‘This day news reached the town that three men had been murdered in Omata. With wilful imprudence, and in defiance of general remonstrances, they had persisted in looking for some stray sheep. As they were engaged in their fatal search, several rebels in ambush sprang suddenly upon them and put them to a horrible death. Their bodies were afterwards discovered, frightfully tomahawked.’ So wrote Sergeant William Marjouram in his diary exactly 150 years ago today. These were the first days of the Taranaki wars, in which indigenous Maoris fought against the New Zealand government’s land acquisitions and the imposition of a British administration on the Maori way of life.
Marjouram was born in 1828 in Suffolk the son of a gardener to the Duke of Hamilton. He had a common school education, but ran away to sea as a young teenager (aged 14 the first time), returning home twice before finally enlisting permanently with the Royal Artillery in 1844. He worked for a while as a recruiter in Newcastle-on-Tyne, and in 1848 was promoted to corporal. However, he was then demoted to the rank of gunner for being drunk and associating with the wrong types; and while on a training course he absented without leave to marry Catherine Pool in 1850.
Thereafter, though, his life changed radically. After being posted to Canada in 1851, he turned hard-working and sober, and became an evangelical Christian. He was promoted to an officer’s batman, and in 1854 was made corporal. The same year he was sent to New Zealand, though circumstances led him to return to England once before being sent again to New Zealand in 1855. There he fervently tried to convert the locals in his spare time. He fought in the First Taranaki War, but was invalided back to England in 1861, and died soon after arriving home.
Marjouram is remembered today largely because of his diary, first published by James Nisbet in 1863 in Memorials of Sergeant William Marjouram, Royal Artillery including six years service in New Zealand during the late Maori War. The full text is available at Googlebooks. Much more recently, though, in 1990, Random Century New Zealand published a re-edited version of the diary as Sergeant, Sinner, Saint, and Spy - The Taranaki War Diary of Sergeant William Marjouram, R.A. This was edited by Laurie Barber, Garry Clayton, and John Tonkin-Covell.
The editors of Sergeant, Sinner, Saint, and Spy say Marjouram’s diary provides ‘a fascinating insight into the life of a sergeant in Queen Victoria’s army on colonial service in the late 1850s and early 1860s’. It first appeared on book shelves (as Memorials) throughout the English reading world, because it was valued for its ‘literary encouragement of soldierly Christian dedication to the cause of British imperial and British Protestant civilisation.’ Today, though, ‘the diary demonstrates the stark antithesis between good and evil that dominated the Victorian Protestant evangelical psyche and reveals a complex, at times contradictory, attitude by the Queen’s soldiers towards the New Zealand Maori, who appear at times barbarous and at times as merciful Christians.’
More specifically, they add, Marjouram’s diaries show his evangelical Protestant passion for personal and social reformation: ‘They reflect the concerns of a well-disciplined and reliable NCO, reveal a keen interest in the characteristics of Maori life, and provide a unique perspective of an army fed on boiled meat and potatoes, housed in insanitary barracks, and inferior in numbers for their garrison task. Marjouram was a centurion of Victoria’s army and centurions were the backbone of the imperial legions.’
Marjouram’s diary also provides a first hand account of and eyewitness testimony to the First Taranaki War. The New Zealand Wars website has lots of information about the war, but the following background is taken from Wikipedia’s extensive entry. The catalyst for the war was a disputed land sale at Waitara, 16km east of New Plymouth, in the Taranaki district of New Zealand’s North Island. The land was sold to the British despite a veto by the chief of the Maori tribe; and the local governor’s acceptance of the purchase was made in full knowledge that it might lead to an armed conflict.
Wikipedia continues: ‘Although the pressure for the sale of the block resulted from the colonists’ hunger for land in Taranaki, the greater issue fuelling the conflict was the Government’s desire to impose British administration, law and civilisation on the Maori as a demonstration of the substantive sovereignty the British believed they had gained in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The hastily-written Maori translation, however, had given Maori chiefs an opposing view that the English had gained only nominal sovereignty, or ‘governorship’ of the country as a whole while Maori retained ‘chieftainship’ over their lands, villages and treasures. By 1860, it was tacitly recognised that British law prevailed in the settlements and Maori custom elsewhere, though the British, who by then outnumbered Maori, were finding this [latter] fact increasingly irksome.’
