Te Araroa climbs a small hill and wanders into Rangiriri's bloody history

I lugged my pack into the Rangiriri Battle Site Heritage Centre and sat down for a coffee. Paintings of Maori chiefs, etchings of British officers were on the walls. Period uniforms and weaponry were on display behind glass, or were simply supported on wall hooks. The centre also had an audio-visual presentation of the critical battle here in November 1863, between British troops and Waikato warriors. Price $2.

I paid up, and the centre's manager Suzanne Bonnington put on a showing.

Suzanne Bonnington

"Being a tea lady has opened my eyes to a lot of things, " she said, drawing the blackout curtains. "Conflict starts with the difference between what you think and what you've got. Maori had started the King Movement as an idea - to preserve the material thing, which was the land. The British had another idea . . ."

I watched the audio-visual. The British idea, fundamentally, was that no pan-tribal organisation of strength could be allowed to stand. Governor Sir George Grey set out to destroy the power and disperse the territory of a newly inaugurated Maori king, and Rangiriri was the key battle.

The dead: around 100. Hundreds more suffered the usual crippling wounds, and the amputations without anaesthetic. Mass death in civilian life, the foundering of the Wahine (52 dead) or the lahar-struck Tangiwai Bridge (151 dead) is never forgotten.

Death in the first First and Second World War, is etched everywhere in stone. Yet here - it's like New Zealand had wished it would go away - and there's just this new bit of private enterprise, these small displays, this audio-visual in a small cul-de-sac, with the cars rushing past on the highway beyond.

E Pari Ra

The credits rolled and a 1930s rendition of E Pari Ra, sung by Deane Waretini and Ana Hato filled the dark room. These words up on-screen, these long-ago voices, and the emotion of Maori song - it gave you an unexpected jolt.

An Auckland Grammar School party had arrived by bus. I wanted now to see the battle site itself, and decided to do that with the students of 4A.

I introduced myself to their senior master, Paul Baker, and he turned out to be an historian to his back teeth.

"Ah, Chapple," he said. "Any relation to the Reverend James Chapple?"

"A grandson," I said.

"Hmmnnnn," said Baker. "I was researching the Reverend for a book I did. There's some detail in there that should interest you - hold on."

Baker went off to a display stand at the centre, pulled out his book King and Country Call - New Zealand, Conscription, and the Great War, flipped to the index, then read aloud from a letter my grandfather sent to Charles Mackie, head of the New Zealand Peace Council.

"I am plodding along here in an unpopular cause, crossing the current of opinion."

The Reverend Chapple had been giving his usual sermons: The Obsolescent Monarchy and New Zealand as a Peace Loving Republic.Lectures like that, delivered in ringing tones during the years of war patriotism 1914-18 do not endear you to your country's leaders. A sedition charge was laid against him.

"One much-respected Paparoa prisoner was the Reverend Chapple." Baker had found another index reference, and picked up the story. "Vulnerable to the cold and not up to work he would sit in the sun behind concrete blocks while other prisoners worked and kept a lookout for warders."

"Ah," I said, suddenly aware of genetics, the sun on my back and that while the other wage-slaves had been earning their keep, I hadn't worked for months now.

I filed out with 4A to the Rangiriri Cemetery. The dead British soldiers lay under blank concrete casings. The Auckland Grammar boys had photocopied sheets on the Waikato campaign, and questions to answer. What was the historical mistake, asked one question, in the marble inscription over the gate at the Rangiriri Cemetery? I looked up:

Battle of Rangiriri
On the 20th November 1863 General Cameron with a force of 850 attacked the Maori entrenchments on the crest of the hill to the north of this burial ground. The Maoris, in a strong redoubt, repulsed the naval and storming parties but surrendered next morning. The British casualties were 49 killed and 87 wounded. The Maori losses were about 50 killed and 183 taken prisoner . . .The main road traverses the centre of the Maori position.

We all drove to the battle site, and walked up a small hill. Sheep grazed there, and a dead sheep was rotting within the trench that still creased the top of the hill. The site was an undulating place, grassed, and unspectacular. Baker began to voice the detail that makes history live a little.

"Right here," he said, "we're standing on part of the redoubt. Why were the British, with artillery, gunboats, and a big numerical advantage, unable to take it in battle?"

Paul Baker
Paul Baker

The students waited.

"The parapet was five metres high - five metres," said Baker, giving dimensions while 4A scribbled notes. "It was higher than the scaling ladders brought in by the British."

