The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4 (August 1, 1933)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 5 — Rewi Maniapoto — The Story of Orakau
No heroic episode in New Zealand's history surpasses in fame the siege and defence of Orákau Pa, where the Kingite Maoris made their last stand in the Waikato War, and no call to valour equals in dramatic inspiration the defiant reply of the garrison to the British General's demand for surrender. The chief figure in the defence, Rewi Maniapoto, was the most vigorous and uncompromising of the Maori Nationalist leaders throughout the war. He and his near kinsmen, whose moving narratives are condensed into this article, were known to the writer from his early years on the sacred soil of Orākau battlefield and the King Country frontier.
The present main road from Te Awamutu towards Arapuni is the Via Sacra of the Waikato, for it followed the old army track to Orākau. This cross-section of historic ground is not by any means the only part of the great southward route rich in human associations. There are stories all the way from Auckland, for it is all more or less the trail of the soldier and the pioneer. But in more than usual measure authentic hero-tradition steeps the farm lands from Paterangi and Te Awamutu to Orākau and the Puniu River. In some ten miles of the old road and the new is concentrated the memory of the final scenes in the conquest of the Waikato, just on seventy years ago. It must be a very dull traveller who does not wonder now and again about the human background of the country through which he passes, or who, if he knows anything at all about the past, does not feel some stirring of the imagination along the quickly-changing highway. Even in the most serenely peaceful places it was not always butterfat.
Kihikihi township, midway between Te Awamutu and Orākau, was before the war the headquarters village of the powerful Ngati-Maniapoto tribe. Like Orākau, and the neighbouring beautiful farm country of Rangiaowhia, it was a land of abundant food, a place of rich soil and great crops. The Maoris grew wheat and ground the corn in their own flourmills, driven by waterpower on the streams, and everywhere there were the most prolific of peach groves. Every village was embowered in peach trees. In Kihikihi stood the tribal council-house, called by the famous ancestral name “Hui-te-Rangiora.” In that carved whare-runanga Rewi Maniapoto, the fighting head of the tribe, and his fellow-chiefs held their council meetings, debated Kingite politics, and planned the campaigns of Taranaki and Waikato. The great house went up in flames when General Cameron's conquering army invaded these Waipa Valley lands in the early part of 1864, and Ngati-Maniapoto were driven out of their ancient homes and forced across the classic river Puniu into the territory that became known as the King Country. Then came Orākau; on that greatly prized garden-land a band of men—and women, too—fought their last despairing fight for a broken cause. They lost the battle, but they won an enduring name, and won the admiration and affection of their Pakeha antagonists, for their amazing bravery, devotion and self-sacrifice.
And nearly twenty years after the war, the State restored to Rewi a measure of his mana over the old home. A Government house was built for him on a piece of land close to the site of his destroyed council-whare, and to that house Ngati-Maniapoto, with touching speech and page 26 chant, gave the treasured name, Hui-te-Rangiora. On that spot, in the soil for which he fought, his bones lie to-day, a sacred shrine of Maori patriotism in the heart of a Pakeha village.
The Warrior Chief.
Rewi Maniapoto, as I remember him, was a man of rather small, compact build, quick-moving, keen-eyed, an active man even in his old age, a complete contrast to his fellow-chieftain, the great orator Wahanui—the Maori Demosthenes as someone once called him—who weighed 24 stone and could never find a pair of trousers big enough for him in the country stores. Rewi was a warrior born. He marched on his first fighting expedition when he was not yet fourteen years old—the Maori boy was often initiated into the arts of war when he was about twelve. This first war-path of his, with an army of his people, was an attack on Pukerangiora, the great stronghold of the Taranaki tribes. That was in the era of cannibal warfare in 1832. Twenty-eight years later, he was the most determined of the chiefs who led the attack on No. 3 Redoubt, in the Waitara campaign. Fifty of his comrades fell in that desperately brave attempt to carry a British earthwork with the tomahawk. He fought on many fields in North Taranaki; then in 1863 he turned his attention northward.
The Eviction of John Gorst.
Te Awamutu, with its mission and Government establishment, was an outpost of Pakeha influence in the heart of the Maori country. Young John Gorst (afterwards Sir John), lately come from England, was there as Governor Grey's officer, half magistrate, half school superintendent; he carried on a pro-Government propaganda with his little newspaper, the “Pihoihoi Mokemoke,” a vigorous counterblast to the Kingite gazette “Hokioi,” which the chief Patara te Tuhi and his brother Honana printed at Ngaruawahia, the Maori capital. King Tawhiao and Wiremu Tamehana tolerated Gorst; not so Rewi. In his fiery way he marched a war-party of his tribe down to Te Awamutu, seized the objectionable printing press and type, thrust Gorst out (or rather forced his recall by the Governor), and sent his printing gear off to Auckland after him. This precipitated the Waikato War.
