by Ian MacFarlane, webmaster of Defending
Years ago I bought a copy of The New Zealand Wars by James
Belich. Reading it, I remember
exclaiming 'What!' every few pages. The book seemed to be upending
all the established sources
about the wars. There was a strange anti-British and pro-Maori
undertow, which seemed out of
place in a scholarly volume.
Upon re-reading the book, I decided to check the references. I
picked the book's description of
the 1860 battle at Waireka and, in particular the attack on Kaipopo
Pa. During this action, a small
naval brigade from the ship HMS Niger, led personally by her
Captain Peter Cracroft, attacked
Kaipopo Pa. Coxswain William Odgers won the first VC in New Zealand
for his part.
James Belich argued that this was a 'fictional triumph' and a myth.
He concluded that the Kaipopo
Pa was little more than a camp. Only four old Maori men, cooking a
chicken, were in the pa when
it was attacked by the 60-strong Niger naval brigade, and
its three militia scouts.
As a result of my humble endeavours, I wrote to Penguin Books in
Auckland in 2004 complaining
about the handling of Kaipopo in The New Zealand Wars. In my
lengthy letter, I went through all
the references presented for which, it was claimed in the book,
there is substantial (p. 87),
decisive (p.87) and conclusive (p. 333) evidence, 'but the evidence
produced is in fact far from
conclusive' I told Penguin. 'Most of it is, in fact, hearsay
evidence. Hearsay evidence is not real
'evidence' at all, and has no legal value'.
I found it strange that only people who had not been present at the
battle were quoted in the book.
I wrote, 'It is simply not good enough to rely on what somebody
(who was not there) told somebody
else (who also was not there). That is just gossip'. The publisher
at Penguin replied, saying he
would pass on my letter to Professor Belich who might respond to
me. He didn't.
Later, while surfing the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography I came
across the entry for William
Odgers. Relying on The New Zealand Wars as its principal
source, it stated 'Odgers's award was
announced in the London Gazette in fulsome terms: 'conspicuous
gallantry at the Storming of a
Pah…having been the first to enter it under a heavy fire, and
having assisted in hauling down the
enemy's colours'. However, it seems now that the importance of the
Waireka engagement was
grossly exaggerated. The pa was not heavily fortified and there
were few occupants'.
I corresponded by email with the DNZB people complaining about this
entry. I even sent a fact
sheet I had compiled which listed some of the many problems about
the Waireka battle in The
New Zealand Wars. This is a copy of the document (Word doc) I emailed to the Ministry
Culture and Heritage (a portfolio under NZ Prime Minister Helen
In a reply dated 26 October 2005, it was stated, 'We take suggested
changes to DNZB bio-
graphies seriously and, as I am sure you will understand, we
conduct our own very thorough
research before any changes are made. Now that we have your
comments, this research
process can begin but changes, if made, will not be in the
immediate future due to the small
number of staff we have currently working on the DNZB project'.
Nearly two years later, the entry still has not been updated or
corrected (as of 26 July 2007). Remember, this is an
official NZ government website, which purports to present
authentic historical biographies. You can read the entry by
The denouement to all this came late in 2005 with the publication
by NZ archeologist and
eminent historian Nigel Prickett of Maori Casualties of the
First Taranaki War, 1860-61.
The booklet showed that Kaipopo Pa, in fact, had been a
catastrophic defeat for Maori
I wrote to the Publisher of Penguin Books in Auckland, 'You
probably won't remember, but I
wrote a long letter to you about three years ago strongly
complaining about 'The New
Zealand Wars'. In particular I was critical of the handling therein
of the action at Kaipopo Pa
during the battle of Waireka in March 1860. A Victoria Cross was
won at Kaipopo, although
much belittled in 'The New Zealand Wars'.
I continued, 'Nigel Prickett's recent 'Maori Casualties of the
First Taranaki War, 1860-61'
demonstrates that Kaipopo, far from being a 'fictional triumph' and
myth, was a decisive
victory. The overall Chiefs of the Taranaki and Ngati Ruanui
Tribes, and most of the lesser
chiefs perished there.
'If you have not seen this booklet yet, you will gasp with shock
when you see Dr Prickett's
simple references. When combined with various criticisms of 'The
New Zealand Wars' in
Maxwell's 'Frontier' and Ryan/Parham's 'The NZ Colonial Wars', I
wonder if your Penguin
book can any longer be regarded as a reliable reference.
