The Waikato River Gunboats
Grant Middlemass 2014 Self published 111pp. ISBN 9778-0-474-27800-7
Her Majesty's Waikato River Gunboat Flotilla. New Zealand's First Navy, helped to mould Waikato history. Although they are mentioned in passing by most historians there is little detail of the ships or the pivotal role they played in the Waikato land war.
The Waikato War of 1863-64 was the most important of the many campaigns fought. With it, the Colonial government aimed to destroy the power of the Maori King whose policy it was to stop Maori selling land to the government. Governor George Grey, who returned in 1861, (as second term Governor), claimed the Waikato tribes had hostile intentions, including plans to invade Auckland. These claims were part of an orchestrated litany of lies aimed at convincing the British Government of the threat that the New Zealand settler colony faced from the local tribes. Today, the Waikato campaign is now seen for what it was - a well-contrived and deliberate land grab. While Grey spoke of peace and reconciliation, he prepared for war. By the time it was clear that Maori were not going to attack Auckland, London had already sent 3000 additional troops to New Zealand. Between 1861 and 1863, at Grey's direction, a force was assembled and developed. The Waikato River was the key, as it provided a road to the interior of the Waikato. Eight purpose built armoured iron river gunboats were deployed as a naval force and transport service to move the 12,000+ troops and supplies into the interior past the Maori fortifications...
This is the story of that conflict, and the river gunboats that played such an integral part of the campaign
This is a valuable addition to the growing literature on the Waikato War. The book is written from the perspective of the vessels and their crews that were both essential to supplying the troops and took some part of the fighting. After starting somewhat episodically the author settles into to telling the story of the war from that perspective. The information on the river craft covers well their ordering, commissioning, use and their fates. The reconstruction drawings of the vessels by Harry Duncan are a great feature of the book. As perhaps one might expect the politics behind the war get only brief coverage and there is little space given to the Maori side beyond the immediate engagement accounts.
The many contemporary illustrations included are a central feature. Several are by combatants. However a little more care might have excluded two pictures done after the event by non-participants, showing palisade posts at Rangiriri, when the on the spot illustrations show none.
This reviewer has often wondered why the Kingites failed to attack the vessels on the river after dark by canoe. They were not averse to such attacks on land as the settlers in South Auckland found.
Visitors to the sites of the war following the archaeological trail will find this an informative adjunct to the other fine material now available.