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The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)


page 351
THE SUMMER OF 1864 was well advanced before General Cameron found himself able to execute the final strategic movement of the campaign, the outflanking of the Kingites' heavy defences at Paterangi and Rangiatea. Two half-caste guides attached to headquarters, James Edwards and John Gage, who had lived at Rangiaowhia and Kihikihi before the war, furnished the staff with detailed information about the country, and a surprise expedition was planned to advance on the Maoris' chief sources of food-supply by way of the mission settlement at Te Awamutu. The forward move was made under cover of darkness on the 20th February. At half-past 10 o'clock at night a force of nearly a thousand men (about half the troops at headquarters) fell in at Te Rore; the others were to follow in the daytime with the baggage and supplies, leaving a sufficient garrison in front of Paterangi. The utmost silence was preserved. No bugle sounded; the swords and bridle-chains of the cavalry were muffled with cloth. The advance-guard, commanded by Captain Von Tempsky, consisted of No. 2 Company of the Forest Rangers, with one hundred men of the 65th Regiment, under Lieutenant Tabuteau; Colonel Nixon's Colonial Defence Force Cavalry corps and Rait's Mounted Artillery, doing duty as cavalry, followed. The main infantry body was composed of detachments of the 50th, 65th, and 70th Regiments, with No. 1 Company of the Forest Rangers as rearguard. The guide was Mr. Edwards (“Himi Manuao” of the Maoris). The route was via Waiari, where the Mangapiko was crossed, thence well across the fern ridges to Te Awamutu, passing near the old pa Otawhao (in the neighbourhood of the present railway-station at Te Awamutu). Bishop Selwyn rode with General Cameron. The spire of the Rev. John Morgan's mission church was in sight at daylight. The troops made no halt at Te Awamutu, but pushed on to Rangiaowhia, three miles distant, along a hilly road above the deep swamps and kahikatea forest that fringed the Manga-o-Hoi Stream. The ridge of Hairini surmounted, page 352
The English Church at Rangiaowhia

The English Church at Rangiaowhia

This historic mission church was built for the Ngati-Apakura people some years before the Waikato War, and was one of many churches established under the first Bishop Selwyn. It is now used by the European residents of Rangiaowhia and Hairini. The principal scene of the fighting on the 21st February, 1864, was a short distance to the right of the picture, and many Maoris took refuge in the church.

about a mile and a half from the mission station, the large unfortified settlement of Rangiaowhia came in sight, a scene of peace and beauty. Fields of wheat, maize, and potatoes extended over long gentle slopes, and peach-groves shading clusters of thatched houses were scattered along a green hill trending north and south, the crown of the village, with the steeples of two churches rising above the trees, a quarter of a mile apart. In the swampy and part-wooded valley of Pekapeka-rau, below on the left as the invading army marched along the southern rim of the Rangiaowhia basin, the morning mists curled up from the raupo-bordered waters of a little lagoon, the dam which supplied the power for a flour-mill.

Nixon's cavalry galloped ahead, and the crack of carbines and popping of revolvers, replied to with double-barrel guns, broke the quiet of Rangiaowhia. The main forces of the Kingites page 353 were in Paterangi and Pikopiko; those occupying Rangiaowhia were chiefly people of the Ngati-Apakura and Ngati-Hinetu sections of Waikato, engaged in supplying food to the garrisons at the front. There were about a hundred men in the settlement, with many women and children. Alongside the road, lined with whares extending from the south end of the village to the hill on the north where the Roman Catholic church dominated Rangiaowhia, great quantities of food were laid out—potatoes, kumara, pigs, and fowls—packed ready for carting to Paterangi. The Maoris, recovering from their first astonishment at the attack, took cover in their raupo huts and in one or two houses of sawn timber, and opened fire on the cavalrymen. The Rangers were soon up in the centre of the village, followed by the 65th, and the skirmish spread along the street between the rows of houses. The cavalry gave their attention to some large whares to the south and south-east of the English church; these houses, one of which was the home of the chief Ihaia (“Isaiah”), of Ngati-Apakura, were clustered at a spot called Tau-ki-tua, about the head of a long swampy valley which extended in a northerly direction; a little to the south was Tioriori kainga. Lower down this valley, the Rua-o-Tawhiwhi, was a flour-mill similar to that at Pekapeka-rau. The Forest Rangers found the Roman Catholic church crowning the mound at the north end of the settlement, called Karanga-paihau, crammed with armed Maoris, who showed a white flag, and so were not pressed further. In rear of the church, surrounded by lines of whanake or cabbage-trees (these whanake, now grown to enormous trees, still adorn the old village-site), was the kainga Te Reinga, the headquarters of Hoani Papita (“John the Baptist”) and his people of Ngati-Hinetu. Between the church and this settlement was the house of the priest of the district. The Rangers, fired at here and there from whares—one or two of these snipers were women—hurried down to the right, where heavy firing was now going on. The English church, too, was filled with Maoris, and some shots came from the windows, but the action centred in one of the large houses on the slope above the spring at the head of the little valley. Close by was a house which belonged to a European, a man named Thomas Power, who had a Maori wife. In both of these houses a number of Maoris had taken refuge.

