The Old Frontier : Te Awamutu, the story of the Waipa Valley : the missionary, the soldier, the pioneer farmer, early colonization, the war in Waikato, life on the Maori border and later-day settlement
Chapter VII — The Capture of Rangiaowhia.
The Capture of Rangiaowhia.
The first British soldiers to reach Te Awamutu marched in early on the morning of 21st February, 1864. This was General Cameron's force, which outflanked the Maori defences at Paterangi and Rangiatea in a surprise night march, and invaded the chief source of food supplies—Rangiaowhia—the decisive strategic movement in the Waikato War.
The following is Von Tempsky's MS. narrative of the night march and the morning's hot work at Rangiaowhia:—
Major William Jackson
Major Jackson was a young settler at Papakura when he took command of the Forest Rangers in 1863. After serving throughout the Waikato War, he settled at Hairini and afterwards at Kihikihi. For many years he commanded the Te Awamutu Cavalry Volunteers. In the eighties he was M.H.R. for the Waipa electorate.
At dawn (to summarise Von Tempsky's story) the troops neared Te Awamutu. It was known that at the entrance, by the pass, there was situated an old pa. It was not known whether it was now occupied or had been put into repair. The Rangers scouted on ahead and found it empty. The cocks at Te Awamutu mission station were now crowing, and the steeple of the church came into sight. Bishop Selwyn, and Mr Mainwaring as his aide, galloped along ahead to the mission station, whose native inhabitants “were under a theocratic flag of truce.” The column pushed on to Rangiaowhia. The young troopers of the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry now dashed forward in advance to their first serious work.
“Rangiaowhia,” narrated Von Tempsky, “came soon into sight with a blue ridge of mountains at the back, its straggling houses between peach groves crowning cultivated ridges, with two prominent churches at a short distance from one another. Kahikatea forests straggled up to the village, here and there, and when we approached it nearer a succession of ridges with some swamp intervening showed us that we had been somewhat deceived in the distance. The rapid crack, crack of revolvers and carbines announced to us now that the troopers had not forgotten their spurs in getting ahead of us. We listened eagerly for the sound of double-barrel guns, and that sound also was soon heard. So the conflict had commenced, and that idea lifted our feet with the power of galvanism. We probably got there considerably ahead of the main body, but our blood was up, and we wanted to support our troopers in the arduous task of riding through streets lined with houses whence a desperate foe might have great advantage over mounted men. When, however, we got nearer to the thick of the firing, a mounted civilian, with some artillery troopers, met me and said that in that direction there was nothing for us to do; if we wanted to see a good body of men we should go to the Catholic Church, which was crammed full of armed Maoris. I at once took his advice, particularly as I had heard but few double-barrels lately in the direction of the Defence Corps. In extended order, with 100 of the 65th Regiment in support, page 42 we advanced past several rows of deserted whares, from which, however, now and then some balls whistled past us. The church being our main object, we paid no attention to these minor matters. I sent Lieutenant Roberts with some men round the right flank of the church, and our circle gradually drew closer. I could see already some black heads at the windows—but of a sudden a white flag went up.
“‘Very well, lads,’ I thought, ‘then I shall take you prisoner.’ We advanced still nearer. Roberts' signal announced to me that the church was surrounded, when I heard Captain Greaves' voice calling to me from the rear
“‘The General does not want you to press the Maoris any further.’
“‘Not take them prisoner, even?’
∗ ∗ ∗ I obeyed, though I was fast consuming my tongue by merciless mastication. But honour is due to the order of a man like General Cameron, so I ordered my men off and marched to where the firing still continued.*
“The two churches lay more towards the left flank of the village. The firing continued more to our right near the centre of the village. As we approached that point we got a few long-range shots from distant whares, but took no notice of them.
“In passing a boarded house, however, one more like the building of a European than a Maori, two shots were rapidly fired at us from its verandah. I did not believe my eyes when I saw there a woman coolly sitting on the verandah and hiding a still smoking double-barrel underneath it. She was decently dressed in the semi-European style adopted by influential Maoris. She was oldish, and not very fair to look at, particularly as her time-worn features were bent into one concentrated expression of hatred—such a hatred as Johnson revered and you read of occasionally in old plays.
