Battle Of Rangiriri Essays

Touring the Waikato War - A Photo Essay (Part One)

Over Waitangi weekend I spent four days touring sites associated with the Waikato War as part of research for my future book on the conflict. As I had only previously visited a handful of these sites before, the journey was important in helping me to develop a better understanding of the war. There is nothing quite like seeing with your own eyes. And some stops were completely unscheduled, like this street sign in Hamilton.

Preparation is important for a trip like this: many of the key Waikato War sites are poorly signposted and finding them is not always easy. I took with me three guides. One was an excellent free guide written by Neville Ritchie for the Department of Conservation. Another was David Green's Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: A Visitor's Guide (Penguin, 2010). And the third was the Heritage New Zealand app developed specifically as a touring guide to the Waikato War.

Each included suggested itineraries. I chose to start (or rather end) my journey at a place none of the guides included. St James Anglican Church at Mangere Bridge was once the centre of a flourishing Tainui settlement in South Auckland. The church itself was built under the direction of Tamati Ngāpora, a lay preacher in the settlement and uncle of the second Māori king, Tāwhiao.

When all Māori living north of the Mangatāwhiri River were forcibly evicted from their homes just days before the British invasion of Waikato in July 1863, Tamati Ngāpora and hundreds of others were forced to abandon their homes and settlements, making their way south to join their kin in the Waikato.

Queen's Redoubt at Pokeno was base camp for the British invasion, situated as it was just a short distance north of the Mangatāwhiri River.

Although many of the original earth works have been destroyed, a Queen's Redoubt Trust established by volunteers has plans to restore the site.

At Mercer a gun turret from the river gunboat Pioneer serves as a local war memorial - but to those who fell in War World One and not the Waikato War.

At Whangamarino Redoubt one begins to get some idea as to the immense artillery power that was available to the British forces. It was from here in October 1863 that the British fired two 40-pounder Armstrong guns on the Kīngitanga defensive pā at Meremere, some two kilometres to the south (just above the large decommissioned Meremere Power Station in the photo below).

Here's the view from Meremere, looking north to Whangamarino. Note the proximity of the site to the Waikato River.

The Meremere site had been specially selected with a view to impeding British progress up the Waikato River. But a huge effort had gone into its construction, and the pā was eventually abandoned, being occupied by British forces on 1 November 1863.

What one newspaper at the time described as General Cameron's 'bloodless victory' at Meremere enabled steamers to push further up the river. Kīngitanga defenders consolidated their position at Rangiriri, where one of the most deadly and decisive conflicts of the war took place on 20-21 November 1863. Both the British and Māori suffered large losses, and more than 180 Kīngitanga defenders were captured and taken prisoner under controversial circumstances.

Today, the Rangiriri site includes a beautiful Tohu Maumahara, a memorial to all those who fell at Rangiriri, first unveiled on the anniversary of the battle in 2012.

Two large pou whenua were officially unveiled on the 150th anniversary of the battle in 2013.

Information panels installed by Heritage New Zealand provide insight into precisely what took place in each part of the remaining pā, and serve as a poignant reminder of the many who died there.

That was reinforced by a visit to the nearby Māori War and Early Settlers Cemetery.

A large unmarked mound of earth in one corner of the cemetery is believed to be the grave site of a number of Māori killed in the Rangiriri conflict.

I wondered why it had remained unmarked after all these years.

The decisive battle for Waikato was fought in November 1863 at Rangiriri, where a defensive line was constructed along a ridge between the river and Lake Waikare. The defences consisted of an entrenched parapet with ditches on both sides. Concealed rifle pits covered by fern were protected by wooden stakes driven into the ground. The most obvious approach route from the north was covered by a central redoubt designed by Pene Te Wharepu. Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron, commander of the Imperial forces, later conceded that the strength of this position had not been detected by the British. Swampy ground made an approach from the south difficult. But formidable as Rangiriri’s earthworks were, they were incomplete.

A number of important Māori chiefs – including King Tāwhiao and Wiremu Tāmihana – were present at Rangiriri, but the pā was seriously undermanned. The Kīngitanga forces had now been managing the circulation of warriors between their ‘homes and the field’ for the best part of three months. After Meremere, manpower was stretched to the limit. According to Belich, it was ‘inevitable that the Meremere army should break up’.

