Matakitaki Pa, Waikato - Our bloodiest killing fields

The musket entered intertribal warfare in 1807 as Nga Puhi traded food, timber and sex for guns. Many were notoriously inaccurate but their surprise value demoralised opponents unfamiliar with them.

sustained by another European import, the potato, war parties of 1200-3000 spread south in a domino effect, ­ led by men such as Bay of Islands chief Hongi Hika.

The hot-headed Hongi needed few reasons for manufacturing grievances, but Waikato had angered him by sheltering Ngati Whatua and Ngati Paoa survivors from Tamaki.

In February 1822, 3000 Nga Puhi paddled from Kerikeri to Tamaki, portaged to Manukau, paddled down to Waiuku, portaged a second time and launched their canoes into the Awaroa, a tributary of the lower Waikato.

Fleeing waikato blocked the Awaroa with trees to buy time while the rest prepared to make a stand at Matakitaki.

Matakitaki Pa was built on a narrow strip of land at the junction of the Waipa River and the Mangapiko Stream. The name Matakitaki covers three sections, Matakitaki to the north-west, Taura-Kohia and Puketutu to the east.

The waterways and the cliffs provided the main defence, which Waikato supplemented with the usual series of ditches and palisades. Perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 took refuge here.

First blood went to the defenders when Te Wherowhero and a small detachment surprised some Nga Puhi, killing perhaps 150 and capturing 90 muskets.

Illustrating the cliche that pride comes before a fall, jubilant Waikato leaped up onto the parapets to shout defiance and insults, only to tumble back, felled by Nga Puhi musketry.

Panic deepened when Te Wherowhero's men fired their captured guns, spooking their own men into thinking that Nga Puhi had breached the defences. Hundreds of terrified Waikato were smothered in the ditchs while trying to flee.

Te Wherowhero and his men fought back for as long as possible, but had to retreat to Manguika, eight kilometres away. Next day they rolled Nga Puhi back to Matakitaki before withdrawing. 

It was an expensive lesson for Waikato. They lost perhaps 1500 and hundreds more were taken prisoner.