Rewi was determined to have a final decision by force of arms. He and his cousin, Tupotahi—a man of like physique and energetic character to himself—made a recruiting expedition to the distant Urewera Country. There by his thrilling appeals and his chanted war songs he infused a fighting spirit into the mountain men—indeed, they did not need much urging, although they had no quarrel with the Pakeha. They would go far for the sheer love of using gun and tomahawk. So it came about that presently considerably more than a hundred Urewera warriors were on the battle trail in Waikato; at Orākau there were nearly a hundred and forty of them, and they furnished the backbone of the defence there.
The Building of Orakau Pa.
No need here to repeat the story of the gradual forcing back of the Kingites, from fort to fort and camp to camp. I take up the story on the gentle mound of Rangataua, at Orākau, the Place of Trees. There, at the end of March, 1864, three hundred and ten Maoris of various tribes, with many women among them—and even some children—mustered to build a kind of challenge redoubt, a final gesture of defiance and of love for the lands they were losing. (The Urewera, it was true, were not in danger of losing any land, but they were ready to give their lives in the cause of their fellow-Maoris.) Rewi really was forced into the desperate affair against his own better judgment. He had his doubts from the beginning; he saw with the eye of a practised soldier the unsuitability of the site which the old men had selected for a pa. The venerable Te Paeata, chief of Ngati-Tekohera and Ngati-Raukawa, struck his staff on the ground at Orākau and said: “This is my land; let me die here.” Rewi urged the Urewera to return to their mountains. But their leader replied: “We are carrying heavy burdens [guns and ammunition] and we must use them; we have come a long way.” Of Rewi's own tribe there were not more than fifty; the rest remained southward of the Puniu.
All the shrewd Rewi's advice was in vain; the Urewera and West Taupo and Orākau men were resolved on the last fight. So he reluctantly consented to the general wish. Once page 27 he did so, he threw himself into the defence with all his fiery energy and warrior skill.
The Maori redoubt, a small and really insignificant earthwork, was about eighty feet in length by forty feet in width. It was a rectangular entrenchment, with inner and outer trenches, some interior dug-outs and shallow covered ways, and a low parapet, outside of which a post and rail fence around part of the little fort made a further obstacle, but a flimsy one. The diggers were working there as busy as bees under Rewi's direction when a military surveyor at Kihikihi descried through his theodolite telescope the flashing of the spades and shovels in the sunshine, and reported it to the commander of the troops.
The British Attack.
“We were at prayers outside the pa in the early morning,” said Tupotahi, Rewi's cousin and lieutenant, in describing to me the siege and defence, “and had our hands over our eyes, so, when I looked up and saw the look-out on the parapet beckoning to me and pointing, and there, looking in the direction of Kihikihi I saw the fixed bayonets of the soldiers glittering in the sun. The army was marching against us. So we ran to our stations, each tribe, loaded our guns, and prepared for the battle that we all felt was a battle of desperation [whakamomori]. Still we were in good spirits; we were elated at the prospect of a battle in which we would uphold our names and defend our rights to the land of our ancestors.” The tattooed veteran described the moving events of the three days’ defence. He and Te Huia Raureti and their surviving comrades all gave Rewi the credit for the management of the defence. He was in supreme command. It was Rewi who gave the first orders of defence, “Fire, the outer line,” “Fire the inner line,” when the British infantry made the first charge against the redoubt, and the Maori volleys swept the glacis.
The Three Days’ Battle.
For three days and two nights the Maoris held the fort, a noble three hundred and ten against six times their number of well-armed, well-fed soldier foes. The siege began on the morning of March 31; it ended late in the afternoon of April 2. “We lived in a circle of fire and smoke,” said Paitini, a man of the Urewera, who was severely wounded there. There was a supply of food, but the water was exhausted by the end of the first night. To the rifle fire of hundreds of soldiers, a bombardment with two six-pounder Armstrong guns was added, and on the third day hand-grenades were thrown into the pa from the head of a flying-sap dug up to the northern outwork. Ringed with a line of steel, earthworks battered by shell fire, men, women and little children tortured with thirst, the valorous little band held out; there was no thought of surrender. The defenders ran short of ammunition for their double and single-barrel guns, so short that in the night firing they used small pieces of apple and manuka wood as bullets, saving their lead for the day-time. They repulsed repeated charges, and Rewi directed sorties from the redoubt.
The Fortune of War.