Colonel Nixon's cavalrymen, dismounting, surrounded the whares near the swamp-head (the spot is in the angle formed by the junction of the present Kihikihi—Rangiaowhia main road and the road eastward from Te Awamutu to Puahue and Panehakua). The Colonel sent Lieutenant McDonnell and Ensign William G. Mair (interpreter—afterwards Major Mair) to page 354
From a drawing by J. A. Wilson, 1864] The Fight at Rangiaowhia (21st February, 1864)

From a drawing by J. A. Wilson, 1864]
The Fight at Rangiaowhia (21st February, 1864)

The soldier shown falling is Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, commanding the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, who was shot from the doorway of the Maori house in the middle of the picture.

summon the Maoris in the large house to surrender, assuring them of good treatment. The reply was a volley. Then began independent firing from scores of carbines, rifles, and revolvers, perforating the raupo walls of the house everywhere; the troops were drawn round the place on three sides. The occupants of the whare, however, had good cover for a time, as the interior was excavated a foot or two below the level of the ground outside, and, crouching on the floor, the Maoris could deliver their fire through holes in the bottom of the walls, as in a shallow rifle-pit. An excited cavalryman, Sergeant McHale, rushed forward eager to storm the whare. He reached the low doorway, and was stooping firing into it with his revolver when he was shot dead and dragged inside. A 65th soldier was also shot dead in front of the house. The Maoris secured McHale's carbine and revolver, with about twenty rounds of carbine ammunition, and, using the captured firearms and their own guns, continued their resistance. Hundreds of shots were poured into the whare, and Colonel Nixon himself fired into it with his page 355 revolver. He was shot through the lungs from the open doorway, and fell in front of the house. McDonnell and Mair ran to his assistance, and Mair pulled off a door from a hut and laid the mortally wounded colonel on it. Some of the neighbouring whares were now on fire, either ignited by the firing through the thatch or set on fire by the troopers.

Von Tempsky came running up with his Rangers, and, followed by a dozen of his men, rushed at the doorway of the large whare. Sergeant Carron thrust his head into the low doorway, seeking a target in the gloom of the house, but could see nothing at which to fire. At this moment Corporal Alexander, of the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, ran up and, crouching at the open door, was about to fire his carbine into the house when he was shot dead. The Rangers dragged the dead corporal away from the door, and Von Tempsky quickly fired the five shots of his revolver into the corner from which he had heard the last report. Then he pulled the body of the 65th soldier away and drew his men off a little distance. One of the Rangers, a young Canadian named John Ballender—a surgeon by profession, and a very brave fellow and a fine shot—fell wounded in the hip; he died from his injury some months later. Four cavalrymen, including Sergeant Hutchinson and Trooper E. Mellon, rushed forward with a stretcher and carried Colonel Nixon out of the line of fire. Then they went back for Trooper Alexander, who was lying outside the door shot through the throat. The shot had been fired at so short a range—only a few feet—that his whiskers were burned by the powder-flash.

The garrison whare was now on fire, like the neighbouring huts. A veteran of the cavalry says that one of the troopers had run round to the rear of the hut and set it alight; but an old Forest Ranger considers that the thatch may have been ignited by the firing. “We put the muzzles of our carbines close to the raupo walls,” he says, “and fired through the thatch. The Maoris inside were doing the same, and naturally the inflammable walls would soon catch fire from the flash and the burning wadding.”

The flames at last drove one of the occupants out. A tall old man, clothed in a white blanket, which he was holding about his head, emerged from the doorway of the burning house. His upstretched arms showed that he had no weapon. He advanced towards the crescent of troops in surrender, facing a hundred levelled rifles. “Spare him, spare him!” shouted the nearest officers. But next moment there was a thunder of shots. Staggering from the bullets, the old hero recovered his poise for an instant, stood still with an expression of calm, sad dignity, page 356 then swayed slowly and fell to the ground dead. The episode enraged the chivalrous officers who had entreated quarter for him, and young St. Hill, of the General's staff, pointed to a soldier of the 65th Regiment and shouted, “Arrest that man! I saw him fire!” But Leveson-Gower, the captain of the detachment, replied, “No, I'll not arrest him; he was not the only one who fired.” The truth was that the troops clustered promiscuously about the burning houses were not under the immediate control of their officers at the moment of the Maori's surrender; and there were many who burned to avenge the fall of their beloved Colonel Nixon.

No more Maoris surrendered after that sacrifice. The house was now wrapped in flames. A man stepped out of the pit of death, stood in front of the doorway, and fired his last shots from his double-barrel gun. A volley from the soldiers, and he fell dead. Yet another appeared from the doorway and was shot dead while aiming at his foes. The burning house crashed and fell inward. When the troops were able to approach it they found in the smoking ruins the charred bodies of Sergeant McHale and seven Maoris. The brave little garrison had numbered ten, opposed to some hundreds of the invaders, and the taking of the raupo hut cost, besides, three whites shot dead and two mortally wounded.

None of the other whares was defended in this determined manner. About a dozen houses were burned down; some of their occupants had dispersed to the northward, making across the slopes for the Catholic church on the hill; others took refuge in the swamp or fled eastward into the bush. At the Catholic church* some of Hoani Papita's men made a short stand. Twenty or thirty of them rushed into the church and fired through the windows, and it was thought at first that they intended standing page 357 a siege there, but they discovered that the weatherboards were not bullet-proof. The Rangers and some Regulars attacked, and the church-walls were soon perforated with bullets. At last the defenders dashed out through the door on the northern side, and fled to the swamps.

Twelve Maoris, including the chiefs Hoani and Ihaia, were killed in the morning's encounter, and above thirty prisoners, some wounded, were taken.