The British, it seems, were convinced that their system represented the best that civilization had to offer and saw it as both their duty and their right to impose it on other peoples. On the other hand, in the 20 years since the signing of the Treaty, the Maori had made significant political advances. For example, they had moved from being a collection of independent tribes to an effective confederation, and one of its uniting principles was opposing the sale of Maori land and the concomitant spread of British sovereignty.
On 15 March 1860, the Maori built an L-shaped pa, or defensive strong point, at one corner of the disputed land block, and the following day they uprooted the surveyor’s boundary markers. When ordered, on 17 March, to surrender, they refused and the British troops opened fire, thus starting the First Taranaki War. Here are a few extracts from Marjouram’s diary from the opening days of the war.
24 March 1860
‘This evening, about 5 o’clock, a message came from New Plymouth stating that the rebels were collected at Omata, a village about four miles distant. In less than half an hour the whole of the artillery, with two 24-pounders, one 12-pounder howitzer, and about two hundred men of the 65th Regiment, were on their way to New Plymouth. After a heavy and dangerous march along the beach, we came to the Bell Blockhouse, built with heavy logs of wood, and manned by settlers. The appearance of the neighbourhood was very gloomy, and as surrounding houses were all closed and deserted, the sad tale of apprehension was sufficiently told. On passing this lonely house we gave its noble defenders three hearty cheers, which were as heartily returned. Proceeding on our way, we arrived in town about ten o’clock, greatly to the relief of hundreds of terrified women and children.’
27 March 1860
‘This day news reached the town that three men had been murdered in Omata. With wilful imprudence, and in defiance of general remonstrances, they had persisted in looking for some stray sheep. As they were engaged in their fatal search, several rebels in ambush sprang suddenly upon them and put them to a horrible death. Their bodies were afterwards discovered, frightfully tomahawked, and a pair of bullocks that had been shot lay beside them. This event has caused a great sensation and a deep thirst for revenge among the settlers, each of the murdered men having left a wife and family to lament.’
28 March 1860
‘Late last night, the bodies of two English boys were found at Omata, both fearfully mutilated. Surely the Lord will avenge the blood of the defenceless and unarmed on the heads of these savage butchers! The Rev. Mr Brown with two or three English families, being still at Omata, and great doubts being entertained of their safety, a strong body of troops, under command of Colonel Murray, had been ordered to proceed by different routes for the purpose of removing them from so dangerous a neighbourhood. They had scarcely arrived before they were attacked by the rebels, who had taken up their position in a gully thickly studded with trees. Soon a smart fire commenced on both sides, and our rockets did much execution. The action continued until after dark, about which time Captain Cracroft with a portion of the Niger’s crew rushed to the pa and seized the enemy’s colours. Unfortunately, at this critical moment, an order arrived for the troops to return at once. I need hardly add that it was most reluctantly obeyed. We arrived in town about midnight, our loss being two killed and about fourteen wounded. We ascertained that the natives had lost by this affray ten chiefs and ninety killed or wounded.’
2 April 1860
‘Today an escort, consisting of two hundred militiamen, with one 24-pounder howitzer and about 30 carts, went to Omata to fetch in some potatoes and wheat. We remained there all day, during which time about one and forty bushels of wheat were threshed and forty tons of potatoes dug, or rather ploughed, up. The appearance of the village was dreary in the extreme: every house had been plundered; and many of the natives seemed to have taken more than they were well able to carry, for the road was strewn for miles with feather pillows, chairs, wearing apparel, and articles of every description. The offensive smell arising from the thinly covered graves of the Maoris, and the carcasses of the still unburied cattle which had been shot and left to decay, together with the innumerable signs of desolation on every side, rendered the place as loathsome as it is possible to conceive.’
3 April 1860
‘Today I mounted guard for the first time in New Zealand. I had charge of the main guard, and at night a drunken prisoner was committed to my care. He was so riotous that I was compelled to bind him hand and foot.’