The British were not going to wait until it reformed. On the morning of 20 November they assembled a force of 860 men - backed up by artillery - just north of Rangiriri. Another 600 men were ferried upstream by the river fleet. Men from the 65th, 12th and 14th regiments were organised into three lines, with a detachment of the 40th and the remainder of the 65th in reserve. A scaling party carrying ladders and planks was poised for action. Royal Artillery led by Captain Henry Mercer was ready to shell the pā.

The river force eventually made it ashore and quickly occupied the now-abandoned rear defences. The central redoubt was surrounded but would be a tough nut to crack. ‘Barely 12 paces’ wide, it was crowded with defenders, including a number of women who reloaded muskets for their warriors to fire.

With British soldiers now within the pā, the artillery fire was halted. All available men – including Mercer’s gunners – were mustered for a final assault. Strong resistance continued. Mercer was shot in the face and dragged to a ditch where 20 other men lay wounded or dead. Assistant Surgeon William Temple disregarded his own welfare in attending to the wounded. Lieutenant Arthur Pickard showed similar courage by running back through enemy fire to seek help from Cameron. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their endeavours.

A naval force followed Mercer’s artillerymen in charging the pā. They chased a number of Māori into the swamp, shooting nearly all of them. But when they returned to assault the rifle pits they were quickly forced to take cover. By nightfall there was a stalemate. The bank of the central redoubt had proven too high to scale. The ditch and approaches were ‘littered with dead and wounded’.

A combination of factors thwarted a plan to blow up the redoubt and plans were made for a renewed assault at dawn.

White flag

Overnight a number of Māori were evacuated via the eastern ditch – the only remaining escape route to Lake Waikare. As many as 36 warriors accompanied Tāmihana and a similar number may have escorted King Tāwhiao and the Māori wounded, who included the mortally wounded architect of the pā, Pene Te Wharepu.

The planned dawn attack became unnecessary when Māori raised a white flag. While a white flag may symbolise surrender, it is also recognised as a ‘protective sign of truce or ceasefire, and request for negotiation’. The British chose to interpret it as a sign of surrender. Facing no resistance, they moved into the redoubt. The remaining Māori defenders were confused. Lieutenant Pennefather, one of the first men to have ‘tumbled into’ the central redoubt, gave this account to Archdeacon Robert Maunsell:

The Maoris then (at 5.00 a.m.) hoisted the white flag. He [Pennefather] at once scrambled into their redoubt, and with his men mingled amongst them, shaking hands, and the General came up about ten minutes afterwards complimented them on their bravery and demanded their arms. To this they demurred: but the chiefs felt that to resist now was out of the question and decided upon delivering up the arms as required having first said that the reason of hoisting the white flag was that they might ask what terms they might expect. [Maunsell’s italics]

A decisive victory?

Casualties at Rangiriri were high – 35 British and a similar number of Māori were killed. Ten more members of the British force died later from their wounds, including the unfortunate Mercer, who had lost most of his jaw.

Many reports exaggerated the magnitude of the British victory, with claims of up to 280 Māori casualties. Other accounts were less celebratory, seeing the number of Māori killed as a poor return for 130 British casualties. Settler William Morgan wrote in his journal that it was ‘extremely annoying, in fact it is galling, to think of our losing so many fine officers and men by such savages as those we had a sight of yesterday.’

The Kingite forces had suffered a major blow. In addition to those killed and wounded, 183 prisoners – including a number of chiefs – were taken along with their weapons. The importance of the victory was recognised by Cameron’s subsequent knighthood.

Cameron knew that the war was not yet won. But the occupation of the Kīngitanga’s capital, Ngāruawāhia, on 8 December 1863 prompted Grey to tell London that ‘there can, I think, be no doubt that the neck of this unhappy rebellion is now broken.’

While this was a moral and political victory for the British, King Tāwhiao had already retreated into Ngāti Maniapoto territory (now known as the King Country), where he would remain unmolested for 18 years. Cameron knew that ultimate success depended on the capture of the economic heartland of the Waikato around the settlements of Rangiaowhia, Te Awamutu and Kihikihi.

Prisoners escape

The Māori captured at Rangiriri were initially taken to Auckland and held in a hulk on Waitematā Harbour, then transferred to Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf. To the embarrassment of the authorities, they escaped to the mainland in September 1864.


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