Ōrākau, famed battle site - roadside stories

Ōrākau, near Kihikihi, was the site of a Māori fighting pā (fortification) and an 1864 battle between Māori and British troops. Although the Māori defenders, led by chief Rewi Maniapoto, lost the battle, they are remembered for their courage and their refusal to surrender.


Narrator: The 1864 Battle of Ōrākau was one of the most heroic encounters of the New Zealand Wars. In July 1863, Governor George Grey sent British troops south into the Waikato. By February 1864, the troops had reached Te Awamutu. Waikato Māori requested reinforcements and among those to respond were warriors from the Tūhoe tribe, and a group from Ngāti Raukawa, who lived near Maungatautari, Waikato’s sacred mountain.

Both groups wanted to engage the enemy immediately, but Rewi Maniapoto, the local Māori warrior chief, urged caution. Up until now, Māori tactics had been to avoid a pitched battle with the government troops. Instead they built pā, or fortified villages, near British outposts in order to provoke attacks. For this strategy to succeed, however, pā sites needed to have an effective escape route.

The Tūhoe warriors insisted on selecting a site for a pā at Ōrākau, close to the British encampment at Kihikihi. Rewi Maniapoto advised that this was a poor site, but he was ignored. Though he was a respected chief, Rewi’s group of Ngāti Maniapoto numbered only about 50, while his Tūhoe and Raukawa reinforcements totalled about 200.

The Māori warriors set to work on the gentle hilltop peach grove at Ōrākau. Within a few days, a complex of trenches and mounds had been created. But the pā was far from complete when British troops attacked it on March 31st.

The pā looked insubstantial, but as the first wave of British troops found out, it was very effective. As the British repeatedly attacked, they were repelled by Rewi’s disciplined defenders who made effective use of their limited ammunition. On occasions they even fired peach stones instead of bullets.

But the British began to dig a ‘flying sap’ – a long shallow trench from their lines toward the walls of the pā. After two days, British reinforcements arrived, bringing the government’s force up to about 1200, over four times the number of Māori inside the pā.

Outnumbered, surrounded, short of water and lacking any escape route, the fate of the warriors inside the pā seemed inevitable. [William] Gilbert Mair, a colonial officer fluent in Māori, was sent with a white flag to persuade those inside the pā to surrender.

W.G. Mair (actor’s voice): E hoa ma, whakarongo! Ko te kupu tenei a te Tienara: ka nui tona miharo ki to koutou maia, kati me mutu te riri, puta mai kia matou, kia ora o koutou tinana. Friends, listen! This is the word of the General: Great is his admiration of your bravery. Stop! Let the fighting cease; come out to us that your bodies may be saved.

Narrator: In a few minutes came the answer in a clear, firm tone: E hoa, ka whawhai tonu ahau ki a koe, ake, ake! Friend, I shall fight against you for ever, for ever!’

Before the British troops could launch their final assault, a small group of Māori attacked the head of the British sap. Meanwhile, another group suddenly emerged and dashed directly towards the government lines.

Firing as they ran, the escaping group challenged the British troops and managed to break through. But even beyond enemy lines, the fleeing Māori warriors weren’t safe, as a pursuing column of Forest Rangers cut many down.

Ōrākau resulted in a vital victory for the British. Yet the battle is remembered today for the courage of Rewi’s defenders and their refusal to surrender. 

Since this video was made, errors have been brought to our attention. Corrections to the transcript are indicated by the use of square brackets.

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