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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


The defence of Orakau Pa by the three hundred Maoris who deserve lasting fame as surely as the three hundred of Thermopylæ has passed into imperishable history as an inspiring example of heroism and devotion to a national cause. Many and many a story of that three days' siege has been written, and yet new narratives with much that is thrilling are still to be gathered from the very few survivors. Far away in the wild forest glens of the Urewera Country I have heard the story of Orakau told in the meeting-houses at night by the old warriors, and travelling over the Huiarau Mountains to Waikaremoana, my companion, a Hauhau veteran, told me how his father fell at Orakau and he himself escaped from the field with a severe wound, and proudly he exhibited the deep scars.

Orakau was one of those defeats and retreats that are grander than a victory. The spirit of Bannockburn was in the defenders' scornful defiance of terrible odds; but even Bannockburn was outdone by the Maori garrison's indifference to the foe's superiority in numbers and arms and by the devotion of the women who remained to share the fall of their husbands and brothers. The pakeha's cattle graze over the unfenced, unmarked trenches where scores of brave men were laid to rest. Technically they were rebels, holding stubbornly to nationalism and a broken cause, but the glory of Orakau rests with those rebels. And now that the old racial animosities have disappeared Briton and Maori join in fraternal worship of the men and women who died for a sentiment. A Waikato Regiment has taken for its motto the war-cry of the people whom Cameron defeated but could not conquer, and has inscribed on its colours the words, “Ka whawhai tonu matou, ake, ake, ake!” To New Zealanders of the blended races in the years to page 60
A Plan of the Battlefield of Orakau, 1864.

A Plan of the Battlefield of Orakau, 1864.

page 61 come that slogan of the soil should carry as thrilling a call in battletest as the last words of Burns's ode hold for the Scot: “Liberty's in every blow—let us do or die!”

∗ ∗ ∗

Of Ngati-Maniapoto themselves there were but fifty or so in Orakau; the defence fell chiefly on the Urewera—who had come fully a hundred and fifty miles to fight the pakeha—and on the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-te-Kohera and other West Taupo hapus.

Very nearly all those dogged heroes of Orakau have passed to the Reinga; I know of only five now living—three Ngati-Maniapoto and two Urewera.

In this sketch of Waipa history I need not enter into the already familiar military history of Orakau. There is, however, an immensely interesting MS. narrative at my hand—Major Von Tempsky's account of the siege—and extracts from this animated description make a valuable contribution to the story of the three days' fighting.

Von Tempsky, after describing his march with the Forest Rangers from Te Awamutu, as advance guard of Major Blyth's column, narrates that the force crossed and re-crossed the Puniu and came out in rear of Orakau, soon after the main body under Brigadier-General Carey had opened the attack. His Rangers (No. 2 Company—No. 1 was in camp at Ohaupo) were ordered to guard the east side of the Maori position. Von Tempsky then goes on to describe the events of the first day (31st March, 1864):

“For two hours we lay under what cover the inequalities of the ground afforded, with a heavy and well-directed fire upon us. We could see the Maoris strengthening their works as busy as bees, firing away also with rifles from two or three small embrasures with most unpleasant comparative accuracy. There was one gentleman in particular sending his shots at me with a wonderful progression of skill. I had a hillock somewhat bigger than my head to shelter the same; a gentle incline thence afforded a philosophical resting-place for the trunk and limbs; so that I lay in comparative security from direct shots, though not from the leaden droppings of high descent. The first indication of the notice taken of my insignificant presence was given me by a bullet striking the ground in beautiful line with my head about eight or nine yards in front. The next shot made the distance six, in the same splendid line, the third five, the fourth four, and so on until—he did not hit me after all.

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“I had had some hopes that the nearness of our circle to the pa indicated an intention of a general assault, but nothing of the kind took place. We could not even fire, as the danger of a cross-fire was then too imminent, and I must confess that I was heartily glad when we were removed at last from that uselessly-exposed position to a point further back, where the sudden fall of the ridge gave a comparative shelter from bullets. Here I was joined once more by the rest of my men and Lieutenant Roberts, and got from him a full account of the proceedings of the main column.

“They were first fired upon from some peach-groves in the beginning of the village. The advance guard under Captain Ring, accompanied by Roberts and his Rangers, skirmished along the road, the natives retiring before them. It became then apparent that the Maoris were going to make a stand in a large peach-grove before them. There was an old stock-yard fence visible, but as to the nature of any other defences no one had any idea of what was before them. The word for assault was then given, and, Captain Ring and Roberts leading gallantly, they advanced in quick time. The Maoris held their fire until our force was within fifty yards, and then gave them volley after volley. Within a few yards from the ditch, and a parapet now becoming visible, Captain Ring fell dead by the side of Roberts. A few Rangers were trying to get into the ditch, but were not supported. Several men had fallen, and the bugle from the main body sounded the Retire. Another effort to lead the men on to the assault proved as ineffectual as the first. Captains Fisher and Hinds, of the 40th, and Captain Baker, of the Staff, most gallantly set the example, and urged the men on—but the advance of the latter was this time even a milder affair than the first. Captain Fisher was badly wounded, several men shared the same fate, and only a few of my men got into the ditch. Roberts saw that he was not sufficiently supported, and drew his men back. The two pieces of artillery then commenced to play upon the pa. We arrived about that time, and I witnessed the harmless flight of shells and other equally ineffectual shots. A little dust, and a cheer from the natives, were all the results that I could see. This firing of the Armstrong even continued after we were in our encircling position, and I had the pleasure of picking up nice pieces of shell dropped amongst us, after the explosion had taken place over our heads.”

Von Tempsky here comments on the failure to reconnoitre the pa before the troops were rushed against it in premature assaults.