The kids explored, holding their noses past the dead sheep.

"The main trench at our feet here," said Baker, "was 12 feet wide. You'll have to just imagine that. Why can't it just be dug out and this fortification restored? One reason," he said, again answering himself, "is that it may be filled with dead Maori warriors."

Another reason, I thought, was that no-one cared. Past a light screen of trees, some five metres below us, the high-speed traffic of Highway One was whining through. Roading engineers had cut right through the heart of New Zealand's history.

"It seems a shame that these places can't be brought back to what they looked like," said Baker. "New Zealanders would be a lot more excited about their history if the sites were restored."

Such is the goal of the 70 year-old ex-Indian Army second lieutenant, and ex-New Zealand headmaster, Pat Gaitely, the man who started the heritage centre, who produced and narrated the audio-visual.

In 1983, Gaitely came to Rangiriri with a friend from the Territorials who liked pacing out the ground, and figuring out old battles. They visited the tiny cemetery at Rangiriri with its marble inscription, and nameless graves. Gaitely looked back across the road at the decayed little settlement. The IGA store was empty with a For Sale sign tacked onto it.

"It occurred to me that here was a chance to buy something right on an important battlefield," Gaitely recalled, when I sought him out. " In any other country a site like that would be part of a national park."

Pat Gaiteley
Pat Gaitely

He bought the store. Street kids were living in it, and subsequently it burned down. Gaitely didn't do much for 10 years, but he did keep watch occasionally on the old graveyard - and counted just two visitors a week stopping to look. Yet the site, he felt, simply needed development. He went over a part of it with a metal detector. In a single hour he found 22 items - musket balls, military buttons, bayonets. He travelled to the USA, and saw the treatment given their battle sites. He considered Rangiriri was New Zealand's Alamo. The site was there - that unspectacular hump - but how did you make it come alive?

The Historic Places Trust persuaded him a straight museum wouldn't work. Gaitely decided to open a heritage centre that would be also a food, drink, and craft stop-off to the highway. He negotiated with local Maori to start waka trips on the river. He had plans to introduce Waikato eel onto the menu. He approached the banks who declined the chance to lend money for a crazy project in a dead village. He went into partnership with Malcolm and Suzanne Bonnington, the three using their own money to open the centre in 1993. "I saw huge potential," says Gaitely, "just waiting."

The visitors to Rangiriri's quiet little graveyard now number 60 a day. Nor has Gaitely stopped. The Rangiriri fortifications, he claims, will be remade. A Maori tapu holds sway on the existing hump, but the key to remodelling Rangiriri is that part of the redoubt where others have already breached the tapu - in 1967, the Ministry of Works widened State Highway One and dug right through the main fortification, filleting the once-bloody earth.

"They found Maori bones," said Gaitely. "They gave the Maori workers on that road a day off, and went and buried the bones. I've talked to the Ministry of Works people and I've talked to Transit New Zealand to find out where those bones are buried, but so far I haven't found out where they were taken."

"Over the next few years though, they're relocating the highway down by the river. The redoubt can be reconstructed in the area of the old road without fear of disturbing the dead. DOC are going to do it. They've got the money set aside already, and Historic Places Trust and university archaeologists will make sure it's accurate."

Thus Gaitely may finally have his Alamo - Highway One will no longer sweep right through the middle of one of the greatest forts ever built in New Zealand, and a bloody part of New Zealand history may live again.

The history behind Rangiriri is this. In 1840, at Waitangi, Maori and the British Crown had signed a treaty. It gave, in the European view, sovereignty to the British and their colonial administration. But Maori power still prevailed over most of the country, and the exercise of European law within Maori areas was not something that had to be addressed, because it did not occur. By the 1850s though, with land settlement and an increasing number of immigrants, European enclaves were starting to spread. Maori control was under threat even on their own considerable lands, and Maori began to consult on pan-tribal agreements to preserve Maori areas, and Maori power.

In 1858, at Rangiriri, the Waikato chief Potatau Te Wherowhero was inaugurated as Maori king. He had the support of 15 of the 26 major North Island tribes. The King Movement would oppose further land sales and would conduct its business in the Maori way. This Maori territory set down its northern boundary at the Mangatawhiri Stream, just south of Pokeno.

The King Movement was a challenge to British sovereignty, and war was already in the air. From 1860-61, British troops had fought Maori in battles sparked by a disputed block of land land at Waitara, Taranaki, and the King Movement had sent warriors in support of Taranaki's Maori fighters.

