redoubt nearby. With long-range artillery, they began bombarding the first major line of Māori defence some 2km south at Meremere.
Whangamarino - a bloodless victory
In the spring of 1863, the roar of Kingite-manned guns on the Meremere ridge echoed up the river valley. It was a defiant reply to fearsome shelling from the enemy. After a frustrating month-long wait for long-range guns, British troops at the Whangamarino Redoubt had finally hauled up two hefty 40-pounder Armstrong guns from the gunship Pioneer. This modern artillery, with its two-mile reach, was soon bombarding their target on the south side of the Whangamarino swamp.
The pā at Meremere was held by 1000 warriors from every tribe that supported the Māori king – some from as far away as Taranaki. And it boasted an intricate series of trenches dug into stiff clay. The Māori force had three small cannons: ships’ guns given to iwi by a trader, hauled overland from the west coast settlement of Maketu (Raglan), then brought downstream by canoe. A former East India Company gunner living in the Waikato had been forced to train the warriors to use them. But the Kingites had no ammunition. Instead, they loaded their weapons with iron chain, nails and pound weights. At one point they fired for two hours on the Pioneer, which had steamed upriver on a reconnaissance trip. But, as one correspondent on board noted, most of the shots fell short or simply 'pattered on the iron plating' of the ship’s armoured sides. 'No-one was struck,' he wrote, 'while the natives expended their ammunition in vain.'
This mismatch of military strength was the key to British victory at Meremere – though in the end it was a bloodless one. After several days of shelling, imperial troops stormed the pā but found it abandoned. Spring floods had aided the retreat: Māori had been seen paddling eastwards across the surrounding lagoon. The soldiers occupied the hill, and built a redoubt on the highest point.