“I went up to her and had the gun taken away, looking at her all the time, not knowing whether I should laugh or feel pathetic—the coolness, the ugliness, and reckless hatred of this specimen of Maoridom puzzling my choice of sentiment exceedingly. I thought of passing on, just with a warning for future good behaviour, when page 43 some officers shouted to me that ‘the old wretch’ had also fired at them, wounded a man of the 65th, and been warned already, and that I had better take her prisoner.
“Reluctantly I gave her in charge of one of my men, but accompanied the order with a Freemason's sign which my man understood, the result of which was that the woman afterwards quietly slipped away unnoticed.
“Just as we started again we heard another couple of shots from the same house, and now thinking that some men might be inside I had the house surrounded.
“Just as Roberts got to the back part, another fairy burst from its door, and, running with the fleetness of a deer, dropped her gun just in time to have her sex recognised and respected. I was glad that her fleetness saved me from another female responsibility, and proceeded onward.
“I met Captain Bower, Adjutant of the Defence Corps, one of the Six Hundred at Balaklava. He looked fearfully excited, and hurriedly told me that Colonel Nixon had just been shot, and that the bullet had gone through his lung.”
Von Tempsky, describing what he then saw, says that a circle of soldiers of all regiments surrounded at some distance a nearly solitary whare with a very narrow and low door; in the open doorway lay the body of a soldier of the 65th, shot through the head. A constant firing of rifles into the house was carried on with little regard to the effects of cross-fire, and the narrator formed his men in a half-circle, in the safe radius of the “dead angle” of the house. It seemed that after the house had been first surrounded Colonel Nixon sent Lieut. T. McDonnell and Mr Mair, the interpreter, to ask the Maoris in it to surrender, assuring them of good treatment. A volley was the concise answer. Then the firing into the house commenced, but as the floor was below the level of the outside ground the Maoris were comparatively secure for some time. Then of a sudden an excited trooper of the Defence Corps dismounted, and dashed, sword and revolver in hand, into the whare. Some quick shots were heard, and nothing more was seen or heard of him. A man of the 65th rushed forward to ascertain the fate of the trooper, but, being covered and hampered by his roll of blankets and other paraphernalia, he stuck in the door and was shot in the head. The firing into the whare now became a perfect cannonade, and even Colonel Nixon could not abstain from firing with his re- page 44 volver at the open door. Stepping incautiously from behind the corner of a neighbouring whare, he received a bullet, fired from that open door.
“When we arrived,” resumes Von Tempsky, “some neighbouring whares had been set fire to with the view to communicating the fire to the all-dreaded one. But somehow this seemed to me an uncertain process, and unfair. So, looking round at my nearest men, I said, ‘We will rush the whare, boys.’
“‘Aye! Rush it, rush it!’ was echoed, and with one ‘Forward!’ about a dozen of us were round the door in an instant. Sergeant Carron had got ahead of me, and had poked his head into the low doorway. I stood impatiently behind him, just on one side of the door, thinking that we ought to take the body of the 65th man out of the way first. Carron then drew back his head and said to me:
“‘There is only one dead man inside, sir.’
“I could not quite understand this, though I could see that it was pitch dark inside, and so Carron might have been mistaken.
“At this moment Corporal Alexander, of the Defence Corps, had pushed his way between myself and Carron, and, squatting down in the low doorway, commenced to arrange his carbine for taking aim, evidently puzzled by the darkness—I urging him either to make room for us or jump in.
“A double-barrel thunders, discharged from the interior of the house, a bullet knocks through Alexander's brain, and he drops backward. The doorway was now completely chocked with the two bodies. My men dragged away Alexander, and, after firing five shots of my revolver quickly into the corner from which I had heard the last report, I dragged the 65th man out of the door myself. At that moment, also, one of my men got shot in the hip—a fine young fellow, John Ballender. He staggered forward and dropped, never more to rise, though he lingered for months in hospital. (Note.—A Canadian by birth, by profession a surgeon, he served as a private with me. An excellent shot, and brave to a fault. I had known him first at Mauku. His comrades have erected a handsome marble slab over his grave at Queen's Redoubt.)
“I now debated within myself whether the rush might not be renewed, as the door was clear now; but I saw that my men, even, had had enough of it, and were pointing significantly and triumph- page 45 antly to the flames that now commenced to lap over from the nearest burning whare to the fatal and now fated house. What the feelings of the inmates of that doomed fortress must have been passes almost the power of imagination. They must have heard by this time the crackling of the approaching fire; they must have felt the heat already. Could human nature hold out any longer in resistance?