Governor George Grey saw the Maori king as a threat to empire. A famous quote of Grey's was: "I shall not fight against him with the sword, but I shall dig around him until he falls of his own accord."

Yet the sword was already half-drawn. When Grey began his second term as governor in 1861, the Great South Road out of Auckland ended at Drury. Grey used five regiments of British troops to extend it, and by June 1862 the road was servicing a stockade on the Waikato River and bringing in material for a new fort, the Queen's Redoubt, just south of Pokeno, and close by the northern banks of the Mangatawhiri Stream.

By December 1862 a side-paddle steamer, the Avon, was being fitted with armour plate at Onehunga. She was of a size that could navigate the Waikato River. By April 1863, Tainui Maori were fortifying positions at Koheroa, just south of the Mangatawhiri Stream, at Meremere, a few kilometres upriver, and beyond that, at Rangiriri.

By July the Queen's Redoubt at Pokeno was working smoothly and General Cameron advised the Government he had sufficient troops and supplies to attack Maori positions south of Mangatawhiri Stream.

He crossed the stream and on July 17, 1863, personally led a bayonet charge against Maori entrenchments on the hills of Koheroa. Cameron won the battle, losing only two soldiers.

Meremere was next, a far more formidable entrenchment, and Cameron needed to use the river. On July 25 the Avon steamed up to meet him.

Cameron reconnoitered Meremere from the Avon. The British general didn't like what he saw, and stopped for three months while Maori harassed his supply lines from the bush behind Pokeno, and amused themselves, with military jokes, Wiremu Tamihana at one point sending down-river several large canoes filled with potatoes, turkeys, and goats, a present to the General who, the Waikato chief had heard, was having trouble with his supply lines.

Gunboat under fire

But on October 3, the Avon - a comparatively small vessel, 60 feet in length, was joined by a sinister surprise to Maori. The Pioneer, a 153 foot gunboat with a shallow draft had been specially built in Sydney for the Waikato. Pioneer also had a novel method of protecting itself from close attack. A 3-inch perforated pipe ran the circumference of the vessel, flush with the gunwales and connected to the steam boiler, ready to repel boarders by gushing scalding steam.

Cameron used Pioneer to simply leapfrog his troops upriver past Meremere. The Maori position was outflanked, and Waikato warriors abandoned Meremere without a fight. Rangiriri was next.

General Cameron steamed up-river in the Pioneer to have a look at it. The fortifications stood at right angles to the river, extending some 400 metres across the narrow neck of land to the swamps and water of Lake Waikare. One of Cameron's aides would dismiss it, following this peep through rifle loopholes, as "just a common embankment thrown up, with a trench cut in front of it also." But Cameron himself respected the sophistication of Maori earthworks. Learning from the first military exchanges against pakeha in the 1840s, Maori strategists had developed pa construction that gave protection from artillery shells, and provided angles of fire for defending riflemen that made storming their main positions lethal.

Cameron planned battle for the afternoon of November 20. He would use the gunboats and armoured barges to shell the Maori redoubt, and to land troops south of Rangiriri. The rest of his troops would advance in skirmish lines and scaling parties from the north. They would advance under covering fire from artillery set up on a northern ridge.

Cameron's total force, including sailors and gunners on the river fleet, was 1488. Around 500-700 Maori, mainly warriors, but including women and children, waited at Rangiriri Pa. Just before the planned drop of soldiers south, river currents swept the troopship, Pioneer, out of position. Cameron attacked anyway, his northern guns pounding the pa, and the skirmish lines advancing under fire along a ridge, and along swampy ground and flats where ti-tree were deliberately strewn to impede any charge, and where sharpened stakes jutted under the fern.

British troops finally scrambled off Pioneer and took the rear fortifications. The frontal attack, meantime, had breached the Maori line down near the river. The British were through to the central redoubt on two sides, but faced ferocious fire as they ran towards it. Once British soldiers gained the ditch beneath the redoubt they had more protection, for covering fire swept the parapets clear of anyone who leaned over. But the scaling ladders were too short. Close enough to throw hand grenades up into the main redoubt, still the British failed to get more than a few soldiers into the redoubt, and the attack lost momentum. Their losses were heavy, with a high casualty rate of officers, including the mortally wounded commander of the artillery, Captain Mercer, who had charged with sword and pistol and whose jaw had been shot away.