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“After we had taken up our position on the east side, closing the circle that now surrounded the pa on all sides, everyone asked, ‘What next?’ A sort of vague idea circulated that ‘the place was going to be blown up that afternoon.’ I heard this myself from an officer of high standing, wondering in myself how this wonderful feat was going to be accomplished, and particularly in the space of time mentioned. However, there was little Hurst of the 12th (acting engineer officer). He suggested sapping. The idea was greedily seized and carried out.

“About twelve o'clock we began to see natives trooping along the ranges to the east, and making for the forest between us and Rangiaowhia [the Manga-o-Hoi bush]. Their numbers increased at every moment. I was stationed in a hollow where the main road from the pa [toward Otautahanga and Parawera] crossed a swamp and led up an adjoining ridge, on which stood a large weather-board house. I had previously put a picket near that house, as the view from it commanded the very point of the forest now that reinforcements were gathering.

“The natives in the pa had seen the arrival of succour as well as we had, and repeated cheers and volleys announced their appreciation of the sight. From the forest responsive cheers soon established a sympathetic intercourse between the two separated bodies, and I must confess that as far as I was concerned at least the enthusiasm was all on their side. Some Maori trumpeter in the pa now commenced one of those high-pitched shouts, half song, half scream, that travel distinctly over long distances, particularly from range to range. He was giving the reinforcements some instructions. I never have been able to find out what they were, though we had plenty of interpreters with us. I went to the picket with reinforcements, and extended a line of skirmishers along the brow of the hill in some tea-tree scrub. There was open ground between us and the line of forest in which the reinforcements were, and they had to cross that opening if they wanted to come to us.

“About this time the natives in the pa commenced a war dance. Of course, we could see nothing of it, but we could hear it—the measured chant—the time-keeping yell—the snort and roar—the hiss and scream—the growl and bellowing—all coming from three hundred throats in measured cadence, working up their fury into a state of maniacal, demoniacal frenzy, till the stamping of their feet actually shook the ground.

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“There was soon an echo in the forest of this pandemoniacal concert. Another chorus of three hundred or four hundred throats made the woods tremble with their wrath of lung and the thundering stamp of feet. Twice it subsided, and skirmishers appeared, firing lustily into us. I must confess there was something impressive in these two savage hordes linking their spirits over this distance into a bond of wrathful aid, lashing one another's fury into a higher heat by each succeeding yell echoing responsive in each breast. Yet when the result of all this volcanic wrath broke against us, when the simple crack of our carbines sent line after line of their skirmishers back into the bush, then the third war dance to get the steam up anew became a most laughable affair, particularly as its result was equally pusillanimous with the first two. No! that open ground under the muzzles of our carbines was not at all to the liking of the war-dancers. There they remained in the bush firing at us at long range, their bullets coming amongst us with that asthmatic, over-travelled sound denoting exhaustion of strength.

“The sap workers were now covered by a good number of Enfield rifles, which dropped most of their bullets into our snug hollow. I must say that as night came on I reflected upon its probable effects, and I experienced a good deal of uneasiness. I was placed on the one point where the Maoris from the pa, trying to effect a junction with the forces in the bush, would have to pass or break through. I never for a moment believed that they would allow the night to pass without making the attempt, as they had no water in the pa. If the forces in the bush, then, favoured by darkness, crossed the opening and attacked our rear while we faced the Maoris from the pa, the chances were ten to one that the junction would be effected, and that thus our prey would escape us after having done irreparable damage.

“I gave Roberts charge of the picket. It could not be in better hands. That day his behaviour before the pa, and on many previous instances, had borne me out in my preconceived idea of the young man that he was as true as steel. I ranged all my men on one side of the road, lying down close to one another in the fern, with strict orders not to stir from their positions until I gave the word—to let the Maoris run the gauntlet of their fire—and then, when Roberts had barred the narrow pass across the swamp, to charge them, bowie-knife and revolver in hand.

“It was an anxious night—so much so, that I even forgot the page 65 want of sleep of the night previous, and listened with little need of effort to the firing from the pa on the sap and from the sap on the pa. ∗ ∗ ∗ The Maoris had now fought for more than twelve mortal hours; they had wrought at the spade with marvellous rapidity and pluck; and last, not least, they had hurrah'd and war-danced enough to supply all England with consumption, and all that with no adequate supply of water, as their store of it inside must have been quickly exhausted. I believe that night some daring and devoted slaves managed to creep through our sentries and bring a few calabashes-full into the pa. But what was that for the great number of parched throats? (Also, raw potatoes assauged their thirst considerably.) Still the roar of their guns did not cease, and allow me to tell you that they had some old-fashioned barrels that roared like the bulls of Bashan and threw balls as big as potatoes. Hour after hour I listened to the firing and to the pinging of bullets whistling over our heads and dropping amongst us the whole lifelong night; but the sounds I most listened for were footsteps and that indescribable hum that precedes even the most silent body of men. I went to the picket several times, and returned each time in great haste, fearing the Maoris might break cover during my absence. But I was not the only wakeful officer. I think nearly everyone with any responsibility on him slept little that night, except those borne down by fatigue. The artillery troopers under Rait had hardly ceased their rounds along our whole circle throughout the night, and Rait and I had a long chat about the certainty of the Maoris breaking cover that night. Yet the night passed and nothing happened.

“This is one convincing proof to me that the Maoris after all, with all their cleverness, have not the true military sagacity in them to distinguish when obstinacy of defence turns into stupid self-sacrifice. Had they pushed through us that night we would have suffered at close quarters with their guns quite as much in ten minutes as in the time that the whole siege lasted, and their loss would have been comparatively small, as up to that time I believe not half a dozen of theirs had been hit.