The gunboat Pioneer was built in Sydney in 1863 by the Australian Steam Navigation Company for the New Zealand government. The paddle-steamer was designed for use on the Waikato River. The engine room and other key parts of the vessel were well armoured. The two iron turrets or cupolas each housed a 12-pounder artillery piece.
The Pioneer and the other vessels of the river fleet were vital to the British strategy in the Waikato War (1863–64). With its shallow draught, it was able to operate as far inland as Te Rore, on the Waipa River near Te Awamutu. The Pioneer was invaluable for reconnaissance and for moving troops and supplies past the Maori defences. On the Waikato River near Meremere it was hit by a round from an old ship’s gun that the King Movement had acquired. One round penetrated the plating and spoiled a barrel of beef.
One of the Pioneer’s turrets now stands in Ngaruawahia near the confluence of the Waipa and Waikato rivers, close to the band rotunda and the First World War memorial.