Night fell. British soldiers waited in the ditch below the redoubt and the Maori were above, able to lean out now, according to one journal "yelling awfully and firing at us."

Taking advantage of darkness, British sappers began digging under the redoubt to blow it up from beneath. Darkness also assisted the escape of the main Waikato chiefs, evacuated to the east, out through the swamps.

So to the surrender. It is this fact in the Rangiriri Cemetery's marble description of events that is wrong, or at least, ambiguous.

Kawhia chief Wiremu Te Kumete, seeing, it has been suggested, the white ensign flying from one of the gunboats, took it to be a signal to parley, and broke out an answering white flag. It was a signal that had been used in Taranaki as a truce, and a beginning to talks.

The British chose to interpret the flag as a surrender, and British soldiers accompanied their officers into the redoubt. It was a defacto takeover, the British took prisoners, and ended the battle.

The New Zealand Army still studies the war strategy at Rangiriri and has issued a sheet for its officers on the battle. It concludes: "Rangiriri had the potential to be a major rebuff to British arms. That it was not was due to:
a. damp gunpowder, and
b. tribal difference among the Maori."

The army history accepts the story that Maori asked, at the supposed surrender, for more gunpowder to replenish damp stocks. It also notes that before the battle Rewi Maniapoto, after a chiefly argument on where best to site a showdown battle with British troops, had withdrawn his 400 men to the western bank of the Waikato They took no part in the fighting. Also, dangerously for the British, Maori reinforcement fighters led by Wiremu Tamihana reached the battleground to the east just as the white flag was broken out.

Though the King Movement and Waikato resistance continued, the brown royals fled from the capital at Ngaruawahia, finally into the King Country. Government confiscations of Waikato's fertile riverlands totalled 1.2 million acres and smashed the tribes' developing economic power. The Tainui tribes were virtually reservation Indians for decades and got back their sacred mountain, Taupiri, only in 1975. Even with the vaunted Tainui Settlement in 1995, less than 3% of the land came back - that and $172 million.

Gaitely had books on Rangiriri, some of them rare, like Maurice Lennard's The Road to War - The Great South Road 1862-64, and I sat down to read them. Such sources are sometimes unreliable - Lennard's book, for example, attributes the disdainful quote on Rangiriri fortifications to Cameron, not the aide - but they are better than the general histories for the small detail that breathes life into a past era.

In these books, Maori melt down lead-head nails ordered for their flax and grain mills to make bullets. The sulphur for some of their gunpowder is brought up from Rotorua. A British soldier not only climbs the scaling ladder, but scrambles then onto a fellow trooper's shoulders to reach the top of the Rangiriri parapet. Some of the charging British officers wave Colt .45s - the six-shooters of the American west.

Personally, I like such small detail and facts. History needs detail, needs even, perhaps, the 1990s detail of an ex-Indian Army second lieutenant metal-sweeping the old battleground. Get enough detail, put it into sequence, and only then do the answers to the larger questions - why? and what did Rangiriri mean to the nation? - surface slowly, and of their own accord.

I had detail - thank you Pat Gaitely - but as a walker I had the topography too. I'd tramped the very country on which this history was enacted. From the Hunuas I'd come down the Maori Rubicon - the Mangatawhiri Stream. At Mercer, one of the gun turrets of the Pioneer still existed. Walking up from Meremere, I'd stopped and camped, I suspected in retrospect, close to the high ground where Cameron made camp after by-passing Meremere. Then at Rangiriri I'd had time just to wander and browse, to let it all sink in.

Okay - so what large answers surfaced? No large answers at all, simply a feeling. Rangiriri felt introverted, like a nail driven in, punched down, puttied over, but without the satisfaction of the driven nail. The nameless graves, the mass Maori burial in a nearby church, the lack of any celebration from either side, and the ceaseless whipping by of the traffic, it nagged you. It was civil war, this battle - and it was less clear than the American Civil War that the losers' cause was wrong. But it was done. Bitterness was in the soil around here, and time and roading engineers had been encouraged in their obliterations.

E Pari Ra - in English

Whether you could take that past, transcend it with display, in order that the country become more aware, in order that its people might go forward into - forgive me, but this is genetic, - a more Peace-Loving and Explorative Republic - remained to be seen.

The weather was blowing up from the east, and the river as I approached it now carried a shadow of gunboats. But it was time now to quit Rangiriri. I set off walking across the river bridge to the Waikato's far side.