Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Defenders of Orakau

page 99

The Defenders of Orakau

Old heroes who could grandly do,
As they could greatly dare,
A vesture, very glorious,
Their shining spirits wear
Of noble deeds….

FOR more than a hundred miles south of Auckland authentic tradition and history give a living interest to the main highway that penetrates the heart of Waikato. The road along which so many motorists speed to-day is rich in human associations, and it is this kind of background which so greatly heightens the charm of beautiful scenes. In more than usual measure the romance of stirring deeds steeps a cross-section of the Upper Waikato, a dozen miles or so of the old army trail that is now part of the main route to wonderful Arapuni. This portion of the highway, which may be described as the Via Sacra of Waikato, crosses the exact ground of famous Orakau Pa,* the scene of the most heroic defence of a beleaguered position in the whole history of the Maori wars.

That sacred spot is in my earliest recollections of childhood, for my father's farm included part of the battlefield, the pa site was close to our homestead, and the traditions and place-magic of Orakau became part of my very being. I have seen old tattooed warriors halt

* *Orakau means “Rakau's Place,” or “The Place of Trees.” It is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.

page 100 on the gentle mound where the road passes over the long-razed earthworks and weep as they murmured a quavering greeting to the spirits of their fallen comrades. I heard from many veterans of both races their stories of Orakau, and every narrative but heightened admiration for the men and women of the garrison who held out to the last against overwhelming odds, fighting their last fight for the soil of their ancestors, and clinging with the courage of despair to a lost cause.

Orakau was a Maori Thermopylae. Here, for three days (March 31st and April 1st and 2nd, 1864), a band of men and women belonging to various tribes resisted the British and Colonial troops. There were three hundred and ten Maoris, whose chiefs had resolved to make a last stand against the conquering army of General Cameron. Half their number lay dead on the field and in the fatal swamp below on the final day of the battle.

∗ ∗ ∗

“Let me die here,” said the old chief Te Paerata, striking his spear-staff into the ground at Orakau when the chiefs held council about the most suitable site for a pa. He was not the leading war-chief of the tribes, but his gesture fired the gathering of warriors with a determination to make that spot the fighting ground. Orakau was a beautiful fruitful place; there were several villages there; it was a land of abundant food. There were many groves of peaches and fields of corn and potatoes; long before the war the Maoris sent wheat from there all the way to Auckland, and flour, too, was produced, for the tribes of this district had their own flour-mills driven by water-power. So there, page 101 on the mound called Rangataua, on the fair slopes of Orakau, the three hundred built their earthworks and awaited the shock of battle.

The chief in supreme command was Rewi Maniapoto. Shrewd and war-seasoned, he saw the weakness of the position, so open and vulnerable; and he suggested a stronger and more strategic site, nearer the bush. But, with Te Paerata, the voice of the people was for Orakau. Most of the garrison were from distant parts. The backbone of the defence was a strong war-party of the Urewera or Tuhoe tribe, who had come more than a hundred miles from their mountain homes to fight the pakeha. Another body came from the western shores of Lake Taupo.

Rewi's own tribe, Ngati-Maniapoto, sent a war-party of fifty men. He was a man of about forty-five at this time, of rather small, compact build, quick-moving, of keen and fiery temper. He was the popular fighting hero of the Kingites, with a war-path story that went back to the days of the old intertribal wars, when he marched to battle though still quite a boy in years. Once he decided to accede to the general wish and join issue at Orakau with the British he threw himself into the defence of the challenge fort 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 page 102 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.

“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. “Our minister, Wi Karamoa, was praying to Jesus Christ to protect us against the might of the pakeha. We had our hands over our eyes, when I glanced 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. I waited until the prayers were over, and then gave the alarm. 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.”

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. “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 handgrenades were thrown into the pa from the head of a page 103 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; and they even broke off the legs of their iron cooking-pots to serve as projectiles.

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 runanga 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. The wounded were crying for water. There was none to give them. Rewi now considered it advisable to evacuate the place in the night. But the Taupo men page 104 and the Urewera were stubborn in their decision to remain and continue the fight to the death. “So be it,” said Rewi.

∗ ∗ ∗

The third morning dawned in the haze that presaged a hot day. Tupotahi now proposed to Rewi: “Let us charge out before it is day. If we go now we may fight our way through the soldiers.” Rewi smiled grimly, and bade Tupotahi consult the other chiefs. “We shall remain here,” they declared; “we shall fight on.”

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 story of the afternoon of April the second, 1864, imperishably remains as an inspiration to deeds of courage and fortitude. Nowhere 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 surrender demanded by General Cameron.

To the General's request, delivered by the interpreter from the head of the sap, the reply was made by a chief who was Rewi's mouthpiece: “Peace will never be made, never, never!” A further reply, in words that will forever live, was delivered: “Friend, I shall fight page 105 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 voice asked: “How did you know that there were women and children here?”

Mair replied: “I heard the lamentations for the dead in the night.”

The chieftainess Ahumai, daughter of the old chief Te Paerata, called out to the interpreter: “If the men are to die, the women and children will die also!”