'At the very least, one would think, an errata slip is now required
regarding Waireka and
Kaipopo', I concluded.
To cut a long story short, neither Penguin nor the Dictionary of
New Zealand Biography seem
to think it urgent to correct this injustice to William Odgers and
his devalued VC. I even
provided Penguin with information that Captain Cracroft of HMS
Niger's journal was
progressively published in 'The Nautical Magazine' of 1862-3
(although not mentioned in the
bibliography in The New Zealand Wars nor in any previously
published account of the wars).
The journal provides strong additional information that easily
refutes The New Zealand War's
Penguin replied on 16 February 2006, among other things, by saying
'Reviews of the book and
letters such as your own go into a file. Obvious errors of fact are
corrected. But submissions
such as your own which require another historian's careful
attention are not acted on. I realise
that this will be unsatisfactory to you, but we do not feel that as
publishers we can do anything
In a response to which there was no reply, I stated 'I disagree
with your academic panel's
'warts and all' advice. This means mistakes can be on sold in
deference to the memory of
revered historians. I daresay that a panel of general readers,
unencumbered by such thinking,
would in every case opt to fix the mistakes.
'The middle course, in such cases, would be to footnote passages
and interpretations that are
now disputed or which have been adversely criticised. This leaves
the original work unchanged
but alerts the modern general reader to be on their guard.
'Australian Prof BJ Dalton in the mid 1960s was highly critical of
the NZ wars literature then
available. Among other things he recommended 'A thorough scholarly
history of the wars,
which their importance and the dignity of the historical profession
in New Zealand alike
demand, will necessarily be a work of great labour and of many
hands. A century after the
event, it is surely time to begin'. In my humble opinion, we are
all still awaiting the great
scholarly history he imagined', I finished off.
Even though the New Zealand Wars are a touchy subject in NZ, I
doubt that Maori or Pakeha
would feel very satisfied by this pathetic outcome. There is one
well-known Maori VC winner
of WWII, Moananui-a-Kiwi Ngarimu - and another Haane Manahi who was
recommended for a VC. No one these days is in favour of war. But
where a VC has been
awarded for Valour, whether to Maori or Pakeha recipients, quiet
respect is the least we can
Somewhere in eternity, William Odgers VC is waiting for apologies
from James Belich, Penguin
Books and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. I hope he
doesn't have to wait long.
Eventually, as I once wrote to the Publisher of Penguin Books in
Auckland, 'I hope you will agree
with me that a nation's history is fundamental to how that nation
views itself today. If that history
is flawed, as it seems to be here when the action at Kaipopo is
considered, a regretable disservice
... has been done'.
Award winning, and eminent historian, Professor James Belich has a
fiercely loyal following.
I would be happy to post brief responses here from any of the
following: James Belich, Penguin
Books and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
Books relevant to visitors to this
by Lieutenant Commander Arthur Bleby RN
$A 54.95; £20 UK - Whittles Publishing
Available in Australasia through Inbooks
Reviewed by Ian MacFarlane
Despite its title, this is not a book about the naval brigades
of the Colony of Victoria, Australia. Colonial Victoria provided naval brigades
in two early wars (New Zealand in 1860-1861 and, around federation, to China),
and there were shore-based naval brigades too, but this book is not about
However a photograph appears late in the book with a caption
that states this was 'the Governor of Victoria addressing the British
Contingent' for the Boxer Rebellion in China. But this is an image of the front
of Parliament House Melbourne, Australia, with the Old Treasury building in the
background, and the Victorian colonial naval brigade formed up outside. These
were proud Australians and not the 'British Contingent'.
'The Victorian Naval Brigades' details eleven campaigns during
the reign of Queen Victoria which involved Royal Navy naval brigades. The book
does not include, perhaps closer to our hearts here in this part of the world,
the several battles in New Zealand involving naval brigades, but rather the much
better known major campaigns like Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, the 1878 Zulu War,
the Siege of Khartoum, the first and second Boer Wars and the Boxer rebellion in
The book itself is a splendidly produced publication and a
tribute to the skills of the publisher. There are few litterals. It is well
bound. There are crisp but romantic illustrations and some portraits (mostly
from the Illustrated London News), and lots of maps and diagrams
which strangely are unattributed.
As well there is no index, and it seems this is an amalgam of
articles originally published in the British Naval Review.
Readership of such periodicals is relatively small and closeted--and such
articles do not always translate well to a worldwide audience. At the end of
each chapter (detailing a campaign) a short bibliography appears. The book
therefore is based on secondary sources rather than primary.
