Defending Ōrākau


Many New Zealanders will be aware of the approaching centenary of the beginning of the Great War, but it is also important to remember the New Zealand Wars fought on our own soil.

Between March and June, the 150th anniversaries of the battles of Ōrākau, Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), and Te Ranga will be commemorated.

The Waikato War (1863–64) was waged by the government against the Kīngitanga movement, which arose in resistance to land sales in Waikato.

Towards the end of that war, Rewi Maniapoto was persuaded by members of Ngāti Raukawa and Tūhoe to defend Ōrākau. The fortified pā was still being built on 31 March 1864 when more than 1,000 British troops arrived, led by Brigadier-General Carey. The pā withstood frontal attacks and shelling, before the British soldiers surrounded it and constructed a sap, digging their way in a zig-zag motion towards the 300 Māori defenders.

By the time General Cameron arrived on 2 April, the Māori were suffering from thirst and starvation. Cameron called for a ceasefire and offered them a chance to surrender.

There are several versions of what happened next. Most agree that one of the defenders replied with: ‘E hoa, ka whawhai tonu ki a koe, ake, ake’ – ‘Friend, we will fight you forever and ever’. The women were then offered a chance to leave, but Ahumai Te Paerata replied: ‘Ki te mate ngā tāne, me mate anō ngā wāhine me ngā tamariki’ – ‘If the men die, then the women and children must also die’.

Later that day, the Māori defenders broke out of the pā in a group, taking the British by surprise. They headed towards the nearby swampland and scattered. One of the survivors, Hitiri Te Paerata, later reported: ‘A storm of bullets … seemed to encircle us like hail’. Of the 300 in the pā, 160 were killed.

One survivor of the Waikato War – after being invited to attend the 50th ‘jubilee’ event commemorating the battle in 1914 – said to James Cowan ‘The Pākehā, is willing to let bygones to be bygones, but does he offer to give me back my potato ground?’

At a recent symposium hosted by the Alexander Turnbull Library, in conjunction with the Centre for Colonial Studies of the University of Otago, various themes were explored into Cowan’s legacy, including relating to his recording of the battle of Ōrākau. Paul Meredith, of Ngāti Maniapoto, who grew up in Kihikihi area, spoke about Cowan’s methods of writing down oral histories, and collaborating with tribal scholars such as Raureti Te Huia when he gathered information about the wars. Meredith suggested that Cowan’s methods have parellels with kaupapa Māori methodology of today.

There is a letter in Borderland from Raureti Te Huia to Cowan, in which Te Huia gives feedback on the validity of two maps that Cowan had sent him, relating to the layout of Ōrākau pa. This letter was a part of the collection of Cowan papers that the [National] library acquired at the end of 2012 which inspired the Borderland exhibition.


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