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, is still living on the banks of the Puniu as I write this, a white-haired veteran of over ninety, the very last of

* *The current popular version of the Maori reply is: “Ka whawhai tonu matou ake, ake, ake!” (“We shall continue to fight for ever and ever and ever!”) However, the Maori survivors' narratives I have gathered do not give those exact words. The reply, according to these informants, was in the first person singular, as in my text. The chief who answered Mair of course spoke for the whole garrison.

page 106 the warriors of his clan who fought through to safety that day of mingled gloom and glory.*

When the sun went down on Orakau a hundred and sixty Maoris lay dead on the battlefield, and on the line of retreat to the south side of the Puniu River. There were many poignant and touching incidents. When the pa was rushed by the troops an old warrior lay dead with his gun pointing over the parapet. One leg had been shattered earlier in the siege and he had bound it up with flax-leaves and sticks for splints, so that he could prop himself up against the bank and go on fighting. A young man kept some of the pursuers back by repeatedly turning and kneeling and presenting his gun at them. When at last he was shot dead it was found that the reason he had not fired was because his gun was empty all the time. He was trying to cover the retreat of his old people. [A pretty half-caste girl captured had an arm broken by a bullet.] Two women were bayoneted to death by the soldiers who charged into the pa. One of them was a high chieftainess of the Bay of Plenty coast, Hine-i-turama, of the Arawa tribe, at Maketu, formerly the wife of the Danish trader Hans Tapsell. She had come to Orakau to visit her daughter. (Mair, the interpreter, tried to save these women from the maddened soldiers in the melee, but in vain.)

Of the British, seventeen were killed and thirty-five wounded. The dead and wounded soldiers were carried in rough transport carts back along the road to Te Awamutu camp. An Irish soldier walked by a cart, keening in his native tongue. His brother lay in the cart with a bullet through his head. Maori wounded were

* *Since this was written, Te Huia Raureti died at Mangatoatoa, Puniu, on June 9th, 1935, aged 95 years.

page 107 carried to the camp, some with limbs shattered by shell and grenade.

The Maori dead were buried where they fell, scattered over more than a mile of country. Nearly forty men and women were buried in the field on the north side of the road as you drive over Orakau. 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 tramped on it to tread it under. The last gesture! Defeated, but unconquerable.

∗ ∗ ∗

More than half of the Urewera or Tuhoe contingent were either killed or wounded. Thirty of their dead were left on the field; three of these were women who had accompanied their husbands on the war-path. One of the survivors, Paitini te Whatu, who was grievously wounded and whose father was killed, described to me thirty years after the battle the sorrowful reception of the defeated warriors when they returned to the Ruatahuna Valley, in the heart of their mountain land. An apakura, a lament for the dead, was chanted by all the assembled tribes folk as the survivors entered the village square and stood in silence with bowed heads. This is part of the great and moving dirge that rang through that forest valley:

“We saw the fire of omen,
The lightning flashing downward
On our sacred mountain peaks,
Portent of warriors' doom—
Defeat and death.
Alas for Ruatahuna!
page 108 Bereft of all but women;
Manawaru's proud crest
Is borne away,
A needless sacrifice.
By Marata, by reckless Penewhio,
Ye were led foolishly to death!
Cold in the earth our warriors lie,
Ye return to us no more;
'Tis now as it was said of old,
The offspring of Tuhoe go wastefully down
Into the night of death.”

The closing lines in the original are an ancient proverb of this mountain race of desperate fighters, who ever braved fearful odds:—

Ko te uri a Tuhoe
Moumou tangata ki te po.

There is a lament of Ngati-Maniapoto for their dead in Taranaki that also applies to Orakau:

“The land is swept and desolate,
Mournfully rolls the tide of Puniu,
The waters sob as they flow.”

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. That sacred bit of ground at the north side of the old pa was fenced in as a tapu spot by my father in 1870; he planted some bluegum trees to mark the graves. But the farm has since passed through many hands; the tapu is disregarded, the fence and the trees have gone, and now cattle graze over the graves. Yet years of cultivation and depasturing have not smoothed out that rough turf where the heroes and page 109 heroines of Orakau were laid in their self-dug trench tomb.

A noble and touching tribute to the defenders of Orakau appeared in a New Zealand newspaper (the Christchurch “Press”) on April 16th, 1864, when the story of the siege and the capture of the pa became known in the Colony. The article was written by that eloquent and warmhearted Irish pioneer, James Edward Fitzgerald, one of the founders of the Canterbury settlement. I quote the principal part of the article:—

“….Without food or water they waited the final assault, when the messengers of peace made them the last offer—their lives and good treatment if they would but surrender to a fate which was inevitable. No human situation can be conceived more desperate or more hopeless—their lands gone, their race melting away like snow before the sun, and now their own turn come at last; with enemies surrounding them on all sides, and nothing but certain death staring them in the face, this is the last answer which they give to a proposal or peace and surrender: ‘Friends, this is the reply of the Maori—“We will go on fighting for ever, for ever, for ever!”’ We make bold to say that in whatever tongue the colonisation of the New Zealand islands by the Anglo-Saxons be written, this reply of the last of the Waikatos will be held for a memorial of them and men will ask in after times, was it good to destroy a race who could so defend their native land? There certainly does seem to be a sort of curse upon our army in this unhappy conflict… There will be men in after times whose pens will narrate the page 110 causes and outcomings of this contest, and who will seek in the objects of the war the key to its disasters [to British arms]. They will say it was not a war for safety or for law, or for truth or liberty, but it was a war dictated by avarice and prosecuted for spoilation. It was a war to remove a neighbour's landmark, to destroy a race that we might dwell in their tents. No doubt these critics of the past will be wrong. They must be so, for is not the whole voice of the age against them? An enlightened, Christian, money-making people, we are quite satisfied with the morality of our own conduct; but still the events of the war remain unexplained. Still it will remain to be solved why more money, time and life should have been sacrificed in this war against a feeble foe, for a smaller result, than in any war in which England has yet engaged. For our own parts, we have long ceased to speculate on the causes of these things; we wait and wonder. But if there be anything in the whole miserable story to excite the admiration of a generous mind, it is this sad spectacle of those grim and tawny figures, gaunt with the watching and weariness, the wounds and nakedness of a long campaign in the bush, staring over their ragged palisades on the hosts of their conquerors from whom escape was impossible, and wailing out their last chant of death and defiance: ake, ake, ake!—for ever, for ever, for ever!”