“No! Behold, one man, in a white blanket, quickly steps from the door and approaches the fatal circle at some distance from us. He holds up his arms to show himself unarmed; he makes a gesture of surrender; he is an old-looking man.
“‘Spare him! Spare him!’ is shouted by all the officers and most of my men. But some ruffians—and some men blinded by rage at the loss of comrades, perhaps—fired at the Maori.
“The expression of that Maori's face, his attitude on receiving the first bullet, is now as vivid before my mind's eye as when my heart first sickened over that sight. When the first shots struck him he smiled a sort of sad and disappointed smile; then, bowing his head, and staggering already, he wrapped his blanket over his face, and, receiving his death bullets without a groan, dropped quietly to the ground. (Note.—Had all the men been with their regiments—that is to say, had had their own officers near them—this would not have happened. In that promiscuous crowd no one knew who one belonged to.)
“The flames now caught the roof. Could there be another being yet in that house of death? The roaring sound of approaching destruction inside the house, the certainty of death outside! What man can bear such wrath of fate?
“Behold! There is one such man! Like an apparition he suddenly stands in front of the door—stands bolt upright—and fires his last two shots at us. Defiance flashes from his eyes even a she sinks under a shower of bullets.
‘The house is one mass of flame—it is near falling—when another Maori bursts from it, gun in hand, and drops pierced by bullets while dauntlessly aiming at the foe. As he fell the timbers of the roof bent inward, the house tottered, and with a crash crumbled to pieces on the well-fought ground.
“Seven charred bodies of Maoris and the first Defence Corps man were found among the blackened ruins. That fortress had held ten defenders. What would not ten hundred of such defenders do when properly armed and commanded? Yet I am sorry to say page 46 that much of this unyielding desperate disposition is based upon one of the worst if the strongest features in Maori character.
“After the fall of the house there remained nothing to do at Rangiaowhia. The General, fearing the results of straggling in such a rambling, extensive community as this, together with the presumed absence of water in the most important military points, decided on returning to Te Awamutu.
“On our way to Te Awamutu I had occasion to observe the peculiar insensibility to wounds in Maoris; the same that I had previously observed in North American Indians. I had seen an immense, brawny Maori lying on the ground covered with blood. Dr. Mouat, V.C., of the Staff, attending him with his usual skill and celerity. I thought that kindly attention but thrown away, for the Maori had a sabre cut over the head, a revolver bullet in his mouth, a shot through the liver, and a sabre cut over the back. He was carried in a stretcher half way to Te Awamutu, when he insisted on getting out, and walked the remainder of the way. I saw him the following day in hospital, sitting up among the female prisoners, chatting in such an unconcerned way and with such equanimity of expression in his features that I doubted the evidence of my eyes that this could be the same man I had seen on the previous day with four wounds, each of which would have prostrated for some time a European.”
A veteran of No. 1 Company of Forest Rangers, Mr Wm. Johns, of Auckland (formerly of Te Rahu), gives the following account of his experiences at Rangiaowhia:
“About a dozen whares were burned in the village. The fight extended from the head of the swamp, where Colonel Nixon was shot, right up to the Catholic Church, whence we drove the Maoris over the crest into the swamps, next the native racecourse. Some shots were fired at us from the English Church; some Maoris were inside the building. It was an open skirmish from then right along. There were not more than 200 Maoris altogether in Rangiaowhia that day, but they fought well, and had plenty of ammunition. After one of our fellows had been shot, my commanding officer said to me, ‘Corporal, take two men and see if there are any Maoris in the whare there,’ pointing to a house about twenty yards away. I posted the two men outside and stooped to enter the house, which was sunk in the ground, with a low entrance. As I entered I was felled by a terrific blow on the side of the neck, but deflected some- page 47 what by the edge of the doorway. I lay there stunned for some moments, and when I recovered I saw a Maori weapon, a long taiaha, lying beside me. [It is now in the Old Colonists' Museum in Auckland; a small piece was nicked out of the blade of it by the doorway edge.] My men told me that the inmates of the whare had escaped by bursting through the thatch at the back, and got clear away. It was a very narrow escape for me, and I took the taiaha as a memento of it. I took no further share in the fight that day, but I was able to march back to Te Awamutu.”