Secondary sources are usually a relatively safe research
starting point, but can sometimes lead to the recycling of errors. I was struck
in the first chapter about the Crimean campaign to find mention of a Victoria
Cross winner simply referred to as "Mr Hewitt, Mate, RN".
This individual was in fact later Vice Admiral Sir William
Nathan Wrighte Hewett (whose surname as Commodore Hewett is later correctly
spelled in the Second Ashanti War chapter, and as Admiral Hewett in the Tel el
Kebir chapter). On the day his Crimea VC was won, he was Acting Mate of HMS
Beagle and he was thereupon elevated to Lieutenant, perhaps
promoted in the field.
Author Lieutenant Commander Arthur Bleby RN introduces each
campaign rather well, although not everyone will agree with his summaries
entirely. His difficult task of chronicling the subsidiary role of naval
brigades is generally smartly handled. This is especially noticeable in his
division of the separate campaigns of the HMS Shannon naval brigade and
that of HMS Pearl during the Indian Mutiny. So too, his descriptions of
the three naval brigades that served separately early in the second Boer
Arthur Bleby is a gifted storyteller. His writing style is
easy, smooth and economical. From time to time he summarises intricacies in a
cleverly chosen word or sentence.
In his preface, he outlines what a naval brigade generally then
A generic term used to define a body of seamen and Royal
marines drawn from their ship or ships and landed for active service under the
orders of an Army Commander. Numbers were immaterial since a Naval Brigade was
not comparable with an Army Brigade, indeed it was not often even of battalion
strength. Generally the armament of a Naval Brigade was made up of what was
available from the parent ships from which the brigade was drawn.
Not everyone would agree entirely with this description either.
Naval Brigades occasionally acted on their own, without Army commanders. And
marines were not always available. But for the major campaigns chronicled here,
the description is appropriate.
Valuably, in a short epilogue, Arthur Bleby sets out the end of
the naval brigade era and its brief replacement, in time for WW1, by the Royal
Naval Division. It is perhaps fortunately not within his purview to describe the
wretched fate of the RND at Gallipoli, or how it at first supported the landings
at ANZAC with a diversion and reinforcements. This vital support is not yet
properly acknowledged in Australia or New Zealand.
The hugely expensive rescue of British hostages in 1867-1868
from the almost impenetratable fortress of Magdala in 'Abyssinia' is next
described. Abyssinia is of course today's Ethiopia, but this is not mentioned in
The same applies to the Second Ashanti War 1873 - 1874, said to
be fought on Africa's Gold Coast. That war theatre is today's Ghana which
nowadays loudly bemoans its long history of colonial exploitation and slavery.
Describing where battles took place by also giving them a modern geographical
location is always a boon for readers.
When refering to Britain's 1st West India Regiment during the
Second Ashanti War, the author refers to them as 'negroes' which today would
raise eyebrows. Contemporary secondary references may so describe them. But in
our British Commonwealth of Nations today, which is one of harmony, respect and
tolerance, it seems innappropriate to mention racial origins or colour at all.
That people of the West Indies generally are of African extraction is obvious to
all. This was an unfortunate slip-up. So, too, was a later reference to
'Chinamen' in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
Which brings up a very sticky point. How can modern histories
which celebrate one nation's past victories over others be inoffensively
written? Most probably they can't, without deep knowledge and empathy for the
defeated peoples. In this case, Britain's West India Regiments, as British
Colonial troops (and later as the British West Indies Regiment during WW1) had a
racially sad, heavily poignant yet proud history.
With the Zulu War of 1878 mention is made of the catastrophic
British defeat at Isandhlwana (not involving naval brigades), but no details of
this grand military disaster are presented. Those details would have provided a
'bigger picture' context for the campaign. Instead, we are taken on the trek to
Eshowe where a strong camp was set up with naval brigades sortying out in
valiant fashion. Zulu 'Impi' are mentioned, and their classic horned attacks.
But how was an Impi constructed and what were its fighting aims? We know from
this book what a naval brigade was, but not what an Impi was.
Gatling guns were used in 1878 against the Zulu at Elundi with
devastating effect. Arthur Bleby says this was 'the first time a Gatling was
used in battle'. He means, of course, this was perhaps the first usage of such
weapons by the British in battle. It is generally acknowledged that the Union
army of the American Civil War first used the gun at the siege of Petersburg,
Virginia, in 1864-1865, and that they were extensively further used during the
wars against native Americans.
