Battle at Ohaeawai


Battle at Ohaeawai
Oil on canvas
460 x 610 mm

\'Pene Taui\'s Stockade was commanded at a range of less than one-third of a mile by the hill Puketapu, upon which Despard\'s Maori allies flew the British ensign. A modern field-gun at that distance would quickly have reduced the palisade to splinters. But what little impression was made by gun-fire upon the flax-masked defences was repaired by the garrison each night; and even when the 32-pounder arrived from the frigate ?Hazard? its projectiles failed to breach the stockade. On the 30th June the gun was mounted on a platform, with strong timber slides, constructed on the lower slope of Puketapu; two of the smaller guns had been placed higher up. On the forenoon of the 1st July the 32-pounder opened fire obliquely at the front stockade. Every one was absorbed in watching the effect of the gun-fire. Suddenly there came the noise of musket-fire in the rear, on the summit of Tamati Waka Nene?s hill, and as the troops turned about in astonishment they saw the friendly Maoris, men and women, flying down the steep slope in confusion, and with them the picket (a sergeant and twelve men of the 58th) posted on the hill for the protection of the 6-pounder. They had been taken in reverse by a sortie-party of Maoris from the pa, advancing under cover of the forest on the right front and flank. The natives shot one soldier, seized the gun, and hauled down Waka\'s flag, which they carried off. Major Bridge and his 58th charged up and recaptured the hill. A few minutes later Despard\'s alarm and disgust turned to fury when he saw the captured British ensign run up on the flax-halliards of the Maori flagstaff in the pa, below the rebel flag ? a kakahu Maori, as one of my Maori informants describes it ? a native garment. Then it was that the Colonel made up his mind to storm the pa that day. He imagined that the few 32 lb. shot ? which were soon expended ? would so loosen the stockades as to enable the troops to cut and pull them down. Those who ventured to remonstrate were snubbed or insulted. Lieutenant Phillpotts, of the ?Hazard?, was roused to such indignation by the Colonel\'s retort to his protest against a senseless attack that he threw away every vestige of military attire he happened to be wearing, and in his blue sailor shirt and underclothes rushed to his death.\'

The above account from James Cowan?s The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I: 1845?1864, describes a major offensive that was launched against Hone Heke?s Pa at Ohaeawai on 1 July 1845, in response to Heke and Kawiti?s siege at Kororareka earlier in March that year. A rare and significant historical find, this handsome oil on canvas by Major Cyprian Bridge illustrates a scene during the battle fought between various Nga Puhi hapu and British troops during the Northern Land Wars. The hill in the immediate foreground overlooks the battle scene beneath and can be identified as Puketapu hill, which was occupied by a detachment of the 58th Regiment led by Major Bridge and a band of ?friendly Maori?. The two ?smaller guns?placed higher up? Puketapu mentioned in the account are portrayed at the lower right leading into the composition and central lower section. Since the scene depicts a flagless flagstaff, it is probable that Bridge has chosen to highlight the incident described in detail above, shortly after he and his picket had reclaimed the hill following a raid by a party of Heke?s rebels. The raiding party had captured the summit at Puketapu stealing a gun along with the British ensign, which was defiantly flown in Heke?s pa below, later in the day. It is plausible that the military figure at lower right in red uniform and holding a spyglass, is Major Cyprian Bridge himself.

Appointed as major of the 58th Regiment, Cyprian Bridge arrived in New Zealand in 1845 from the United Kingdom, later leaving with the regiment in 1858. Along with comrade and military artist Lance Sergeant John Williams, also of the 58th, he made numerous sketches during the campaign, some of which were reproduced in James Cowan?s The New Zealand Wars (1922). The two men shared sketchbooks during these campaigns and in later years this complicated positive identification of the works. A sepia ink and wash sketch held by the Turnbull Library entitled, Ohaiawai, N Zealand July (Winter) 1845 (Ref: A-079-016), Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand), is attributed to Williams and portrays the same scene and composition, excluding certain details such as the foreground flagstaff and lower siege scene. Another watercolour by Williams Ohaiawai, 1st July 1845, 3pm, N.Z. [1845] (Ref: A-079-028) depicts the battle from behind the British encampment, clearly showing Puketapu hill on the right. It is likely that Colonel Bridge returned to the United Kingdom with a selection of such sketches and from them completed this painting, his only known work to have been executed in oil.

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