Ōhaeawai NZ Wars memorial cross

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St Michael’s Church, also known as Ōhaeawai Māori Church, latterly as Te Whare Karakia O Mikaere, is located at Ngāwhā, approximately 4 km south-west of the Northland town of Ōhaeawai.

Dedicated by Bishop Cowie on 21 April 1871, the church stands on the site of the famous Ōhaeawai pā. The scoria wall surrounding the burial ground marks almost exactly the outer line of the stockade that surrounded the pā. In the winter of 1845 this was the scene of a major British defeat at the hands of the faction of Ngāpuhi led by the Ngāti Hine chief Te Ruki Kawiti.

On 1 July 1845, after withstanding a week-long bombardment, Kawiti’s 100-strong garrison faced a determined assault on the pā by a British force commanded by Colonel Henry Despard. Some 250 troops from the 58th and 99th Regiments, sailors and marines from HMS Hazard and Auckland militia rushed at the defences. In a matter of minutes, 40 troops were killed and 70 wounded.

The troops who died in this ‘disastrous affair’ were buried on the battlefield three days later. The grave site is thought to have been the site of the British encampment, 200–300 m from the pā. Officers killed at Ōhaeawai were buried at the church of St John the Baptist at Waimate North.

In a dispatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1870, New Zealand Governor Sir George Bowen described his recent visit to Ōhaeawai. Bowen noted that local Māori had just erected a church on the site of Ōhaeawai pā, ‘among the now decayed palisades and rifle-pits’, and that they had reserved the entire site as a cemetery.

When the Bishop of Auckland shall have consecrated this new burial-ground, the Maoris intend to remove into it the remains of our soldiers who now lie in unmarked graves in the neighbouring forest, and to erect a monument over them; so that (as an aged chief, formerly conspicuous among our enemies, said to me) ‘the brave warriors of both races, the white skin and the brown – now that all strife between them is forgotten – may sleep side by side until the end of the world.’

The chief was probably Ngāpuhi leader Heta Te Haara. ‘I question,’ said Bowen in 1870, ‘if there be a more touching episode in the annals of the warfare of even civilized nations in either ancient or modern times’.

In January 1872 the government agreed to pay Ngāpuhi £30 to exhume the British remains and reinter them in the grounds of St Michael’s Church. On 29 June 1872, the remains were removed from their original graves by several tohunga (Māori priests) and placed in six large coffins. Two days later, on the 27th anniversary of the battle, the coffins were conveyed to the burial ground in ‘wretchedly cold and wet weather’. Each was covered with a red ensign and marched to the grave site in procession.

Led by Te Haara, the coffins were followed by a long train of Europeans and Māori. The procession was met at the grave site by Archdeacon E.B. Clarke, who conducted the burial service. After the ceremony three volleys were fired over the grave. The crowd then moved indoors for speeches and to enjoy the hospitality of Te Haara and his people.

This memorial, thought to have been designed by L. Munro of Dunedin, marks the grave site. According to J. Grattan Grey, it was erected ‘at the sole cost of the natives to the memory of those who had fought against them’. Thus ‘the bones of those who had fallen on that fatal day should rest side by side with the remains of those who had shot them down.’

A century later, the memorial required restoration work. In 1974, a small party from 1 Construction Squadron, Royal New Zealand Engineers, then based at Papakura Military Camp, created a new foundation and returned the memorial to an upright position.

The inscription on the memorial is in Māori. Although this in itself is not uncommon – memorial crosses at Huirangi and Mahoetahi also carry inscriptions in Māori – it is unusual for a Māori inscription to stand over European dead.

The names of the 47 soldiers interred at the site are listed inside the church. A framed account of the battle and a plan of the pā presented by the NZ Army on the church’s centenary in 1971 are also on display. A brass plaque set into a boulder inside the churchyard gate commemorates the battle, the making of peace, the laying out of the cemetery and the construction of the church. This was unveiled on 1 July 1995.

Inscription

According to James Cowan, the inscription reads:

Ko te Tohu Tapu tenei / o / nga Hoia / me / nga Heramana  / o / Te Kuini, / i hinga i te whawhai / ki konei / ki / Ohaeawai, / i te tau o to tatou Ariki / 1845, / Ko tenei Urupa / na nga Maori i whakatakoto / i muri iho / o / te maunga rongo.

Translation:
This a Sacred Memorial / to / the Soldiers and Sailors of the Queen / who fell in battle here / at Ohaeawai / in the year of Our Lord / 1845. / This burying-place was laid / out / by the Maoris / after the making of peace.

Further information

  • Amusements’, NZ Herald, 8/5/1871, p.2.
  • A relic of Heke's War’, New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, 1 August 1902, p. 67
  • James Belich, ‘The Ohaeawai campaign’, in The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict, Penguin, Auckland, 1998, pp. 45–57
  • James Cowan, ‘Chapter 7: the attack on Ohaeawai’, in The New Zealand Wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period: volume I: 1845–1864, R.E. Owen, Wellington, 1955, pp. 49–59
  • James Cowan, ‘The storming party at Ohaeawai’, in Hero stories of New Zealand, Harry H. Tombs, 1935, pp. 31–7
  • J. Grattan Grey, His island home; and, away in the far north: a narrative of travels in that part of the colony north of Auckland, Lyon & Blair, Wellington, 1879, pp. 49–52
  • Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips, The sorrow and the pride: New Zealand war memorials, Wellington, 1990, pp. 24–5
  • ‘Papers relating to the removal and re-interment of the remains of the Imperial soldiers who fell at Ohaeawai in 1845’, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1872, G-29
  • Nigel Prickett and Auckland War Memorial Museum, ‘The future of New Zealand war sites and landscapes’, Department of Conservation, National Historic Heritage Workshop, Wellington, September 2002
  • Chris Pugsley, ‘Walking Heke’s War: The Attack on Kawiti’s “Much Dreaded Pah” at Ohaeawai, 1 July 1845’, New Zealand Defence Quarterly, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 34–8

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