On the second morning of the siege, a thick fog enveloped the battlefield. The straits of the defenders were so serious that Tupotahi made request of the council of chiefs that the pa should be abandoned under cover of the fog. The council debated this, and decided to hold the fort. This was the announcement made by Rewi, which clinched the decision:
“Listen to me, O chiefs of the Runanga and all the tribes! It was we who sought this battle, wherefore then should we retreat? This is my thought: Let us abide by the fortune of war. If we are to die, let us die in battle; if we are to live, let us survive on the field of battle.”
“So,” said Tupotahi, continuing his narrative, “we all remained to continue the fight. The fog presently lifted from the battlefield, and then again began the firing.”
By that evening, the sufferings of the garrison had become intense. Dead and wounded were lying about the pa. Rewi now considered it advisable to evacuate the place in the night. But the Taupo men and the Urewera were stubborn in their decision to remain and continue the fight to the death. “So be it,” said Rewi.
The Last Day.
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Man behind the Counter: “Yes, I smoke it myself. Apart from the fact that the tobacco is one hundred per cent. in quality, it is produced by a company that is one hundred per cent. New Zealand. I believe that company pays hundreds of thousands to the Government in freight and taxes and employs over a thousand workers. Why, dash it all, the more we smoke the better for the country; and the loyal way the company sticks to the Railways in fares and freight, helps to keep the railwaymen in their jobs.”
The morning haze swept away; the roar of the Armstrongs and the crack of rifles and carbines answered the bang of the Maori shotguns. It is recorded that forty thousand rounds of Enfield ammunition were fired by the troops in the siege. (No wonder we youngsters found bullets in the ground turned up by the plough, and explored the scarred old peach trees with our pocket knives for bits of lead.) The Maoris were of necessity far more sparing of their powder and lead; still they made the troops keep close to cover. But the sap, the artillery and the hand-grenades spelled the doom of Orākau. The end was near.
The story of that afternoon of April the second, 1864, imperishably remains as an inspiration to deeds of courage and fortitude. No-where in history did the spirit of pure patriotism blaze up more brightly than in that little earthwork redoubt, torn by shellfire and strewn with dead and dying. The grim band of heroes proudly refused the terms offered by General Cameron, who certainly did not wish to sacrifice them.
To the General's request, delivered by the interpreter from the head of the sap, the reply was delivered by a chief who was Rewi's mouth-piece: “Peace will never be made, never, never!” A further reply, in words that will forever live, was delivered: “Friend, I shall fight against you for ever and ever!” (in the Maori, “E hoa, ka whawhai tonu ahau ki a koe, ake, ake!“)
The interpreter, Mr. Mair (afterwards Major) said: “That is well for you men, but it is not right that the women and children should die. Let them come out.”
A noble-looking woman, the chieftainess Ahumai, made reply: “If the men are to die, the women and children will die also!”
Through the Valley of Death.
So went on the hopeless fight, but not for much longer. Rewi gave the word; his warriors loaded their guns with their last cartridges, and with the women and children in their midst, they charged out in a body, going at a steady trot at first, until the amazed soldiers opened a fearful fire upon them. That retreat through the fern and swamp to the Puniu River and beyond was, like the defence of the pa, full of deeds of gallantry and self-sacrifice. Rewi himself was surrounded by a small bodyguard of his devoted kinsmen; one of those gallant fellows, his nephew, Te Huia Raureti, still lives on the Puniu banks, a white-headed veteran of over ninety, the very last of the warriors of his clan who fought through to safety that day of mingled gloom and glory.
When the sun went down on Orākau a hundred and sixty Maoris lay dead on the battlefield and on the line of flight to the border river. More than half the garrison, and of the survivors, half, probably, were wounded. Of the British, seventeen were killed and fifty-two wounded. There is a lament of Ngati-Maniapoto for their dead in Taranaki that also applies to Orākau:
“The land is swept and desolate,
Mournfully rolls the tide of Puniu,
The waters sob as they flow.”
So fought Rewi his last fight for his people and his country. He survived to live in peace and honour in near neighbourhood with his Pakeha antagonists. We on the old frontier lived on the very ground that was salted down with the flesh and blood and bones of scores of the gallant dead, the men—and women too—of Orākau. Cattle graze on that sacred soil; maybe the present owner wonders why years of cultivation have not smoothed out that rough bit of turf. Forty men and women were buried there, within the fence on the north side of the road as you drive over Orākau. Their parapets were just tumbled in on them. When the trench graves were filled in, the clenched hand of a Maori protruded above the ground, and a soldier trampled on it to tread it under. The last gesture! Defeated, shot and bayoneted; dead, but unconquerable.
The Orákau battlefield. (Photo. by the writer of this article.) The eucalyptus tree was planted after the war to mark the emplacement of one of the Armstrong guns used by the British troops in the attack on the pa, at a range of 350 yards. The line of trees marks the main road, which intersects the site of the Maori fortification.