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Thomas McDonnell (c1831-1899) was a 19th-century New Zealand public servant, military leader and writer.
Childhood and Early Life
Thomas McDonnell, Jnr was born to Thomas McDonnell, Snr., an early British merchant and speculator who served a brief term as Additional British Resident, and his wife Anna McDonnell (née Patterson). He was raised first in Sydney, then Horeke, Northland. There he learned to speak Māori and how to use the traditional taiaha weapon. He tried his luck on the Victorian goldfields from 1853 to 1855, then returned to New Zealand where he obtained a post in the Native Land Purchase Department under Alfred Domett in Auckland. After being paid eight months late, McDonnell resigned from that job and went sheepfarming in the Hawkes Bay with his brother William, only to be defrauded by a third party. He returned to Auckland in 1862, and was appointed interpreter to the resident magistrate at Thames, panning for gold on the side.
On 14 August 1863, McDonnell obtained a commission as sub-inspector (then equivalent to ensign) in the colonial defence force. He distinguished himself in a bloodless but dangerous reconnaissance of Paparata in October 1863, with Captain Gustavus von Tempsky, and saw active service at Rangiaowhia and Hairini in February 1864. On 18 March 1864, McDonnell was promoted to captain.
McDonnell went on to serve with Kupapa forces in operations against the East Coast Kingites in April 1864, in Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron's Taranaki campaign from January to July 1865, in the East Coast expedition to Opotiki from September to November 1865, and in Major General Trevor Chute's Taranaki campaign in January and February 1866. McDonnell's kupapa had considerable success, notably in the Weraroa operation of 21 July 1865. McDonnell was rewarded with promotion to brevet major on 20 July 1865, and full major on 8 January 1866.
He married Rose von Dadelzen at Auckland on 16 April 1866.
The same year McDonnell took command of the Patea district, and was instructed to implement the survey of land nominally confiscated from Ngati Ruanui. He provoked war by attacking the village of Pokaikai on 1 August 1866, and was known for his ruthlessness. Subsequent, largely successful, operations against Ngati Ruanui from September to November 1866 further augmented his reputation.
McDonnell acquired his own farm in the Patea district and built a house, but was called away to Rotorua in early 1867 to fight the forces of Ngai Te Rangi prophet Hakaraia. He then went to Hokitika to put down rioting Fenian goldminers, without bloodshed. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 25 April 1867, and appointed inspector in the new Armed Constabulary a month later.
From 1866 to 1868 'Fighting Mac' was the colony's leading soldier, and was regarded as the embodiment of Pakeha determination. This reputation was founded on his talent for self-aggrandisement and his widely approved lack of scruple as much as his courage, energy, and resourcefulness. During this time McDonnell was specifically criticised by Māori because of allegations he was part of a cavalry charge which killed a group of defenceless children. His career provided the basis for the character "Major Baine" in the 2005 film River Queen.
However, McDonnell’s most important command was during Titokowaru's War, which broke out in the Patea district on 4 June 1868, where McDonnell was put in charge of 1,000 men. The third expedition, on 7 September, was a complete disaster, and resulted in the death of von Tempsky, with whom McDonnell had quarrelled in the preceding weeks. Humiliated by the defeat, critical of his superiors and subordinates, and depressed by the illness of his wife, McDonnell wrote bitter, recriminatory letters to the government, and was dismissed on 14 October.
In December, burning for revenge against Titokowaru, McDonnell apologised to the government and returned to the war as a subordinate of his hated rival, George Stoddart Whitmore. But he suffered another embarrassing defeat at The Peachgrove, near Te Karaka, on 18 February 1869, and resigned. His wife died on 7 March 1869, adding to his misery.
Isaac Featherston and Donald McLean, longstanding friends of McDonnell’s, came to power in June 1869, and McDonnell was given command of operations against Te Kooti at Taupo. Although claiming credit for the allied victory at Te Porere on 4 October, an unsuccessful movement on Te Kooti's new position at Tapapa in January 1870 resulted in a severe reprimand and loss of command, this time for good.
Retirement from Military
On 9 April 1870, McDonnell married Henrietta Elise Lomax, in Wellington. Together they had four children. He acquired £690 in government grants and £1,400 worth of freehold property at Wanganui, and set up as a Native Land Court interpreter and land agent at Wanganui in 1884. He received the New Zealand Cross on 31 March 1886, and published fragmented memoirs, as well as a fanciful 'Maori history' of the wars.
Thomas McDonnell died on 8 November 1899.
Belich, James. 'McDonnell, Thomas 1831-1833? - 1899'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007