Story: New Zealand wars
Page 6 – Waikato war: major battles
Attention now moved to the Kīngitanga pā at Rangiriri, east of the Waikato River and fringed by swamp and Lake Waikare. The pā comprised massive earthworks dug out of a high ridge with 500 defenders, many concealed in forward rifle pits. On 20 November 1863 the British army assembled a land force of 850 men with three field guns supported by cannons aboard the Pioneer and Avon. Following a two-hour bombardment, Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron launched a frontal assault upon the pā. Defending Māori in the forward rifle pits were quickly overrun, but the main parapets held firm. Intense fighting occurred in the forward trenches, but the British could not break through the parapets. Cameron then ordered a retreat.
Three more assaults on the main redoubt were also repulsed. However, assault forces landing to the rear occupied the rifle pits and trenches, blocking the main line of retreat and preventing 400 men from reinforcing the pā during the night, though many defenders escaped to the rear.
As dawn broke, a white flag was seen flying from the parapet. Interpreting this as notice of surrender, British officers entered the pā to discover that Māori wished to negotiate a truce, not surrender. When Cameron insisted that Waikato lay down their arms, they complied, offering no further resistance. About 40 men on each side lost their lives as a result of the battle, and a large number of Māori were taken prisoner, but total Māori casualties were significantly lower than those on the government side.
On 8 December 1863 Cameron occupied the Māori King’s village at Ngāruawāhia, moving 3,000 men south of the settlement in January 1864. Mindful of the need to defend villages and sources of supply, Kīngitanga forces began constructing a massive line of fortifications centred upon Pāterangi pā. Behind this fortification line were food-producing villages such as Hairini and Rangiaowhia. Cameron realised these fortifications could only be taken with very high casualties. With assistance from local Māori friendly to the British, Cameron’s men were guided around the pā’s southern flank.
The only colonial soldier to be honoured after the war with a memorial statue was Colonel Marmaduke Nixon. A former professional soldier, he migrated to New Zealand in 1852 and became a strong advocate of settling on ‘waste’ Māori land in the Waikato. He organised the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry and led his force on General Cameron’s invasion of the Waikato. Nixon was shot in the chest during the attack on Rangiaowhia in February 1864 and died several months later. The statue was put up soon after at the junction of Great South and Māngere roads in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland.
On 21 February 1864 a combined force comprising British regular infantry with two colonial forces, Captain Gustavus von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers and Colonel Marmaduke Nixon’s Cavalry, attacked Rangiaowhia after dawn. Rangiaowhia defenders engaged the approaching British. Houses and a church were set on fire, with defenders shot as they sought to escape. When news of Rangiaowhia reached Pāterangi, the pā was abandoned, allowing Cameron’s army to occupy the fortifications unopposed. Falling further south, Kīngitanga forces sought to establish a further defensive line along the Hairini ridge. Cameron rushed his forces to engage Māori at Hairini, forcing their further retreat.
Ōrākau – Rewi’s last stand
In March 1864 war parties from Pāterangi, Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Raukawa gained Ngāti Maniapoto leader Rewi Maniapoto’s agreement to fight the British at Ōrākau. Under his direction 300 men began constructing defensive earthworks. However, on 30 March a survey party observed the pā under construction and Brigadier General Robert Carey organised forward columns which arrived at Ōrākau the next day. Initial attacks were repulsed. The next day, artillery continued to bombard the pā. Forward trenches built by British Engineers were close enough for grenades to be thrown into the pā. Cameron offered the defenders a chance to surrender, or safe passage for the women and children; they refused this.
Āke, āke, āke!
The most famous incident of the New Zealand wars was the Ōrākau defenders’ response to the offer of surrender and safe passage. The popular version is that they responded: ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke, āke!’ – ‘we shall fight on, for ever, and ever, and ever!’ There are several versions of the exact response and it is unclear whether it was Rewi Maniapoto or another who spoke. Whatever, ‘Rewi’s last stand’ became a legendary expression of Māori courage. The story was made into a film of the same name by Rudall Hayward in 1925.
With Rewi’s people suffering heavy casualties, and with a British incursion into the pā seeming imminent, Māori decided to abandon the pā by fighting their way through the cordon of British troops. On 2 April the defenders of Ōrākau crossed the south-eastern parapet in a tight group, moving quickly towards the refuge of nearby swamps. The British rushed into the pā and fired on the retreating Māori.
Outcome of Ōrākau
Seventeen Europeans and between 80 and 160 Māori were killed during the Ōrākau engagement, most during the escape. It was the greatest loss of life in one battle of the wars. Whilst the battle represented a clear victory for the British, it involved only a fraction of the Māori King’s forces. After Ōrākau, the Kīngitanga withdrew behind a defensive line along the Pūniu River. With its work done, and unwilling to pursue the king’s forces into Ngāti Maniapoto territory, the British army returned to Auckland.