Because of the relative brevity of the book, most of the main
characters come across as one-dimensional or wooden. Some British Commanders
were most distinguished as people as well as commanders. With Arthur Bleby's
skills in summarising campaigns, perhaps mini-biographical summaries could have
General Charles George Gordon, or 'Chinese' Gordon as he became
known after exploits there, could have done with a much broader biographical
sketch. He was sent on an impossible mission to Khartoum, there to be betrayed
and almost abandoned by the British government. Arthur Bleby explains a little
of this, but without the context of the reasons for Gordon's popularity. It was
people power in Britain that led to the relief mission. Too little, too late,
Gordon was murdered just before rescue came.
A little research into Gordon would have revealed several
interesting facts. He had earlier in China used gunboats effectively to help
suppress a rebellion. The paddle-steamers, referred to in this book as part of
the relief expedition to the seige of Khartoum, to help him out, were originally
Ironically, given Arthur Bleby's ability to pick pithy quotes
that summarise so well, the final words on 'Chinese' Gordon are left to General
Redvers Buller VC. About the demise of Gordon, Buller simply stated, 'The man
wasn't worth the camels' [that died during the expedition].
In the very next chapter, about the Second Boer War 1899-1901,
Buller's own flaws as a leader are amply revealed. He was a fore-runner of the
British generals who expended life so carelessly in WW1.
But these are all relatively minor considerations. What of the
other contents? Arthur Bleby demonstrates the value of naval brigades as
commanders in the field would have seen them then. The naval brigades were able
to provide accurate artillery and rocket support in early campaigns. The rockets
particularly had a terrific 'shock and awe' effect on primitive 'savages'. As
well, the naval brigades and marines, undisciplined, roisterous and drunken as
they sometimes were, could be used effectively as devastating shock troops in an
attack. Cold steel, whether cutlasses or bayonet charges, gained the immediate
attention of the foe.
Wisely, Arthur Bleby doesn't make too much of this. He seems to
have a quiet and thorough regard for these sailors and their considerable
accomplishments ashore. There is nothing here of the overblown 'Boy's Own
History of the British Empire' style. Careful understatement seems to underlie
The first casualty of the 1878 Zulu campaign was eaten by a
crocodile. As it happens, this was a naval brigade member, but Arthur Bleby
points out this was the conclusion reached when the man was swept away during a
river crossing. Perhaps he simply drowned.
This is by no means the first book dealing with Britain's naval
brigades. Among others, Richard Brooks's The Long Arm of Empire. Naval
Brigades from the Crimea to the Boxer Rebellion was published in 1999.
Brooks's The Royal Marines. 1664 to the Present followed in 2002.
The Victorian Naval Brigades is not devoid of
small errors. Taking the introduction to the chapter on Abyssinia (Ethiopia) as
a small sample, 'King Soloman" is Solomon; Emperor Theodore is in fact Theodore
II and so forth. Experts in the various campaigns may well spot larger problems.
Overall, this is a very worthwhile book. Purchasers of it will
be getting an admirable general introduction to the subject of Queen Victoria's
Royal Navy naval brigades. They will also get shorthand versions of the major
campaigns that highlight those naval brigades. General military histories often
neglectfully omit this naval component which many times provided strong light
infantry or artillery support. The bluejackets and marines were able to
manhandle their field pieces to commanding positions that could not, or would
not, be attempted by army artillery units.
Arthur Bleby's introduction to this important and neglected
subject demonstrates that the full and glorious story of the Imperial Naval
Brigades has yet to be written.
That full story would include, among many other highlights, the
March 1860 story of how Captain Peter Cracroft of HMS Niger, acting
alone, led his 60-strong naval brigade to a decisive victory at Kaipopo Pa at
the battle of Waireka near New Plymouth, New Zealand. The overall Chiefs of the
Taranaki and Ngati Ruanui Tribes perished there, as well as nearly all their
lesser chiefs. The first VC won in this part of the southern hemisphere was
A few days later, Niger accurately bombarded coastal pa
at Warea forty kilometres southwards with cannon and rockets, where the defeated
and leaderless Maori force defiantly had regrouped.
Unlike India, Crimea and South Africa, New Zealand was as far
removed from 'home' as it was possible to be. There was no back up possible.
These commanders were on their own and their later battle accomplishments and
disasters at Rangiriri and Gate Pa in the Waikato War are still largely
unrecognised in the annals of Britain's naval brigades.